For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. (1 Cor. 4:15-16).
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1)
I have been fascinated and haunted by Paul’s command that others should imitate him. Hubris is absent here, but rather a profound assurance that he is walking intimately with Christ, that his every breath is given in service to Him. Thus, he could say to those who were babes in Christ to imitate his actions and if they do this, they will mature.
In my short 39 years of being in church and hearing many sermons, not once have I heard a pastor utter these words about him or herself. I’ve never heard another preacher say, “Imitate me.” I have a hard time imagining myself saying it. Yet I have to wonder if Paul envisioned that those whom he taught to teach others, such as Timothy, would become such bold shepherds as he, that they would say the same to their sheep.
Paul would not quibble with the ordination vows we Methodists take where we promise that we are going on to perfection and expect to be made perfect in love of God and neighbor in this life. I suspect he would see that as a self-evident truth for anyone who is in Christ, especially anyone who has been called by God to bear the mantle of “pastor.” My own reluctance to tell my church to imitate me comes from fear of failure. Paul seemed to know his own limitations, stressing that he has not yet obtained everything, but pressing on to lay hold of Christ who laid hold of him (Phil. 3:12). He knows his weaknesses, even boasting in them, that the power of God might prevail (2 Cor. 12:19). So when Paul says “imitate me” I do not hear in his words that he is perfect. I hear in his words a desire to do everything under his power to submit every word, deed and thought to Jesus Christ and when he fails, he will repent. To imitate Paul is to live a life of daily repentance, in total submission to the will of God, whether that means life or death, freedom or imprisonment, accolades or condemnation.
To quote the late Scottish preacher Robert McCheyne, “the greatest need my congregation has is my own personal holiness.” Imagine if pastors everywhere made it our goal this coming year to live lives in such a way that we could say to our congregations, “Imitate me”?
Below are five things I find in Paul worthy of imitation. There are many more, to be sure, and I invite you to share what you think those might be in the comments below.
Paul had a rich intercessory prayer life. He encourages his flock to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). His prayers often focused on the maturing faith of every believer:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:9-10)
To be in unceasing prayer for the increasing faith of our churches and for their ongoing pursuit of holiness is a habit of Paul’s worth imitating.
Paul could call others to imitate his life because humility was a central, guiding virtue of his life. He knew himself as a the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9) and the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He never lost sight of the “wretched man that he is” apart from Christ (Rom. 7:24). Paul was a man who knew his greatest need was the grace and mercy of God and was overwhelmed by the gift of salvation wrought on Calvary for his sake. The blood of Christ bought him, and he was forever Christ’s slave (1 Cor. 6:20; Rom. 1:1) and a slave to others, in order that they might know Jesus (1 Cor. 9:19).
Paul taught that we should always consider others as more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). A hard posture of the heart to embrace, to be sure, but certainly one worthy of our striving to imitate.
Paul was never content with just making converts, but with the ongoing salvation of our lives, both inward and outward. The will of God, he wrote, is our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3), that we would grow in holiness, able to control our bodies and passions and walk in self-control (Gal. 5:19-22).
Paul was convinced that anyone in Christ was a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) and as such, everything would be different. Those of us who bear the name Christian are temples of the Holy Spirit, and so long as we strive to continue in the faith, Christ will one day present us “holy and blameless” before the Father (Col. 1:21-23).
When we Methodist pastors vow to go on to perfection we are staking our claim on God’s promise that he will complete the good work he has begun in us (Phil. 1:6) and that the person who was called into ministry is a person who is always dying to self and being made alive in Jesus. Christ takes us just as we are but never leaves us just as he found us.
Paul’s desire to be completely remade in Christ coupled with a life that is always growing in the fruit of the Spirit is a life worthy of imitation.
Willingness to be spent for the sake of souls
Paul was willing to give his life, even go to hell, if it meant saving the souls of some (Rom. 9:3). He would become all things to all people if it meant it might win some to Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-23). In his comfort or in his suffering, he saw it all as a means for others to share in the salvation he knew in Jesus (1 Cor. 1:5-7).
John Wesley’s charge to his preachers, that they have “nothing to do but save souls,” echoes Paul’s vocation. He worked tirelessly to spread the message of repentance and new life in Jesus Christ. Paul would have wanted to see altars filled every time he preached a sermon.
To be guided by such a clear focus as Paul’s, working to see souls converted to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, is something worth imitating.
Joy and Peace
In all things, Paul says, rejoice! (Phil. 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16-23). Paul learned that because Christ is his strength, he could be content in all things, in all seasons (Phil. 4:11-13). He trusted God to supply all things, every need, according to God’s will and for the purpose of God’s glory (4:19). He warns against grumbling as it is how the Destroyer destroys us (1 Cor. 10:9-10). Rather, know that all things work together for the good of those who love God (Rom. 8:28).
Being the sort of pastor who does not grumble over where their bishop appoints them to serve, or who finds great joy and peace even in trials, taking comfort in knowing that their suffering is a sharing in the sufferings of Christ (Rom. 8:17), being content in all things and rejoicing in all things, sounds like something worth imitating.
Paul could say,
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:9)
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, (2 Tim. 3:10)
I desire to be a pastor who can say the same. What about you?
What are some other habits of Paul that are worthy of imitation? What are some habits we, as pastors, should strive towards this coming year so that if others were to imitate us, they would be imitating Christ?