You are not spiritually mature if you are obsessed with the sins and failures of others. We often think that spiritual maturity means we have a low tolerance for anything less than holiness! So, some who deem themselves mature, become scouts – always looking out for infractions and failures. Paul gives us a different picture of maturing, one where the mature brother has an obligation to bear with the failings of his brothers and sisters. Spiritual maturity gives latitude not judgment.
Christians have always had a sticky relationship with judgment. On the one hand we know that there is an expectation on our part to be moral and ethical people before God, and we know that we are called to help one another be such people. We are even commanded to “rebuke” or “admonish” one another where appropriate (Luke 17:3; Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 5:12; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:14; 1 Tim. 5:20). On the other hand, we also know we are to be careful about judging (Matt. 7:1) and we are commended to let love cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). How are we to reconcile these two priorities? The answer is found in a more nuanced understanding of spiritual maturity.
The spiritually mature person knows when sins need to be confronted, when patience needs to be granted, and how to address another’s sins. He is not quick to judgment, nor is his motive primarily reproof. The goal of any correction is to see a brother or sisters encouraged and reoriented towards godliness (as defined by God). We know we must intervene when someone’s sin will cause them significant harm, harm another, or damage the witness of the gospel – either by false living or false doctrine. Yet, even when correction is necessary it is done with a “spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:25), and as a warning to a brother not an enemy (2 Thess. 3:15).
Yet, the sins of others are never meant to be our focus. The Bible urges us to prioritize our own sins (Matt. 7:3-5), and to bear with one another. The spiritually mature person, then, is not the resident sin surveillance captain. Paul gives us a very different understanding of the mature person’s relationship to the sins of others. In Romans 15 we read:
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (v. 1-7)
Paul’s description of this dynamic involves key elements like patience, humility, endurance, and acceptance.
The emphasis of these verses is on dying to self and living to serve others. Paul has often had burden to see the church united, and unity is a theme in many of his letters. Such unity is only achieved as we put off selfishness and live in a manner that reflects the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is always our example.
Paul starts with a word about the mature brother’s “obligation.” This is his responsibility and duty. The spiritually mature brother is morally bound to this task. You cannot call yourself “mature” and refuse to “bear with the failings of the weak,” nor refuse to deny yourself. This is the calling and evidence of spiritual maturity.
In particular, this maturity will evidence itself in patience with others. We are often impatient with the sins of others because we lose sight of the progressive nature of sanctification. We imagine that all people grow and mature at the same rate and that all sins should be quickly and easily addressed. We forget what our own growth has been like, and what sins still “cling so closely” (Heb. 12:1). We forget how slow we are to learn and change. Patience is a response of humility. It comes when we understand that we too still struggle with sin (1 John 1:8), and we can therefore give others some latitude as they too seek to identify sin, put it off, and grow into greater maturity.
In order to develop such patience and humility we are going to need the “God of endurance” to help us. Enduring with the failings of others is not easy, especially when their sins offend and affect us. We can only endure if God helps us to do it. We can only live in “harmony with one another” if it is through Jesus Christ. The spiritually mature person does not need to point out every failing, confront every slight and sin, or meddle in every area of weakness. He knows how to give his brothers and sisters space and time to grow and mature. And he asks God to help him do it.
Spiritual mature persons also recognize the distinction between brothers and enemies. We are called to welcome the weak. We are called to include them in our spiritual family and to treat them as dearly beloved brothers and sisters. There is no class of superiority among Christians. All are one in Christ, and the spiritually mature know how to live that out.
Don’t misunderstand the point of this post. Romans 15 is not teaching us that Christians are to be strictly “hands-off” with one another. In fact, the language of “bear with one another” does not mean simply tolerate. We are called to “bear one another’s burdens” in Galatians 6:1, and that is not a calling to tolerate someone’s burdens. Christians are called to be actively involved in one another’s lives. We are commanded to engage with one another, help one another, and love one another. But how we handle one another’s “failings” is important. The spiritually mature do it with humility, patience, endurance, and acceptance.
If you find yourself constantly scouring your church community for sins, or consistently offering unsolicited advice, or regularly rebuking another, you are not reflecting spiritual maturity. The spiritually mature know how to bear with the failings of the weak. They know how to give brothers and sisters space and time to grow and develop. Are you spiritually mature?