As a father, I spend a lot of time with a four year old. And I’ve remarked to many how much he talks about growing up. He often refers to what he will do when he’s older. Using his terminology, he aspires to be “big”. For my son knows that he isn’t meant to remain a child. Already he is able to distinguish between the behaviour of a “big boy” and his own immaturity. He also contrasts how he lives now with what he used to do when he was a “baby”. This is not always a happy thought for parents. But it is both healthy and inevitable that our children will grow up. Most of the time they desperately want to. Thinking on this, I’ve reflected on our attitude in the church towards Christian maturity.
Christian, Do You Want to Grow Up?
Like my son, I should want to grow up in my faith. I should desire Christian maturity. All Christians should pursue spiritual progress. As the apostle Paul famously puts it, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). This is “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves” (Ephesians 4:14). Thus God’s children should desire and therefore pursue Christian maturity. This glorifies God, is good for other Christians, and guards us against error.
We have many ambitions. But Christian maturity is rarely one of them.
The problem is, of course, that most of us don’t aspire towards Christian maturity. We have many ambitions. But growing up in our faith is rarely one of them. Unlike my son, we are fairly content with our present maturity, even immaturity. But this shouldn’t be the case. Hebrews 5:12 says, “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles…you need milk not solid food”. Then the author continues, “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practise to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
These few verses from Hebrews provide us with at least three aspects of Christian maturity, not to mention a stinging rebuke against being indifferent towards growing up in our faith. In the three points below I will suggest that these verses function as a diagnostic for our own maturity, while also providing a directive in our pursuit of it.
1. Christian Maturity Involves Teaching Others
Firstly, Christian maturity is seen in the ability to teach others. It is worth noting that Hebrews addresses the broader congregation (Hebrews 13:17). In other words, it is written to the church. New Testament scholar Markus Bockmuehl writes, “Despite the writer’s limited interest in the doctrine of the Church, it remains true that his vision for the people of God is in fact profoundly corporate…a mutuality of relationships…characterises the community as a whole”. Throughout Hebrews we read that the individual Christian’s task within the believing community is to spur one another on to perseverance (for example Hebrews 10:24-25). Certainly this task involves exhortation, encouragement, and correction—or, in another word, ‘teaching’.
One mark of Christian maturity is seen in changing from passive recipients to active participants.
In making this point we must avoid at least two mistakes. One assumes teaching ability among those who have been longer in the faith. The other imagines a church without an authoritative eldership, set apart to teach. Hebrews links the ability to teach with maturity. Therefore mature Christians need not be old. Nor must they occupy an office within the church. Yet a mark of Christian maturity is seen in us changing from passive recipients to active participants. Growing up in our faith means assisting others in their progress and personal growth. Are you a mature believer? One way to answer that question is by asking another: Do I teach others?
2. You Need a Rich Theological Diet
Secondly, a mature Christian faith can be observed in our spiritual diet. Read Hebrews 5:12 again, “You need milk, not solid food”. As we read elsewhere, there is a time for “pure spiritual milk” (1 Peter 2:2). But the purpose for that milk is so “that by it you may grow up into salvation”. Thus Christian maturity involves a developing diet. Just as it is unnatural for a teenager to still be sipping her mother’s breastmilk, the longer we have been Christians the less appropriate it is for us to subsist on a basic spiritual diet. Christian maturity is seen in a faith that is nourished by rich theological food.
Christian maturity is seen in a faith that is nourished by rich theological food.
Of course, the danger regarding this point is associating theological insight or impressive libraries with maturity. Furthermore, self-assured theological nitpicking founded on great learning is rarely a sign of Christian maturity. However, these dangers should not cause us to dismiss the overall point. Mature Christians must move beyond the “basic principles” or “milk” (Hebrews 5:12), and “elementary doctrine” (Hebrews 6:1).
I am reticent to be overly prescriptive here. And I’m not suggesting that there is no value in short and simple Christian books or blogs. But there does seem to be an expectation in the New Testament that believers will delve deeper into the person of God and his word. Growing up in our faith means moving beyond the basics. This is certainly linked with being equipped to teach others (above), and discerning error (below).
3. Maturity Brings Discernment
Finally, mature Christians are discerning. I didn’t quote Hebrews 5:13 above. It says, “Everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child”. In many ways, this final point combines all three of my points. For “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice” (Hebrews 5:14). The Christian life should not be marked by indefinite and total dependance on others. In one sense, we cannot remain children in our faith, tied to the proverbial apron strings of our local church leaders and mature believers. We must seek to be trained, pursuing a mature faith of our own. With clear convictions comes discernment.
We cannot remain children in our faith, totally dependent on our leaders.
Of course this is not to suggest independence. Hebrews’ vision for the local church is one of corporate responsibility and commitment. We must always be embedded in our local church, teaching our brothers and sisters where we can as well as inviting them to speak into our own lives. But we cannot remain immature—unable to discern truth and goodness or unwilling to bring our beliefs to bear on how we live. The third mark of Christian maturity is well-informed spiritual discernment, being trained in righteousness by God and others. This will be expressed in our choices, convictions, and character.
Don’t Be Like Peter Pan
When I was a child, I loved the story of Peter Pan. It is a fantasy story about a boy who never grows up. Peter Pan refuses the maturity that comes with adulthood. So he remains a boy forever. Though few of us would admit it, this is often how we approach Christian maturity. We are too content to remain spiritual adolescents, theologically undiscerning children, forever needing to have our hands held by mature believers. Use Hebrews 5 to spur you on to greater Christian maturity.