Over the past few weeks we’ve been considering growth, personal spiritual and corporate church. I’d like to wrap up this “binge” of articles on growth (at least for now) on a note of “outcomes” — what does spiritual maturity (mature disciples and mature churches) look like. On the one hand, we know the short answer: “It looks like Jesus.” But on the other hand, it’s really good to have some more specifics. Knowing the spiritual specifics is crucial to beginning to arrive there (though not even the apostle Paul achieved it — Php. 3:13,14).
WILLINGNESS TO SERVE RATHER THAN BE SERVED
In Jesus’ own day among His original disciples (apostles) He had to continually correct His followers about the tendency to be served rather than serve — (Matthew 20:28) “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet and the lesson that Jesus Himself attaches to it should have settled for all time that Christianity is the religion of “the towel” (service to others), yet the tendency to want to be served lingers on and on among His followers, even 21 centuries later. Maturity understands this and actually seeks for opportunities to serve the Master by serving others — (Matthew 25:40) “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” Spiritual immaturity will continue to seek power, place, prestige, and service from others.
FORBEARING WITH ONE ANOTHER’S OPINIONS
Paul spent much of his time in helping mature the churches he planted — and a few he hadn’t planted (e.g., Rome); and one of the subjects he addressed in one form or another was keeping the churches loving and harmonious despite differences that really made no spiritual difference. Paul was quite intolerant of wrong, of unholy behavior, and of false teachings and false teachers; but in each of these congregations there was going to be quirks and diverse opinions that had the potential of dividing the church for no good reason. In many of these pleas for unity (Romans 14,15; 1 Corinthians 8-10; or Ephesians 4), he appealed to them to have the maturity to recognize 1) how important unity among God’s people was and 2) how insignificant these earthly opinions, tastes, and traditions really were. In part, their immaturity showed through in their inability to discern doctrine from opinion (Matt. 15:9), or to recognize wisdom (Heb. 5:14). Immaturity frets and fusses with others about “carpet colors”; while maturity strives for the unity of the body, ably discerns between opinions and Scripture, and refuses to be a party to division over unimportant matters.
MORE CONCERNED ABOUT CHRISTIAN RESPONSIBILITIES THAN CHRISTIAN RIGHTS
As Paul reasoned with the Corinthian Christians about maturity issues and forbearing with others’ opinions, he urged them on to maturity with an example out of his own life, (1 Corinthians 9:12) “If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.” Part of the problem among the Corinthians was their fixation on their rights, a common worldly concern. To help these immature Christians overcome the worldly divisions that threatened to break the body apart, Paul called on them to focus more on their responsibilities than their rights. And today it remains a challenge to Christian maturity to grow beyond the world’s “wisdom” of preferring rights over responsibilities. Christian maturity, seen perfectly in Jesus, may use its rights, when it is appropriate; but willingly yields its rights in the best interest of others. Spiritual immaturity tends to be more self- centered and less concerned about others.
STRETCHING SELF TO GROW, RATHER THAN WAITING FOR SOMEONE ELSE’S EFFORTS
Full grown, mature adults will rarely blame someone else for not getting them the food, clothing, and shelter that they need. They learned as they grew up to get a job, go to the grocery store, cook and eat regularly, perform regular hygiene, pay their bills on time, and go to bed on time. Only children and the immature will expect others to “do for them”; adults do not. And spiritual maturity is similar: the spiritually mature don’t need someone to coax them to come to church, don’t need someone to remind them to pray, don’t need someone to prompt them to read their Bibles, don’t need someone to take them by the hand to volunteer or get involved. The spiritually immature look to others to “grow them”. Among new Christians, it is understandable; but among older Christians, it is undesirable immaturity. Spiritual maturity knows what is necessary to continue to grow, what it needs to do, and does it.
BECOMING MORE DISCERNING ABOUT MORAL MATTERS
Paul wrote to a very young Thessalonian church, (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22) “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” “Why?” someone might ask, “Isn’t good always obvious? Isn’t evil always clear?“ Well, not always — wait, on second thought, maybe not very often at all. You see, Satan knows just how to couch evil, so that it looks innocent and sometimes even really good — like bait with the hook cleverly hidden. He’s even learned how to make good sometimes look “intolerant”, “mean”, “ignorant”, “uncompassionate”, “judgmental”, and certainly “old-fashioned”. This is exactly why Paul, inspired by the Spirit, urged the Thessalonian church to examine everything carefully. For example: compare the deed you contemplate to Scripture (the true compass of right), consider what could happen (the worst happens more often than we’d like to admit), weigh the impact it would have on unbelievers or weaker Christians (our deeds are often seen and noticed by those looking for a good example of right), ask how it will effect your own spiritual strength (are you really as strong as you think you are?), and other considerations. Spiritual maturity examines everything carefully, considers the outcome of such actions/words/attitudes/thoughts has had on others (learns from others spiritual mistakes and victories), and acts according to wisdom and good judgment.
Let’s work at making these marks of maturity ours as individual disciples and as the body of Christ “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13).