Therefore I urge you, imitate me. [1 Corinthians 4:16*]
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. [1 Corinthians 11:1]
Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. [Philippians 3:17]
The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:9]
…not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us. [2 Thessalonians 3:9]
A meme recently popped up on my Facebook newsfeed which states: “Jesus did not say ‘Follow Christians,’ He said ‘Follow Me.’”
The inference that people who subscribe to that type of “theopraxy” want people to make is that we should never follow the example of human conduct, the only one we should follow is Christ. It falls into the “WWJD” juvenile mentality of shallow theology and application of Scripture.
This is the flip side of the theopraxic coin expressed in the false gospel song “One Day At A Time,” where the singer begins by moaning the trite phrase “I’m only human,” and then bemoans his/her inability to live a holy life, but God is “obligated” to forgive his/her shortcomings because of His grace. Both the song and the meme are rooted in the view that fallen humans, even when regenerated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, are miserable failures and will lead people astray and therefore cannot be trusted or relied on as examples of godliness. More often than not, this is offered by professed believers as a means to justify and rationalize their own sinful behavior, as if it would relieve them of any obligation to provide examples of godly living to others.
In other words, when caught in sin, their rationalization goes like this: “Well, you shouldn’t be looking at me as an example of godly conduct because I’m only human. You are erring because you are examining my behavior instead of how Jesus behaved.”
The problem with such thinking is that there is no Biblical justification for it.
In the first place, when Jesus spoke the command “Follow Me,” it was not to believers, rather it was a call to non-believers to change their direction. In other words, He is not telling them to reject human examples of godly behavior — He is directing them to reject all human works as being inefficacious for salvation and trust only in Him.
In addition, if we carefully examine Scripture, this is not the only word on the subject. To be qualified to speak to the subject requires looking at everything Scripture has said on the issue.
And although He did not speak to the issue directly, He did expressly state that the apostles would carry His authority in determining orthodoxy [right teaching] and orthopraxy [right actions] for the Church. And that authority is conveyed through their writings canonized in the New Testament. [See Matthew 16:19 and 18:18.]
When we examine the apostolic writings, we can see a far different picture than what is displayed in the Facebook meme. It doesn’t get any plainer than when Paul told the Corinthians twice: “Imitate me.” Granted, the second time he qualified his command with the phrase, “just as I imitate Christ,” but the command is still not, “don’t follow me, follow Christ.” His command is rather, “Follow me, just as I follow Christ.”
To the church in Philippi, Paul wrote that the believers were to consider him as an example and a pattern.
To the church in Thessalonica, Paul wrote that he was an example to be followed.
Nowhere in the writings of Paul does he ever write that believers are to not follow the example of human teachers whom God has placed in the Church for our edification.
The apostle Peter also held himself forth as an example to be followed in 1 Peter 5:1-4.
“But,” I hear objectors cry, “Peter and Paul were apostles and were supernaturally empowered to live holy lives.” This objection is nonsense for two reasons.
In the first place, neither Peter nor Paul led lives of sinless perfection following their regeneration and conversion. Paul notes in Romans 7 his struggles with sin and the desire to have the old nature completely eradicated from his life. Paul notes in Galatians 2:11-16 how he publicly rebuked Peter and Barnabas [who had been his mentor in the faith] when their conduct was not consistent with their teaching. Luke candidly catalogs Paul’s shortcomings when he talks about the very “un-Christian” disagreement Paul had with Barnabas in Acts 15:36-39.ŧ Luke also forthrightly records Paul’s disobedience in going to Jerusalem in Acts 21:4.§
And yet, in spite of their imperfections, Peter and Paul both held themselves as examples for believers to emulate.
In the second place, although the apostles were supernaturally empowered to perform signs and wonders to confirm their message and claims to apostleship, this empowerment is qualitatively different from the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to walk in newness of life, which is enjoined upon every believer, according to what Paul wrote to the church in Rome in Romans 7:6; 8:12-17, and to the churches in Galatia in Galatians 5:16-25.
Finally, it must be noted that Scripture does not merely presume that those who were apostles were empowered and commanded to be examples, but those who followed them were to be examples also. Paul commanded Timothy: …be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. [1 Timothy 4:12] He commanded Titus: …in all things to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility. [Titus 2:7] Peter told the elders in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, …not by compulsion…, nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. [1 Peter 5:2-3].
Jesus Himself commanded all His followers to: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16]
Therefore, when Christians say that we are to follow Christ as our moral example, while ignoring the examples of believers who live less than perfect lives, we are confusing the roles of Savior [a role which only Christ can occupy], teacher [a role and calling which the Holy Spirit gifts believers to occupy for the edification of the church], and pattern/example [a role and calling for which all who follow Christ are gifted and required to occupy].
Moreover, the doctrine of “Follow Christ, not men,” ignores Scripture, and instead offers a cheapened form of grace to believers with no accountability. It is an arrogant excuse for ungodly living and not a plea for grace and mercy.
*Unless noted otherwise, all Bible references are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
ŧ John MacArthur, in the MacArthur Study Bible, in his note on this passage, places the blame for the dissension on Barnabas [p. 1662], stating that since Paul was an apostle, Barnabas should have been in submission to him. No other commentary I have been able to consult follows MacArthur’s view. It should be noted that MacArthur’s interpretation of the event fails to recognize that Barnabas was also called and anointed as an Apostle in Acts 13:2. Therefore, Acts 15:36-41 presupposes a calling in which both men were of equal standing. Paul himself considers Barnabas an apostle of equal standing in 1 Corinthians 9:5-6. In this same passage, Paul is asserting his calling as an apostle in a situation where the believers were questioning his authority. That is why do not see him pulling rank on Barnabas on this occasion.
§ Typically, the passage is translated: And finding disciples, we stayed there seven days. They told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem. The NASB says they kept telling Paul not to proceed to Jerusalem. According to the construction of the phrase “not to go up,” the Greek uses the negative particle μη [pronounced “may”] with an active future infinitive. Such a grammatical construction always has the force of an imperative, such that Paul was being commanded NOT to proceed to Jerusalem or face severe consequences. [See A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, electronic edition. See also James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery, Syntax of New Testament Greek (Lanham, MD: University Press, 1979), pp. 138-139, on the “infinitive of command.”] Most commentators and study Bible notes gloss over this for fear of making Paul less “holy.” My belief, based on exegesis of the text in the original language, and not the language of a translation, is that the passage shows that Paul, like Peter, was far from a perfect human and that even he did not live a life of perfect obedience following his conversion and call to be an apostle.