As the Apostle Paul was writing to the church in Corinth, he told them to follow him as he followed Christ. This is not a verse that is veiled in interpretation, it is a straight-forward command that encourages a group of young believers to follow their primary teacher. Even though there is no way for Paul to be perfect, he insists that the church in Corinth look at his behavior as a model for what they should be doing. He sets himself up as a leader for the Corinthian church, and establishes an order of discipleship that is difficult, but effective.
I was recently challenged to live my life so that I could say this very thing to my students, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I don’t really have a choice at all. It is in my best interest, and the best interest of my students if I go ahead and make this statement boldly. It is necessary because if I do, I will be more likely to acknowledge my own behavior and be critical of where I fall short of the example of Christ. And it helps to hone my ability to lead by fixing my eyes on the only one who should truly be emulated.
Even as I write this post, the idea of telling young believers to follow my example seems to be either narcissistic or naïve, but in reality, it is neither. The truth is, my students follow my example whether I tell them to or not.
There may be some who have never really seen this truth take place, but when you have been in a particular area for several years, and have a small enough group of students to observe, your own idiosyncrasies begin to appear in the words and actions of your group. I rarely notice this phenomenon until I see something I am not proud of in myself, revealed in one of my students. As soon as I see it, I begin to question my ability to lead, and question whether or not this kind of misguided behavior can be corrected by the one who taught the behavior in the first place.
But then I am reminded of how Paul answers this same question in his own life.
Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth is a long list of righteous behavior, and expectations of believers, but these expectations are meant to accomplish one goal above all others, to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.
31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
So the imitation that is commanded has less to do with our activity and more to do with our goal. It has nothing to do with the things of this world, and everything to do with Jesus, our savior!
The people of Corinth were instructed to follow Paul as he pursued those around him for the Kingdom of God. Admittedly, there is going to be some kind of failure at some point in time or another, but he states that his desire is to engage the lost for the sake of the gospel. The imitation is intended to reflect the character of Jesus Christ. Jesus set aside the cultural expectations of his time in order to pursue, “Tax Collectors and Sinners.”
Christ, as our preeminent example of lifestyle and conduct, was not opposed to setting aside a custom of his time in order to engage the disenfranchised and the broken, and Paul is saying that his conduct is an effort to imitate that same goal. The command to imitate Paul is merely an effort to display in real-time what was displayed throughout the life of Christ.
Our example for those who are following us should be a similar imitation of the one who came before us.
I don’t set my eyes on Paul’s life and try to imitate it, but I can use it as an example of how a person can imitate Christ.
When I ask my students to imitate me, I must imitate Christ. I must be willing to conduct myself in the same way Christ did in order that the Kingdom of God is advanced. I must be actively putting the sin in my life to death, for the sake of the lost. I must set aside my earthly pursuits for the harvest that has already been grown.
I must remember that my students are already following me. I must remember that I have to set their eyes heavenward to Christ Jesus, by fixing my own eyes there first!