There are a couple men in my church who I respected greatly, right up until I overheard a conversation they had about the merits of buying a specific brand of footwear. Yes, they were talking about the infant stages of their shoe collections. Being an older Christian brother, I admonished them to turn in their man-cards right then and there.
Some of my surprise came from expecting believers to debate issues higher up the maturity spectrum, such as the merits of Christian radio, religion in politics, and coffee in the sanctuary. This banter is a perplexing phenomenon, because we all tend to think that mature people have a singular perspective – ours – rendering further discussion useless. We congregate in little communities where our opinions are considered fact and our biases are celebrated. We congratulate ourselves on being right. The primary ministry of Jesus was, after all, to save us from being wrong.
If you’ve been in church culture for any amount of time you know what I’m talking about, and you know the group you’re most comfortable in. Is it Conservative Evangelical? And that less mature group – Progressive Liberal? Or are they legalistic, and you are part of the Grace camp? We use different labels, but what we mean is mature and immature.
The labels themselves are useful, to a point. For example, consider Good Christians vs Honest Christians. For Good Christians, predetermined categories coupled with a discerning spirit provide a rough sketch of who they’re sitting down to coffee with, possible conversational parameters, and most importantly the level of grace they’ll be required to extend. Honest Christians, on the other hand, use labels in exactly the same setting to identify how much of an ass you are.
Like I said: useful, to a point.
Regardless of how we gauge and categorize the maturity of others, it boils down to the degree to which they are aligned with our threshold of enlightenment. The test of our own maturity is simply a silent conscience, squashed or at rest notwithstanding.
Biblically, spiritual maturity is not so easy to nail down. At different times and places, the scriptures point to love, joy, peace, sacrificial giving, diligent study, hospitality, a lack of anger and many other things as signs of a well cultivated spiritual life.
There is one part of growth, though, that in Western Christianity is glaring in it’s absence: Holy Discontent. The knowledge that we are incomplete, and the passion to move forward – this we have lost, if we ever had it in the first place. We have enshrined the exact opposite: our own completeness and the passion to point out where others fall short.
The Apostle Paul explained this attitude of maturity in his letter to the Philippian church:
“…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”
Philippians 3:7-16 English Standard Version (ESV)
Not perfect? Pressing on? Forgetting what is behind? Straining towards what is ahead? That sounds like someone who still has something to learn! And imagine an attitude of humility that lets others be less mature, simply encouraging them to live up to whatever standard of faith they currently possess.
Back to the shoe conversation, because those trendy, well-shod brothers are the ones who got me thinking about Christian maturity. In addition to passion, there was more grace and care and concern on the table of that debate than I’ve seen in many a theological discussion. I was truly impressed. Well done, hipsters. Now, about those man-cards…