Let us then stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity . . . Instead, let us advance toward maturity; and so we shall, if God permits.1
I was sitting on the front row of the church, fuming. Apparently, I was making little fuming noises, too, because my friends and my wife were looking concerned. We two couples had arrived a few minutes late and there was no place to sit but at the front. We were guests, but this was to be our home church for the next nine months. We had come—the four of us—new college graduates and newly married, to spend a kind of gap year before graduate school and real jobs. We would live on volunteer stipends from the church while we started and ran a vegetarian restaurant, promoted healthier living, and created a place in this Canadian city where we could share God’s love.
Now I was in church in the front row, and definitely not feeling the love of Jesus in my heart. In those days I had a pretty clear picture of what Christian community and church should be like, and it was nothing like what I was seeing. Usually, I could be fairly sanguine about sitting through leaden religious services. I would zone out, read my Bible or another book I had wisely brought with me, and practice the patience of the saints. So I was as surprised as my friends were at my reaction to what was happening.
It was, sadly, nothing out of the ordinary. A middle-aged man, stolid and heavy-lidded, was reading from a Bible study guide in a droning voice. There were a series of questions directed to the individual reader, together with Bible verses that purported to answer them. Standard fare, completely harmless, and entirely forgettable. These printed guides were meant to be the starting point of discussion; presumably, the audience, having studied during the week, would now leap into spirited dialogue with each other and with the leader. It would be an occasion for bringing the Scriptures alive, the Word lighting us up, and the leader posing stimulating questions. None of that was happening. The leader droned, the people in the pews stared morosely back at him with a bovine intensity that reminded me of several Far Side cartoons. It was unbearable.
Listening to this with my head down, elbows on knees and hands clenching, I was emitting strangled cries. I felt like the demoniac banished to the tombstones, and I wished bitterly for a Legion of pigs to come thundering down the aisle or, failing that, to at least be unchained and in my right mind. My wife laid a restraining arm on mine; one of my friends leaned around and whispered, “Bear, take it easy. It’ll be over soon.” And soon enough it was and we went out, and in the course of things we did not return to that church nor did the vegetarian restaurant come to be. I was repossessed of my equanimity, the devils of my impatience and frustration driven out, and replaced in time with a more sympathetic spirit.
Certainly at the time I had little notion of spiritual maturity. For a number of reasons, becoming a Christian was presented as a binary choice: you were in or out. Having chosen to give your life over to Christ, the main event had taken place and life in Christ would settle into a kind of stasis, bounded on the one hand by avoiding the more obvious sins and on the other hand by being agreeable enough in the company of the unchurched that they would finally ask, unprompted, what kept you on such an even keel.
One’s growth in Christ is often measured on a negative scale: the giving up of this or the conquering of that, through a process of subtraction that would one day reveal us stripped to the core, too old to sin, but ready for translation. On that scale the people in the pews that day may have felt themselves to be dipped in acid, burning the corrosion of the week off through a ritual cleansing that brought no joy, but gave assurance of a (temporary) reset. Then back out into the world, carrying the umbrella of righteousness, the raincoat of faithfulness, and the galoshes of purity.
What obscures our understanding of spiritual “maturity” is that we associate it with chronological age, as if the older we get the more mature we get. If we can live long enough, we’ll eventually be senior citizens of the Kingdom of God. In that case, the church I visited should have been a hub of wisdom and spiritual vitality. But, I have met teenagers and children who were well on in this kind of maturity, and I’ve met older people who could never get past arguing about faith vs works.
The writer of Hebrews expects that his readers are beyond the rudiments. He rues the time wasted in discussing over and over “the foundations of faith in God”, and the process of “repentance from the deadness of our former ways.” He exposes the linear nature of our spiritual lives: the Genesis of our faith in God, the Leviticus of our ceremonial rites, and the Apocalypse of death, judgement, and resurrection. Time to get beyond that, he says. Those are the bones of the body of Christ—essential but incomplete.
One of the interesting things about the Apostle Paul is how much he makes of being a servant. He talks of bowing his knees before the Father and bearing all things with humility and gentleness. He says he is the very least of all the saints and the chief of sinners. He goes on in this vein in his letters enough that we begin to sense that his position of authority is a real concern of his. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he admits that he boasts “a little too much” of his authority, but he’s not ashamed of it because it was given him by the Lord to build up others. And while he dare not compare himself with those who boast about themselves, he thinks that when they compare themselves with others, they are not showing good sense. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” he says. “For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.”2
By contrast, the ones whom Paul calls “children” are those who are tossed this way and that by the fads that blow through spiritual communities, who find themselves deceived by tricks played on them by those in authority, and who fall for lies told over and over. We are children—that is, inexperienced and immature— if we compare ourselves spiritually with others. That way only leads to frustration, and eventually, loss of faith. The marvelous thing about moving into the kingdom of God is that we all arrive from different places, from seeing God in different ways, but with the common experience of being caught up and held by God. What we share is forgiveness from God; where we differ is in what we are forgiven for.
Getting beyond the rudimentary elements of our faith is not to abandon them, but to gather them up and take them with us. If we can see them as portable, as adaptable to our changing circumstances because the expression of them in our lives is not fixed, but grows and deepens as we learn on the way, then we are maturing on the road. “Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance,” says Christian Wiman. “Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms.”3
Growing into spiritual maturity comes through exercise—stretching the sinews of faith as we experience the patience and the encompassing love of Christ. The more we stretch, the more we risk, the greater the sense that we are surrounded and enveloped by God. We may even—dare we say it—feel joy in the midst of all that “going beyond.”
In my frustration, I was in no condition to commandeer that becalmed ship of a church all those years ago. Those whom the Lord commends are those who are “speaking the truth in love.”4 I had yet to learn that God knows us intimately—better than we know ourselves—and God knows our bearing and position relative to each other and to the kingdom toward which we voyage. We are on a voyage of discovery in which, “if God permits,” we may advance toward maturity.