Then we will no longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ Himself, who is the head. From Him the whole body is fitted and held together by every supporting ligament; and as each individual part does its work, the body grows and builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16 BSB)
Gifted men are given to the church to enable the church to grow numerically and spiritually. It seems that churches are either drawn to qualify their numerical growth or their spiritual growth, but, in truth, they are both important to God.
To qualify numerical growth is relatively simple. We just count people – attendances, how many baptized, how many received Christ, etc.. But to qualify spiritual growth is more difficult and requires both short-term measurements and longer-term measurements. Short-term measurements are usually based on classes attended – similar to numerical growth, but in the realm of discipleship – and are relatively simple. But long-term growth can only be measured by observation, and are specifically revealed in how people handle their resources and opportunities, but also how they handle temptations, challenges, conflicts, troubles, difficulties, sicknesses, and discouragements.
The tools of growth
God calls and sends people into our lives to teach us the Word of God, and to help apply it to our lives. The Great Commission is not to merely give information but to “teach to obey” the commands of Christ (Matt. 28:18-20). The practical teaching of the Word of God is essential to spiritual maturity. But also shared experiences, testimonies, prayer, examples of walking in the Spirit, and encouragements – all of these are tools God uses in our lives for our spiritual maturity.
Just as a balanced nutritional diet produces healthy bodies, so a balanced spiritual diet produces healthy Christian souls.
We grow in stability
As we grow spiritually we are to build up a spiritual resistance against fear and panic, against false and divisive teachers, and to remain committed to the Lord. The sign that someone is growing in their faith is that they are not getting drawn aside by every new twist of the truth, that they do not run here or there to find some new teacher or teaching, but that they are feeding regularly on the Word of God.
I see this as a matter of our faith, that faith that is real is sincere and embraces the truth. I have known too many Christians who will follow Christ only as long as the pastor stands by them and holds their hand, only so long as he is available to answer all their questions. But as soon as he is not there then they are vulnerable to being pulled away.
To me they epitomize the two types of soils that are unproductive in Christ’s parable:
The seeds on rocky ground are those who hear the word and receive it with joy, but they have no root. They believe for a season, but in the time of testing, they fall away. The seeds that fell among the thorns are those who hear, but as they go on their way, they are choked by the worries, riches, and pleasures of this life, and their fruit does not mature. (Luke 8:13-14)
Sadly there are too many like this. The sign that someone is experiencing genuine spiritual growth from God is that they continue in the Word and with the teachers that God has given to them. The one who changes churches frequently never seems to mature – they go more for “sparkle” than for substance, for the “tickling of ears” than the truth of God.
For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. (2 Tim. 4:3)
We grow in Christ
“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ Himself, who is the head” (Eph. 4:15). The growth of the body should match the size of its head. Young babies have large heads compared to their bodies, but as they grow they grow “into their heads,” or in accordance to the size of their heads. And this is how the church should grow and the Christian should grow.
This is done by “speaking the truth in love” and we cannot neglect either part of this equation. Some preachers and teachers emphasize speaking the truth, but neglect doing so in love. Others emphasize love, but neglect speaking the truth. But the growing Christian needs both. As James wrote:
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap the fruit of righteousness. (James 3:17-18)
The final sentence of James 3 is simple to understand, but it is difficult to translate. A wooden translation would be: “But the fruit of righteousness is planted in peace by those who make peace.” The meaning is that the best chance for the seeds of truth in the Word of God to grow to their full maturity is when they are planted or taught in a spirit of graciousness and peace.
This is entirely fitting, for we are growing into Christ, and growth into Him requires more than just head knowledge – it requires heart knowledge as well. We need to learn biblical truths but we are to learn them in the right atmosphere as well, so that our attitudes are changed along with our understanding. One may be biblically right but spiritually wrong in how he says it.
Remember the church at Ephesus was later rebuked by Christ at the close of the first century in Revelation. The Lord spoke to the church and said:
I know your deeds, your labor, and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate those who are evil, and you have tested and exposed as liars those who falsely claim to be apostles. Without growing weary, you have persevered and endured many things for the sake of My name. But I have this against you: You have abandoned your first love. (Rev. 2:2-4)
Despite their labor for the Lord and their intolerance of false teachers, they had lost their first love – that is the love for Christ. Vance Havner, the great revivalist, said that they had “hot heads and cold hearts.”
There certainly are times and places where rebukes are appropriate, but the Christian rebuke is never to be given in anger but in compassion. Paul wrote: “For as I have often told you before, and now declare even with tears: Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18). And Solomon wrote: “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone” (Prov. 25:15).
We grow together
The final statement in this passage about spiritual growth is that we grow together, just as our bodies do: “The whole body is fitted and held together by every supporting ligament” (Eph. 4:16). Whether we remain in one church for most of our Christian journey, or whether we must relocate often and are associated with many churches, the Christian life must always be lived in concert with other believers. The lone Christian, who stays by himself, and does not enter into conversations or circumstances with other Christians will not mature as God intended him to.
“Fitted” points to the uniqueness of each part of the body of Christ. You and I have something to offer by virtue of being unique people, and if we do not offer this in some way the body of Christ will be lacking an important aspect. “Held together” points to the inter-supporting network that a Christian fellowship is to have. Everyone is valued, every gift is acknowledged, and even contribution is precious.
There is an important point that must be made – that our spiritual gifts are not the same as our personhood. The Bible plainly says that some spiritual gifts are “greater” than others – notably the teaching gifts, because they produce other mature Christians and open the door so that the so-called “lesser gifts” can be received (1 Cor. 12:27-31). But no Christian is greater than another Christian.
For example, we cannot and should not try to give equal time on a Sunday morning worship service to each of the spiritual gifts, for that is not how they are designed. The gifts of helps and mercy, for example, are used best in private and sometimes shameful situations – the gifts are not shameful, but the circumstances which they are able to redeem may be a great embarrassment to some. The gifts of teaching and preaching, however, need to be publicly expressed. The gift is greater for it benefits many more people, but the preacher or teacher is not greater than any other Christian.
So this is how we grow up in Christ:
- We grow stable through faith in His Word
- We grow in character through the truth being preached in love
- We grow together as we celebrate and support one another in love.
The question is whether you have positioned yourself for spiritual growth? Are you in the Word, in prayer, in the church? Have you committed your heart and soul to the Word of God? Have you accepted that the basic tools of growth are His Word, His Spirit, and His people? Have you sought to learn biblical facts as well as the character of Christ? Are you vitally connected with a meaningful body of Christ, with other believers with whom you discuss biblical truth and obeying and following Christ?