Shepherding The Immature
In the process of ministering to other believers, we’re often caught off guard by a lack of maturity in their lives. For some reason—no doubt related to our sinful attachment to comfort—it is a shock to our system when the people we’re trying to disciple actually sin. Sometimes we even allow the immaturities of those around us to rattle our faith, revealing our own spiritual immaturity. If you find yourself despairing over the immaturities of those in your spiritual care, what did you expect?
When we engage in the work of ministry we should expect to encounter spiritual weaknesses in our brothers and sisters. The immaturities are what make discipleship necessary. If you are going to be engaged in discipleship at any level, you should prepare yourself to deal with such immaturities. Specifically, there are ten common immaturities you will almost certainly encounter in the context of discipleship (This list has been adapted from a sermon preached by Christopher Love [1618-1651] that can be found in Grace: The Truth, Growth, and Different Degrees [Soli Deo Gloria, 1997], pp. 21).
- Dependence on Activities
Immature believers are prone to evaluate their walk based on the activities they involve themselves in rather than “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). “A young Christian is like a young carpenter: he makes many chips, and has many blows, but does not make such smooth work as an experienced carpenter, who will make fewer chips, and at fewer blows better work” (Love, 17). They will appeal to the events they attended, podcasts they listened to, or the books they started, but they will give little consideration to the effect these activities had on the heart.
- Blindness to Sin and Weakness
“He sees his gifts, and takes notice of his affections, but he does not see the vanity of his mind, the unsoundness of his ends, his carnal dependence upon his duty, self-love, vainglory; but in the course of time, a grown Christian takes notice of these things in himself” (Love, 17). Like Peter, the immature believer will boldly profess the name of Christ with one breath and unwittingly peddle the schemes of Satan with his next breath (Mark 8:17, 29-33). And like Peter, this common immaturity usually rears its ugly head to criticize the one trying to address the blind spot.
- An Overbaked Conscience
Because the immature believer has not labored to consistently inform his conscience with truth, it will often prove to be an unreliable guide. “Young converts call more things sin than ever God did; they perplex and entangle themselves merely in indifferent things” (Love, 18). For the immature believer it will be something other than food sacrificed to idols, but there will most assuredly be something for his scrupulous conscience to struggle with (cf. Rom 14).
- Lack of Balance
Immature believers will struggle to balance all the demands of life and duties of a Christian. In some cases they will be “so intently set on exercises of religion, as to neglect… particular callings” (Love, 18). You’ve discipled this guy before. He is about to lose the job he needs because he is spending all his time reading Calvin and commenting on theological blogs. On the other hand, you’ve also discipled the guy who has accepted Christ but has not yet realized that his career falls under the lordship of Christ. He tells you he can’t make it to church because he has to work (as if the Lord didn’t realize people would have to work when he commanded participation in the church). The problem is not that one guy needs to stop reading theology and the other guy needs to quit his job. The problem is balance. They both need to learn how to prioritize and balance the God-ordained duties of life.
- Hero Worship
Immature believers love to attach themselves to big personalities rather than biblical principles. Love’s thoughts are penetrating:
To have men’s persons in admiration argues weakness in grace. Such were the Corinthians. The Apostle called them children, babes; though they had the life of Christians, yet they had but little of the strength of Christians. They were carnal; they favored the flesh more than the Spirit. Ignorance is often a cause of admiration. Weak Christians who have but little knowledge are apt to be so taken with men’s persons that one cries, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos.” (19).
Whether it is the person discipling them or an evangelical celebrity, immature believers are prone to worship their favorite heroes.
- Poor Discernment
Discernment is the skill of identifying how to think about a situation/issue in light of God’s truth. Immature believers struggle mightily in the arena of discernment and often find themselves “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14). “To be easily seduced and led away into error argues weakness in grace” (Love, 19). You can expect for immature believers to lack discernment and make correspondingly poor choices because of it.
- Lack of Deep Thinking
Closely related to poor discernment, immature believers usually lack the discipline or ability to think deeply through issues. If they are a new believer it is because they have not had the time to work through issues deeply; if they have been a believer for a long time it is because they have not disciplined themselves to think deeply. “Such as are only acquainted with the common principles of religion, without further search into the depth and mysteries of religion, are weak in grace” (Love, 19). In other words, they are milk-drinking babies when they should be steak-cutting adults (cf., 1 Cor 3:2; Heb 5:12).
- Strong Emotion and Weak Self-Control
Immature Christian are frequently controlled by their emotions rather than depending on the Spirit to help them control their emotions. Love puts it this way: “Weak Christians are strong in affections and not in judgment; they have usually more heat than light. Young Christians are like young horses: they have much mettle, but are not so fit for a journey because they are not so thoroughly trained” (20). You can expect find immature believers struggling on the roller coaster of emotional highs and lows.
- Inability to Bear Reproof
Immature believers cannot bear reproof. Pride is such a strong influence in their lives that any kind rebuke threatens the very foundation of their identity. “A sharp reproof will discover whether you are of a weak spiritual temper and constitution” (Love, 20). A humble believer will be happy to have his sin pointed out to him so that he can seek out God’s grace for it (James 4:6). A prideful man stakes his claim on being right and reproof is a threat to his claim (Prov 12:2; 15:32).
- Weak Faith
Faith is the primary responsibility of the Christian in conversion and daily living. Immature believers, by definition, will be immature in their faith (Mk 4:19; Mt 6:25). They will trust Christ for the eternal salvation of their soul, but they will doubt Him in the anxieties of this temporal life. “There are those who dare trust God for heaven, and yet do not trust Him for earth, but these are of little faith” (Love, 20).
If this is what we can expect to experience in discipleship relationships, how should we respond? The answer is that we should respond to the immaturities of those around us in the same manner that Christ deals with our immaturities—with grace. You can be patient when you see these immaturities in your fellow believers because you know they are being patient with you as you struggle with your own immaturities. More importantly, you can be patient with immature believers because Christ is patiently working on them, and He has given you the blessing of being a part of that work. Don’t be caught off guard when, in the course of ministry, you bear the brunt of someone else’s immaturities. God’s grace will be sufficient for you to endure it, and His grace will be demonstrated as you minister through it.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.