I occasionally joke about wanting some groupies, or maybe a few minions. People who think I’m so cool that they follow me around all day and try to be just like me. But the real upside, of course, is their willingness to run errands and facilitate my various plots to take over the world.
In more serious moments, though, I realize how arrogant that sounds. We’re all deeply flawed people. Who in their right mind would be so self-aggrandizing as to think that others should strive to be just like them? Even thinking that probably demonstrates that you’re not worth following, doesn’t it?
Imitate me. The height of arrogance.
Yet that’s exactly what Paul says multiple times in his various letters (e.g. 1 Cor 4:16; Eph. 5:1). Where does he get off trying to make us into his little groupies? If we’re going to understand what Paul means when he says “Imitate me,” we need to keep the following things in mind.
4 Principles for Godly Imitation
1. Imitation is Part of Being Human
Much of what we learn comes through imitation. We imitate parents, teachers, pastors, coaches, friends, and basically anyone that we spend much time around. Paul is simply being open about a basic fact of human experience: we learn through imitation.
That’s why Paul draws the explicit parallel between imitating him and imitating your parents (1 Cor. 4:16). Although I have to admit that it would feel a little odd for me to specifically tell my daughter to imitate me, that says more about me and my culture than it does about imitation. I wonder if our skittishness about imitation comes from our emphasis on individualism and authenticity. If my daughter is merely imitating me, she’s not being true to her own self. But such a concern completely misses the fact that imitation is part of being human. My daughter isn’t denying or undermining her “self” when she imitates me (and others), she’s developing herself.
2. Imitating Me Isn’t about Me
Paul nowhere suggests that we should imitate him because he’s such an amazing person. Instead, he sees himself as a signpost pointing toward a more important reality. Thus his appeal is not merely to “Follow my example,” but to do so because Paul also strives to “follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Even when it sounds like Paul is highlighting his own accomplishments, his greater purpose to direct our attention to what God can do in and through us. Thus, writing to Timothy he draws attention to “my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured” (2 Tim. 3:10). That sounds rather impressive. But it could also be pretty self-centered. “Hey look at me. Aren’t I awesome! You should be just like me.” But Paul quickly directs our attention away from himself, focusing instead on the Lord who rescued him from this persecution and who will similarly bless and protect all who strive to live godly lives in Christ (v. 11).
Self-focused imitation should make us nervous. God-focused imitation, on the other hand, lies at the core of the Christian life.
3. Imitation Isn’t Exclusive
Even with the first two caveats in place, I get pretty nervous whenever someone suggests that you should imitate them and only them. Occasionally someone specifically says this, warning their “flock” to stay away from other Christian leaders. (We generally refer to such groups as “cults.”) But I think we sometimes imply this when churches structure the life of the church around single, charismatic leaders. They probably wouldn’t say that they alone are worthy of imitation, but it’s difficult to avoid the implication when they are the focus of attention for virtually everything the church does.
Paul does it differently. Everywhere he went, he recruited and trained other leaders who could stand as models for the Christian community. Sure he though people should imitate him, but he also called on them to imitate other Christian leaders as good examples of Christlike living (Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess 1:6; 2:14). And that kind of imitational diversity is wise for at least a couple of reasons. First, it protects us agains the very real possibility that even our “best” models will eventually blow it. It will still be devastating when a cherished leader fails, but less so when your identity isn’t built entirely around him or her. Second, life is complex and its challenges legion. A variety of godly models stands a better chance of giving you something to imitate across a range of difficult circumstances than any single model possibly could.
Imitating me might be good. Imitating us will always be better.
4. Imitation Is for Everyone
The last principle of imitation is that we are all models that others can and should imitate. And this happens whether we want it or not. I wish I could control what my daughters ended up imitating from my example. That would be much easier. Instead, they pick up on all kinds of stuff. Some good, too much bad. And the same holds for all human relationships. My daughter also ends up liking the same stuff as her best friends and talking liker her sister. I’m sure none of them thought they were being models for imitation, but they are.
So Paul calls for us to be intentional models for imitation. He appeals to Timothy to be an example “in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Oh, is that all? And Tituts gets a similarly broad appeal to be an example in “everything” (Tit. 2:7). Imitation isn’t a one-way street. It’s not just that I imitate others, but they also imitate me. Relationships work like that. Paul’s appeal, then, is to be mindful of our own modeling so that, like Paul, we can be signposts, pointing people toward the One who is so much more.
There’s a lot more we could say about imitation, especially since it lies at the heart of Christian discipleship and formation. But I hope this is enough to help us be less nervous about Paul’s own language of imitation.