The hubris of the faithful
Why I hate the ideas of spiritual maturity and immaturity.
A while ago, I was listening to a podcast about church governance and church growth. I assume that the guest was going to tell us how to set up our churches’ governing structures—the councils and boards and committees and such—so that they help bring more people into the church.
And that is a good thing to think about. It is true that the governing bodies of our churches are more engaged in the work or maintaining the way that things are, or trying to recover the way that things used to be, or softening the pain of an inevitable closure, than they are in the work of following the call that God has placed on the church.
But I had to say that I assume that the guest was going to tell us about that because I turned the podcast off—and almost unsubscribed—as soon as the guest told us that not everyone in the congregation should have a voice in the decisions of the congregation because that would mean that non-believers or immature Christians would have a voice in the decisions of the congregation. And that would be dangerous.
And there’s a lot that I could say about how church government works: about how churches are often too slow to make decisions, about how those decisions are often too timid to make an impact, and about how there are often too many steps involved in doing even the simplest things. But in this issue, I’m going to focus on this idea that there is a division between immature Christians and mature Christians—that there are even such things as immature Christians and mature Christians—and why it makes me irrationally angry.
Part of the reason that this idea makes me so angry is personal.
When I was in college, I fell in with a group of evangelical Christians who made a big deal of the distinctions between non-believers and believers, and between immature Christians and mature Christians.
In this case, non-believer meant anyone who was not a professing Christian, as well as anyone who was a professing Christian but who rejected Biblical literalism, penal substitutionary atonement, the eternal conscious torment of non-believers, the centrality of the conversion experience, and so on. Also, in this case, immature Christian meant anyone who had had that conversion experience, but still had questions about things.
What mattered to this group of Christians was not that a person had been baptized, or studied scripture, or rejoiced always, or prayed without ceasing, or whatever. What mattered to this group was whether a person agreed with the people who were already in leadership. That was the measure of faith. That was the measure of maturity. And questioning the people who were already in leadership—or, worse, disagreeing with the people in leadership—was a sign of spiritual immaturity. It could even be a sign of unbelief.
If that sounds a little cultish to you, that’s because it’s a little cultish. I don’t think that this group, or the countless groups like them on college campuses around the country, was a cult. But it was definitely cult-adjacent. At least, I experienced it in that way.
And I am someone who grew up in the United Church of Christ. I am someone who puts stock in scholarship. I am someone who listens to testimonies of faith but who does not trust tests of faith. I am someone who believes that there is yet more light to break forth from God’s holy word. I am someone who asks questions—even about the things that I believe and the hills that I will die on—because asking questions is the first step in learning more.
So I was labelled a nominal Christian. I was labelled an unbeliever. I was told, by my friends and by a girl who was breaking up with me, that I was going to suffer eternal conscious torment at the hands of an angry God. Because I was not a real true honest-to-God Christian. And they knew that I was not a real true honest-to-God Christian because I disagreed with them.
And that hurt. So part of the reason that this idea makes me so angry is personal.
A bigger part of the reason that this idea makes me so angry is theological.
It sometimes seems like every time I go to a contemporary worship service, we sing Come, Now Is The Time To Worship by Brian Doerksen. You have probably heard it at some point:
Come, now is the time to worship
Come, now is the time to give your heart
Come, just as you are to worship
Come, just as you are before your God
It’s a simple and repetitious song. It’s basically a single chorus—the first part of which I’ve included above—repeated over and over again until you hit a bridge, sing the bridge, and then return to the single chorus. And that first part of the chorus is very nice.
The second part of the chorus is more troubling:
One day every tongue will confess You are God
One day every knee will bow
Still the greatest treasure remains for those
Who gladly choose You now
“One day every tongue will confess you are God, one day every knee will bow,” walks this line—depending on who is singing the song and how they are interpreting the lyric—between a form of universalism and pure gloating. It walks the line between, “everyone will recognize and become a part of God’s reign of love, yay!” and, “Even you will bend the knee.”
And that troubles me a little bit. But it’s the last line that really bothers me. “Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose you now,” states outright that, while everyone will eventually recognize God’s reign of love and maybe even receive that treasure, something even better is available to the people who become Christian now.
And that’s not how it works. Scripture tells us that’s not how it works.
In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hired day laborers throughout the day: he hired a group early in the morning, and another group at 9am, and another group at 3pm, and another group at 5pm.
When evening came, and everyone received the pay for their labor, the people who the landowner hired at 5pm received the same amount as the people who he hired early in the morning. The people who were hired on the earlier side were, understandably, upset about this. They complained, and the landowner replied,
First, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:13-16)
The point of this parable—I think—is that there is no greater treasure for those who show up early. We are all recipients of the same grace. And that undercuts the idea that there are mature Christians and immature Christians; that undercuts the idea that there are Christians who should have more and Christians who should have less: more or less power, more or less voice, more or less control.
We are all equal—whether we arrive early in the morning or an hour before the workday is over—before Christ and before one another. So a bigger part of the reason that this idea makes me so angry is theological.
The biggest part of the reason that this idea makes me so angry—if I can make this distinction—is spiritual.
I grew up in the church. I left the church. I returned to the church.
I have read and studied scripture as a kid with no real opinions on it. And as a young adult trying not to be a believer. And as a seminary student. And as a pastor.
I have read and studied commentaries and historians and sociologists from across the theological spectrum: fundamentalists and atheists and everyone in between. And I have done that from the perspective of a skeptic and from the perspective of a believer and from perspectives that are in between.
I have celebrated baptisms and confirmations and marriages.
I have prayed with mothers grieving the loss of a baby. I have prayed with children grieving the loss of a parent.
I have watched kids grow up in the church. I have said goodbye as people have left the church. I have greeted people as they have returned to the church.
And I am not a mature Christian. Because even though I have been through all of this and more, it would take an absurd level of hubris—a absurd level of absolutely unearned self-confidence—to claim that I understand that much more of the gospel than anyone else. And it would take even more to claim that I understand so much more of the gospel than other people that I should have more power and voice and control than other people in and over the life of the church.
Or, to put that another way:
In an interview after she won the presidential medal of freedom, Maya Angelou said, “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.”
Saying that I am a mature Christian would be like telling Maya Angelou that I am a Christian at all: it would be like claiming that I ‘got it’. And I don’t. And I don’t think anyone does. Not really.
We are all still working at it. And those of us who have been here since early in the morning are working at it—and are still as far from it—as those who arrived just an hour ago. And we should have the humility to recognize that.
So. Yeah. In my world, everyone in the community has a voice in the community.