By Eric Sanford
There are many ways to talk about maturity, but often the process of becoming an adult comes to mind. In fact, research shows that children in the United States are maturing slower today than in the past. In one study, Jean Twenge and Heejung Park offer several possible reasons for slower maturity rates (greater parental investment, lengthened education, delayed reproduction, lower pathogen prevalence, and longer lives), but ultimately their study concludes that children are taking longer to become independent of their parents and become adults.[i] Growing up is more than just getting older though. One’s age does not necessarily reflect one’s maturity.
When thinking about the Christian life, the Bible speaks of spiritual maturity in a similar way. For example, Paul describes the church in Corinth as “infants in Christ,” who could not be given “solid food” because “[they were] not able to receive it.”[ii] In his book Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, James Fowler notes that “we all begin the pilgrimage of faith as infants.”[iii] However, we are not intended to remain “infants in Christ” or even children for that matter. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.”[iv] Clearly, Paul’s desire is for the Church to have a grown up or mature faith.
When speaking of spiritual maturity, Paul often uses the word teleios (which can be translated as “mature,” “perfect,” or “complete”). In Ephesians 4:13, Paul longs for, “all [to] attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature person, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” However, in the letter to the Ephesians, spiritual maturity is not just an individual goal but the goal for the entire body of Christ. Stephen Rankin, in his book Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life, defines “a spiritually mature Christian [as] one whose whole character—dispositions, words, and actions—emulates the character of Jesus Christ himself.”[v] In Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul calls on the church in Ephesus to “be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved [us] and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Spiritual maturity is a goal that all Christians should be striving after as they seek to imitate God and live out Christ’s love.
A NEED FOR SPIRITUAL RENEWAL
Since June of 2016, I have served as pastor of the Mooreville United Methodist Charge, a group of three small, rural churches in Lee County, Mississippi. The churches are made up of mostly older adults, though there are a few young families in two of the churches. The ethnic make-up is Caucasian which closely mirrors the community of Mooreville. The churches share a pastor as well as some ministries, including the children and youth program and the United Methodist Women group.
The churches have all been in decline for several years, although the community around them has grown during that time. One of the possible reasons for this decline is an apparent lack of focus on discipleship ministries and spiritual growth. Overall, participation in discipleship opportunities like Bible study, Sunday school, and other small, accountability groups is limited to a few people. The problem is not that there is a no discipleship taking place but that many members of the charge seem content and satisfied where they are spiritually.
A 6 WEEK PREACHING / TEACHING SERIES ON EPHESIANS
To address the need for spiritual renewal and to encourage the members to strive for spiritual maturity in the churches of the Mooreville Charge, I originally thought to do a yearlong reading plan which would provide the basis for my sermons and Adult Bible study. Participants in the Bible study would use a journal to write reflections on the texts that they read each week. As I neared the end of the yearlong series, I decided a more focused approach was needed. After some discernment, I decided to do a sermon series on Ephesians to promote spiritual maturity as the goal for the Christian life. I then added the dimension of a Bible study on Sunday night that would follow the sermon and go deeper into the text itself and the surrounding verses. I spent a week on each chapter and preached from select verses from each chapter.
In case you are wondering why I picked Ephesians for this series. One of the main themes seen throughout the letter is the idea of spiritual maturity. In Ephesians 1:17-19a, Paul offers an intercessory prayer that the church in Ephesus would receive “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation of the knowledge of [God]” and “enlightened” “eyes of [their] hearts.”
Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord
“Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You
To see You high and lifted up
Shinin’ in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy”
In chapters 2 and 3, Paul speaks to the foundations that make spiritual growth possible. In 2:19-22, Paul describes the church made up of Jew and Gentile being “built [upon] the foundation of the apostles and prophets [with] Christ [as] the cornerstone.” In 3:14-19, Paul again prays for the church in Ephesus to receive “knowledge” while being “rooted and grounded in [Christ’s] love.”
The theme of maturity is most clearly seen in Ephesians 4:1-16. Paul describes the gifts that God has given the church “to equip the saints for ministry” and “to [build] up the body of Christ” so that all can become spiritually mature (11-13). Paul calls the church in Ephesus to have a grown up faith, like Jesus (14-16). In Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul implores the church to “be imitators of God” and to “walk in love” in Christ’s example. Finally in Ephesians 6:10-17, Paul commands the church to “put on the full armor of God” which will help them to stand strong in their faith against spiritual attack.
|1||Ephesians 1:15-23||A Spirit of Wisdom|
|2||Ephesians 2:19-22||The Church’s One Foundation|
|3||Ephesians 3:14-19||Rooted and Grounded|
|4||Ephesians 4:11-13||Spiritual Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life|
|5||Ephesians 5:1-2||Be: Imitators of God|
|6||Ephesians 6:10-17||Put on the Full Armor of God|
I found this lecture by Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright to be incredibly interesting and informative in considering the importance of the Letter to the Ephesians for the church today.
One of the things learned from this process was that spiritual maturity is not easily measured. The feedback from surveys was not very helpful unfortunately. However, in interviews some members shared how the Bible study helped them to grow in their understanding and made them eager to grow in their faith. Spiritual maturity is an important message for this day where many church members seem content with just showing up rather than allowing God to transform them into the people whom God wants. It is also important to remember that discipleship takes time. One does not become mature overnight. While we live in a culture that desires immediate results, spiritual maturity is something that requires great commitment and discipline. One of the positives of doing a preaching and teaching series together was a 100% increase in attendance for the Bible study on Sunday nights.
AREAS FOR FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS
One area for further study would be to see the impact of certain spiritual disciplines upon spiritual maturity. Kevin Watson has proposed the Wesleyan Class and Band meetings as alternative ways to develop disciples toward maturity within the Methodist tradition.[vii] I think a long term study of several individuals (congregations) could prove fruitful in seeing which practices/systems are most effective at fostering spiritual growth.
Another area for future study would be the relationship between a sermon series and teaching the Bible. I believe it is incredibly helpful to spiritual growth when the sermon and discipleship opportunities like Sunday school and Bible study are aligned around a common scripture. I think the effectiveness of preaching can be greatly increased through such an alignment.
SOME SUGGESTED COMMENTARIES ON EPHESIANS
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Invitation to the New Testament Epistles III: A Commentary on Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus with Complete Text from the Jerusalem Bible. 1st edition. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1980. Johnson offers some key insights in his brief treatment of Ephesians in this commentary. I particularly appreciated his comments on 2:19-22.
Lincoln, Andrew T. Ephesians. Word Biblical Commentary; v. 42. Dallas: Word Books, 1990. This commentary is very thorough and offers a comprehensive look at the Greek text.
Mbennah, Emmanuel D. The Mature Church: A Rhetorical-Critical Study of Ephesians 4:1-16. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013. This commentary was incredibly thorough in its treatment of the main theme of maturity. Mbennah does a wonderful job of presenting maturity as the main theme of the letter to the Ephesians.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Ephesians. Wisdom Commentary; v. 50. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017. A commentary written from the feminist perspective that provides some real insights to the political nature of the letter to the Ephesians.
Wright, N. T. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters : Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. 2nd edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. A very practical commentary that offers some great insights. I especially enjoyed his treatment of “The Armor of God” in chapter 6.
[i] Twenge and Park, “The Decline in Adult Activities Among U.S. Adolescents, 1976–2016.” 653. This study marked the decline in the six adult activities (sex, drinking alcohol, working for pay, driving, dating, and going out without parents) in teenagers and compared them with teenagers from previous generations.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 3:1-2.
[iii] Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. 1st edition. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981. 119.
[iv] Ephesians 4:14-15. There is scholarly debate whether the apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians as well as whether the letter was written “to the saints who are at Ephesus.” In his commentary on Ephesians, Andrew Lincoln notes the lack of details and “intimate connection with his readers [Lincoln, Ephesians, lxi.]” as some of the reasons he believes the letter to have been written by a someone else. For the purpose of this post, I will use Paul because that is the name the writer of Ephesians uses and the letter is traditionally attributed to Paul.
[v] Rankin, Stephen W. Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011. 16.
[vi] Paul Baloche, Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord. 1997.
[vii] Watson, Kevin. Class Meeting. Wilmore, Kentucky: Seedbed Publishing, 2013. & Watson, Kevin, and Scott Kisker. The Band Meeting. Seedbed Publishing, 2017.