Paul will quickly return to his instruction on the role of spiritual gifts in the gatherings of the church. Before he does that, he pauses to present a principle that is applicable to all situations. He compares three levels of maturity.
Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Corinthians 14:20 NIV)
The most troubling place to be regarding maturity is to be children or childish. We have had an empty nest for long enough that it is easy to forget what children are like. Three months in China refreshed my memory. Children love to play, but they also love to fight. It was a rare day when all four enjoyed one another’s company for the entire day. When they were on the couches together and no adults were present, they could not keep from poking each other. When playing a game, it seemed that there was always a disagreement over the rules. The worst arguments were when a piece on the game board had been moved out of place. The emotional energy expended made it seem that the disagreement over the placement of a game piece was a life and death matter.
At the core of all this fighting resides selfishness, the desire to be first. Childish thinking in the Corinthian church produced gatherings that were chaotic and not God honoring. Unfortunately, we have attempted to resolve this issue not with greater maturity, but with structure that limits the participation of most people in our gatherings.
What would our gatherings look like if we could approach them as mature and loving adults? We would be seeking to hear what the Holy Spirit was doing in each person present. We would desire to hear what the Holy Spirit had to say through the unique perspective and personality of each one in the community. We would be looking for opportunities to grow up everyone to be more like Jesus. We would be encouraging each other to be as infants regarding evil and thinking as adults.
Paul’s recommendation is for us to as infants regarding evil while thinking as mature adults.
Infants have needs and when they are hungry or wet, they cry to let adults know that they need care. However, an infant is innocent regarding all the things we would regard as evil. One of the responsibilities of a parent is to protect the infant from evil. As we grow, we are gradually exposed to more and more evil so that as adults we know more about evil than we would like to. As adults, Paul desires for us to find that state of innocence that we had as an infant. Innocence enables us to think the best of other people. Unfortunately, we have so much evil in our lives that someone who is innocent is considered naïve and often taken advantage of.
Restoring innocence in our lives is something we must work at. I think Paul addresses this in Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8 ESV)
The word that the NIV translates as adult when Paul says, “in your thinking as adults,” I think is better translated “in your thinking be mature.” To me this better fits the Greek word that Paul uses. Maturity is characterized by the ability to delay gratification, think beyond the immediate, and apply love to a situation. As we think about our Sunday gatherings, we generally are not fighting over who gets to speak in tongues. However, we do spend much time promoting our individual preferences.
Paul is instructing us to seek to have our gatherings led by the Holy Spirit. I remember a conversation with my son in Africa where I commented that I would like to be part of a gathering where the Holy Spirit was completely in charge. I was quickly corrected with “no you wouldn’t!” from my son. Unfortunately, he was right. I am most comfortable where I am in control. That is the opposite of what Paul is describing in this chapter.