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Let’s Grow Up….Together!

By Jon Zens

This appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1970 –

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 California Church Moving to State to Escape Quake

 OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — A young minister is preparing to move his 75-member congregation to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to escape a “disastrous earthquake that will leave Southern California like Sodom and Gomorrah” sometime before the end of 1970.

Elder Robert J. Theobold, 28, pastor of the Friendly Bible Apostolic Church in Port Hueneme, said this week God revealed Southern California’s fate to him during a fast.

A dozen parishioners are selling their homes, he said, and one member of the congregation plans to make at least three trips in his truck to Murfreesboro to haul the congregation’s possessions.

Theobold and his wife, Nancy, 25, are organizing four caravans — each with three cars — to travel to Tennessee.

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 A lot of screwball things go on in the name of Jesus Christ.  The above clipping illustrates this point.  Many actions taking in Christ’s name have left people sinking in disillusionment, and wallowing in cynicism.  How do you think the people reacted after moving to Tennessee, only to discover in the process of time that the prophesied earthquake never came?

At the bottom of such actions is immaturity. But what is “maturity?” What is the New Testament context in which maturity takes place? What hinders maturity? Ephesians 4:1-16 is a key New Testament passage that can help us to answer these crucial questions.

What Is Maturity?

Christian maturity is connected with “growing up,” which parallels what occurs in the physical realm (Ephesians 4:15). Maturity is a many-sided subject, but at a minimum it involves the saints’ growth in two directions. First, they are to mature in their specific contribution to the ministry of the body (Ephesians 4:7,16).

Secondly, they are to mature in their understanding and application of the gospel to their lives. More pointedly, they are to learn what is important and what is peripheral in the kingdom (Rom 14:17). This will help them to concentrate their energies on what is important, and not to judge others over things that are not critical.

One of the basic elements of maturity is discernment (Hebrews 5:14). As the Christian exercises himself in discerning good and evil, he becomes a more mature person. The ability to accomplish spiritual discernment comes from the Holy Spirit who indwells every believer (1 John 2:20,27;, 4:1).

This dimension of “discernment” is at the heart of Christian living. While the old covenant was filled with prescribed details, the new covenant gives many general principles that are brought to bear by the Spirit in specific situations. Richard Longenecker summarizes the “discernment” perspective by saying:

“Without the mind of Christ through the activity of the Spirit at work in the believer, the principles of the law of Christ remain remote and unattainable. . . .     The precise function of the Spirit in this matter of the exercise of Christian liberty is probably best summed up in the apostle’s use of the word dokimazo — i.e., testing, determining, proving.

“Cullmann has pointed this out in saying, ‘This “testing” is the key to all New Testament ethics.’  Hence, whereas in the old covenant the individual was to ‘determine the things which are best being instructed out of the law,’ in the new covenant the Christian is to ‘test all things’ and ‘determine the things which are best’ by reference to the working of the Holy Spirit in his life” (Paul, Apostle of Liberty, pp 194-195).

An implication of this perspective is that Christ is not interested in outward morality in His body. Christ desires actions by His people that flow out of a maturity informed by the revelation of God in Christ. Paul Lehmann observes: “Christian ethics aims, not at morality, but at maturity. The mature life is the fruit of the Christian faith. Morality is a byproduct of maturity (Ethics in a Christian Context (Harper & Row, 1963, p. 54)

In What Setting Does Christian Maturity Occur?

It is clear from Ephesians 4:1-16 that Paul sees the process of maturity taking place in the body of Christ. When he uses the phrase “unto a mature man” in 4:13, he is referring, not to an individual’s growth, but to the growth of a body with many parts. Paul conceives of growth as the mutual development of many parts, not as the progress of an isolated person.

Integrity in and through interrelatedness characterizes bodily growth toward maturity. This growth is marked by a pattern according to which the individuality of each several part is achieved and expressed in and through its own proper functioning, i.e., its own being what it is in interrelatedness with all other parts maturity is the integrity in and through interrelatedness which makes it possible for each individual member of an organic whole to be himself in togetherness, and in togetherness each to be himself” (Lehmann, Ethics pp. 54-55).

There have been a number of books published on various aspects of “Christian growth.“ However, I think it is fair to observe that most of them present “growth” in essentially individualistic terms. Little, if any, attention is devoted to growing in the setting of committed relationships within the body of Christ. Yet, Paul’s conception of growth is meaningless without the interaction of the parts. (Ephesians 4:16).

To look at it from another perspective, this is to say that in the process of sanctification God uses people. We are not used to thinking of people as an important ingredient in sanctification. But again, Paul’s teaching on sanctification would make no sense without the assumption of healthy Christian relationships (Ephesians 4:1-3).

What Hinders Maturity?

Many things can block growth. Here, we will isolate four important and interrelated areas that the New Testament sees as impeding growth.

Beginning with the Ephesians 4 context, v. 14 indicates that false teaching hinders people from moving out of the childhood stage. Verse 15, then, gives the antidote to this problem: the brethren must speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:15). In order to grow, we need the truth of the gospel, that form of sound (healthy) words inspired by Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13). In order to rise above error that deflects us from Christ, we need to hear the gospel from one another (Romans 15:14).

Secondly, people can hinder the overall growth of the body by immature actions. We’ve all heard someone say to an adult, “Stop acting like a child.“ Paul referred to this type of behavior in Ephesians 4:29-31. People throw a wrench into the mechanics of maturity by failing to fulfill their responsibilities to the body, or by pursuing behavior that is inconsistent with the way of Christ (Ephesians 4:20).

One thing that keeps maturity from blossoming in the body of Christ is a failure of the priesthood-at-large to take its responsibilities seriously. Tradition, unfortunately, has only fueled the notion that the “work of the church” belongs to the ‘‘professionals.”

“It may well be that the Church lost something when she delegated so much to the professional ministry and left so little to the ordinary Church member; and it may well be that the blame lies not with the ministry for annexing those rights, but with the laity for abandoning them, because it is all too true that there are many Church members whose attitude is that they think far more of what the Church can do for them than of what they can do for the Church, and who are very ready to criticize what is done but very unready to take any share in doing the Church’s work themselves.” (William Barclay, 1 Corinthians, ch. 14)

Thirdly, growth is often stifled by leaders who keep saints in a state of dependence upon them, instead of equipping the brethren for works of service. Further, when leaders must guard and defend a party-line agenda, the growth-boundaries are narrow and predetermined. It is a tragic paradox when the leaders, who are supposed to foster growth in others, actually contribute to their stagnation. Over the years, I have seen this problem repeatedly.

Lastly, traditions of men inhibit growth. This is vividly illustrated in Mark 7:1-13. Five points surface in this context. First, traditions of men enforce outward, identifiable issues and in so doing create a people whose hearts are far from God (7:6). Folks immersed in human traditions usually miss the heart-throb of the gospel. How can people grow when the attention is on things like “washing cups”?

Second when human precepts are taught as “truth,” worship becomes empty (7:7). People go through forms, but the Spirit is not present in power. Growth is not possible in an atmosphere where men’s ways are equated with God’s ways.

Another problem that comes along is the neglect of the written Word in deference to some oral tradition (7:8). People begin to pay more and more attention to traditions they have established, and less and less attention to God’s Word. Will people grow when tradition is elevated to such a level that it is virtually equated with God’s Word? Is this not where much of the problem lies? It is almost impossible for people to discern where God’s Word ends and tradition begins.

More blatantly, in order to maintain the traditional status quo, the Word of God has to be “set aside” (7:9). Traditions have a way of taking the upper hand. What God’s Word really teaches then becomes irrelevant and threatening.

When one of our members was challenging a traditional viewpoint from the Bible in a church board meeting, another person became frustrated and said, “Sometimes you just have to shut your Bible and use common sense!” This is one of the key questions of our day, “Are we going to obey God’s Word and depart from traditions when necessary, or are we going to continue to set God’s Word aside in order to keep our cherished traditions?”

How can we expect people to grow if God’s will is constantly set aside in deference to human traditions?

The last problem of traditions is that as they gain control, they also multiply — “you do many such things as that” (7:13). As traditions are “handed down” from generation to generation, they increase in number and variety. This phenomenon all the more obscures what God’s will really is. Is it any wonder that people do not grow when they are caught in a web of traditions spun over the years?

“Elements of the World.”

According to the New Testament, traditions are often connected to “the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3,9: Colossians 2:8, 20-21; cf. Marcus Sanford, “Liberty Through Messiah Christ’s Victory Over ‘The Basic Principles of This World,’” Searching Together, Summer 1983, pp 37-43). Traditions tend to deflect people from Christ by making laws and judgments about things that God has not. The “Don’t handle, don’t taste, and don’t touch” mentality is still rampant today.

People’s growth will be stifled when “beggarly elements” become standards of holiness, and Christ as the Head is not the center point (Colossians 2:19-20).

The Soil Where Growth Occurs

In child development, the atmosphere of the home is critical. Likewise, the atmosphere in which Christian fellowship takes place is going to have a tremendous impact on the nature of one’s growth in Christ. If a heavy cloud hangs over the meetings, if intimidation and suspicion are rife, and if people are just plain scared to communicate what is on their hearts, can growth be anticipated? Would children grow up to be healthy if they lived in homes with such an atmosphere?

If we are serious about Christian growth, then we must be serious about cultivating atmospheres in our fellowships that are open, accepting, and loving. More than anything else, we need gatherings where transparent communication can take place. An accepting atmosphere is a prerequisite for speaking the truth to one another in love (Romans 15:14; Ephesians 4:5).

The vibes that I get from brethren everywhere is that one of the biggest roadblocks to growth in churches is a closed, tradition-ridden atmosphere. People simply have no avenues for vital communication, and are afraid of healthy discussion. When communication is bottled up for long periods of time, it is no surprise that devastating explosions, instead of healthy strides, occur.

Let’s quit being children, and “grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4 15).

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