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Beyond Perfection: Recovering from the Christian Purity Cult

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus, Matthew 5:48

Christianity appears impossible if we focus on the admonitions in the New Testament that Jesus gave his followers. Love your enemies? Good luck with that. Turn the other cheek? Ouch. If a creditor demands your coat, give him your cloak as well? That means you’ll be left naked. If a man lusts after a woman who is not his wife, he’s an adulterer. No heterosexual male can pretend to meet that standard. And the list goes on – culminating in Jesus’ demand that we be perfect, as God is perfect. Nobody can fully follow his marching orders.

How do we respond to these outrageous expectations?

Plenty of folks have given up on Christianity altogether, seeing that these demands are far too extreme to satisfy. Others have remained in the faith, in denial about the impossibility of living up to it. Others come up with prevaricating interpretations to suggest that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said.

One way to account for his extreme directives is to put them in the context of his struggle with the Pharisees. That sect of Judaism was in part a reaction to the occupation of Israel by the Roman Empire: since we can’t beat ‘em, at least let’s not be ‘em. Let’s hunker down and preserve our cultural heritage by observing it to the max. To the already challenging Levitical rules of diet and behavior they added yet more rules, to “fence in” the biblical law. “Fencing” was the creation of extra rules that went beyond the existing ones, so that if you went past that fence, you’d still be obeying the rules that mattered most. If you put a fence along the edge of a cliff, you might still slip or slide through and over the edge. If you put another fence twenty feet short of the cliff, your chances of going over the edge go down substantially.

Pharisaic fencing resulted in a thicket of legalistic barbed wire that was impossible for common people to navigate. Only the upper crust of Jewish society could afford to follow all these extra rules. Jesus was a radical religious reformer who called out the Pharisees for perpetuating a system that turned regular folks into second-class spiritual citizens.

Jesus wasn’t against fencing the Law of Moses. He was just against the nit-picky version that the Pharisees created. Jesus kept the fencing around the big stuff, but tore down the fencing around the little stuff. And he put fences up around the big stuff very far from the edge of the cliff, so that nobody – not even the richest Pharisee with the most time to waste on trivial religious observances – would be able to act any holier than anybody else. Nobody could do what Jesus demanded in his Sermon on the Mount. Not the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, not even his own loyal followers.

The disciples panicked in the boat in the storm on the lake, while Jesus told them to have faith. The disciples slept in the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus begged them to stay awake with him. Peter attacked the High Priest’s slave during Jesus’ arrest, and Jesus chided him for it. Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection. Judas’ failure needs no repeating. If the way of Jesus was possible in his own lifetime, why did every single one of his chosen followers fail to live it? If they all failed, why would we expect ourselves to succeed?

The evangelical Christian response to this dilemma is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Following the Law is impossible. All of us are hopeless sinners . (One perverse consequence of this belief played out in the last US presidential election: most evangelicals assumed an immoral equivalence between Trump and Clinton.) God sent his Son to die on the cross as substitution for our failure. By believing in Jesus as the Christ and Savior, we are saved from the consequences of our sin.

But why would God set us up for such failure, and then be compelled to make Jesus to die by torture on a cross in exchange for sins we could not help but commit? And in any case, Jesus’ death on the cross does not settle the question of how to respond to his admonitions.

What should we do when we, or those we love, are threatened with violence? Should we use violence in defense, or not? Should we go ahead and break the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek, knowing that Jesus forgave us by dying on the cross? That makes no more sense than committing adultery – physically or imaginatively – because we assume that we’ll be forgiven for it in the bye-and-bye.

A lot of Christians suffer from deep, perpetual fear. They’ve been told to follow Jesus, but they know they can’t do it. They’ve been told that because of their sinfulness, Jesus had to be tormented to death: substitutionary sacrifice is a potent recipe for existential guilt. Preachers threaten them will hell if they don’t obey the Bible’s rules, so their sense of salvation is tenuous at best. They can never be sure that the state of their soul is secure in this life or in the next.

Other Christians live guilt-free, but impose guilt and suffering on others in Jesus’ name. They torture the Sermon on the Mount with confabulated interpretations to suggest that Jesus supports a strong military and unfettered capitalism. They imagine Trump as a Christian. They turn the church into a right-wing Political Action Committee. They triumph in their own heterosexuality by demonizing homosexuality. They tout their Christianity as a form of tribal identity.

There is another way for us to do Christianity, taking Jesus’ commands seriously without tormenting ourselves or others for failing them. We can be humble Christians, abstaining from self-righteousness and from wallowing in guilt for our failings. We can go far out of our way to avoid violence in defense of ourselves and others. But there may be times when turn-the-other-cheek options are exhausted. We can do our best to practice real generosity in a practical, sustainable way, without feeling guilty about failing to give everything to anybody who asks for it. We can do our best to express our sexuality in ways that are kind and gentle, avoiding any acts or attitudes that might be hurtful to partners or others, without beating ourselves up for experiencing natural attractions or fantasies. Jesus’ admonitions aim us in the direction of compassion, and what matters most is doing our best to move in that direction, both as individuals and as a society. There is a way to take Jesus’ code seriously without becoming “code-ethic” absolutists. I assume that Jesus, whether the historical person or the personage created by the early Christians, meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t want to explain away his hard teachings. Instead, I want to let them stretch me as far as I can go in the direction of kindness, patience, and reverence….


Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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