“Maturity is when your world opens up and you realize that you are not the centre of it.”
― M.J. Croan.
Path to Christian Maturity
Life takes us through various stages. It begins with that lovely innocent stage of babyhood, completely dependent on parents. All that baby needs is milk, and lots of love and attention. Then childhood comes. Bodies and minds growing rapidly. A time when parents sometimes have difficulty keeping up with them. It’s a time to laugh, and cry, and enjoy oneself. There is growth towards independence but never attaining to it. “Dad I need new shoes, and while you are at it, how about a raise in pocket-money.” Then come the teen years. A period of experimentation and exploration. It is a time when independence stretches the envelope, but in many cases still finds it just out of reach. A time to dye one’s hair purple and enjoy the attention of others for a day or two. Rejection becomes devastating. It’s a time for ambitions, for deep friendships and equally deep disappointments and heartaches. It can be an exciting time, or at least it used to be under economically more stable times. Then comes adulthood. It too has its stages. Single adulthood with its freedom and self-preoccupation. Marriage and family interrupts all of that, and one realises the world is much bigger than just they.
“Maturity is when your world opens up and you realize that you are not the centre of it.”
― M.J. Croan.
The question we need to ask ourselves is, ‘Where do I find myself along these stages of development in a spiritual sense?’ Just as we develop physically, mentally, and socially, there are essential stages we need to go through to attain spiritual maturity. It is the goal God has for every believer, and the God-given task of every pastor and Church leader is to see this taking place in the life of their Church members. Paul put it this way,
Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors-teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:10-13).
The Problem In Corinth
While Athens was largely the intellectual centre of Greece in those days, Corinth was more the cultural centre. Being a significant port between eastern and western trade, it became the centre where eastern and western values and philosophies came together and turned into a syncretistic amalgam. It provided Paul with possibly his biggest headache as a missionary and pastor.
There is no doubt that the Gospel he preached brought about changes among many who responded to his message. In fact, Paul began his letter by praising them for the changes that had taken place among them as a newly-created Christian community. He was aware that they had many members who were very gifted people. These people might have been significant members of society in Corinth before their conversion. Now they were trying to find their place in a completely new community of people who claimed Jesus Christ as their Saviour. What kind of Saviour was he? That’s what they had to discover.
What also struck him is that they believed what Paul was saying about Jesus coming back to complete his work of redemption. In fact, they were eagerly awaiting Jesus’ return. What more can a pastor expect from his congregation? A gifted Church, and one that was eagerly awaiting Christ’s return!
But, there was a problem. A serious problem among the believers. They were divided. They either failed to understand or to accept the unity that comes in Jesus Christ. They had brought the world’s view of class distinction into the Church, and by doing so, they were negating the Gospel message that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for they were all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28).
Because they failed to understand this goal of the Gospel, Paul said,
I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. (1Corinthians 3:1).
In what way were they not ready for solid food? Isn’t Paul a little harsh with them? After all, if a child is not ready for solid food, it’s wrong to force it on him or her. Had it been natural non-readiness Paul was referring to, he would not have criticised them for it. He obviously had in mind obstacles they had put in the way of their readiness to receive solid food. (See Hebrews 5:14).
In the 13th chapter of this first letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives us a clue to overcoming this problem.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. (1Corinthians 13:11).
Growing towards maturity is not automatic; it doesn’t depend on how old we are. Age is no guarantee of spiritual maturity, or any other kind of maturity. What is required is the readiness to surrender some deeply-ingrained prejudices and preconceptions. Believers in Corinth had come from different backgrounds, different classes, different occupations, holding different values, having different worldviews. To discover oneness in Christ without their past affecting their attitudes toward other believers was not easy. And it is not easy for most of us. Yet, that is the challenge of the Gospel.
What is it that we need to put away in order to receive? Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who was martyred in Ecuador in 1956, trying to reach the Auca Indians for Christ, had written in his diary,
He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep
to gain what he cannot lose.
This is true of all of life. We have to give up our insistence on personal freedom to discover the richness of married life. Young people have to give up their insistence on having a carefree life to complete studies that lead to stable and worthwhile work. At the end of life we will have to give up things we cannot keep, in order to discover the better things God has for us in the hereafter.
What is it that we need to give up in order to move towards spiritual maturity? In the light of the Corinthian context, three things tend to spoil the true nature of Christian fellowship, and prevent us from growing to spiritual maturity.
1. Ethnic Barriers… Our Sense Of Ethnic Superiority (Galatians 3:28)
Wherever I travel, I come across people’s pride in their national or cultural superiority.
- Mixing with some university students in Russia I discovered that they have been taught that Russian sailors were the first to discover Australia. And that is only one of the things Russians were first to discover, according to some of their teachers.
- Working among Chinese students for 15 months, their pastor expressed the view that because the West had failed to evangelise the world, God had now bypassed western churches and committed this task to the Chinese Church! The Chinese Churches can learn nothing of value from western Churches, according to this man.
- And we all know how Hitler viewed the German people as a superior race and had to cleanse the world’s population of all imperfections in shaping the ultimate world empire. Even the Churches went along with him.
- What is it that gives many Americans a grandiose view of themselves?
It’s bad enough when secular governments adopt the attitude that they are in charge of a superior race; it is much more hideous when Christians fall prey to this attitude. It happens when Christians lose sight of the criteria by which God views our status. This status is not based on what we regard as the elements of civilisation, such as modern technological advances, sophisticated legislation, military might, levels of education, etc.
God looks at us in Christ; the extent to which we are in him. And, the degree to which we are in Christ, is the challenge before every Christian.
One of the criteria of being in Christ is to see that our ethnic prejudices do not stand in the way of fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who belong to other nationalities. This is not to be a theoretical acknowledgement that rejoices in some future anticipation, but a practical one that is to be worked at in the here-and-now.
David Wells noted the trend among evangelical Christians where their practice had problems relating to their beliefs.
"…the theorizers of practice, while they tip their hats in the direction of the Bible, quickly look the other way when they get down to the serious business of devising technique for the Church’s life."
Whenever there is a dominant Christian community, whether it is in Russia, Ukraine, the US, Europe, or Australia, any minority ethnic group is usually expected to merge with the dominant group. We refer to this process as assimilation. If I don’t misunderstand the Gospel, what we need to work towards is integration where each group contributes to the whole without being asked to lose God-given distinctions. Not all cultural distinctions are God-given, either in our own culture or that of other cultures that come among us. The challenge for all of us is to work towards a distinctly biblical culture so that it can illustrate the power of the Gospel to change people, not just individually, but in communities.
This can be a painful process, but all growth towards maturity in Christ can be painful. It is within this process God wants us to discover the true nature of unity in Christ; something of the unity that we will be enjoying in eternity. I say ‘something’, because all of Christian life is only a pale reflection of what we will be when we finally meet our Saviour face-to-face. Now, we only see things vaguely. Then, the full picture will be revealed to us and we will wonder why we couldn’t grasp God’s plan for the Church more clearly, and more readily.
2. The Barriers Of Social Status (Galatians 3:28)
I remember a pastor who worked in a poorer area of Sydney’s west, saying that no sooner did a man come to the Lord, the new motivation in him drove him to move out of that poorer area to a better area. There is something in most people that strives for a better status, greater material prosperity, greater recognition by others.
Traditionally, Britain has been infamous for the class distinction its nobility has been reluctant to let go. Even in Communist countries where the government has claimed that Communism removes class distinctions, China boasts having the biggest number of billionaires in the world, while poverty has never been eradicated.
To blame the West for its materialism is not entirely fair. It’s a human problem. A problem that has also percolated into the life the Christian Church. It has always been there. James warned his readers 2000 years ago against this kind of attitude in the life of the Church.
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:2-4).
It is very natural for us as human beings to form friendships on the basis of the benefits we might receive from our association with the ‘haves’, rather than with the ‘have-nots’. For the ‘haves’, it doesn’t have to be material or financial wealth. It can be intellectual pride, or social standing. Nor is it easy or comfortable for us to stop and question our own motives. It is true that we feel most comfortable with those of a similar social or educational standing. It is very difficult to have to stretch ourselves and move out of our comfort zone.
The biblical principle is that in order to receive, we have to let go. I don’t regret any of my experiences in Russia of staying with people of a low economic status: sharing their meagre food; shivering in Western Siberia trying to wash my hair from a jar of water; listening to their stories; experiencing their generosity. It not only humbled me, but enriched my appreciation of people who live with very little, yet survive with incredible resilience, and in some cases maintain a fervent faith in Jesus Christ.
Whenever we cross the barrier of social distinction, we realise how the other half lives and thinks, and we are forced to stand back and think through our own faith and practices. How can we communicate the Gospel more effectively if we don’t understand how the other half thinks, and what life is like for them!
“You in your small corner, and I in mine,” has never helped anyone toward spiritual maturity.
3. The Gender Barrier (Galatians 3:28)
This is probably one of the most controversial, deeply ingrained, and change-resistant barriers that many Christians and Christian leaders still haven’t overcome. It exists in society in general, and even in the Church.
In my early years as a school teacher I came across a cartoon in the Teachers’ Union gazette. It showed teachers at an informal gathering, with all the ladies at one end of the room and all the men at the other end. In many Christian Churches the same cartoon could apply. Where does this division stem from? Some Christians will point out that this is a God-ordained order originating from God’s curse in the Garden of Eden. But, is it? Or, is it an essentially male misinterpretation of the passage in Genesis, without applying the restoring work of Jesus Christ in the New Testament?
Let us have another look at what happened in Genesis?
To the woman he (God) said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labour you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
There are two ways of understanding this passage:
1. This was a direct judgement on Eve for her disobedience to God, or,
2. This was a direct consequence of the coming of sin into the world, a world in which the laws of nature are established by God. For example, If A touched a hot stove plate, he or she would burn their hand. God is not picking A from all the other human beings to punish him or her for touching the hot plate. It is an established law that exists in this universe where God is the Creator.
When God pointed out what would happen to the man, He was simply pointing out the consequences of life in a sinful world that each of them would have to live with.
In Jesus Christ God began His work of restoration. It is completely reasonable to suppose that man’s dominance over the woman has been reversed in Christ. Whether it takes place in the family or in the Church, the world has a right to see evidence of this reversal taking place. Of course, it is too much to expect a full reversal to take place in this world, but it is reasonable to expect the Church to teach and demonstrate that this is progressively taking place in the life of the Church. The Church needs to model to the world how God’s redeeming work affects the gender divisions; and not provide the justification for these divisions on the basis of a false interpretation of Scripture.
Dominance, whatever form it takes, needs to be surrendered to Jesus Christ. The Church that is prepared to do so, is more likely to experience the power of God working actively among its members.
- It is God’s will that the barriers between nations be torn down in Christ.
- It is God’s will that social barriers should no longer exist between believers.
- It is God’s will that men and women are to be regarded as equals in Christ.
When we refuse to give up our preconceptions and biases, especially in the life of the Church, we are actually, and actively, hindering God’s work. This sounds like a harsh judgement against some of us who try to be nice and friendly and feel secure in our salvation. But, in doing so, we are keeping God from leading us to maturity in Christ. This is a whole area of growth that has to take place if we are to strive toward that perfection in Christ Paul talked about when he said,
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3: 12-14).
“The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.” ― Augustine of Hippo, Confessions.