Two and a half years ago, I wrote a post called “Discipleship by example.” I was thinking about the importance of example earlier this week when I was speaking to a group of pastors. Most of the people there did not know me, and I will probably never see them again. Thus, there was no way that I could teach by example, so my teaching was limited. Example is extremely important.
My good friend Glenn from “Bad Theology” (isn’t that a great blog name?) has written a great post called “Modeling a godly lifestyle“. He talks about a friend of his who has encouraged and admonished him toward godliness in the past. Then, Glenn recounts a recent encounter with his friend in which his friend encouraged him toward godliness (stimulated him to love and good deeds?) by his actions, without a word spoken. Consider Glenn’s conclusion:
I think that this type of “accountability” or encouragement [having an example to follow] is one of the most effective means of leading others closer to God. While it will often be beneficial and necessary for me to exhort or confront my friends and family concerning our relationships and walks with the Lord, I think a godly lifestyle on my part will always resonate louder and give ample opportunity for the Holy Spirit to personally encourage or convict those around me.
I think Glenn has hit on a basic truth of discipleship, but one that is rarely given the same prominence today that it is given in Scripture. That basic truth of discipleship is modeling godliness – living as an example to other believers in order to help them grow toward maturity in Jesus Christ.
While words and teaching are very important, we are never instructed by the authors of Scripture to simply follow a set of rules. Instead, we are given examples – sometimes even the authors themselves. Consider these passages:
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (John 13:14-15 ESV)
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11 ESV)
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17 ESV)
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me- practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9 ESV)
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7 ESV)
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 ESV)
But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16 ESV)
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12 ESV)
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 ESV)
Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. (3 John 1:11 ESV)
…not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:3 ESV)
Are you surprised at the number of examples? Are you surprised at the extent to when this idea is spread throughout the New Testament? Believe it or not, this is only a small sample of passages that teach us to both follow the example of godly people and to live our lives as an example to others.
Modelling and example, then, are a major aspect of biblical discipleship – of teaching people what it means to live as a child of God. Notice that throughout Scripture we are taught to follow those who actually live as a child of God, not those who speak about or teach about being a child of God.
Of course, in this idea of discipleship by example, there is a built in assumption: the people involved in the discipleship relationship must have access to one another’s lives. Furthermore, this access can’t be a surface level access. This type of discipleship requires sharing life together, both the good times and the bad times, both the high points and the low points, both the good examples and the bad examples.
I believe this last point is exactly why we have de-stressed discipleship by example and stressed discipleship by teaching only. In our individualistic and entertainment driven society, we are not willing to share our lives with other people. We want what we want, when we want it. We want to do things that are fun or pleasing to us. The idea of inviting someone else into our lives, to consider their needs, or yielding our will to theirs is completely foreign. In fact, in order to think about and live this type of discipleship by example it would take a new way of thinking – a renewed mind, in fact – a mind that is not conformed to the common ways of thinking. But, of course, this is exactly what Paul exhorts us toward – a renewed mind.
So, whose example are you following? Are you living your life as an example to others? Are you sharing your life with other people in such a way that you both see the example of others and you allow others to see your own example?