I’m currently taking a two-week class on the theology of missions and hope to share a number of the things we’re discussing. Although Cindi and I have not yet discerned how God would have us spend the next season of life, my twenty hours of class this past week along with various reading assignments have reminded me again of how much I love thinking, talking, learning, and dreaming about the redemptive mission of God in the world. Not that my fascination with the subject is a sufficient reason in itself to be a missionary, but I do wonder what it says about God’s possible calling on our lives. I can think of no greater thing in this life than making disciples around the world for the glory of Christ.
One of the books we’ve been reading and discussing is Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul by Peter O’Brien. At one point he asks a commonly-asked but uncommonly-answered question: Is Paul’s command for believers to imitate him consistent with Christian humility? This question (along with related thoughts) has often crossed my mind, but I don’t remember ever stopping and meditating on it in a systematic and profitable way. But O’Brien does. Here are his four reasons (along with my interspersed comments) why Paul was not necessarily proud to tell his young converts to imitate him.
- Paul clearly pointed to Christ as the ultimate model. He told the Philippians to imitate Jesus by living with an others-centered selflessness: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). He told the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul was not interested in creating copyrighted clones of himself so that he could get rich and famous off of his own brand of Christianity. He knew that as imitatable as he might be, Jesus was far and away the premier and perfect example to be followed.
- Paul never pretended to be perfect. He knew that he was at best a faded, crooked, black-and-white copy of the brilliant, colorful, authentic, picture-perfect Jesus. But being followable in this life does not demand perfection — only the tenacious pursuit of it: “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14). I would rather follow someone who’s fighting tooth and nail than someone who thinks he’s already won. The former understands the battle; the latter has already lost. Paul knew that the fallible are still followable. He acknowledged his fallibility but still told people to follow him.
- Paul did not view himself as the sole living example. He also held up others like Timothy and Epaphrotidus as godly examples (Philippians 2:19-30). “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). I think that one of the sweetest and purest things in the world is when believers praise each other and raise each other up as models to imitate. It highlights Christian unity and the preciousness of relationships that are at least for a moment devoid of envy and selfish ambition and spiritual competitiveness. Considering how Paul praised many of his ministry partners, it would be difficult to say that he was prideful in calling for the imitation of his young converts.
- It was not as though Paul made these commands in a ministerial vacuum. There were others whose character and conduct only led their followers astray (Philippians 3:18-19). When Paul told the churches to imitate him, his was only one voice among many. He knew that young Christians would be tempted to swallow the kind of flattering, selfish, deceitful influences that would destroy them by leading them into worldliness. So at times, “Follow me” was his way of saying, among other things, “Don’t follow them.”
Paul did not have a messiah-complex. He did not operate with a veiled narcissism that secretly hoped to be the apex of God’s redemptive plan. He simply had an authentic, radical devotion to the Lord as the one who had saved him and commissioned him to preach the gospel, and he knew that if his converts followed in his footsteps, they would be on the right track. It wasn’t that he viewed himself as the ultimate example, or that he had concluded that his steps never wavered or zig-zagged, or that he wasn’t willing to commend others who were running at a similar pace and in a similar direction to his own. It’s just that he stayed close to the heart of God, he gave his all to knowing and proclaiming Christ, and he knew that this type of life should be emulated, tainted though it might be.
Even so, I think there are a few potential reasons why we tend to be uncomfortable with people imitating us (much less telling them to imitate us). Here are a few that come to mind:
- We can tend to think of ourselves in terms of individual personality, specific abilities, and private interests instead of as followers of Christ. This way of thinking may hinder us from thinking rightly about imitation. “How could I imitate John Piper? I’ll never preach with that kind of God-saturated clarity and passion.” Or “How could I imitate that amazing mother? I’m not that creative or organized or gifted.” Or “Why would I want someone to imitate me? I want them to be themselves, not take on my personality and all my issues.” The problem with many of these thoughts is that they tend to be too narrow and personalized. We look at Spurgeon’s abilities and we think, “I can’t do that.” But we’re not called to have Spurgeon’s abilities (or his circumstances); we’re called to emulate his rugged commitment and his treasuring of God’s grace. For me to say “Imitate me” does not mean “Go into full-time ministry like me” or “Take on my personality” or “Enjoy the hobbies that I enjoy” or “Recreate my God-given strengths in your own life.” It simply means “Follow Christ as I’m attempting to follow Him.”
- We twist ourselves up with many kinds of false humility. “It would be proud for me to encourage someone to imitate me.” “I don’t think I’m capable of discipling someone.” “Others are much better than me at that; I think they should serve as the model.” It fascinates me that Paul didn’t seem to live by these kinds of spotlight-avoiding, responsibility-dodging tactics. He simply recognized God’s call on his life, stepped out in humble faith and lived accordingly, and encouraged others to be like him in that simple endeavor of obedience. Not that he never struggled; he often admits to struggling mightily. But he obeyed.
- We make our weaknesses an excuse for why we shouldn’t be followed. But there are some problems with this: (1) Paul was well aware of his own weaknesses yet he still called people to imitate him; (2) people are going to follow us whether we tell them to or not because we all rub off on each other in more ways than we’d like to think; (3) weaknesses don’t excuse us from the call to be exemplary; they just make us poor examples.
“Imitate me” wasn’t the only thing or the main thing that Paul said. I don’t think that it’s something we should communicate early or often. But it was one of the things he said, and perhaps our uncomfortability with it reveals that we are not as close to imitating him as we ought to be.
Even if you can’t say “Imitate me” in good conscience, at least fight to be followable. Because people are watching and learning, no matter who you are. The world is looking for examples. You can either duck and hide or you can humbly stand up and pray desperately that God would make you worth following.