Arrogance or Responsibility
Paul’s command to the church in Corinth causes many to cringe. “I urge you, then, be imitators of me (1 Cor. 4:16).”
He doesn’t just say it once, but his letters are laced throughout with this theme. In fact, he seemingly dares people to analyze his life and model their lives after the pattern that he sets.
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1).”
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who talk according to the example you have in us (Phil. 3:17.”)
“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you (Phil. 4:9).”
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord (1 Thess. 1:6).”
The call to imitate the life of another Christian seems downright arrogant to modern readers. The replies are predictable:
• “Who am I to tell other people to imitate me?” • “Maybe once I get a bit more mature then I’ll be ready to say that” (of course that day rarely comes). • “You don’t know how messed up I am. If someone patterns their life after mine then it would be a trainwreck.” • “That’s the pastor’s job. He is the professional Christian.” • “Of course Paul could say that. He was on the Christian varsity team. I’m barely allowed to be a bench-warmer.”
The result is a culture increasingly dependent on fewer and fewer people to do the heavy-lifting of disciple-making. The church, by and large, is filled with passive consumers who are unwilling to take spiritual responsibility for the lives of others.
We need to be reminded that the command to “follow me as I follow Christ” is not a statement of arrogance but the natural outworking of the Spirit of God in the life of all of his church. Notice the progression in 1 Thess. 1:6-8:
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word with much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not saying anything.”
Paul and his team set an example for the church. The church imitated that example and become a model for other believers. The exemplary church provided a model for the watching world.
The basis for imitation rests not on some mythical threshold of spiritual maturity but rather on four critical factors:
Union with Christ. The call to imitation is predicated on the fact that Paul’s life was “in Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).” He was worthy of imitation to the extent that Paul’s life reflected the work of Christ in his heart. Imitation is a gift of God’s grace and not another task on a person’s religious to-do list.
Missionary Living. Imitation requires relational proximity with those far from God. Everywhere he went Paul declared and demonstrated the gospel to those far from God. This model set the basis for imitation – “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you (Phil. 4:9).” A cloistered spirituality, increasingly distant from those far from God, will not provide the relationships necessary for imitation.
A Transforming Heart. Paul avoided placing himself on a pedestal, but rather took on the form of a servant, claiming to be the chief of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Perfection was not the basis for his call to imitation. A frail instrument being transformed by the grace of God is perfectly positioned to be a model for others to follow. This person’s strengths and weaknesses, gifts and faults, successes and sins should set a model for a life transformed by the gospel
A Loving Relationship. Finally, imitation thrives in the context of long-term, loving relationships. Paul’s letters are filled with fatherly emotion for his churches. He writes, “So, being anxiously desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us (1 Thess. 2:8).” As a spiritual father he longed for Christ to be formed in the people whom he loved (Gal. 4:19). In the context of loving relationships imitation feels less like authoritarian arrogance and more like loving parenting.
Our day needs more spiritual role models like Paul. I met with another college student this week who had been a believer for nearly a decade and said, “I have never had an older man help me learn how to walk with Jesus.” Sadly, his statement is the norm rather than the exception. The only way this will change is if more and more people follow Paul’s model and say to others “follow me as I follow Christ.”
My latest book, Aspire: Developing and Deploying Disciples in the Church and for the Church is meant to provide a tool for people to take spiritual responsibility for others in the church. It provides a one-year plan that is ideal for one-on-one disciple-making. You can order your copy of Aspire today at Seed Publishing Group.