In my previous post, I defined discipleship as imitation and modelling. This is the pattern of discipleship described in the New Testament:
“Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending 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 in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:16, 17)
“We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (Hebrews 6:12)
“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7, 8)
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)
“Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” (Philippians 3:17)
“For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example…” (2 Thessalonians 3:7ff)
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12)
“In everything set them an example by doing what is good.” (Titus 2:7)
One of the problems church leaders have with such a pattern is fear of the cult of personality. We look at people who are making disciples, and we accuse them of building their own empire. We can be really scriptural, and point to Paul’s concerns, recorded in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians, regarding following men. Of course, we conveniently miss the point that Paul actually planted something in these people’s lives; and that Apollos actually watered those things: and that process happens through imitation and modelling. It is all meant to point to God, who alone makes those things grow – but God chooses to work through people. Paul’s concern is that the Corinthians have placed a wrong emphasis on the process – just as he is also concerned that they have got their emphasis wrong in relation to spiritual gifts – and not that the thing itself is wrong.
If Paul were writing to my cultural context, I think he’d tackle the same issue from different angles. He would need to address our cultural suspicion of those in positions of authority; our jaded belief that it is not worth looking to anyone as an example – parents, politicians, church leaders – because sooner or later they will only let you down. And he’d have to address the other side of the equation, our reluctance to be considered as a role-model ourselves: it’s hard enough to take responsibility for our own lives, and perhaps those of our immediate family, let alone feel any sense of responsibility for anyone else…
He’d also need to address the conscious disconnection, and unconscious connection, between those we look to and how we live: though we are obsessed with celebrities, most of us do not try to live like them directly (that is, there is a disconnection at the level of conscious decision), but over time have our values shaped by their values (that is, there is a connection at the level of subconscious decision).
Discipleship challenges all these cultural issues. To our paralysed inability to come to an internal decision as to the best way forward (e.g. “How am I supposed to deal with my child’s bad behaviour?”) discipleship holds out someone to come alongside us. To our reluctance to be seen as a role model ourselves, discipleship holds out the possibility that we can learn to live a life that is worth sharing. And in place of conscious disconnections and unconscious connections which leave us doubly disempowered (I can’t have the distractions ‘they’ have; or make life-giving decisions for myself), discipleship holds out conscious connection with life in increasing fullness.