By: Tara Beth Leach
When I was a 21 year old Bible student, I ran into a Church of the Nazarene evangelist that boldly professed to me that he “was indeed living a perfect life without sin.” I sat there rather perplexed. I was young, I was cynical, I didn’t buy it.
The word “perfect” carries a lot of meaning in Wesleyan-Holiness circles. Many might ask, does perfection mean sinlessness or maturity? As a Millennial, such a concrete word makes me squirm immediately.
John Wesley, no doubt, had a thing or two to say about perfection. He admits, “The word ‘perfect’ is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. And whosoever ‘preaches perfection’ (as the phrase is) i.e. asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican.” And yet, “Christian perfection” has been a chief principle the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. Wesley continues, “We may not therefore lay these expressions aside, seeing they are the words of God, and not of man. But we ought to explain the meaning of them…” The Greek word for perfect, teleios, is used throughout the New Testament and is even uttered from the very lips of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
With its striking call to radical discipleship, the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beautiful discourses in the New Testament. In the Sermon Jesus speaks with an authority that is revealing, piercing, and commanding. In a section known as the “antitheses” (5:17-48), Jesus demands more of His followers, more than almost anyone would expect. Jesus’ teachings are not practical advice for beneficial living or a list of virtues, but prophetic implications because of the coming, and already present, kingdom of God. In the final antithesis, the greatest commandment emerges from the lips of Jesus. Jesus commands the listeners that it is no longer enough to love our neighbor and to hate our enemies; rather, we must now love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In doing this, the Christ follower becomes a daughter or son of the eschatological kingdom of God. As children of the kingdom, then, we are to have a boundary-breaking, indiscriminate, counter-cultural, and a cross-cultural love for all.
In the final sentence of the sixth antithesis, Jesus utters the culminating words, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Still, what exactly does Jesus mean by “perfect”?
In many holiness circles we often equate this word “perfect” with “sinlessness.” Others are tempted to soften the word “perfect” because of its seemingly impossible standard. They may prefer translations such as “maturity,” “wholeness,” or “completeness.”
But when we look at “perfect” through the hermeneutic of Jesus (love God, love people), we can see that we are called to love all people just as the Father has loved all people. In context, then, “perfection” means “loving all.” Loving our neighbors is not limited to the easy-to-love or the-people-like-us, but we are to also love our enemies (Matthew 5:47). To be perfect, then, is to love in the same indiscriminate way that the Heavenly Father loves (Matthew 5:45).
As King and Messiah, Jesus becomes the ultimate authority for the ethical life for the Christ follower. Therefore, perfection is imitating the way Jesus loves the sinner, the Gentile, the woman, the man, the child, the desolate, the prostitute, the tax collector, the poor, the rich, the broken, and even the enemy. Jesus is every bit of serious about the conduct of His disciples mirroring the greatest command. As Scot McKnight explains, “To respond to the Sermon is not to respond to an ethical vision. To respond is to respond to Jesus. The proper response is to declare who he is by the way we live.” Therefore, we can conclude that the way of perfection - or what we members of the denomination lovingly call “holiness” - is love. Holy perfection is indiscriminate love, love for all, even when it is difficult and demanding.
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, holiness scholar and Church of the Nazarene preacher, describes this with great depth in A Theology of Love:
The love which we call Christian love, then, is not a substitute for the other loves, nor is it an addition to those loves, but it is a quality of the entire person as it is centered in Christ. The distorting self-orientation, which flaws all other relationships because it uses them to personal advantage … is brought into wholeness by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. In this relationship all other relationships of life are enhanced and beautified and made holy.
Even so, loving indiscriminately is difficult when the loving is for those who are hard to love. Personally, I have had quite a challenge in loving those who have been very outspoken of their view of complementarianism and thereby denigrating God’s calling in my life. Although the Church of the Nazarene affirms women in ministry, it seems we have some in every local church who do not affirm the calling of women to preach.
Several years ago, while serving as a pastor in a Church of the Nazarene congregation, I built a relationship with an elderly man in our congregation. “Joe” had an intense desire to study the scriptures and was always full of questions on Sundays. However, one day Joe had a change in perspective. One Sunday morning, while I was preaching a message, Joe made his way down the center aisle and sat gruffly in the front row. I almost thought he was going to stop me from preaching. At the end of the service, Joe was quick to jump up and hand me a sheet of paper with various scriptures written in red ink. “This is the Holy Word of God,” he said. “I can’t argue with God.”
When I looked down at the paper, I noticed that it was saturated in passages similar to 2 Timothy 2:12. Then, Joe announced, “Since you are a woman, you have no business preaching and teaching.” As I attempted to walk Joe gently through some of the passages, I quickly realized that I was getting nowhere and that he was only getting angrier.
Joe’s words were piercing and left me feeling wounded for days. They were echoes of other harsh words at other times through emails, letters, and phone calls similar in content.
Five days later, Joe had a severe brain aneurism and almost lost his life. As a single man with hardly any family in town, Joe didn’t have many people to visit him. Since our other pastor was on vacation, I was on hospital visit duty. Knowing that our last conversation left me wounded, I struggled with the thought of visiting Joe. It was difficult to love Joe indiscriminately. As I arrived at the hospital, I stopped for a moment to whisper a prayer. I prayed for the Spirit to propel and impel me to love Joe with the same self-sacrificial of God that Jesus explained in the Sermon on the Mount. When I walked into the room, I was overcome with sadness for Joe. I saw him slumped over in a wheel chair with his head down, sadly staring at the floor. He sat alone and helpless; it hurt my heart. I had never before felt such loneliness and brokenness as I did when I looked at him that day. I sat next to him, and he was even well enough to know who I was and carry on a conversation. About halfway through our talk, I placed my hand on his hand and said, “Joe, we’ve been praying for you at church, and we love you.” As those words came out of my mouth, his body shook with emotion as he began to weep uncontrollably. At that moment, I knew I had meant it; I loved Joe. The Spirit had indeed propelled me and impelled me to love him with the indiscriminate love of the Father.
It was a holy moment. Love is, after all, holiness. In their book, Relational Holiness, Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl explain, “Divine love outpoured through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit can so fill our hearts that in this very moment - and in the next - we can truly love God, our neighbors, and God’s creation, including ourselves.” They continue, “Christian perfection is, in its essence, perfection in love.” The way to holiness is love - divine love that comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that gives us the ability to become conduits of God’s love to a world that so desperately needs it.
Tara Beth and her husband, Jeff, were married in 2006 and now reside in the Western Suburbs of Chicago with two toddler sons, Caleb and Noah. Tara Beth serves as the Pastor of Women’s Ministry at Christ Church of Oak Brook. She graduated from Olivet Nazarene University in 2004 and is now finishing her Masters of Divinity through Northern Theological Seminary, where she is also a Teaching Assistant for Scot McKnight.