Growing in Christian maturity is an important goal for the Christian life. The passage in 1 Timothy 3 is usually emphasised as teaching the qualifications for pastors. However, understanding the context of the letter helps us to understand why Paul gave those qualifications to Timothy, which was that much of the current leadership of the Ephesian church had gone astray and Paul had sent Timothy to Ephesus to fix the problems in the church.
To help Timothy to choose the new leaders of the Ephesian church, Paul gives him a list of attributes that defines Christian maturity. This means that Timothy was only allowed to pick fresh leaders from among the mature men in the church. Hence this list shows us what Christian maturity looks like to the Apostle. Not all of us would become an elder or a deacon, but every Christian should be striving to grow in their spiritual maturity.
Here are three things this passage teaches us on what Christian maturity looks like and how to grow in it.
1. Maturity is observable
All the characteristics that Paul lists for Timothy to insist upon for Christian leadership are observable qualities not inner abilities. It is impossible for us humans to know if a person’s heart is pure, but it is possible for us to observe patterns of behaviour that shows a pure heart.
I remember a lesson learnt during a membership class in church many years ago. The pastor was teaching about Christian maturity, and he said we must all measure if we are growing in maturity. I protested and asked how would anyone know that they were growing? Wouldn’t it be a self-scoring exercise that was easily manipulated? Aren’t our hearts deceitful above all things? The pastor wisely answered me that if a Christian is growing, the people around him would testify to it. That is exactly the same advice Paul gave to Timothy himself later in the letter: Practise these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. (1 Timothy 4:15). If Timothy grew in his Christian walk, the brethren in Ephesus would notice it. If you are growing, the people around you will notice it as well.
Are you growing in maturity? If I asked the people who live with you – spouses, children, church members, colleagues at the office – would they say there is an increasing savour of Christlikeness in your life? One of the reasons why God has put us in community is so that we can get regular feedback on our Christian walk.
2. Maturity is a journey
In 1 Timothy 3:6 Paul insists to Timothy that a church leader must not be a recent convert. The reason Paul gives for this restriction is the danger of spiritual pride. A novice has had little opportunity to test his own faith or give evidence to the Church that he would be faithful to the trust committed to him. It is impossible to truly know someone’s spiritual maturity without time and chance. That’s why Paul told Timothy: those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves. (1 Timothy 3:13)
It is the testing of our faith that comes through the circumstances of life that allows us to grow in maturity. God is the one who is in charge of the circumstances of our lives and every trial he sends our way is to help us to keep growing.
The question then is what are you doing with the hardships in your life? God may be sending us opportunities, but I can testify from personal experience, many of these tests only serve to continually reveal my weakness and continued immaturity. The good news is that as long as we are alive, God is committed to sending us testing times and we must forget the long list of failures that lies behind us and press on forward on the journey to maturity.
3. Maturity is Christocentric
The term above reproach in 1 Timothy 3:2 acts as the summary word in defining what it meant to be a mature Christian. As one commentator says it means “the kind of man whom no one suspects of wrongdoing or immorality”. It means someone who -when seeking their flaws- you have to pause and think for some time before you come up with any. This should remind us of Jesus’ public challenge of his personal integrity to his adversaries: Which one of you convicts me of sin? (John 8:46).
Christian maturity then is growing to look more and more like Christ every day. The measure by which we judge Christian maturity is the person of Christ. Could we ever be perfect? Of course not, but we must look up to Christ and strive daily to be more like him.
Paul ends 1 Timothy 3 by telling Timothy why it is so important that Christians be mature: I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God (1 Timothy 3:14-15). Since the church is the household of God, the behaviour of the members of God’s household affects the image of Christ for good or for evil in the world.
Paul started 1 Timothy 3 by telling Timothy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. If desiring to serve God as an office bearer in the local church is an honourable ambition, then by implication, desiring to grow sufficiently in maturity to be able to occupy such a post is a noble ambition as well.
The truth is that your maturity will never exceed the ambition you have for maturity. You must pray for a God given desire to be holy and then you must start the journey towards being like Christ. There will be peaks and valleys, but if you persevere, with the grace of God, your progress in maturity will be obvious to you, your community and most importantly to God.