Paul Pettit concludes his comprehensive compilation of a variety of elements of spiritual formation by emphasizing the “compelling need” for spiritual formation to occur within a community of the Body of Christ.
Except for those called to periods of monasticism, Christianity was never designed to be lived out in isolated individualism. The community enjoyed within the Trinity should serve as our model for living the Christ-life with others (p. 269).
He goes on to summarize four key concepts of Christian growth, which occur over a continuum: Understanding one’s own identity in Christ, so one can become known within the Christian community, so that one can pursue growth in Christian integrity, becoming fully equipped to glorify Christ by serving others. Unfortunate Disney movie references aside, all of these concepts fall largely within Pettit’s framework of a social doctrine of Christian development and maturation. Even the development of one’s own identity in Christ takes place in the crucible of interpersonal relationships with other Christians, for without them it is impossible to fully obtain a realistic understanding of who we are. In this respect it is a bit difficult to distinguish Pettit’s concept of individual development from development within Christian community, but the point can still be made. It is roughly similar to author Steven Covey’s argument for a continuum from dependence (as an emotional adolescent) through independence (self-mastery) to healthy interdependence with others in community.
Likewise, author James Samra begins by reminding the reader that one of the foundational interests in Christianity is post-conversion spiritual growth and development (p. 1). Samra takes a more ruggedly apologetic approach than Pettit, focusing primarily on the authoritative and undisputed (and original Greek) writings of St. Paul specific to Christian maturity, being “conformed to Christ,” and being influenced within the ‘church’ as defined as the local body of Christ (p. 4). Samra’s rationale for focusing on maturity in particular is due to a general lack of study in this area he says for several reasons. He cites the influence of Luther and Bultmann (the righteousness and/or innate moral quality of the Believer negating an emphasis on further sanctification). He also notes the heavy emphasis on morality in the 19th century that over-ran discussions of maturity, among other reasons.
In his view Christians mature within community – period – and Paul’s writings define this fact emphatically. Earlier renderings of Paul’s writings mis-read (or over-emphasize) Paul’s conceptualization of the individual in terms of salvation and sanctification. He notes, for example, that 1st Century Paul, despite his Greek influences, would never consider the ‘individual’ as he would be envisioned by Locke and Descartes in later centuries (p. 28). Paul, he continues, always thought of individuals within the context of groups (Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, etc); they are never simply individuals (p. 30). This in fact becomes the basis for Samra’s thesis: Paul expected the local community to be an integral part of the maturational aspect of his commission (p. 33). This includes, as he describes in great detail in subsequent chapters, Paul’s own description of the development and maturation of his apostolic commission (Paul saw himself as responsible not just for the evangelistic proclamation of the tospel but also for ensuring that those who accepted his proclamation of the gospel became blameless and mature p. 53). And it includes further discussion on the apostle’s central concept of maturity (p. 55) including the role of corporate discipline (p. 65), growing in Maturity in Christ’s character (p. 79), and the central motif of maturity, which is Conformity to Christ’s Image (p. 95).
Despite taking different literary approaches to the topic, both authors arrive at the same conclusion: Iron sharpens iron, and Christ, through other Christians, matures believers.