If the life and ministry of Jesus is our pattern, then we all fall woefully short.
Consequently, whether it is conforming our character to the image of Jesus or embodying the ministry of Jesus through the church, we all–individuals and congregations–need divine mercy since we all fall woefully short of the image of God in Jesus.
While I am a patternist, I am not a perfectionist in either ethics or ecclesiology. Not all patternists are perfectionists (or legalists). Patternism per se neither entails legalism nor perfectionism. If it does, then everyone who believes that we are called to conform to the image (pattern) of Jesus is either a legalist or a perfectionist or both.
Legalism arises when the quantity, level and progress of sanctifiction is made a condition of communion with God. Libertinism (or antinomianism) appears when sanctification is so disconnected from faith (seeking and trusting God) that whether we seek sanctification or not is inconsequential.
Ecclesiological perfectionism is when the understanding and practice of a set of ecclesiological patterns are made conditions of communion with God such that without perfect or precise compliance to those patterns (however they are defined) there is no hope or promise of salvation.
In contrast I would suggest that perfect or precise compliance to ecclesiological patternism–like ethical conformation to the pattern of the life of Jesus–is not a condition of communion. Rather it is a matter of sanctification as we are conformed more closely to the image of Christ, both corporately and individually. To more closely conform to an ecclesiological pattern (however that is concieved or defined) is a matter of communal sanctification. It is a process, not an event. As a process, sanctification will never be perfect or 100%.
At the same time such conformation is something that faith seeks because we want to be like Jesus. When we refuse to conform to what we know that is rebellion. Insubmissive (rebellious) faith is not faith since faith involves trusting in Jesus and submissively pursuing God’s will in our life however imperfectly we may do that.
Ecclesiological patternism subverts grace when perfect obedience to a set of patterns for the church becomes a test of fellowship or a condition of communion with God. Ecclesiological patternism then becomes ecclesiological perfectionism. I define “perfect obedience” as precisely meeting a set of criteria for ecclesiological practice which distinguish between the “faithful” and the “unfaithful” (thus “apostate” which amounts to a “different religion” [see Jay Guin’s assessment of Greg Tidwell’s use of this language]). In this context our faithfulness, rather than the faithfulness of Jesus, counts as our righteousness and salvation; it demands perfect obedience in order to measure up to the standard–we keep the pattern or there is no hope! This kind of ecclesiological patternism stresses that if we are guilty in one point, we are guilty of the whole. If a congregation is missing one mark of a true church, then it is a false church. This is ecclesiological perfectionism.
So, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria include observing the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and only on Sunday, then “perfect obedience” would mean that only those who eat every Sunday and only on Sunday are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).
Or, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria include singing a cappella, then “perfect obedience” would mean that only those who sang a cappella are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).
Or, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria included the absence of the female voice except in singing, then “perfect obedience” would mean only those assemblies where women were silent are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).
I would suggest–without debating the merits of the examples above as parts of a biblical pattern–that ecclesiological patternism belongs in the category of communal sanctification. It is a process of growth, maturation and progressive conformation to the image of God in Christ. Consequently, it is not so much about who is faithful and unfaithful (that is, who complied with the precise conditions of the pattern and who did not) but about orientation, direction and the submissive nature of their faith and heart. Faithfulness and unfaithfulness is more about faith itself than the accumulaton of specific acts of obedience or failure.
Moreover, I would suggest that there are more important questions in ecclesiological patternism than the frequency of the Lord’s Supper or the nature of music in the public assembly. If ecclesiological patternism means engaging a process of conformation to the image of Christ, then here are few more important dimensions of the “pattern” than frequency and music style. Such as:
- relationship with the poor (the pursuit of mercy)
- the communal use of funds for ministry
- advocacy for the oppressed, marginalized and excluded (the pursuit of justice)
- leadership models within the community of faith
- relationship with enemies
- opposition to suffocating traditionalism that hinders the kingdom of God
- outreach to the sheep without a shepherd or the lost
What I know is that I fall woefully short of these Christological patterns in my own life and in my community. I cannot soothe my imperfections by noting how well or precisely I comply with other dimensions of the pattern (e.g., Lord’s Supper and singing). However, by grace through faith, God is working with and in me to transform me into Christ’s image. I am in process and I am not perfect. I am neither perfectly obedient nor do I obey perfectly. On the contrary, I submit my will to the process of God’s sanctifying work through faith and God redeems me by his grace through faith.
Patternism subverts the grace of God when it makes conformation to the pattern (however defined) as a condition of communion rather than as the fruit of God’s sanctifying work among his people through faith. Grace through faith is the means by which we commune with God and our conformation to the pattern of God in Jesus through the power of God’s Spirit is the means by which we become more and more like him. We are saved by grace through faith and works (sanctification) is the fruit of that communion with God.
I do not offer this post as definitive or indubitable. Rather, it is only my thinking at this moment. It is part of my own sanctification as I reflect on the situation of fellowship within Churches of Christ. I have hopes that the “Grace Conversation” website may yet be productive of mutual understanding. My next post will include a few historical reflections of where we are now as opposed to where we were 100 years ago in relation to ecclesiological perfectionism.
[I first offered some of this kind of soteriological reflection in my 1992 “Grace, Works and Assurance: A Theological Framework.]