This is the audio recording of the first reading of week two of Start, entitled What is A Mature Christian?
“The task of the church is to serve as the best example of what God can do with human community.”
Think about this question: What are the signs of a mature Christian? Before continuing this reading, grab a pen and paper or open the Notes app on your phone and jot down whatever comes to mind.
It’s sensible to associate mature Christianity with knowledge. For example, we might say a mature Christian has a well-developed biblical theology, understands the overarching themes of Scripture, can articulate the gospel, and has many Bible verses memorized (and these are all good things!). It’s also sensible to associate mature Christianity with particular actions. For example, a mature Christian is active in their local church, knows and uses their spiritual gifts, attends a Bible study or missional community, and is generous with their time and money (again, all good things!).
But here’s the problem: It’s possible to know a lot of stuff and do a lot of things and remain unloving. And too often, in Christian settings, we are prone to elevate right knowledge and right actions above acting with love toward God and others. When this happens, we risk remaining confrontational, defensive, judgmental, or flat-out mean, all while busying ourselves with church activities and filling our brains with Christian knowledge.
In this week’s readings, we want to make the case that love is the primary measure of Christian maturity. If we memorize dozens of Scripture verses, participate in every church program, and are not loving, we are immature. If we seek to form Christian community without valuing loving others, our community will remain immature. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-2, Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Consider how often we tend to associate spiritual maturity with ability and knowledge. Paul says it’s nothing if we have those things but don’t have love.
2 Peter 1:5-7 also highlights the primacy of love. Peter writes, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”
Toward the end of His life, Jesus spoke with His disciples about the importance of love. He did not merely suggest they love one another. He commanded it. In John 13:34-35, Jesus said, “A new command I give you, love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” In Matthew 22, Jesus echoed a famous Old Testament command saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:35).
The Apostle John reinforced these ideas in 1 John. “If anyone says he loves God and yet hates his brother,” he wrote. “He is a liar. For the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). This is a radical idea! John says we cannot love God if we cannot love others.
What are we to do with all of this? The command to love seems so simple, yet it raises many questions. Few Christians would argue that loving others is not a good thing. But how do we do it? How is Christian love similar or different from cultural definitions of love? What does Christian love look like for busy, 21st-century westerners?
Part of our struggle with this concept comes from the word’s definition. In John’s writing, the term love – agapao in Greek – is a verb (readers of a certain age will remember a DC Talk song about this idea). Love is not an emotion. It’s not a warm thought or a kind feeling. It’s a mentality that is carried out in concrete action. One definition of agapao is to seek the welfare of one another, do good, and care greatly about one’s state. The action-oriented nature of love can be further seen by contrasting it with the definition of the Greek word often translated as “hate” (miseo). It doesn’t mean to actively seek to harm. It means to disregard someone else’s welfare. Love is an action. Hate is a refusal to take action.
Theologian D.A. Carson says, “The command to love one another is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, but profound and deep enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.”
We need to reset our framework for understanding Christian maturity. We must reject the mentality that says our Christian maturity is reflected mainly in our presence in services/programs or our personal spiritual experience. Maturity is evidenced by actively seeking the good of others in Jesus’ name. As Pastor Lance often says, we are meant to be so filled with God’s love that it overflows onto others. God is love, and He has enabled us to love. He has shown us His great love for us and shown us that our commitment to Him is not demonstrated in head knowledge but loving action. He leaves us with a command that is not new but old, not minor but major: Love one another as I have loved you.
In her book, Living into Community, Christine Pohl says, “The ways we’ve been formed by church and culture have not given us the skills or virtues we need to be part of the very communities we long for and try to create… Communities need more than shared histories and tasks to endure” (emphasis added). We can generally form communities through proximity (shared location) or affinity (shared interest). For a community to truly thrive, its members must be committed to one particular core virtue. We turn our attention to that virtue this week.
As Christians, we know every person is an image-bearer of God and has tremendous worth. We know how important it is to love others. However, in our practice, this doesn’t often come to fruition. Too often, our love for God does not lead us to love one another.
In their book The Other Half of Church, Jim Wilder and Michael Hendricks ask, “Why aren’t all Christian communities deeply loving?” One could easily fill a book attempting to answer that question. Yes, many Christians are loving, but love does not seem to be the defining characteristic of most Christian communities. It may simply be that we, like the early churches John addressed in his epistles (1-3 John), have allowed the command of Jesus to love to grow stale and lose its prominence or priority in the Christian life. Imagine the difference it would make in the church and in the world if we restored the value of love to its proper place.
- A practical way to describe what loving looks like is to describe the opposite. What does it look like to be unloving? What does an unloving person do or not do? Take a moment to think about or write some examples (focusing on actions, not names!) How does loving action contrast each of your examples?
- Read 1 John 4:7-21. What other themes do you see? What, specifically, do we learn about love from this passage?
It bears repeating that this is not to say that head knowledge in unhelpful. It is a good thing to study the Bible, listen to sermons, read books, take classes and otherwise seek to grow in our knowledge of Christian theology. We just must always remember that the purpose of this knowledge is to help us grow in our love for God and others.