There’s a philosophy about Christian relationships I encountered one time that is ultra-important to know is unhealthy. I didn’t know it existed until I came across it in real life. My wife and I were meeting with some other believers in our local area and we had some decisions to make about how we were going to move forward together.
In one particular interaction, I made the comment that to truly understand the Spirit’s direction for us and come to the healthiest decision we could as a community, we’d have to extend our conversation to every committed member of the community.
I’ll never forget his response. It’s been etched in my mind forever because of the seriousness of its error. He said…
You don’t invite children to the parent’s conversation.
Gasp. Alarm bells went off loudly in my head as I was processing if I heard what I thought I heard. Mind you, this was a younger Christian in his early 30s and the community was made up of people of all ages; including some over the age of 60 who had been Christians for longer than he’d been alive.
Now, there’s no doubt that age is just a number and a 60-year old can be less mature in the Lord than a 30-year old. Paul loved to use the analogy of physical stages of development (infant, child, adolescent, adult) to describe how we also develop as examples of Christ (I Corinthians 3:1-3).
Maturity and the right to participate
Timothy was a great example of this in the Bible. He had been raised and taught well by his family and had become a good example of Christ that could be trusted when he was relatively young. In the churches he dealt with, he routinely came across older people whose behavior was extremely immature.
But as we talked about this further, it became clear that the person I was chatting with had developed the belief that people’s maturity levels determined if they had the right to participate in discerning the direction and decisions of a community.
And apparently, he was a self-appointed judge of those maturity levels and who got to participate.
And in his mind, his maturity level was one of a mature adult that was a parent compared to many others in the church; including some of those older members who were apparently children in his mind.
We could talk for a good while about the dangers of judging your own relative maturity, but we’ll save that for another time.
God’s household structure
As we talked more, it became clear that he thought this is what Scripture teaches. After all, the Scriptures teach that the church is a family; and a family has parents and children, right? (I Timothy 5:1-2) And Paul was Timothy’s spiritual father, right? (I Timothy 1:2)
The Scriptures teach that in God’s family and household, God is the parent and the humans are the children (John 1:12, Romans 8:16, Galatians 3:26, etc.). This is why throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ followers are called brothers and sisters.
Going a step further, the book of Hebrews even calls Jesus our brother (Hebrews 2:11-15).
In other places, God is the Head and the humans are the Body parts (Ephesians 4).
No matter how you look at it, these are spiritual realities (not analogies) that seat all believers with Christ in status and identity.
Maturity isn’t grounds for control
Maturity levels DO matter in the functioning of a church. But it doesn’t matter if someone has been a Christian for one minute or 30 years, they never infringe on the right and responsibility of every committed believer to participate in discerning the direction and decisions of their life together as brothers and sisters.
As soon as someone trusts in Christ, they become a child of God and inherit all of the rights of being a child of God. Now they might not act like it. But that’s still who they are. This is why Paul opens his letter to even the worst-behaving churches with identity statements like “To the holy ones.”
For someone to claim they have more rights to make decisions because they’re more mature is false and fractures the brotherhood and sisterhood of God’s family. It results in church administration and structure that is patterned after the world.
Developmental stages are analogies
So what about Paul calling Timothy his spiritual son or the Christians in Thessalonica considering Paul their spiritual father?
There’s one important word that’s missing that changes everything. Timothy was like a spiritual son to Paul and Paul was like a spiritual father to the Thessalonians. These are analogies; not status or identity relationships.
Paul and Timothy had developed a strong personal affection for one another, and they were about 30 years apart in age. If two people develop a close relationship together, it may feel Iike the kind of relationship that a parent and child develop. On the other hand, it may not.
I have relationships with older people that feel parental and some that don’t. That’s not something you predict, force or assume. It’s up to the people in the relationships to decide, not someone else.
The same goes for a group of people. Every group is different and Paul just happened to develop into a fatherly-type figure to the church in Thessalonica. Paul was not like a father to every believer in the churches he helped or to every church he helped.
This person I talked to just assumed they were everyone’s parent. Unfortunately, I wasn’t given much of a listening ear in that particular situation. Just this act alone revealed more clearly their perspective that I was more of a child than they were. People that think they’re your “parent” have a hard time listening to their “child.”
This kind of misunderstanding just brings layers of difficulty; especially when people don’t actually agree on where they and others belong in the “pecking order.” That’s most of the time. So who’s right?
Relationships are permission-based
We all must understand that this kind of assumed authority doesn’t work if God’s family is to be healthy. Authority is always permission-based in the Kingdom.
Yes, more mature believers are more influential and help serve, guide, teach and protect less mature believers in a church naturally like a parent would a child. Of course an infant in Christ will be less influential and will be wise to do more of the listening and less of the persuading until they “grow up.”
But this type of listening ear is earned, not assumed. It occurs through the relationships that are developed.
Even if they are doing more of the listening, they still have the right and responsibility to participate, contribute and consent to whatever is being decided.
You need this to be happening for a church to be healthy.
A believer’s role in a community never gives them any right to have more control over what happens and to blatantly exclude their brothers and sisters.
In the Kingdom, you become more influential by becoming less important.
Timothy was younger than many of the people he influenced. But his influence never crossed the line to control. He wasn’t anyone’s parent by spiritual identity.
People that become the kind of seasoned example of Christ that Timothy became can and should be recognized as such (by others, not themselves). But the function of an elder, just like any other function, never trumps their status and identity as a co-equal brother or sister. Elders are not special decision-makers.
A family of discerning brothers and sisters
Even with churches Paul is like a father to, he urges them to consider how they should live in light of the gospel. He doesn’t have any inherent authority to make decisions for them. He got very emotional and tried to be very persuasive because of His passion and conviction for the Lord and the Kingdom. But he never crosses the line to violate the rights and responsibilities of the children of God as his brothers and sisters to discern for themselves.
In fact, this process of discerning together is a main way in which people grow in their maturity. Believers influence one another just like brothers and sisters influence one another in a healthy family. Mis-labeling brothers and sisters as parents and children is robbing the family of this opportunity. It does nothing but keep people from growing and the community from developing authentic unity.
Remember this classic lesson in biblical understanding. You should never, ever, never take one or a few verses of Scripture and build belief systems off of them. The Bible is a unified story with connections all over the place that provide a better picture of what the authors consistently meant by their writing. When you look at the story in context, you see that humans are never other humans’ parents by status, identity or rights.