"I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another." (Romans 15:14 ESV)
We are inclined to complicate that which needs no complicating. Toward the end of Paul's letter to the Romans, he offers a brief encouragement to his readers, commending them in three different ways. He writes that he is satisfied with them, and then tells them why. We would do well to note the three reasons he is pleased with his audience. In them, we see three marks of a mature community of faith. Hardly an exhaustive list, but it is an instructive one.
I say we are inclined to complicate matters because we can turn ourselves in circles asking what our church community "should" look like. We develop extensive plans and programs, creating rules and regulations. All the while, we have a nice simple list at the end of Romans. Again, not an exhaustive list, but if these three qualities are true of our church, then we can be confident we are in a good place. As you read these three marks of a mature faith community, ask yourself if they are true of your church.
Full of goodness
A mature church treats one another with kindness, goodness and respect. Being full of goodness (agathosyne) is a fruit of God's Spirit (Gal 5:22) working in a person's heart. As we become more like Christ, we grow in goodness. What does this look like in a congregation? A church that is full of goodness is a church that seeks reconciliation over quarreling. It is a church that serves one another sacrificially. A church that cares for one another. A church that is marked by kindness and grace. Unity. Love. Patience. These are the virtues that inhabit a mature community of faith.
How can you be an agent of goodness in your church? Do not allow dissension, discord, backbiting and gossip to gain a foothold in your church. Do not contribute to it, and as you are able, put a stop to it in others. Fight for goodness by pursuing kindness toward others, patience in disagreement and forgiveness when wronged. Pick someone up who needs a ride to church, provide a meal for someone who just had a baby, check-in on those who have lost a loved one to death - in short, be good to others.
Filled with all knowledge
A mature church is filled with all knowledge (gnosis). Much is wrapped up in this little phrase, but very simply, it means that the church has a clear understanding of the Christian faith, which means they have a clear understanding of God's Word. This requires godly leaders who are qualified to teach, and faithful members who are attentive to learn and grow. In the words of the psalmist, "I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word. (Psalm 119:15-16 ESV)." In them, we find knowledge.
Is your church community filled with all knowledge? Do you have a good understanding of God's Word? I don't just mean a good understanding of some theological concepts and church traditions - I mean the very Scriptures themselves. Does someone get up on Sunday and teach from God's Word? Are people bringing their Bibles and testing that teaching like the Bereans (Acts 17:10-11)? A church that is not anchored to God's Word is liable to drift unaware from the true faith. Culture and context will gain more and more influence, and the church will be tossed by every wind or wave that exerts its influence. A mature faith community is filled with all knowledge, which means they are rooted and anchored on God's Word.
Able to instruct one another
The third mark of a mature faith community, the ability to instruct (noutheteo) one another, is a natural result of the first two. Not only does it flow from the prior two, but it requires the initial marks in order to be done well. The word for instruct here is not simply to teach, but has a sense of exhortation, admonishment or warning. This is instruction with a mind toward growth and correction. The soil of goodness is necessary for the seed of instruction to take root. The nourishment of knowledge waters that seed and helps it grow.
This sort of instruction is done from the pulpit on Sundays and also in homes throughout the week. Exhortation comes from our elders at times and from fellow congregates at others. No matter the source, a mature faith community is able and willing to instruct one another out of its goodness and knowledge.
As mentioned earlier, this list is not exhaustive - but it is informative. There are other essential elements to a healthy church body, but these three marks give us a good sense of a mature community of faith. Use this litmus test to examine your church and ask yourself whether you are contributing to the goodness, knowledge and instruction in your own congregation.