“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 11:1 (Paul’s words to the Corinthian church)
When I think of men who have found themselves far astray from God but repented with strong conviction when they are exposed, some characters in scripture come to mind. Peter and David are examples of this. It is astounding how many times David chose to do something questionable or wrong. Yet each time he realizes what he has done, he turns to repent.
We should not follow David in the slaying of thousands of enemies, or in sleeping with his friend’s wife. But God calls David a man after His own heart. David’s instructive pattern in the psalms leads us to know and be with God. There are aspects of David’s life to emulate but some no man or woman should imitate.
Likewise, Peter has moments along his path we absolutely should not imitate. Do you recall the night Jesus was awaiting his crucifixion? Peter denied Jesus not once but three times.
Peter follows this up by standing before a crowd on the day of Pentecost to deliver a sermon to the masses, sharing the gospel in each person’s language. This is the launch of the church. Thousands were added to the number of followers of Jesus that day. This is something to imitate.
Fast forward and we see Peter preaching the gospel to Gentiles following a vision from the Lord. He obeys in spite of not fully agreeing with God. He chooses to surrender his own understanding and will to walk in obedience. This is something to imitate.
Fast forward again and we see Peter has gone back on his inclusion of the Gentiles. He tells them they are welcome only if they adopt certain Jewish customs. Whether it be to please the Jewish believers or an inability to fully surrender his initial prejudice against the Gentiles, Peter returns to following portions of the law in his practice and teaching. This should not be imitated.
So, can anyone say as Paul does to the Corinthian church, imitate me? Paul includes an important word: as. We can imitate our leaders but only in the ways they are imitating Christ. Only Christ can be fully imitated. Peter was not disqualified from the kingdom or from future leadership but these examples of wrongdoing are evidence that no one can take the place of Jesus.
David was disqualified from building the temple with his own hands because of all the blood he spilled. There are repercussions for disobedience. We see from this that we cannot imitate the whole of a person’s life since all people battle sinful desires. God’s plan for David’s lineage to give birth to the Messiah, however, was not nullified. God chose for Jesus to be born into David’s line because of David’s heart to follow after Him.
There was but one who walked the earth in the flesh and did not sin, one who’s perfection is to be imitated in full. That person is Jesus. Those who follow Jesus strive to live up to that perfection but will always fail to imitate him in full. In following Jesus we learn how to imitate him through following those who have gone before us in imitating Him. It is imperative as well to constantly realign ourselves to the teaching and model of Jesus himself. Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit who guides us and corrects our path.
Paul in his own words rebukes the church of Corinth for their arguments over following Paul or Apollos in 1 Corinthians 3. He knows they are but men who serve God and not deities to be worshiped.
“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” – 1 Corinthians 3:21-23
It is easy to fall into the habit of elevating a person to the place of Jesus. It is easier to imitate the fallen image of a human leader than God in flesh, especially when those we follow excuse our shortcomings. Listening to and following people who allow us to stay comfortable is not the narrow path but is the way of the world. The church since the beginning has had to fight the temptation of following man rather than imitating Christ.
As we see in the correction of the church in Corinth, becoming followers of people is not a new struggle. We have many to pick and choose from, including literary mentors. I love the writing and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and there are many ways in which I imitate him as he imitates Jesus. But he is not Jesus. There are aspects to his life that will fail to match the character and actions of God incarnate. This is not a disqualification of his place in the kingdom but rightly confirms he is not God.
At times we are tempted to ignore or explain away unrighteous behaviour in people we are imitating or learning from. In doing so we can find ourselves believing we are supposed to be a finished product, fully righteous, not in the process of being sanctified. Or, we can choose the other direction and overlook sin citing no one can be perfect, then go on to embrace everything about them. Instead of being a little Christ we become a mini (insert name here).
Charismatic leaders often have this effect on people. An influencer, or someone with charisma, find the people around them imitating mannerisms, clothing, language and actions. These people are gifted leaders and can have a great impact, often starting mega churches or movements. While leadership is a gift that can serve the kingdom, it can also derail kingdom work when we follow a man in ungodly ways .
Jesus was unique in only doing what he saw the Father doing. Our attempts to do the same will always be imperfect. When rebellion is imitated, it is like a car in rush hour slamming on the breaks. The kingdom work is stalled like the traffic jam following that front car. It is not God who stopped. We just followed a person who stopped following God.
God not only leads perfectly but creates systems and order to maintain health. Elders should always be applying course correction to maintain the spiritual health of a body. They should acknowledge and warn people when they are following a person instead of God.This does not excuse each one of us from testing all things. Someone told me once to receive everything with faith and test it all. Doubt and skepticism should not be a part of our pursuit of Jesus, but testing is what keeps us on the straight and narrow path. Without the two we will find ourselves stuck in traffic, then taking an exit that leads us far off the narrow path.
Learning from those who have gone before us and witnessing the lives of faithful men and women helps us grow at a rapid pace. It allows us to build off the experiences of others and not just our own. We should imitate healthy followers as they imitate Christ, but only as they imitate Christ.