The Context of Perfection

Some of you might have seen the Tribune’s report about return missionary Micah Wilder who is a member of a band of Mormon converts to evangelical Christianity.

Reading the Bible more closely, Wilder says, that he has discovered that the Mormon God is too vengeful rather than forgiving. Naturally, orthodox Mormons disagree. The latter emphasize eternal progression and insist that the Mormon God that they learned about in primary is forgiving. The atheist and evangelical critics point out that no matter how much you do in Mormonism, it never is enough.

The question whether sacrament based religions can assure the faithful that God has forgiven them is much older than Mormonism and goes back to the roots of the Reformation. Realizing that he could not undo his sins, Martin Luther suffered tremendous anxiety striving to repent. Realizing that forgiveness depended not on his own efforts but on Christ’s atonement, Luther proclaimed that grace, not works such as partaking of sacraments and going to confession, was humanity’s salvation.

Luther’s theological views became relevant to western Christianity when popes and bishops financed their campaigns for office and their vanity projects with the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a document that invoked papal authority to redeem oneself or one’s parents, children, and ancestors from purgatory, where according to contemporary belief the dead had to suffer until they had paid for their sins.

Luther’s opposition to indulgences marks the origin of the Reformation. The Reformation de-emphasizes works, as in the participation in sacraments, in favor of grace.

In contrast to Luther, sacraments are essential to Joseph Smith. In that regard, Mormonism is more Catholic than Protestant.

Although salvation is beyond my expertise, I would like to take issue with a common misreading of the Sermon on the Mount in Mormon circles. On the Trib’s discussion forum, UtahRez claims, for example, that the LDS Church’s demands on its members are justifiable in terms of Christ’s admonition: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

In the context of Matthew 5, it is clear that UtahRez’s reading of Matthew is false. Matthew 5:48 does not mean that Christians need to live a perfect live. What Christ reportedly means by perfection becomes obvious when we read the verse in the Sermon’s context:

43. “You have heard that it was said, `YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’
44. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45. so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47. “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Christ is criticizing his audience for extending their love only to their brothers, which is not particularly virtuous. Even sinners love those who love them. But the people of God need to have perfect love that includes even their enemies.

The fact that Christ is not talking about living a perfect live but exercising perfect love becomes clear in context. Although there must be many Mormons who do read Biblical passages in context, seminary’s emphasis on memorization of short passages and the lack of theological training of missionaries and other priesthood authorities does render us not only vulnerable to evangelical criticism but the resulting misunderstandings do have real life consequences.

In Mormon culture, misreading life instead of love has two consequences. First, there is a lot of unnecessary anxiety that we could discard if we understood that Jesus did not mean that we need to have perfect gardens, keep diaries perfectly, and home teach 100%, for example. Second, we would be better neighbors if we understood that we have an obligation not only to other Mormons and potential converts but also to people who do not want to participate in the Mormon way of life.

That would be perfect.

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19 Responses

  1. Guy Noir, Private Eye says:

    Did he forget to mention legalistic?
    This dude is Spot-On!
    My current favorite analgy is that the LDS are like eggs inside the Christian chicken:
    They don’t look forward to going out into the Real World.
    They’re so busy playing ‘Simon Says’, they don’t know what else is going on, and leaders are happy/content with things that way. The tightly-knit ‘Circle the Wagons’ mentality has about maxxed out as far as most any growth – adaption to the rest of society.There’s only so far that the LDS can go with obedience as their #1.
    For a better view, read “Love As A Way of Life” by Gary Chapman…

    Mitt R for veep? BARF! He’s ‘Purely Plastic’.

  2. Seth R. says:

    “Naturally, orthodox Mormons disagree.”

    There is no such thing as an “orthodox Mormon” if you ask me.

    I often get the sense that what a lot of people are after in a God is someone who will tell you that you’re pretty nifty, no matter how much you suck in reality. If that’s what you want, you’d be better served ditching church and watching reruns of Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Or go get a dog.

    The main thing about Mormonism is that it doesn’t mesh well with complacency. It always challenges you to be doing better.

    Why is that a bad thing?

  3. chanson says:

    Speaking of taking New Testament verses out of context, the idea that works are irrelevant for salvation requires totally ignoring the one description of judgment day that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels. See Matthew 25, and this article for explanation; here for links to the rest of the series.

    If you’re claiming that one of “atheists'” complaints about Mormonism is the way it contradicts the Bible, I must vehemently protest. Modern Protestant Christianity is also based on a selective reading (and ignoring) of various Bible passages.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Bible contradicts itself. It doesn’t need Mormonism’s help. The (Mormon) idea that God would give further guidance and direction makes a whole lot more sense than the (obviously false) belief that the Bible contains clear and unambiguous instructions that naturally lead to the specific doctrines of modern Protestant churches.

    Now, whether you think the additional direction that has been provided through modern prophets (no tattoos, fight for discrimination against gays, give 10% of your money to the corporation, etc.) is of any value, that’s a different story…

  4. Guy Noir, Private Eye says:

    Seth: Aren’t complacency & apathy related?
    I porpose that LDS are lulled into ‘their place’ and negatively reinforced for making waves. Witness the low(lowest) voter turnout in Utah.
    TBMs personify the concept of Orthodox(y), IMHO.

  5. Hellmut says:

    There is something to the notion that people want an easy religion. That explains to a large degree the rise of prosperity gospel. I am less sure that this has anything to do with the meaning of perfection in the Sermon on the Mount.

    One can agree and disagree with Micah Wilder’s crew about theology but one thing is for sure. Those guys continue to invest into their religion, perhaps, to a larger degree than many active Mormons. It seems to me that fundamentalist Protestant are living just as tough and giving as active Mormons.

    Having said that fundamentalist sacrifice is a double-edged sword. One has to admire the sacrifice but too often it is motivated by fear of divine retribution and aggression towards outsiders. Just look at what Mormonism has been doing to Africans and their families and what we continue to do to women and to gays. Somebody like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Helmuth Huebener have a much greater claim on sacrificing for Christian principles than Mormons and Evangelical fundamentalists.

  6. Seth R. says:

    “Somebody like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Helmuth Huebener have a much greater claim on sacrificing for Christian principles than Mormons and Evangelical fundamentalists.”

    Given that you don’t know what believing Mormons have sacrificed or given up, that’s a pretty gutsy statement.

    You’re really willing to claim that all (not just some, not just the ones you know, but “all”) believing Mormons today are not sacrificing to that degree? Really?

  7. Ray Agostini says:

    Realizing that he could not undo his sins, Martin Luther suffered tremendous anxiety striving to repent. Realizing that forgiveness depended not on his own efforts but on Christ’s atonement, Luther proclaimed that grace, not works such as partaking of sacraments and going to confession, was humanity’s salvation.

    Luther was also fiercely anti-Jewish. His book The Jews and Their Lies, is a disgraceful episode in religious history.

    On the Jews:

    …Christ and his word can hardly be recognized because of the great vermin of human ordinances. However, let this suffice for the time being on their lies against doctrine or faith.

    I’d say that Eric Hoffer accurately identified the source of Luther’s fanaticism:

    To find the cause of our ills in something outside ourselves, something specific that can be spotted and eliminated, is a diagnosis that cannot fail to appeal. To say that the cause of our troubles is not in us but in the Jews, and pass immediately to the extermination of the Jews, is a prescription likely to find a wide acceptance.

    As for “loving your neighbour”, Hoffer also offered a cynical anecdote for those who like to “lose themselves” in mass movements or “great causes”:

    It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one’s neighbor. There may even be a certain antagonism between love of humanity and love of neighbor; a low capacity for getting along with those near us often goes hand in hand with a high receptivity to the idea of the brotherhood of men. About a hundred years ago a Russian landowner by the name of Petrashevsky recorded a remarkable conclusion: “Finding nothing worthy of my attachment either among women or among men, I have vowed myself to the service of mankind.”

    Hoffer on the importance of compassion:

    Compassion is probably the only antitoxin of the soul. Where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless. One would rather see the world run by men who set their hearts on toys but are accessible to pity, than by men animated by lofty ideals whose dedication makes them ruthless. In the chemistry of man’s soul, almost all noble attributes — courage, honor, hope, faith, duty, loyalty, etc. — can be transmuted into ruthlessness. Compassion alone stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us.

    The emphasis on perfection can produce negative consequences. The more one seeks to be perfect, and falls short, the more intolerant they will become of others. And the scripture says, “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”.

    This appears to have been the source of Luther’s psychosis and passionate hatred. His focus was not on ritual or ordinances, or salvation by works, but he projected his own failings onto others.

    So is there a “context” for perfection? We’d be better off reading the works of the Dailai Lama to find that. One of his 18 rules for living:

    Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.

  8. Hellmut says:

    Those Hoffer quotes are fascinating, Ray. I will have to find his book.

    I agree with you about Luther’s anti-semitism. He was also nasty to Sinti and Romas and motivated the bloodshed among peasants and Anabaptists.

    But that is not germane to the narrow discussion of the proper meaning of Matt. 5:48.

    Seth, did you notice that I included Helmuth Huebener in that list? The point is not that Mormons do not sacrifice but it is questionable that Mormons are sacrificing more than others, particularly more than Evangelicals like Micah Wilder.

    As far as I am concerned, playing in that band is like serving another mission.

    There is an arrogant and paranoid streak in Mormon legacy culture. We tend to look down on outsiders for reasons that tend to be arbitrary and self-congratulatory. Many Evangelicals, atheists, Muslims, and Hindus are just as devoted to their way of life as are Mormons.

    And when it comes to the ultimate sacrifice, like Huebener’s martyrdom, our culture does not even care. There are no Mormon monuments to Huebener. No buildings have been named after him. Most Mormons do not even know who Helmuth Huebener was.

    That’s why I call for a little more humility. We are not that special, not even when we could be.

  9. Seth R. says:

    I don’t disagree with that point Hellmut. I just get a little tiffy whenever there’s a suggestion that Mormons are particularly more or less of something-or-other than most folk on the planet.

  10. Hellmut says:

    Notice that your initial response implied just that, Seth.

  11. Hellmut says:

    I agree with you, Chanson, that fundamentalist claims about the inerrancy of the Bible do not reflect Biblical text. Every theologian that I ever read and talked to was fully aware that the Bible contains contradictions.

    I would even argue that the fundamentalist view of Biblical authority not only trivializes the book but borders on idolatry.

    It is also true that there are a variety of ways to interpret the meaning of the Bible. However, it is clear that reading Matthew 5 as a demand for perfection is false.

    The admonition for perfection refers specifically to extending love to our enemies.

  12. chanson says:

    It is also true that there are a variety of ways to interpret the meaning of the Bible. However, it is clear that reading Matthew 5 as a demand for perfection is false.

    The admonition for perfection refers specifically to extending love to our enemies.

    Sure, I’ll grant you’re probably right about this point. 😉

  13. edgeReiver says:

    Somewhere I heard a lecture by a professor of the Aramaic language. He put forth the idea that the translation from Aramaic to English should read, “Be ye therefore all-inclusive…” This seems to gel with the perspective of perfect referring to love not lives.

  14. aerin says:

    I agree Hellmut.

    3 – chanson – I have long supported the argument that you can interpret or quote the bible to mean just about anything you want it to. I remember when I worked at a bookstore, there were literally sixteen shelves full of different types and versions of bibles. To give a brief example, one of the differing “translations” was whether or not Christ bled from every pore in the Garden of Gethsemane (sp). How important is that exact scripture and its’ translation? I don’t know.

    7 – Ray – thanks for your quotes about compassion and sin. Perhaps what the dailai lama is saying makes more sense.

    I will say, as far as the “all have sinned” quote, while this may be appropriate for adults, it’s quite another thing to preach that to children. Even children just a bit older than 8.

    What “sin” could so young a child have committed? Lying? Fighting with their siblings? Saying “Oh my God”?

    I have some sympathy for the “he who is without sin cast the first stone” maxim, but I also disagree that this type of message doesn’t just give children guilt complexes. That or teach them that it’s in their self interest to ignore when someone points out an ethical dilema or incongruity.

    It promotes a black and white version of thinking, not understanding the nuances of a given situation.

  15. circus watcher says:

    Hello Helmut,

    I agree with your point about Matt: 5.

    Mormonism is a blend of sacrament and covenant. The covenant brings in a very legalistic, or perhaps a mechanical view of behaviour and rewards. Mormons are always referring to covenants and commandments. Some Mormons would see Matt: 5 as a commandement as opposed to the end result of loving your neighbour.
    Mormons are saved by the sacraments and exalted by their covenants ?
    Circus Watcher

  16. Hellmut says:

    Hi Circus Watcher, my apologies for approving your comment late. The good news is that further comments require no more moderation.

    With respect to your question, I would say that symbolizing the covenants, the sacraments are the manifestation of the former.

  17. Seth R. says:

    I’ve always viewed covenants as more of a way of having a personal relationship with God the Father, rather than a legalistic reward scheme.

  18. Steven B says:

    There are some who suggest that the Sermon on the Mount actually reflects an über-legalism. “You have heard . . ., but I say . . . .” I don’t think it is legalistic, but rather reflective of those who “come unto Christ” and enter into the mystical relationship which results in a state of being “in Christ,” as Paul would phrase it.

    I agree with Seth. Covenants formalize that personal, mystical, sanctifying relationship with God. Those who view the Sermon as a list of requirements to be lived and performed do not understand the essence of the Gospel, which is to be sanctified and perfected “through” that personal relationship with God.

  19. Guy Noir, Private Eye says:

    the Black/White, Right/Wrong LDS (and Fundy) view(s) on morals, matters of faith… skews ALL judgments of those who subscribe-practice that brand of faith.
    Christians who are more into service, building partnerships, etc. than ‘church’ don’t have any of the hang-ups that the ‘Uber’ Nazi-Mos do.

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