Growing Through Imitation

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2, ESV)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1, ESV)

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 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. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:14-17, 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)

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)

There is an old adage about learning that says “more is caught than taught.” When it comes to leading Bible studies, this reminds us that those we teach learn not only from what we say, they observe our behavior, and that, too, shapes what they learn. We call this phenomenon “social learning.” Social learning is so powerful, that when what we say differs from what we do, those we are teaching tend to follow what we do more than what we say. For example, if I tell others they should be patient with one another, but they see me express my impatience with someone, they will tend to feel more freedom to be impatient with others as well. On the other hand, if I am consistent in what I say and what my group members see me do, it tends to reinforce their learning and shape their behavior in a positive way. They see what I am teaching in action, helping them to have a good model to imitate.

I am fortunate to have had many teachers over the years who were excellent examples of what they taught me, and I know that their living examples were instrumental in helping me begin to apply what I was learning to my own life. They were positive models to follow and gave me hope that what I was being challenged to do was actually possible. Our growth in faith is not just a matter of what we know and believe, but also how we live in light of those truths. We need not only admonitions to be faithful to God, but good examples to follow.

Paul recognized the power of imitation as a means for learning and growth. He approached this truth in many different ways, each time highlighting the importance of a faithful response to what they were learning.

Be imitators of God, as beloved children (Ephesians 5:1). We are God’s children, and we are to grow up to be like him, just as children imitate their parents. God is our ultimate example. As Oscar Wilde said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” No one is greater than God, and we are called to imitate Him, to become more like Him, not just to learn about Him. He is our “gold standard” for a faithful life.

Be imitators of me as I am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus Christ is the primary example of what God is like. In Christ, we come to know God’s character, and Paul encourages others to imitate him as he seeks to imitate Christ in his own life. This is not arrogance, but humility, pointing beyond himself to the one he seeks to imitate.

I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel … be imitators of me (1 Corinthians 4:15b-16). Paul recognized that he had a special relationship with the church in Corinth and that they looked to him for guidance on how to live out their faith. He reminds them of this relationship and encourages them to follow his example. He sends Timothy to remind them of his ways, not just his words.

Join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us (Philippians 3:17). Paul recognized he was not the only example to follow, but that within the church there were others who were living faithfully, and the church members should learn from those whose lives exemplify the teaching they have received.

Remember your leaders, … imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7). The writer of Hebrews also recognized the power of example, and encouraged the church to look to the lives of their leaders and imitate the faith they lived out.

Does any of this make you anxious or nervous as a Bible study leader? It should. None of us are perfect examples of what we are teaching from Scripture. I am frequently aware of my own need for growth and greater faithfulness as I teach others. I believe that God can use this recognition of inadequacy in two important ways. First, knowing that the example of my own life has some impact on those I teach, I turn to God, asking Him to work in my own life so that I can be a better example of someone He is transforming, even when there is still a long way to go. Second, I can share how God is at work within me, and point to God as the one to imitate. Like Paul, I can say, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ,” and I can point to the grace of God at work within me, even as I struggle to consistently live out what He is teaching me. I’m a fellow learner, and God is our teacher. He is our Father, and we learn to imitate Him as His children. As we seek to imitate Him, He will work through His Spirit to transform us. This truth gives me great hope in my teaching!

Father, thank you for those who have taught me not only by their faithful words, but by their faithful lives. Please continue your transforming work in me that I can better embody what you call me to teach from your Word. Thank you for your grace, patience, and persistence in helping me more faithfully live out what I learn from Scripture. Help me continue to point to you, and to encourage others to join me in imitating you, not just learning about you. Amen.

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