In his book American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, Ted Steinberg describes the humorous (and scary) lengths we the people go to in order to secure the blessing of a flawless yard. These lengths cost Americans a lot of green; forty billion dollars go toward lawn “care” each year.
Steinberg argues that this obsession is relatively new. The quest began in the post-World War II era of suburban lots and keeping up with the neighbors. The obsessive quest for the “perfect church,” however, has ancient roots.
Tertullian was from the city of Carthage in North Africa. He was likely a lawyer; he was certainly an expert in the law. He was brought to faith as an adult and, for a time, applied his sharp legal mind to crafting precise statements on Christian doctrine.
Tertullian gave us words to express two of our dearest doctrines. We confess that Jesus Christ unites two natures—divine and human—in one Person. We sing, “God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity” (ELH 15). These expressions come from Tertullian. We owe him a great debt.
Tertullian was hard on his opponents and his fellow believers. He expected people who had been baptized to be perfect in this life. As Tertullian grew older, his love for the law gave way to an obsession called legalism.
Legalists believe that “real” Christians never break the commandments, whether God’s commandments, which are revealed in Scripture, or man’s commandments, which respond to temptations that Christians face in society. A “real” Christian church is made of “real” Christians. The church is a weed-free lawn and must be kept that way. Sinners can’t be members and members can’t be sinners.
By turning the Gospel into another Law, legalism makes salvation the result of works instead of faith. It robs the repentant sinner of the Gospel’s comfort.
The Christian Church stands firm on the teaching that, upon a sinner’s confession, a pastor declares that sinner forgiven for Jesus’ sake. When Tertullian realized he was not going to shake this conviction, he began his obsessive quest for a better church, where—in his mind—the Gospel is proclaimed, but never actually applied, since believers should have nothing to confess and therefore nothing to be forgiven.
In the year 207, Tertullian broke with the Church and joined a group that lived up to his high standards. They believed they had more of the Holy Spirit than the Church the Spirit Himself had established.
But Tertullian never found the weed-free lawn. In time, he broke with the “more spiritual” group and essentially became a congregation of one.
Tertullian’s type is still among us today. “Church shoppers” search for the congregation that has “more of the Spirit” than others. We ourselves are less than thrilled when a “weed” is welcomed back after embarrassing our congregation by a particularly public sin. We think the Gospel should only apply to those who have the decency to keep their shameful sins more private—people like us.
It was not enough that the woman “was bent over and could not fully straighten herself” and “had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years” (Luke 13:11 ESV). She had to be shamed by the synagogue ruler when she came there for help on the Sabbath: “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath,” (v. 14 NIV), he scolded, as if to say, “Don’t come to this holy place on this holy day for what you need most!”
But he couldn’t stop what had already taken place: When Jesus saw her, he called her to him, and said unto her, “Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity” (v. 12 KJV). Our Savior casts out disabling spirits, but makes this promise to broken and contrite hearts: “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37 ESV).
The weed-free church does not exist in this life. Even as Christians, born again in baptism, our Confessions state, “We are far distant from the perfection of the Law” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV 175). Luther put it even more simply: “We daily sin much” (Explanation to the Fifth Petition). So we come, just as we are, to the Lord’s house, where His Gospel is applied and the penitent are forgiven. Church is the place where “Jesus sinners doth receive” (ELH 426).
For further reading: Matthew 9:1-13, 18:15-35; Luke 15; John 21:15-19; Romans 7:1-8:17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 1 John 1:5-2:6.
Rev. Christian Eisenbeis
First Trinity Lutheran Church