The Four Stages of Spiritual Growth
The Bible reveals that there are four stages of spiritual growth. Understanding them is fascinating and will help you SEE where you’re at spiritually and where you need to go. It will also help you to locate where others are at so you can understand their position and relate to them accordingly.
STAGE ONE is actually a stage of spiritual darkness where the individual is separate from God and in need of spiritual regeneration. The next three stages apply to the development of the believer who is spiritually reborn in Christ. The Bible refers to these three stages in terms of childhood, youth and maturity, as shown in 1 John 2:9-14. We’ll examine this passage momentarily.
Too many Christians get stuck in STAGE TWO, which is the institutional stage of growth where believers learn the fundamentals and are dependent upon pastors for their spiritual health. There’s nothing wrong with STAGE TWO unless you get stuck there. This article will help you to keep growing and not run aground in STAGE TWO.
You may have heard of the Four Stages of spiritual development,” which were theorized by M. Scott Peck (1936-2005) and detailed in two of his books from the late 80s and early 90s. Peck was essentially a non-sectarian Christian and formulated his theory based on another’s work. As a psychiatrist, he developed his version of the Four Stages from a psychological viewpoint mixed with Christianity rather than purely a biblical one.
The Four Stages as relayed here, by contrast, are firmly rooted in biblical truth and Christian experience. For instance Peck never cites the aforementioned biblical reference to the Four Stages from 1 John 2:9-14. As such, my version of the Four Stages is quite different than Peck’s. While I give him credit for popularizing the theory and I acknowledge his insights on the topic, he didn’t actually formulate it; the Holy Spirit did via the God-breathed Scriptures. Furthermore, as a minister of God I naturally feel he deviated too much from scriptural truth, particularly by suggesting that a spiritually dead person—an unbeliever—could reach STAGE TWO, THREE and FOUR. They can in a substitutionary sense, but their inherent spiritual condition—being dead to God and unable to have a real relationship—pins them down to STAGE ONE. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you will as we progress.
I want to stress that I’m not a follower of Peck and don’t know every jot and tittle of what he believed or taught and don’t care to, but I found his writings on the Four Stages fascinating when I read them in 2000. I discerned that he was on to something—something scriptural and very real—but it was clear that his secular studies tainted his understanding of the topic. The last time I remember reading any of his writings was circa 2001. So this article was written without referencing his works and similarities are based purely on memory. In short, this is my own take on the Four Stages of spiritual growth in light of what the Bible teaches.
As you shall see, not only are the Four Stages of spiritual growth scriptural, understanding them is quite enlightening. As noted above, understanding them will help you see where you are at spiritually and where you need to go. It will also help you locate where others are at so you can understand their position and relate to them accordingly.
STAGE ONE: Separation from God / Chaos
This is the classic “sinner” stage where the individual is separate from God and therefore in spiritual darkness. At this stage people are in bondage to the flesh — the sinful nature — to one degree or another. Being that people in this stage are separate from God and in spiritual darkness, you could also describe it as moral chaos.
By the way, I’m not saying that people in this stage don’t have a spirit, as every human being has a spirit, but that their spirit is dead to God and therefore in need of regeneration. See the article Human Nature: Spirit, Mind & Body for more details.
STAGE TWO cannot occur until the individual is enlightened to his or her needy spiritual condition and turns to God via the good news of the gospel, which is called “the message of reconciliation” in Scripture (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). This salvation comes through repentance and faith (Acts 20:21).
STAGE TWO: Institutional / Fundamental
After reconciliation with God, the new believer will join a church/ministry/sect. The group’s oversight and instruction naturally provide the necessary structure for him or her and (hopefully) the Bible as well. As such, the chaos of STAGE ONE transforms into order as the organization provides protection & accountability for the convert and opportunities to learn, participate, serve, grow and eventually lead in some capacity.
STAGE TWO can be described as “fundamental” because those at this level become attached to the rules and doctrines that their organization provides, which the elders decree to be fundamental to their faith. Not surprisingly, STAGE TWO believers become discombobulated when these fundamentals are threatened, regardless of whether these “fundamentals” are true, false or somewhere in between. As such, those in this stage are “fundamentalists.
STAGE TWO is essentially Christian boot camp. It’s a stage of spiritual immaturity where the believer is learning and growing. It’s immature in the sense that the believer is typically dependent upon the group to maintain their spiritual status. Just as in military boot camp recruits need their drill instructors and the military institution or they’ll revert back to their civilian ways, Christian converts are very dependent on their churches and elders without which they’d fall back into STAGE ONE.
Ideally, the new believer will be in STAGE TWO while simultaneously growing in STAGE THREE and STAGE FOUR, as shown here:
While believers in STAGE TWO should be simultaneously growing in the next two stages, it unfortunately doesn’t always happen. Sometimes they get stuck in STAGE TWO, usually because the church or sect they hook up with is infected by legalism, which is sterile (counterfeit) Christianity and characterized by rigid sectarianism. When this occurs, the organization fosters a spirit of dependency in the believer rather than independency, bondage rather than freedom and weakness rather than strength. It’s actually spiritual abuse and it harms or limits the believer’s growth. Abuse, by the way, is the misuse of power.
STAGE THREE: Individual / Seeker
Healthy believers will grow as individuals and develop an identity separate from the group. They’ll start to question doctrines that don’t really gel with the Scriptures or make sense. They’ll seek truth — reality — beyond the limitations of their sect and elders, that is, if they sense they’re in error in one area or another. This is good because error can’t set people free, even if it’s disguised as “truth” by one’s church or pastor. Only the truth sets free, as Jesus taught (John 8:31-32). Also, as believers develop in STAGE THREE they will cultivate a discernment to spiritual abuse and will not tolerate it, which explains why weak “pastors” try to keep individuals in STAGE TWO. I put “pastors” in quotes here because real pastors passionately desire for believers to grow spiritually.
Now, just because believers in STAGE THREE discover error or abuse in their group it doesn’t mean they’ll automatically leave. They’ll likely stay and do their part to help correct any problems, but this depends on many factors, like: How deeply involved are they in the group? What about their families and close friends? How severe is the error or abuse? What do they discern the Holy Spirit leading them to do? How long have they been trying to help without any appreciable change?
In STAGE THREE believers will find themselves questioning beliefs — possibly even their faith and God Himself. Because of this, it’s a risky and unstable stage in the believer’s journey. I’ve known people in STAGE TWO who were believers for many years, but as they seem to transfer to STAGE THREE they totally fall away from God and faith. Usually the signs are there that this is the way they’re heading. They failed to “guard their heart as the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23) and let things enter in that took their hearts away from their pure devotion to the LORD. Guarding your heart is a matter of wisdom and believers make a big mistake when they allow negative things in that take them away from their “first love.”
Thankfully, STAGE THREE doesn’t end this way for those who genuinely seek God and persist rather than using STAGE THREE as an excuse to backtrack to STAGE ONE, as depicted here:
STAGE THREE can be difficult due to its inherent growth pangs just like the teenage years and early 20s can be in the natural, but it’s a necessary stage of growth in the believer’s spiritual journey. It develops their sense of individuality apart form the group and motivates them to seek out the truth for more certainty and accuracy, not to mention clarifies their objectives. Without STAGE THREE believers will be stuck in STAGE TWO and they cannot move on to STAGE FOUR.
STAGE FOUR: Knowing God
STAGE FOUR is the stage where believers develop a living relationship with God rather than just knowing about Him. This is the goal of Christianity and explains why the gospel of Christ is called the “message of reconciliation.” STAGE FOUR is enlightenment, independence and strength. Let’s look at all three of these:
STAGE FOUR is enlightenment because the believer is in direct communion with God. This communion becomes a 24/7 thing where believers are in constant connection with their Creator. This is what Paul was referring to when he mentioned “praying without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Enlightenment in this manner includes the constant awareness of God’s presence via the Holy Spirit and also the awesomeness, beauty and mystery of actually knowing the LORD. Those stuck in STAGE TWO, by contrast, only have an inkling of this and basically view God as a big cop in the sky. This is an outward perspective of God and it’s frankly an Old Testament mentality. The New Testament, by contrast, emphasizes the believers spiritual regeneration and the indwelling empowerment of the Holy Spirit — God is within us! See Titus 3:5, 1 Corinthians 3:16 and Ephesians 1:19.
STAGE FOUR is independence from bondage to the error and corruption that often comes with the institution of STAGE TWO. Please read that again and chew on it. This isn’t to say that the church/sect/pastors that believers are hooked up with in STAGE TWO are always bad or that they’re all bad — not at all — they’re usually good and definitely necessary, but error and abuse come with the territory of people and groups, even Christian churches and sects. Are you with me?
Furthermore, STAGE FOUR is independence from the uncertainty of STAGE THREE. How so? In STAGE FOUR believers know God personally. They’ve “tasted and seen that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). As such, it’s impossible for someone to convince them that God doesn’t exist because they personally walk with the LORD. This isn’t to say, of course, that believers in STAGE FOUR are exempt from falling from faith, only that it’s much harder for them to fall than those in STAGE TWO or THREE. Why? Because they’re actually walking with God 24/7.
This combination of enlightenment and independence makes for strong believers. They’re spiritually mature. These are people who know God and increasingly know their calling. They don’t just sacrifice 10% of their finances as a tithe, their whole lives are “living sacrifices” when they wake up in the morning (Romans 12:1). Because they discern and fulfill God’s will on both minor and major levels they become a threat to the enemy’s kingdom, which naturally draws attack. This includes opposistion from people at lower stages of growth, including quasi-believers and legalists, like the Pharisees.
Furthermore, those in STAGE FOUR become increasingly independent of the need of others in order to stay tight with God and fulfill their calling. What I’m saying is that believers in STAGE TWO and THREE will fall back into STAGE ONE without the service, support and encouragement of fellow believers, particularly in the context of church services, but those firmly walking in STAGE FOUR don’t need others to walk free of the pitfalls of the flesh and legalism. They don’t need others to motivate them to spiritual disciplines, like prayer, study, worship, fasting, etc. Don’t get me wrong here, Paul was encouraged and blessed by other believers, and so should every Christian, but Paul performed spiritual disciplines and fulfilled his calling without people over him compelling him to do so. It goes without saying that every believer should aspire to this level of spirituality. The ones who don’t are not spiritually mature.
By the way, I’m not saying that believers in STAGE FOUR shouldn’t attend church services. Going to healthy church gatherings is always good, regardless of where you’re at spiritually. But those in STAGE FOUR will often lead their own ministries within other ministries or start their own, whether within an existing camp or otherwise.
In light of all this, STAGE FOUR is clearly a stage of strength. Of course, there is a downside: “Higher levels bigger devils.” But those in STAGE FOUR can handle the increased attacks and their intensity because, again, they’re tight with the LORD. A good scriptural example is Paul who endured great persecutions while he traveled the eastern Mediterranean area, starting and overseeing numerous churches. Check out Paul’s list of persecutions in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28; it’s incredible. Someone in STAGE TWO or STAGE THREE could never endure such hardships without falling away, but those in the higher levels of STAGE FOUR can, just as Paul did.
Getting Stuck in STAGE TWO
As already noted, believers in STAGE TWO should simultaneously be growing in STAGE THREE and FOUR. In other words, as believers grow in the realm of Christian community (STAGE TWO), they should also be growing as an individual (STAGE THREE) and in their relationship with God (STAGE FOUR). Healthy believers always have a finger, hand or foot in the next stage (or the next level of the stage they’re in). The Bible refers to this maturation from one level to the next in terms of going “from strength to strength” or “glory to glory” (Psalm 84:5,7: & 2 Corinthians 3:18).
But what of those who get stuck in STAGE TWO? These are people who fail to develop spiritually as individuals and in relationship with their Creator. Instead, the institution they are involved in — their church and its camp — replaces both. This isn’t good because, in essence, the institution itself becomes their God. They become “sheeple” — mindless automatons dedicated to perpetuating the machine of the institution, their “god.” This explains why those stuck in STAGE TWO become rigid sectarians who eye outsiders suspiciously and get irate when someone merely questions the legitimacy of the rules and doctrines of their group. Why? Because the institution has taken the place of the LORD. You see this with cults like the Jehovah’s False Witnesses. It’s really a form of idolatry.
There are obvious secular substitutions to STAGE TWO. Prison is a good example. Individuals in the lower levels of STAGE ONE inevitably break the law because of their chaotic spiritual condition, which inevitably lands them in prison. Their new environment provides the parameters and order they need to escape the chaos of STAGE ONE, but as soon as they’re released back into the public they revert back to STAGE ONE because they can’t handle the freedom. They’re dependent on the institution to keep them from iniquity, at least outwardly.
Religious and non-religious institutions are also substitutes, like Sciencefictionology, Mormonism, TM, rehabs, psyche wards, 12-step programs, martial arts programs and a gazillion others. They’re not all bad, of course, and they do help the individual escape the darkness and chaos of STAGE ONE, but such disciplines all pale in comparison to the effectiveness of genuine Christianity (as opposed to sterile, religious “Christianity”) because true Christianity solves humanity’s root problem — the condition of spiritual death and separation from God.
The family can also be a substitute (and in the believer’s life it can play an accessory role). For instance, individuals who grow up in strong families that have a lot of love, order and discipline essentially grow up without experiencing the darkness and chaos of STAGE ONE. They were, in essence, born into STAGE TWO. This is normally a good thing and those with healthy families like this should be praising God that they largely skipped STAGE ONE. This only becomes a problem if the individual becomes arrogant (spoiled) by his or her good fortune, which is a sure slide into STAGE ONE, keeping in mind that arrogance — a superiority complex — is sin numero uno in God’s eyes. This brings up an important point…
STAGE FOUR Believers are HUMBLE
Since STAGE FOUR believers are at the highest stage of spiritual growth (although not necessarily the highest level, as there are levels within each stage), it’s easy to assume that they’d be arrogant, but this isn’t the case at all. People who genuinely know God are extremely humble because “God resists the proud, but gives his favor to the humble” (James 4:6 & 1 Peter 5:5). As such, only the humble can get close to God.
If you know domineering Christians who love to bloviate and abuse, they’re not in STAGE FOUR. They’re in STAGE TWO or THREE with their heads in STAGE ONE. Read this article for more information.
John’s References to the Four Stages
An excellent biblical reference to the four stages of spiritual growth can be observed in this passage:
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. (10) Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. (11) But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
(12) I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
(13) I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.
(14) I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you are strong,
and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
1 John 2:9-14
John wasn’t being literal with his references to “children,” “young men” and “fathers,” but rather figurative. We know this for several reasons: 1. Literal children wouldn’t even read his epistle and wouldn’t understand it if someone read it to them; 2. not all mature believers reading his epistle (then or now) would be literal fathers—Paul’s a good example—but all spiritually mature believers are spiritual fathers and mothers; 3. elsewhere when Paul literally referred to segments of the congregation by the Spirit he did so in a more universal manner, as shown in Colossians 3:18-24 (i.e. wives, husbands, children, fathers and slaves); and 4. John’s references to “children,” “young men” and “fathers” simply fits the four stage model, particularly since he referred to STAGE ONE three times in the previous three verses.
John’s references to the Four Stages in 1 John 2:9-14 can be summed up as follows:
- “In the darkness” refers to the spiritual darkness of STAGE ONE where an unbeliever is separate from the light of God because his or her spirit is dead to Him.
- “Children” is a reference to the boot camp fundamentalism of STAGE TWO where the believer establishes a foundation. Unfortunately, too many Christians get stuck in this stage and never grow beyond it. They live and die as spiritual children.
- “Young men” refers to the growing individualism and sense of freedom and adulthood of STAGE THREE.
- “Fathers” is a reference to the maturity and independence of STAGE FOUR where believers naturally propagate.
Since there’s neither male nor female in Christ (Galatians 3:28) we can broaden the terms for STAGE TWO, THREE and FOUR as such: children, young people and parents or, better yet, childhood, youth and maturity. Let’s fit these into our Four Stages diagram:
There are some awesome pastors out there, but some are weak (or even counterfeits) in that they encourage the pastoral dependency of STAGE TWO (“children”) and are threatened by those trying to move into the next two stages. Instead of thinking in terms of apprehending new disciples — converts — they think in terms of “holding on” to their current fold by intentionally keeping them in the dependent stage of STAGE TWO. They don’t want to “lose” them, not realizing that losing them is the best thing for them because they would grow up spiritually, becoming “young men” (STAGE THREE) and “fathers” (STAGE FOUR). As a pastor I know puts it: “My job is to become unnecessary in the life of the believer.”
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