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The Danger of Perfectionism in the Church

Perfectionism exists in the Church; it may exist in your Church. Perfectionism is defined as “A propensity for being displeased with anything that is not perfect or does not meet extremely high standards.” At the heart of what I refer to as “perfectionism” is the praise of man. Perfectionism usually masquerades as “attaining to excellence” for the glory of God, but let there be no doubt, it is all about the glory of man. The most interesting expression, which I have heard that describes this leaven, is “The glory of the Church.” It seems to me that this is nothing short of idolatry.

We live in a culture that worships idols; not in the same sense as graven images, but rather a worship of the creature rather than the Creator. Our culture is driven by the superstars. Make a quick survey in your mind. We have the stars of Hollywood, Politics, Military, Business, Pop-culture, Athletics, and Academia. As Americans, we are either in the process of pursuing this exalted position or we are living vicariously through the success of another. Who Dat!

The reality is that the vast majority of the people will never be a superstar, but the allure of the illusion continues to seduce them. This false hope is the carrot that leads us to the altar of idol worship.

Why is it that we so readily recognize this pattern in our culture, but we totally miss it when we examine the spiritual health of our churches? As Christians, we must confront this deception. It must be confronted in our individual lives, in our families and in our churches. It is no less an enemy of the gospel than legalism.

A legalist uses the law or religious standards to exalt their religious system and their superstar team. In the culture of perfectionism, certain God given gifts are exalted and certain gifted believers, like the cream of the crop, rise to the top as superstars among the competition. The superstar, through the practice of his gift, presents himself as the high standard set for representing Christ. Many Christians would be abhorred at the idea of walking in legalism and yet they allow themselves to be seduced by perfectionism.

The error of this practice in the Church was addressed in the letter to the Corinthians. As a result of walking in this error, the Corinthian Church was bound by spiritual immaturity and carnality, leaving them with the appearance of worldliness. Rallying cries such as “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” demonstrated their desire to follow superstar leaders, but the Apostles would have nothing do with it. Paul exhorted them, stating that such thinking and practices resulted in divisions, and reminding them that they were not superstars, but servants of the true superstar, Jesus Christ.

The net effect of this practice is the focus on man rather than God in worship and ministry. The fruit of this practice is an unhealthy spirit of competition and misaligned loyalties. Other harmful effects include false humility, false piety, an emphasis on the outer man, neglecting the nurturing of the inner man, an unhealthy emphasis on knowledge rather than obedience, fear of being exposed, no context for confessing sins one to another, a lack of compassion for the weaker brethren, a separatist mentality, an unhealthy view of grace and a failure to exercise true pastoral and body ministry. In essence, it is an attempt to use godliness for personal gain, rather than for the interest of Christ.

The goal for the believer and the Church is not perfectionism but maturity.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” Ephesians 4:13 (NASB)

Maturity is not measured by comparing ourselves to one another (competition) but is measured by our growth spiritually in Christ. We start our journey with God as babes in Christ, but our goal is reaching the full stature of maturity – the image of Christ. Theologically, this maturing process is called “progressive sanctification.”  Sanctification is accomplished through faith and the knowledge of the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus referred to the process as the abiding life in John 15 – “if you abide in me and my word abides in you.” We are called to abide in the living Christ and his Word. The result will be a life filled (empowered and controlled) by the Holy Spirit and growing not only in our knowledge of the word, but in obedience to God.

God has placed pastors and teachers in the body to teach us these truths and demonstrate by example what this looks like. They have been charged by God to equip us through training, so that we might be effective co-labors in ministry. We are to emulate them only as they imitate Christ (I Cor 11:1). It is wrong to show improper honor to a man, but it does happen.

How should we respond when people try to exalt us to superstar status in our culture of perfectionism? A glimpse at Paul’s response can help us out here.

“And they began calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.  And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, WHO MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM.” Acts 14:14-15 (NASB77)

I appreciate how compassionate Paul was here. He did not blast them with condemnation, but instead related to the weakness of their flesh and immaturity and instructed them in the ways of God. Paul’s goal was to connect me with God and not himself. He was not seeking some personal advantage or gain by exercising the gifts of God. He realized that God’s desire was to set them free from the worship of idols so that they might serve and worship the living God.

What a beautiful picture of integrity in ministry. We need to be reminded to renew our mind with the word of God. Our culture is pounding us 24/7 with the glory of man and his worship. Sometimes, we just need to hit the pause button and lift our eyes to heaven in prayer and renew our mind with his word.

If we are going to overcome, we need a heavenly mindset, not an earthly mindset. If we are going to overcome, we need an eternal perspective not a temporal one. If we are going to overcome, we must receive the words Christ taught us,

And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ “But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. Luke 22:25-26 (NASB)

This is more than a lofty idea, it is the example that our risen Lord demonstrated for us to walk in. (Phil 2:5-8) It starts one on one; a walk between you and God. It is intended to overflow into the world around you; at home, at church, at work, in the market place, while driving your car, on vacation, during your leisure time, and even in your relationship with your enemies.

We must stop relying on the success or failures of others in order to exalt ourselves. Each man will give an account of himself to God.  Let each of us examine our hearts and repent if needed, so that we can set our affections on our loving Father, who rules from heaven and walk with him in a manner worthy of our calling.

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