Modeling Maturation

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The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2Ti 2:2)

We might dismiss this emphasis on “maturation as the essential work of the church” were it not for the overwhelming evidence that maturing efforts took precedence in the lives and ministries of Christ and his Apostles.

Jesus, of course, directed a massive amount of time and energy towards maturing the Twelve. First the “call.” Then the long, arduous process of starting and leading them on the journey towards spiritual maturity. The gospels tell us of deep conversations about Kingdom matters conducted between Jesus and his disciples while they walked from place to place. They let us watch Jesus shaping Peter and John and the others through his teachings, in his rebukes, and by the questions he puts to them. They portray a Jesus who loved spending time with his apostles—privately, intimately—to equip them for the ministry yet to come (Mt 17:1; Mk 6:32; Lk 9:10). They report Jesus sending his disciples out to do hands-on ministry, the very kind of ministry they have watched him do (Mt 10; Mk 6; Lk 9). Jesus was very deliberate and intentional about his training of the Twelve. He invested enormously in them. With all the important things our Master was commissioned to accomplish, he always paid attention to the growth of his disciples into men who were equipped to do Kingdom business.

Like Master, Like Apostles

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Apostles took what Jesus did for them and replicated that work on behalf of others. As Jesus matured them, so they matured those who came later.

You see this happening during the initial years of the church when, in the confines of Jerusalem, the Apostles focused on the growth and development of the first Christians. Peter witnessed to the Pentecost crowd and baptized three thousand of them. But then he immediately turned to the task of growing those believers into mature disciples. Teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer (Ac 2:42) were discipling activities to which Peter and his companions devoted themselves. Certainly there was proclamation in the temple courts. But there was also a more intensive, intimate work going on “house to house” (see Ac 5:42), where the emphasis was less on evangelism than on training and equipping those who were already believers. When, in the first crisis to confront the Jerusalem church (neglect of the Grecian Widows in the food distribution), the Apostles refused to be diverted from their “ministry of the word,” it is likely that this ministry refers less to their proclamation in public places and more to their application of God’s word to the lives of those who had accepted Jesus as Messiah—a ministry that involved maturing baby believers, modeling for them the life-style and character of Jesus, and shaping them into the selfless, generous, bold people God saved them to become.

Paul’s ministry in various Greco-Roman cities, while initially evangelistic, quickly focused on maturing converts, teaching them how to live and think and interact. His “Missionary Journeys” would be better styled as “Maturational Journeys.” Yes, Paul preached the gospel to unbelievers. But no sooner had he won a few converts than his focus shifted to growing them into the image of Christ. Paul spent a vastly greater amount of time and energy maturing his converts than he did making them: a little preaching in the synagogue, a lot of teaching in Lydia’s house (Ac 16:15, 40), Jason’s house (Ac 17:5, 7), and Titius Justus’ house (Ac 18:7); a little proclamation in the agora, a lot of maturing in homes and house churches. Paul was a “maturer extraordinaire.” Read his epistles. Study his mentoring relationships with Timothy, Titus, Silas, Tychicus, and Onesimus (to name but a few). Most of what we actually know of Paul by his own testimony (as opposed to what Luke says of him) involves his determination to grow disciples and churches to the point that, “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation,” they could “shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Php 2:15-16).

Like Apostles, Like Churches

Nor should it surprise us that the Apostles took this maturing task and passed it on to others. As the Apostles matured the first generation of believers, so they expected that first generation to mature those who would come later.

It is this “passing on of the maturing work” that explains (in part) why elders were so important to first century churches. They were to be respectable, wise, upright men (1Ti 3:2-3; Tit 1:8) because they served as mentors for all those who composed their flock. They had to prove (in their own families) that they knew how to grow people up because this was their primary task in God’s church (1Ti 3:4-5).

It also explains why admonitions about loving the brothers, accepting the weak, refraining from judgment, protecting unity, avoiding immorality, deferring to sensitive consciences, utilizing spiritual gifts, and healing Jew/Gentile tensions were so common in the Apostles’ letters. It wasn’t just that these attitudes and behaviors were appropriate for the Bride of Christ. Rather, these attitudes and behaviors were critical to nurturing new disciples, keeping them encouraged and growing. When the Romans were told to “bear with the failings of the weak,” it was for a specific purpose: so that they would not “put a stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way”  (Ro 14:13). An obstacle to what? The growth and development of a fellow Christian! In the same way, the Corinthians were told not to offend a brother’s conscience so that “the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1Co 8:7-13). Again, what was at stake here was nothing less than the prime mandate of the church: doing everything to encourage, avoiding anything that interfered with, the growth and development of a brother—especially when that brother was “weaker” and (by definition) less mature.

Crushing the spirits of young Christians, marginalizing them, dividing them into factions, discounting their gifts, disrespecting them at the Supper of the Lord, struck at the very heart of the church’s mission—maturing raw converts into spiritual adults. Paul railed against such “obstacles,” not only because this kind of behavior was contrary to the spirit of Christ, but because such behavior was opposed to the mission of the church.

The Maturation Model and the Modern Church

What should surprise us is how casual, how careless, the modern church is about the work of maturing disciples. Most churches have no awareness of their responsibility for growing up new Christians (much less any plan for doing so). Members are assumed to grow naturally (as thought spiritual maturity were a simple function of time in the Lord and association with his church) and as a result of some sort of osmosis (place converts in a solution of other Christians and they will automatically absorb the maturity they need). Sadly, there are people sitting in our pews who have decades of association with the church but only millimeters of growth in the Lord.

This lamentable situation raises no alarms among us, however. We’ve learned to accept immaturity and the lack of spiritual growth as a “given” in the church. We explain away habitual immaturity with shrugs and statements like, “That’s just the way she is.” We refuse to confront blatantly immature behaviors and attitudes because we no longer believe it is appropriate to intrude in someone’s life and expect better of them because they follow Christ.

The idea that there is a very defined “growth curve” for Christians described in the Bible, that there are distinct stages through which growing disciples pass, and that Christians are expected to grow through these stages towards “perfection in Christ” hardly crosses the radar of most churches and most church leaders.

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© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.