Perfectionism is the doctrine that teaches both the possibility and actuality of complete freedom from sin in this life for the Christian. Among American Protestants it is more often referred to as entire sanctification of the believer or total eradication of the sinful nature.
John Wesley is held to have advocated perfectionism, though he never claimed it for himself. In any case numbers of his followers, especially in the so-called "holiness" denominations in America, have continued to advocate and claim entire sanctification. Certain other small groups both in Europe and America have arisen at various times to advocate or claim sinlessness. In Emmental in the Swiss canton of Bern, Fritz Bergen, a converted drunkard, has led a small movement of perfectionists called "Evangelischer Brüderverein" (Bergerleute).
Extreme advocates of perfectionism usually have either defective ethical standards or an impossible psychology of moral action, or substitute an inner perfection of will and love toward God for outer perfection of character. John Wesley said, "The highest perfection which man can attain … does not exclude ignorance, error, and a thousand infirmities."
The Reformers and all the major Protestant denominations reject perfectionism. In so doing they frequently incline toward excusing sin and tend to encourage laxity, emphasizing forgiveness rather than holiness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has caustically referred to this attitude as "justification in sin" rather than "from sin" and called it the offer of "cheap grace." His sweeping indictment of much of Protestantism is amply justified. Often those Christians and groups of Christians who have honestly and earnestly sought to live a life of high dedication, obedience, and holiness have been not only misunderstood but also frivolously condemned as hypocrites or self-righteous. The attempt to strive toward perfection ("Be ye therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect") has often been erroneously labeled perfectionism. The Anabaptists and Mennonites have suffered under this charge from the beginning. It is true that they endeavored to maintain a church "without spot or wrinkle," which is represented in Ephesians 5:27 as the goal which Christ has for the church; but this is far from the claim to have reached perfection, as the noting of the insistence upon church discipline by the group quickly shows. However, there is patently on this point a major difference in emphasis between state-church Protestantism with its toleration of almost all degrees of sin in the church, both of omission and commission, and Anabaptism with its insistence on a high level of personal and group performance in character, life, and service.
Flew, R. Newton. The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology: An Historical Study of the Christian Ideal for the Present Life. London, 1934.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 1114-1115. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. "Perfectionism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/perfectionism.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. (1959). Perfectionism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/perfectionism.