Nearly all Christians have some experience discipling immature believers. Perhaps you started serving with someone who was unkind, short-tempered and just plain lacking in Christian disciplines. It may be that this person has served in the church with you for over a year now, but you have not changed your opinion of him or her. You never really let this person grow, because in your mind, he is always going to be an immature believer.
Yet Paul describes the Christian life as one of progression when he says that we are all “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). As believers, we experience Spirit wrought growth, and thank God for his work in our lives. But sometimes we forget that the Spirit works in other people too. Instead, we pigeonhole people in ministry and refuse to let them climb out our mental perception of them.
PAUL AND MARK
The story that best illustrates this truth is the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over Mark. In Acts 15, Barnabas wanted to take Mark with him and Paul on their second missionary journey. But Paul refused to take Mark, because “had withdrawn from Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15:38). Granted, we cannot be certain what the disagreement between Paul and Mark was really about, but we can say that Paul had a problem with Mark and thought that he was not qualified for missionary work.
But as time passed, Mark proved himself to be valuable to the ministry. Paul trusted in the Spirit’s work in Mark’s life and didn’t simply write Mark off as useless. Paul told Timothy this near the end of this life, “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim 4:11). Paul allowed Mark to grow out of the category of “useless” to become “useful.” Paul didn’t judge Mark as an immature believer forever, but he trusted in the Spirit to change him to become useful for ministry.
LET PEOPLE BE MARKS
I can remember my college days, and in my first year there I was an over-zealous Calvinist. I went through the state that just about every eighteen year old goes through who discovers the doctrines of grace. The problem was that when I grew out of my over-zealous calvinizing, the leadership in my college ministry would not let me grow past the image they had transposed upon me. I remember being told that I could not be a Spiritual Life Director, because the leadership thought that I was too Calvinistic. I was stuck-I was pigeonholed. That’s not who I was anymore, but that’s what they thought I was.
I wonder how often we do this as pastors or disciplers. We refuse to let others grow more and more into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29), because we view them with an image of immaturity. Perhaps they were immature. But they aren’t anymore. We have just pigeonholed them.
A big reason we pigeonhole people into categories and never let them leave is because we fail to trust in the Spirit’s transforming power in other people’s lives. Romans bears out the truth that everything we do in our Christian life by the Spirit (Rom 8:1–16). This is why Paul can tell believers to walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:16) and to live by the Spirit, resulting in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22).” The Spirit will change a believer, because he gives us new life (John 3:8).
When put like this, it is easy to see why what I have named “pigeonholing” is both wrong and sinful, as it is a displacement of trust and it takes judging a person’s spiritual state into our own hands.
And in the end, the fundamental fact that we must see is that it is not so much the person we are trusting as it is the Spirit of God at work in that person that we must trust. It is only God who is intimately acquainted with the spiritual state of a person, and it is only God who will be able to truly change a person from the heart.
So, stop pigeonholing, and instead trust the Spirit to change people.