Yesterday's train of thought led to a post I hope to make tomorrow on moral development and how you read the Bible. But I thought I would lay the groundwork for tomorrow's post today by generalizing about stages of Christian maturity. You may know Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development or James Fowler's Christian stages of faith. Kierkegaard had a much simpler progression in stages of life: 1) pleasure phase, 2) ethical phase, 3) religious phase.
Of these, I want to modify Kierkegaard and speak of adult Christian depth. I don't want to speak of these as a clear progression, as if a person will start with the first and eventually move to the third. In fact, these may more be types of believers than stages. Nevertheless, I am ordering them because they reflect, in my opinion, shallower and deeper forms of Christian faith.
There are many Christians, as there are many people, who live primarily for their own pleasure and desire. I am no Abraham Maslow who saw the goal of human development as a self-defined embrace of life. There are more and less virtuous people, and those who live solely for their own pleasure are not virtuous.
In a society where it is convenient to be a Christian, many of those in our pews are just as selfish as anyone else. They may use the church purely as a social institution, maybe even a place to get clients for their business. It's a place for them to look pretty or sing pretty or maybe have power in a generally powerless life. Whether such people are truly Christians or not is for God to decide, but they are not very mature Christians if they are.
Many Christians are oriented around keeping rules. At worst, these are legalists in the church who are hyper-critical of those who don't keep the rules. They like the rules for their own sake rather than for their purpose, namely, to protect us from ourselves and each other, as well as to help us grow in our relationship with God.
However, there is a milder form of rule-orientation that seems righteous even though it actually reflects a lack of Christian maturity. We can hide a rule-orientation behind language of making God number one in our lives. What we might really mean is "Are you willing to submit to all the rules?"
Language of submitting to God is tricky because God's will is always mediated by someone else's interpretation of it. If you truly understand the Bible, "obeying the Bible" or "submitting to the authority of God's word" is very much the same. Which interpretation of the Bible are you referring to? So my pastor or my church has mediated to me the rules I am supposed to follow.
It is thus much safer to capture all the rules under two headings: loving my neighbor and being God-oriented in a way that means I am willing to sacrifice my own interests when I discern it to be God's will. This is what I am calling stage 3 of Christian maturity.
I wrestled with what to call this ideal stage of Christian maturity. The benevolent oriented stage? The principles oriented stage? Entire sanctification? None of these others quite seemed to capture it.
The nice thing about the word "servant" is that it applies both to my relationship to others and my relationship to God. I am assuming a healthy sense of self with healthy boundaries. I am assuming that moral action is judged based on intended consequences and motives.
I have highlighted the importance of intention in moral assessment many times. All sin is not sin for a Christian, and sin is not primarily a matter of failing to keep certain rules. It is not "to miss the mark," so to speak. These are not mature understandings of morality in general, let alone Christian morality. The greater the intent to wrong others or to go against God's will, the greater the sin.
Mature moral judgment also looks more to fundamental principles than to specific rules. It takes situations and contexts into account, rather than having a one shoe fits all "absolutes" approach. It understands how human culture differs from place to place and how it has changed over time. It incorporates this understanding in its appropriation of Scripture.
The mature Christian acts toward others with a sincere desire for their well-being, often including self-sacrifice. The mature Christian is surrendered to God but has a mature sense of who God is and what God desires for the world. It thus does not view God as self-centered or rule-oriented but sees God as a God of selfless giving as well, most consummately embodied in Jesus Christ.
Tomorrow I will play out these stages of Christian maturity in relation to the way a Christian might use the Bible. Suffice it to say, these levels also apply to the way a Christian will think politically as well. And of course it implies that certain Christian traditions are more mature than others.