There's No Such Thing as a Spiritually Mature Christian

There are only perfect Christians.

Last year, I received a letter from someone I didn't know who wrote that I was spiritually immature. This person was convinced that I had become so tainted by the culture that I was no longer able to think rightly about my own faith.

It's an odd accusation to make of anyone, let alone someone you don't know, but it's unfortunately not uncommon. Lots of Christians divide each other into levels of maturity with key words like evolution or equality. In this case, the key word was culture--that thing evangelicals think they can avoid but don't realize they're a part of. And it effectively reduced me to the status of a weak-minded infant.

Maybe I should be offended by this senseless assumption, but I'm more puzzled than anything. Because such a statement is ironically ignorant to what spiritual maturity actually is.

When most of us think of maturity, the first thing that comes to mind is wisdom. The older you get, the wiser you get. Thus, mature people are those who have learned from their vast experience. Like a baby taking her first steps, they're people who can control their impulses to accomplish desired goals.

Evangelicals take this a step further as a support for moralism. In their minds, the mature are those who no longer satisfy sinful urges but discipline themselves in the pursuit of holiness. Essentially, Puritanism. So much for not caving to culture.

To be fair, there are places in Scripture that appear to suggest that spiritual maturity is measured by holiness. But that begins to fall apart when you discover that the word translated as "mature" in Scripture means something else entirely.

The word is teleios and it means perfect or complete. It's the same word you read in Jesus' sermon on the mount ("be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect") as you read in Hebrews ("solid food is for the mature").

"Mature" isn't necessarily a bad translation, but thanks to culture, the word has taken on those connotations of wisdom and experience rather than what the context clearly indicates.

For example, Hebrews contrasts solid food with milk by describing the latter as things like repentance, faith, religious rites, the resurrection, and judgment. I hope you don't trip over any of those because they're just the basics.

The writer goes on to pen possibly the most controversial passage in the entire New Testament, talking about falling away without the chance for repentance. Which is interesting considering the fact that evangelicals and many others teach that repentance is a regular if not daily part of the Christian life.

However, Scripture indicates that repentance is not something we do as if it were a spiritual tune-up. It's part of the transformation that comes with entering the kingdom of God and body of Christ. And just like the sacrifice that enables it, it's a one-and-done kind of deal. True faith places its confidence in this, not in the sincere tears of frequent altar calls.

In fact, James calls the person who doubts God double-minded and unstable. It's one thing to entertain doubts about the age of the earth or human sexuality, but it's another thing entirely to doubt what God says he will do. No wonder the writer of Hebrews spoke so harshly about those who fall away--such people should not expect to be renewed to a state they never trusted they had in the first place.

The mature (the teleios), on the other hand, don't lack confidence or really much of anything else. At least that's how James describes them in the same passage. They lack nothing. They're complete.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul explains that the mature are complete because they're equipped for service. Imagine that. Being a mature Christian has nothing to do with how holy you are; it has to do with the good works you do. Maybe that's why he also said that the Bible was inspired by God, not so we could point fingers at each other but so we would be "fully equipped for every good work."

If you're an evangelical, you're probably programmed to respond to any mention of works with a robotic recitation of Ephesians 2:8-9 (saved through grace, not works, blah blah blah). And that means you're probably not as familiar with the verse that follows which literally says that God created us to do good works.

Works are not secondary to faith. They're not merely a sign or a means to collecting heavenly brownie points. They are an active part of our faith. Without them, our faith is dead and we are incomplete. Like the person who hears Jesus' words at the sermon on the mount but does not do his works, we are not perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.

Spiritual immaturity, then, is not struggling with difficult doctrines or daily sins. It's not being influenced by culture or thinking differently than a stubborn tradition. It's being incomplete. You can't be a perfect Christian, a mature Christian, by doing nothing--by taking pride in not doing certain things and polishing your halo.

You have to actually do something. You have to do good works. And you can start with the ones Jesus lists in Matthew 5-7.

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