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A Biblical Measure of Maturity

February 8, 2010

When my children were small and we would take them to the pediatrician for a regular check-up, the doctor wanted to get a snapshot of their overall health. To do that, he did not use complicated tests and procedures. With a few simple observations, he could determine if they were maturing properly. He would measure and weigh them. He would get a temperature and blood pressure reading. He would listen to their lungs and heart. With these simple observations, he could determine with reasonable confidence whether or not my child was healthy and maturing properly.

But how do you know if a church is healthy and mature? Our first instinct is likely either that we cannot know or that it would be complicated to find out. I want to make a case that determining a biblical measure of maturity of a local church is a fairly simple matter.

First, I want to make it clear that there are some specific ways NOT to tell. These include:

  • Size of church
  • Rate of church growth
  • Number of “first time decisions”
  • How vibrant or “spiritual” the worship experience
  • Spiritual gifts distributed to and used by the members

I ask again, how do you know if a church is healthy and mature? Let’s look to some of Paul’s letters to churches to see if we can find an answer. In his first letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul wrote:

We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, emphasis mine)

In his second letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul starts like this:

Dear brothers and sisters, we can’t help but thank God for you, because your faith is flourishing and your love for one another is growing. We proudly tell God’s other churches about your endurance and faithfulness in all the persecutions and hardships you are suffering. (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4, emphasis mine)

If you look carefully at these passages, there are some clues as to measure the maturity of a church:

  1. Paul uses the plural personal pronouns you and your. He is clearly referring to the corporate body at Thessalonica, not just isolated individuals.
  2. Paul defined the qualities the church was exhibiting: faithful work, loving deeds, and enduring hope.
  3. Between the time the letters were written, Paul had apparently gotten word that not only were they demonstrating faith and love, but that their faith was flourishing and their love was growing.

When Paul wrote to the church at Colosse, a church he had never visited, he introduced his letter like this:

We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of God’s people, which come from your confident hope of what God has reserved for you in heaven. You have had this expectation ever since you first heard the truth of the Good News. (Colossians 1:3-5, emphasis mine)

The book of Ephesians has a longer, more detailed opening, but as soon as Paul finishes his introduction, this is what he says:

Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. (Ephesians 1:15-18, emphasis mine)

Am I the only one that sees a pattern here? Now, let’s take a look at how he opens his first letter to the church at Corinth:

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true.  Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 1:4-7, emphasis mine)

Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 3 that this is an immature church. He then spends most of the book describing and trying to correct these immature traits. They were relying on their spiritual gifts. They were misusing the Lord’s Supper. They reveled in sexual sin. Some of them had even begun to deny the resurrection.

In chapter 13, Paul is basically telling this church that, in contrast to your immature behaviors, here is what spiritual maturity looks like. It looks like faith, hope, and love, especially love.

I believe there are two main principles to learn from 1 Corinthians 13:

  1. Passion or use of spiritual gifts is not a measure of spiritual maturity
  2. Spiritual maturity can be measured on the basis of the degree a church demonstrates faith, hope, and love, especially love.

This is my take on 1 Corinthians 13 and spiritual maturity. What do you think? How does your church measure up? What are some specific ways your church could or does show its maturity by its love?

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