According to Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), the process of maturity is a movement from dependence, to independence, to interdependence. When we are babies, we are completely dependent upon others. It is easy to see that dependence is a place of immaturity whether it is in the physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual realms (see Hebrews 5:12).
The next stage we move to in the maturity process is independence. Here we are able to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally. We make decisions on our own and take responsibility for our own actions. We are able to provide for our own basic needs. A lot of people believe that complete independence is the pinnacle of maturity but that’s not true. The problem is that a mental map of independence doesn’t match the reality of the interdependent world we live in. People who believe they are entirely independent are really dependent in many more ways than they would care to admit. For example, teenagers strive for independence but are much more fundamentally dependent than they realize.
The highest level of maturity, says Covey, is interdependence. When we are interdependent we take responsibility for our own spheres of influence and our own decisions. We live based on principles (what is right and wrong) not on political expediency (what will other people think of me). But we also acknowledge that we live in an interdependent world and that the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts. We work together, working off of each other’s strengths to accomplish more than each of us could accomplish on our own.
This vision of maturity as interdependence wonderfully matches Paul’s description of the church as a body (see 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians). A body is a beautiful illustration of interdependence. Each part functions within its role, acknowledging its interdependence with the other parts. Each part takes responsibility for its own function – an eye sees, and ear hears, a foot moves – but doesn’t try to act as a complete body on its own. A church which practices interdependence grows up in maturity, love, and unity (see Ephesians 4).
In a “dependent” church, the individual members don’t do much of anything. They are consumers. They desire to be “fed” but won’t do any feeding. They live on the spiritual milk handed out by the preacher each Sunday. They are dependent on the human leader of the church and if that leader fails, their faith is lost. I don’t mean to blame the members. Leaders often foster this kind of thinking. Abusive leaders, or leaders with a Messiah complex, foster this kind of dependence, intentionally or unintentionally keeping their congregation in a state of dependence.
In an “independent” church, individuals take responsibility for their own spiritual growth but don’t work together as a team. Churches of this ilk may be marked by in-fighting or jealousy. Perhaps the church in Corinth was overly marked by a spirit of independence where everyone was clamoring for their own voice to be heard. It was a church marked by pride instead of humility and factions instead of unity. Christians with a completely independent mindset may check-out of church altogether. After all, if they have everything they need within the themselves, why go to church in the first place?
In an “interdependent” church members see themselves as parts of a whole. Members with an interdependent mindset often look for churches where they can work as part of a team and utilize their gifts as part of a greater mission. Here everyone is moving toward the same goal – love, maturity, discipleship, service, evangelism, etc – but each person plays a different part. An interdependent church is like an orchestra playing in harmony. It embraces both unity and diversity. Each person takes responsibility for playing their own instrument well and rejoices when others play their instruments well. Leaders in interdependent churches encourage spiritual growth and cooperation between the parts. They try to create systems where growth occurs naturally and where the Spirit is given room to build up the body.
Of course, in one sense, all churches are fundamentally dependent. We are dependent upon the Head, the Source, the Authority, and the Builder, our Lord Jesus Christ.