The Maturation Mandate

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In Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul addresses the “third wheel” of Christian maturity—the final factor so necessary to maturation as disciples of Christ. Paul is grateful to God for his Spirit (3:14-21) and for individuals who hunger for righteousness (4:1-2). But Paul still recognizes the importance of a maturing community—the church—for growing disciples into the fullness of their Lord.

gift boxesIt was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s 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.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

The Gifts of Christ

Just as the Spirit “gifts” Christians with certain abilities and functions (Ro 12; 1Cor 12), so Christ “gifts” his Body with certain people and roles. Each of the roles mentioned in this passage (e.g., Apostles, evangelists, teachers) provides a leadership function for the church. According to Paul, church leaders are not chosen or elected. They are given by Christ to his people.

But to what purpose? Based on the attitudes about church leadership so common today, you might be excused for thinking that church leaders exist to manage church programs or administer church budgets or direct capital campaigns. Church leaders meet in conference rooms and make decisions and set annual goals, don’t they?

Paul would beg to differ. Leaders are given to churches for one overriding purpose: to mature the men and women God has entrusted to their care. Notice the “growth verbs” Paul uses in this passage: prepare, build up, reach, mature, attain, grow up, build up. The primary responsibility of those who lead the church is to make certain that members of that church develop into fully-formed spiritual adults. It is their principal mandate.

Nor does Paul leave any doubt about what kind of maturity is required. The maturing task cannot be reduced to teaching sound financial judgment or stable marriage relationships or proper worship practices (as important as such maturities are). This is spiritual maturity Paul is talking about; a much broader and higher plain of maturity than most modern leaders ever aspire to instill. Again, listen to the descriptions. Leaders are to work with disciples until we all: 

1. reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God,
2. become mature
3. attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ
4. grow up into him who is the Head
5. grow and build up the church in love.

The results of this maturing work are measured in larger lives and better churches. Individual disciples are trained to serve, become Christ-like, are not as vulnerable to spiritual disease, and learn to love. As for the church, it is encouraged, unified, secure, and working.

Jesus entrusts his church and his precious disciples to leaders he has called and anointed. The leaders, in turn, are expected to grow disciples and churches into the fullness of him who fills everything. The question we must face is this: Do we see spiritual maturity happening in our churches? Is it happening in an intentional, focused way? And, if not, are we being the church God has commissioned us to be?

It takes a Church

The great task of the church is maturing its members into the likeness of Christ.

Growing disciples into the image of Christ is not a hobby for the church, not a spare-time activity, not something we do when and if we get around to it. It is the principle work God has entrusted to his people, the single most important thing we have been commissioned to do. All other responsibilities of the church—its worship, community, and witness—hinge on this single function. Apart from a concerted effort to grow Christians into the fullness of Jesus, there can be no acceptable worship, loving fellowship, or effective evangelism. The essential work of God’s people requires the constant development of Christians who are knowledgeable of Scripture, fluent in the mind of Christ, appreciative of their gifts and calling, holy in lifestyle, committed and equipped to share the gospel, transformed in character, and alive to the Spirit.

“Not so!” I can almost hear the objections. “Jesus commissioned his Apostles to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Evangelism! That’s the church’s great commission!”

People who say such things need to read Matthew 28:19-20 again:

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Evangelism, testimony, and preaching the gospel are vital, necessary tasks of the church. But announcing good news is a means to a greater end, an invitation and initiation into a larger, life-wide endeavor. The Apostles were not sent to preach alone, but to “make disciples” … not to baptize only but to “teach” all Jesus said and did. This discipling and teaching commission involves neither more nor less than maturing people into the purposes of God, showing them how to live out the life of Christ, awakening the image within them, and filling them with the fullness of God.

Such growth happens best in the context of community. But it requires clarity about the purpose of the church and about our commitment to spiritual growth. It requires process, a purposeful path for moving members toward greater growth. It requires synergy of our ministries and ministers, so that the resources of the church are directed towards the same goal. It requires focus to keep our collective eye on the Kingdom ball.

Jesus pursued this kind of intentional maturing with the Twelve. The Apostles pursued it with the Jerusalem church. Paul pursued it with his churches and companions. Are we maturing our members, our churches, the people God has entrusted to our pastoral care? Are we doing it with anything like the clarity, process, synergy, and focus demonstrated by Christ and his earliest disciples? If not, why not?

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