There has always been a temptation towards perfectionism in the Church.
And this is understandable. Rightly we are reminded in the Creed that the Church is “holy.” Invoking the word of YHWH in Leviticus, Peter commands his church to “be holy” as the Lord their God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). The Church of God is a set apart people who are to live set apart lives as they honor the Lord who set himself apart in order to redeem them (John 17:19).
And yet, as with every biblical prerogative, when there is sin, pride, myopia, and folly, even the good commands of the Lord can be taken and distorted.
While it may surprise some, Calvin spends a great deal of time in the Institutes warning against a false perfectionism that would tempt people to draw away from fellowship with true churches despite the fact that they preach the Word and administer the sacraments. (Note: he has a section on right division when these marks are absent).
Many times, in the case of great scandal in the church, people are tempted to be discouraged or disgusted with the church, pick up their pews in a huff, and head towards the back door. But Calvin urges us that “in bearing with the imperfections of life we ought to be more considerate” (4.1.13).
He notes a couple of impulses that drive us towards the exit.
First, he there have always been those who “imbued with a false conviction of their own perfect sanctity, as if they had already become a sort of airy spirits, spurned association with all men in whom they discern any remnant of human nature.” In other words, plain, old-fashioned pride and blindness towards your own sin, will cause you to self-righteously separate from the body.
Second, he notes a “very legitimate complaint”, which comes more from an “ill-advised zeal for righteousness than out of insane pride.” In this case, a person might look around a church and see that they quality of life doesn’t seem to match the “doctrine of the gospel” and so they conclude that there is no true Church there.
There he says that churches should bear some responsibility in our slowness to encourage people towards fidelity and obedience. But even still, Calvin says that this latter group is still sinning in cutting ties with the church because “they do not know how to restrain their disfavor.” Indeed, they act foolishly because “where the Lord requires kindness, they neglect it and give themselves over completely to immoderate severity.”
Instead, Calvin reminds his readers of Jesus parables of the net which catches all kinds of fish (Matt 13:47-58), or that of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24), and calls them to understand that though the church is holy (Eph. 5:26), “if the Lord declares that the church is to labor under this evil—to be weighed down with the mixture of the wicked—until the Day of Judgment, they are vainly seeking a church besmirched with no blemish.”
He continues on for several sub-chapters noting the example of Paul’s patience with his own congregations (especially the Corinthians whose sins run the gamut), the prophets of old who did not separate themselves from Israel, and, of course, Christ himself. Paul didn’t tell people to examine the congregation to see whether they should partake, but rather that individuals should examine themselves. To not partake of the Supper for fear of eating with an unworthy person is to be “much more rigid than Paul” (4.1.16).
Among the various wise counsels Calvin offer, it is noteworthy that he sees failure within the church as an opportunity for Christian discipleship. This is so in at least two ways.
First, he sees it as an opportunity for gracious correction, he quotes Augustine saying, “Holy Scripture bids us correct our brothers’ vices with more moderate care, while preserving sincerity of love and unity of peace…Mercifully correct what they can; patiently to bear and lovingly to bewail and mourn what they cannot; until God either amends or corrects or in the harvest uproots the tares and winnows the chaff.”
Second, in another section ponder the true meaning of the forgiveness of sins: “I admit that in urging men to perfection we must not toil slowly or listlessly, much less give up. However, I say it is a devilish invention for our minds, while as yet we are in the earthly race, to be cocksure about our perfection. Thus in the Creed forgiveness of sins appropriately follows mention of the church” (4.1.20)
Indeed, this is why the power of the keys have been given to the church. No one comes into the family of God except through baptism and the forgiveness of sins: “Forgiveness of sins, then, is for us the first entry into the church and Kingdom of God.” And this is a continual ministry of the church: “Not only does the Lord through forgiveness of sins receive and adopt us once for all into the church, but through the same means he preserves and protects us there” (4.1.21).
And so this offers motive for people not to depart from the church. For one thing, they themselves regularly need to hear the forgiveness of sins pronounced. But they also need to be regularly invited to practice the forgiveness of sins towards their brothers and sisters.
While there’s much more to say from these rich subsections, I’d like close on a significant chunk in which Calvin calls us to remember just how limited our judgment in these matters can be:
Let them ponder that in a great multitude there are many men, truly holy and innocent in the Lord’s sight, who escape their notice. Let them ponder that even among those who seem diseased there are many who in no wise are pleased with, or flatter themselves in, their faults, but aroused again and again by a profound fear of the Lord, aspire to a more upright life. Let them ponder that a man is not to be judged for one deed, inasmuch as the holiest sometimes undergo a most grievous fall. Let them ponder how much more important both the ministry of the Word and participation in the sacred mysteries are for the gathering of the church than the possibility that this whole power may be dissipated through the guilt of certain ungodly men. Finally, let them realize that in estimating the true church divine judgment is of more weight than human. (4.16)
Soli Deo Gloria