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July 1984 · Vol. 13 No. 3 · pp. 25–32 

Christian Perfection

Robert Friesen

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 AV).

Believers through the centuries have debated about what Jesus meant by this command for perfection. Devoted Christians have always recognized the need to be obedient to their Lord’s commands. But there has been much disagreement on how to interpret these words. Some believers claim to have reached this required state of perfection while other, equally devout, Christians have declared that it is impossible.

Throughout the history of the Church there has been a great variety of opinion on the subject of Christian perfection. Ignatius wrote to Ephesus: “No man truly making a profession of faith sinneth; nor does he that possesses love hate anyone.” 1 Irenaeus 2 and the Shepherd of Hermas 3 also believed that perfection was possible while Tertullian did not expect perfection until after death. 4

Clement of Alexandria wrote: “He who is Gnostic, and righteous, and holy with prudence, hastes to reach the measure of perfect manhood. For not only are actions and thoughts, but words also, pure in the case of the Gnostic.” 5 It was this gnostic view of perfection which caused many of the church fathers to withdraw from their commitment to Christian perfection. 6 Augustine, who was reacting against Pelagius, denied any hope of perfection in this life. 7 The monastics, on the other hand, saw perfection as the result of solitude and self-mortification.

The reformers Luther and Calvin denied any perfection other than imputed perfection. 8 Schwenckfeld, however, was critical of Luther and declared that people were to advance and become holy. 9 The Anabaptists also reacted against the Reformers’ under-emphasis on holy living. 10 In later centuries it has been the Methodists and the Holiness movement which have been strong proponents of Christian perfection. For many of these perfection is seen as a second work of grace. In the history of the Church there has been no uniformity of opinion on the subject of Christian perfection.

Mennonites have always believed that the Bible ought to be the authority by which we resolve such matters. In Matthew Jesus commanded {26} his followers to be teleios (perfect). What does the rest of the New Testament say about being teleios? Does Jesus expect believers to be perfect or is he merely setting an unattainable goal for us to strive toward?

In almost every case where the word “perfect” is used in reference to people in the New Testament it is a translation of this word teleios. There are eighteen verses in the New Testament where people are referred to as teleioi. I would like to present a summary of my exegesis of these texts in order to answer the questions: “What does it mean to be teleios?” and “How does one become teleios?”

THE TELEIOI IN MATTHEW

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48).

In order to understand this verse we must see it in its context. The word ‘therefore’ refers back to what has preceded. In the preceding paragraphs Jesus has given his disciples instructions on how to live the kind of love he is speaking about in the immediate context (vv. 43-48). He has given a number of rules or guidelines for practicing love. The last paragraph of the chapter is the climax. In it Jesus illustrates what it is to be teleios. The teleioi are those who love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. The Father in heaven is their example. He is even-handed in his love toward all (“He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”). Jesus is saying that we should exercise the kind of love which God shows to all men. The epitome of this kind of love—the love which shows us to be teleioi—is love for one’s enemies. David Hill summarizes: “The emphasis is not on flawless moral character, but on whole-hearted devotion to the ways of God—not in perfection of his being, but of his ways. . . . The perfection of the disciples is shown in their undifferentiating observance of the command of love towards friend or foe.” 11

Jesus answered: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’ (Matt. 19:21).

Some have taken this to be a “counsel of perfection” intended only for the elite in the Church. 12 In the following verses Jesus indicates that he sees being teleios as equivalent to entering the Kingdom. It is not a second stage along the way. To refuse the call to be teleios is to refuse the Kingdom.

Many people are so taken aback by the command to sell all and give to the poor that they fail to notice that Jesus gave two commands. {27}

The first is a specific command addressed to a specific person in a specific situation. Jesus knew where this man’s willingness to obey needed to be tested. This is followed by the universal command, “then come, follow me.” There is no hint in Jesus’ words that the act of selling and giving will bring the man to his ultimate goal. Neither would that act make him better than other believers. With the act he would be teleios, not because of the single deed but because he would be embarking on the path of discipleship. In order to be teleios one must follow Christ. Gerhard Barth writes that “discipleship itself is perfection.” 13 The young man could never follow Jesus until he had taken the step of surrendering his wealth. For another person the first step may be leaving an immoral profession, or refraining from beating his children. But whatever the specific initial step is, the universal call from Jesus is: “If you wish to be perfect (teleios), come, follow me.”

THE TELEIOI IN 1 CORINTHIANS

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature (teleiois), but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing (1 Cor. 2:6).

In 1 Corinthians 2:6–3:3 we find the following characteristics of the teleioi. The person who is teleios is able to understand the wisdom of God; he is able to understand it because it is revealed to him by God through his Spirit. The teleioi love God. They are indwelt by the Spirit and they welcome the things of the Spirit. They are able to discern all things while themselves not being subject to judgment by any other person. They are able to be fed with “solid food,” i.e., they can be taught the deeper truths of the Gospel. The teleioi are involved in a growing process. They are different from natural men and also from immature Christians and these differences are demonstrated by their behaviour.

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults (1 Cor. 14:20).

In these verses we see that the teleioi understand that the Church is more than a collection of independent self-sufficient individuals. The teleioi are gifted and use their gifts to build up others in the Church. They also recognize their responsibility to those outside of the Church. They are eager to use their gifts in such a way that others will be edified and that sinners will come to worship God. Their concern is for the growth of those within the community and for those who have not yet experienced new life.

THE TELEIOI IN THE PRISON EPISTLES

Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of {28} the Son of God and become mature (teleion), attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

The verses preceding 4:13 describe a process whereby maturity or perfection may be reached. God has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to the Church so that these persons may equip all the saints for the building up of the Church. The purpose for all of this is that the unity of faith and knowledge of God may be attained and that the Church reaches the point of being a “mature person.” It is the responsibility of every believer to help to bring others to maturity. This maturity is described in terms of unity in the Church. This unity is based on a common faith and on the knowledge of the Son of God. The knowledge implied by the word epignosis is experiential knowledge. 14 The mature person is the one who knows the Son of God in his life.

The mature are also not like the nepioi (children, infants) who are characterized by doctrinal instability. The teleioi are united in faith and strong in knowledge and will not easily be deceived by those who wish to lead them astray with false doctrine.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already become perfect (teteleionai), But I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me (Phil. 3:12).

All of us who are mature (teleios) should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you (Phil. 3:15).

In verse 12 Paul indicates that he is not yet teleios but that he is in process. In verse 15, however, he includes himself among the teleioi. The teleioi, paradoxically, are those who recognize that they are not yet perfect but who are striving toward that goal. Luther catches Paul’s thought when he says that the Christian life lies “nicht im Wordensein, sondern im werden” (Not in being, but in becoming).

We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect (teleion) in Christ (Col. 1:28).

Paul believes that he has done a part in bringing others to perfection. He does this by admonishing and teaching. Teaching, says Robertson 15, has its primary effect on the intellect. Paul was teaching doctrine. Admonishing however, describes an effect on the will and disposition. Both the mind and the will need to be developed for a person to become mature.

Three times in this verse Paul uses the words ‘all men’. His goal was to bring all men to perfection. Perfection is not for an exclusive {29} group within the Church.

Paul writes that he labours for this goal. The word refers to hard wearisome toil. But while Paul labours, he recognizes his dependence on God’s power which works mightily within him. The task of presenting people “complete in Christ” involves man’s faithful, diligent labour but is ultimately dependant upon the power of God.

Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Jesus Christ, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature (teleioi) and fully assured (Col. 4:12).

Epaphras did not have the same kind of fame and status in the Church as the apostle Paul. He was a peer of the Colossians. And even though he was far from home, he was still involved in bringing the Colossians to maturity. He agonized for them in his prayers. Prayer is an important part of the task of bringing people to perfection.

THE TELEIOI IN HEBREWS

The word teleioi is used eight times with reference to persons in Hebrews. Three times, referring to Christ and five times referring to people. In this letter we see that the teleioi are people who are able to move beyond the discussion of elementary doctrines and accept and even teach the solid food from God’s Word. They are holy people, but they are also in the process of being made holy. Perfection is not a static state. There must be progress. This progress is not merely passive growth—the teleioi are actively involved in the process of growth. The teleioi are able to discern good and evil because they constantly practice obedience.

THE TELEIOI IN JAMES

Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature (teleion) and complete, not lacking in anything (James 1:4).

Trials are an essential element in producing maturity in Christians. Milton writes: “No Christian can be regarded as ‘perfect’ until he has withstood heavy trials, and in spite of distressing ordeals has maintained his faith and loyalty to Christ, and proved himself able to display continually a Christian bearing in all these distresses and toward the people who are responsible for them.” 16

We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect (teleiois) man, able to keep his whole body in check (James 3:2).

The teleioi are those who are able to control their bodies. This ability {30} is demonstrated by the ability to control the tongue. If a person can control the tongue, the most difficult member of the body to tame, then he will be self-disciplined enough to control the rest of his body and he will be teleios.

CONCLUSIONS

The Scope of the Call To Be Teleios

The call to be teleios is addressed to all believers. With the call to enter the kingdom comes the call to be one of the teleioi. It is a call to discipleship. The teleioi are to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. Jesus, who came to show us the Father, is the example to be followed. The perfect ones are willing to take difficult, radical steps to follow their Lord.

Characteristics of the Teleioi

The teleioi are wise and possess knowledge which the immature do not have. This wisdom is not equivalent to what the world considers wisdom nor is there knowledge based on superior intelligence. Because of the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment they are able to receive and understand the kind of solid teaching which Paul calls meat as opposed to milk (the elementary principles of the Gospel).

The wisdom and understanding of the teleioi is evident in their actions. They are able to distinguish right from wrong and they live according to what is right. The wisdom of the teleioi is knowledge turned into proper action in life.

The teleioi are those who love God. This love is demonstrated in a life of discipleship. They love their brothers and sisters in the Church and desire to use their Spirit-given gifts to edify them. They also love those who are not in the Church. Their love, in fact, extends even to those who are their opponents.

The teleioi are not portrayed as those who have attained absolute perfection. They always strive toward perfection and are not content to settle for less. The English word “mature” is often a good translation, but even that word does not catch all the nuances of the Greek teleios. The English “perfect” may be too absolute, but “mature” may be too mild. Jesus did not call us simply to be ‘mature’ as our heavenly Father is ‘mature’. We consider people mature even though they have many imperfections which need not necessarily be changed. The teleioi have never arrived at their goal. They are mature, but they are moving on to a greater maturity. Because of this problem of finding the best word, the new translations use both “perfect” and “mature” to render teleios in different contexts. {31}

The Process of Becoming Teleios

The New Testament is clear that the teleioi are involved in a process of growth. Tomorrow they should be more closely conformed to Jesus’ example of perfection than they were today.

The teleioi are dependent upon the rest of the body of Christ for the process of growth. All the members of the body have responsibilities to have others to mature. They carry out this work with the enablement of the various gifts which the Holy Spirit gives to the Church.

Paul warns that the work of teaching may be hard, wearisome toil. It is not a small task. He also indicates that teachers need to be wise. But it is not the world’s wisdom that is needed. In order to do the work of the Church and to bring people to maturity, teachers need God’s wisdom. James indicates that when the teleioi feel a lack of wisdom they are to pray with perseverance to God who will give the required wisdom.

In Colossians 4 Paul indicates that prayer can help to bring people to maturity even when a person is absent from the ones he prays for. This labour of prayer is an important task in the work.

The New Testament indicates that trials and suffering may be the context in which maturity is produced. It is essential that a person recognize these situations as possibilities for growth and use them as such.

In answer to the question “Who are the teleioi?” we must conclude: The teleioi are obedient disciples of Christ. The process of becoming teleios is a divine (i.e., God-empowered) process mediated by the members of the body of Christ in the context of prayer and love.

ENDNOTES

  1. Alexander Roberts and John Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A. D. 325, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), p. 55.
  2. Roberts, Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 532.
  3. R. Newton Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology: An Historical Study of the Christian Ideal for the Present Life, (New York: Humanities Press, 1934), p. 134.
  4. Flew, Perfection, p. 128.
  5. Roberts, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, p. 502.
  6. William Burt Pope, A Compendium of Christian Theology Being Analytical {32} Outlines of a Course of Theological Study, Biblical Dogmatic, Historical, vol. 3, 2nd ed. (New York: Phillipa and Hunt, n.d.), pp. 62, 63.
  7. Frederic Platt, “Perfection (Christian)”, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 9 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917), p. 733.
  8. Ibid., p. 732.
  9. George Allen Turner, The Vision Which Transforms: Is Christian Perfection Scriptural? (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1964), p. 175.
  10. See, for example, the words of Marpeck and Simons in: Harold S. Bender, “Walking in the Resurrection”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 35 (April 1961): 100-101.
  11. David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, New Century Bible (Greenwood, SC: The Attic Press, 1972), p. 131.
  12. See for example: G.E.P. Cox, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961), p. 187.
  13. Guenther Bornkamm, Gerhard Barth, and Heinz Joachim Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1963), p. 101.
  14. John H. Gerstner, The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), p. 57.
  15. Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), p. 485.
  16. C. Leslie Mitton, The Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), p. 24.
Robert Friesen is a graduate of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and currently pastor of the Broadway Mennonite Brethren Church in Chilliwack, British Columbia. In this article he summarizes and explores the implications of a theme begun for his Master’s thesis at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary.

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