“Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you. But we must hold on to the progress we have already made.” (Phil 3:16).
There is a lot going on in this single verse. Paul is summing up a long, sustained argument (or lesson, if you prefer) on the essence of the Christian faith which involves, among other things, growing to full spiritual maturity through a lifelong process of imitating Christ’s example. Remember the basics so far?
1. CHRISTIAN FORMATION IS A LIFE LONG PROCESS. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6).
2. THE GOAL IS TO BE CONFORMED TO CHRIST. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus who…” (2:5).
3. THIS PROCESS INVOLVES PARTNERING WITH GOD (SYNERGY). “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:12-13).
4. GOD GIVES US A NEW PASSION & FOCUS. “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (3:8).
Paul is first and foremost a pastor. Every pastor must grasp one simple but crucial truth of soul care: Everybody is at different places in their spiritual development. Spiritual maturity is very similar to biological maturity. There are newborn babes in the faith. There are elementary level folks just grasping the basics — the ABCs of faith. There are rowdy, rough around the edges spiritual adolescents with a fire in their belly and the determination to conquer the world for Christ. There are older, wiser Christian adults much further along in their faith development — having been tested, strengthened and humbled by the trials of life. Paul clearly grasps this truth, even if we often forget.
What can we learn from Paul in this verse then?
1. Paul has reasonable expectations for the community of believers he’s addressing. “Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things.” Paul expects that the more spiritually mature will all agree and sign on to what he has just described and called the believers in Philippi to. By inference, this means Paul realizes that some of the more immature babes in the faith will not “get it” or “agree on these things” necessarily. Some will blow it off. Some will forget. Some will receive his words with as much enthusiasm as a 14-year old receiving a American History lecture. For any teacher/preacher this reality-check should bring great relief. We should not expect everyone will respond with the same level of interest, enthusiasm and intellect. Many of our sermons/messages are still way over their heads; or, as Paul says elsewhere:
“Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Cor 3:1-2).
2. Paul realizes his limits and God’s ultimate role in spiritual growth. Pastors must know where their role stops and God takes over. Pastors often take too much responsibility for the spiritual growth and maturity of their flock. They feel the immaturity of believers under their care is a reflection of their leadership, guidance and teaching. Paul provides an example of a healthy balance and understanding of his role and God’s. Here’s how: Paul has just labored to communicate the truth of the gospel and the process of Christian formation in Christ by the power of the Spirit. He has challenged the believers to “press on” and apply themselves to the task of growing in Christ. Now, he steps aside and says in effect: “Some of you still don’t get it or have other ideas in mind. There’s nothing more I can say at this time to convince or motivate you. But God can certainly make it plain to you. So I’m stepping aside and leaving this in His hands for now.” In other words, Paul leaves room for the Holy Spirit’s work in his ministry. Do we?
3. Paul’s ministry is full of grace and patience. This reminder of the slow process of growing into spiritual adulthood should move us to be more gracious toward the spiritual babes in our lives. How do we treat the spiritually immature among us? Do we look down on others who are less holy, less mature, less biblically literate, less passionate about God, less articulate, less theologically astute than us? Do we expect new believers to instantly be transformed over night — quitting sinful habits cold turkey? While we all can point to an example of instant lifestyle change, I believe these are the exception and not the rule.
The more mature Christians among us should come along side our “spiritually younger” brothers and sisters and be more caring, understanding, patient older siblings, spiritual fathers or mothers, teachers or friends. There is no place for older, bigger spiritual bullies on the Christian playground. Such bullying only proves they are not as spiritually mature as they might think.