When I was growing up, I was on the receiving end of Matthew 5:48 more times than I can remember. If you grew up in a church that preached the ethics of Christ or purity culture (there’s a difference, but more on that later), you probably were, too. Jesus famously, or infamously, commands us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Ouch. That’s stern. As if that wasn’t tough enough, I think many of us share my experience of hearing purity and perfection as something to be protected, encased in glass and hidden away in the museum of the soul. Things, or hearts, are produced perfect, like a new piece of jewelry, and must be safeguarded from rust and entropy and theft.
To be honest, I agree that Jesus’ teaching here is our target. It isn’t some metaphorical inspirational quote for a pretty office hanging. But what if it’s more than just a standard? What if it is the very design for human life? If we look at this verse in Greek, we see hope instead of judgment. The word translated as “perfect” is a word used to describe maturation, completion, and wholeness. It’s the word we see in Hebrews to describe a mature spiritual adult who has moved on from childhood to solid food in their walk with Christ. It means fully ripened, like fruit.
Christ isn’t interested in putting something pretty in a museum for visitors to admire; He wants to guide us as we grow, blossom, and mature into something that serves as a blessing to those around us. All the pain and judgmentalism of a purity culture that dismisses the broken isn’t necessary. If the teachings of Christ aren’t being followed, it truly is a shame and a departure for how we were designed to live in peace and beauty with God and each other. But any tree, no matter how badly damaged, can still find vigor and produce perfected fruit as long as life still courses through its branches.
The flipside is, however, that while this reading certainly can bring less unnecessary pain, it quite possibly brings more work. Purity becomes not simply hiding away from the world in Christian bubblewrap; we must instead work to continue down the path to the kind of wholeness and completion Jesus means by perfection. We, like fruit, were designed to reach a point where our ethics become a blessing to those around us, even those who aren’t Christian. Avoiding “bad” simply is not enough.
So what are we to do with 50 Shades of Grey, the latest front in the purity wars? I don’t advise seeing it, because I am yet to find anything it offers that’s worth my time, and plenty that is repugnant, abusive, and would land a real person in prison despite being presented as normal, even healthy and romantic, by not just characters but the narrative itself (here’s a pretty thorough rundown of abusive moments, with a few profanities FYI [irony, I know]). But seeing it won’t make you burst into flames or ruin your purity like an ancient artifact exposed to oxygen. If mere exposure to sex, violence or abuse in any context could do that, most of the Bible would be off limits.
But you know what will derail the call to perfection? Not going the extra mile from simply avoiding something evil to actively blessing those around us. By all means, encourage others away from something so toxic, but if you’re doing it in a way that debases those who disagree, you’re doing something hurtful and unchristlike in your attempt to prop up Christ, who needs no defending. If you feel led to speak privately or publicly, including via social media, please take the time to understand what you’re discussing and why you disagree. And while you may still hesitate to see the film or read the books as research, there are plenty of other ways to avoid simply falling back on, “The Bible says 50 Shades is wrong,” or “My pastor said it’s evil and will lead to other bad things.”
Here’s another step I really admire and hope the church will strongly embrace: donating to women’s charities and abuse charities instead of simply disliking the film. Some advocates have asked for the appropriate $50 instead of 50 Shades, while others have asked for the smaller yet symbolic cost of movie attendance. Folks, I couldn’t love this approach more. This is the kind of wholeness Jesus is after. Instead of simply disagreeing with the world, we have an amazing chance to bless it. In Waco, Compassion Ministries provides women and children a chance to restart their lives. Around the world, here are five charities doing great things to help women live fulfilled lives. I’m sure there’s an amazing women’s shelter near you, too. Pray. Donate. Volunteer. Advocate. Get out there this Valentine’s Day weekend and be a blessing to those around us. Be whole.