Now, before someone slams me for the title of this post, it is simply a play on words… or actually, a play on the saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” No, I don’t believe that imitation is actually the “sincerest” form of discipleship. However, I do believe that imitation is an important (and often overlooked) aspect of discipleship.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he said:
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12 ESV)
His exhortation to “remember” their hard work was not a call toward mental exercise alone. Instead, Paul was telling the Thessalonians to remember how he and his group lived their lives among them, and then for the Thessalonians to imitate that way of life.
In fact, in may instances, Paul specifically told his readers to “imitate” what they had seen him and his team do (for example, see 2 Thessalonians 3:7 and 1 Corinthians 11:1). He was not content with teaching people a set of lessons to be learned by memory. Instead, his lessons included instructions and demonstrations in how to live as a follower of Jesus Christ.
This idea of imitating someone else’s faith (which would include their manner of living) seems fundamental and foundational to discipleship in the New Testament. Paul often commended people to his readers as people who should be followed (Philippians 2:19-30). John warned his readers to make sure they are imitating good examples, and not bad examples (3 John 1:11). The author of Hebrews exhorted his readers, “Consider the outcome of [your leaders’] way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7 ESV)
Do we still practice imitation as a form of discipleship? I haven’t seen it as much in my life, although it is growing more common among the believers that God has placed in my life. I have seen example after example of someone taking another person aside to teach them “correct doctrine.” But, it has been rare when I have seen someone show someone else how to live, how to serve, how to love as a follower of Jesus Christ.
For instance, when someone is a new believer, often Christians think, “Let’s get them into a Bible study.” That’s all well and good. But, what about also including this, “Let’s take them with us as we serve people.” (This assumes that we’re serving people of course – but, maybe that’s part of the problem.)
When a brother or sister is having a hard time loving someone else (because of any number of reasons) we can offer them a study on love, or we can take them with us to demonstrate God’s love to some other people who are hard to love.
Of course, these are just a few examples. But, I think, imitation is a very important (and scriptural) aspect to discipleship. Unfortunately, I also think imitation is an aspect of discipleship that has been lost to many Christians. Perhaps imitation is a lost art because of individualism or the extreme importance placed on education. But, for whatever reason, we don’t see much imitation discipleship practiced today.
What do you think? Is imitation an important aspect of discipleship? Have you ever observed and followed someone else’s way of life? Do you have any suggestions as to how to increase imitation discipleship?