One of the ways an infant learns behavior is through imitation. Child development psychologists say that infants engage in both immediate and delayed imitation. Obviously immediate imitation is cute. A baby who sticks out his or her tongue when you do is sure to bring a smile to your face. But delayed imitation is the goal. When a baby can repeat the same behavior hours and days after observing it, a parent knows the child is learning and developing well. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget believed that infants and toddlers “think” with their eyes, ears, hands and other sensory-motor parts.
Christians too must learn by imitation. When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he said it twice:
“Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17).
“Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1).
The Corinthians, one commentator reminds us, had no established Christian tradition, no members who had been believers for more than three years, no written gospels, and no Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to regulate behavior. They must learn how to live from someone who modeled it for them. That’s why Paul sent Timothy to them and asked them to imitate him. Timothy was to remind them of Paul’s life.
For Paul, this kind of imitation means only one thing: shaping our lives in accordance with the pattern of Jesus’ self-sacrificing love. A person who is worthy of imitating will not seek his own good, as Paul says, but will sacrifice his own good for the sake of others, just as Jesus did. In the same way, a model will not cause others to stumble, regardless of whether they are inside the church or not. He or she will align beliefs, teachings, and spoken words with lifestyle, practices, and habits.
One common objection to this line of thinking is that Christ is our model, and therefore we should not look up to anyone else. My youth pastor used to say, “Don’t follow me because I’ll let you down. Follow Jesus. My goal is to point you to Him.” I think he got it right and tried to balance being a faithful model of Christianity with humble acceptance of His limitations.
So, are you worthy of imitating? Are you living in such a way that those in your small group could model their lives after yours and still be faithful to Christ? Does your life and leadership point to the crucified Christ or to yourself?