One of the biggest stumbling blocks facing believers in the evangelical world is the focus on ‘imitating’ Christ. Let me cut to the chase and say that this is an unbiblical and spiritually dangerous pursuit that should be exposed and abandoned. Unfortunately, this is the root of most sermons and teachings today in the religious system. While the appeal to be ‘more Christlike’ certainly arouses the fleshly sense of guilt and human determination that make for good sermons & moving worship services, they are powerless to produce ‘Christlike’ living in everyday reality.
A Fatal Proof-Text
Proof-texting is the act of lifting a verse or passage of scripture out of the context in which it was written in an attempt to validate a preconceived idea, or system of thought. Because of the reality of ‘proof-texting’, the scriptures have been exegetically taught to validate all kinds of unbiblical ideas & systems in the name of being ‘true to the text’. In my opinion, one of the most dangerous proof-texts that is commonly used to validate the unbiblical idea of ‘imitating Christ’ is 1 Cor. 11:1
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1, NASB)
On the surface, this one statement made by Paul would seem to indicate that the Christian life is one big game of ‘Simon says’. You remember that game right? Many of us played that game as a child. Simon says “touch your ear”, and you touch your ear. Simon says “sit down”, and you sit down, etc…While the philosophy behind ‘Simon says’ might produce an amusing kids game, it produces a miserable Christian life. Paul never taught others to simply mimic his external actions, and neither did Christ. Unfortunately, the ‘what would Jesus do’ concept has become the message of mainstream Christendom. There is a reason for this.
The ‘Imitate Me’ Messengers
As you may know, there are many well meaning, good hearted, and passionate authors out there who have written extensively about the problems of mainstream Christendom. These authors repeatedly talk about how un-Christian and un-Christ like many professing church attenders are. They lay the blame of what they would consider ‘lukewarm’ western Christianity squarely on the backs of church attenders who do not ‘imitate’ Christ enough through a lifestyle of obedience.
I recently read an article that talked about the negative perception that many ‘unchurched’ people have of evangelical Christians. This author went on to blame this reality on ‘hypocritical’ Christians who do not live out their faith. While many of the statistics listed in the article were true, it was built on the same faulty premise that the solution would be found through believers becoming better ‘imitators’ of Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In reality, it is those who perpetuate this kind of mindset that are responsible for the lukewarm culture within evangelical Christendom that they continually rail against. I have previously written about this in the following articles:
These articles go into further detail about why simply calling people to ‘do’ more is not the solution to the problems found within the institutional religious system. While I do not wish to rehash what I communicated in those articles, I do think it is necessary to talk about the heart behind Paul’s admonition to ‘imitate’ him as he imitates Christ.
External Imitation, Or Internal Imitation?
If we look at Paul’s admonition to ‘imitate’ him as something external, then we would have to assume that Paul was telling the Corinthian believers that they all had to ‘imitate’ him by leaving their home town of Corinth, get some associates to work and travel with (like Timothy), and spend an average of six months in an area to plant churches. Obviously, this is not what Paul was saying at all. As a matter of fact, Paul asked the question:
“All are not apostles are they?”
If all did what Paul did, there would be no churches anywhere. Therefore, Paul’s admonition to ‘imitate’ him was referring to something quite different.
Internally Imitating Christ
Paul was pretty clear when he said “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Paul was not talking about the external imitation of Christ either, or else each Corinthian believer would have to pick twelve disciples of their own, quit their jobs, and travel from city to city, etc… Paul was talking about something much more profound than mimicking the external rules or actions of Jesus Christ. In order to truly ‘imitate’ Christ, we’ll have to understand three major realities.
1. There is only one Christ
In John 15, Jesus said that He is the vine, and we are the branches. Jesus never said that we are to ‘imitate’ the vine. Branches and vines have vastly different functions and purposes. Rather, as branches, we are told to simply ‘abide’ in the vine. This vine (Christ) is quite sufficient, is large, and contains enough life to sustain each ‘branch’ that is connected to it. Another ‘vine’ (Christ) is not needed, nor is it possible for branches to take on the role of being the ‘vine’. Whenever branches try to be the vine, there are problems. As a matter of fact, the quest to ‘mimic’ and be like the vine can be traced all the way back to Lucifer (Satan) himself. What is needed, however, is for the life of the vine to be carried to each place. This is the purpose of branches.
2. Divine love is humanly impossible
Jesus said that if we love Him, we would keep His commandments. He also said that everything is summed up in the command to love God with all of our beings, and to love one another in the same way that He loved us. Considering how deep the love of Christ is, that’s truly a tall order!
I have tried to love like this, and I can tell you that this is a humanly impossible task. If you think you can love like Christ by your own human life and strength, just give it some time. You’ll get sick and tired of the cycle of guilt and failure that comes with trying to ‘imitate’ Christ from your own bankrupt flesh.
God is the substance and personification of love, humans are not. Let’s be clear about that. When Christ gave us the humanly impossible command to love, He wasn’t laying a burden on our shoulders that would weigh us down through our own attempts to love by our own life and strength. Remember, He is the one who told us to come to Him if we are carrying a heavy burden, and He would replace our heavy burden with a light one. When Jesus told His disciples to love, He was simply illustrating the fact that our own life and efforts are powerless to love like this. In order for His disciples to love, they would need another life source altogether.
Jesus Himself did not love others through the strength of His human flesh. Jesus said that He could do nothing of Himself, rather He only did what the Father did. That brings me to my third point.
3. ‘Imitating’ Christ Involves Eating & Resting In Divine Life
Jesus was quite clear about how we would ‘imitate’ Him. He said this:
As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. (John 6:57, NASB)
I think this is one of the most overlooked statements in the entire New Testament. This statement also contains the key to ‘imitating’ Christ. Jesus lived because of the life of His Father dwelling within Him. His Father was His food. He was in constant communion with the Father at all times. His Father’s life was also His source of rest. Simply put, He was always ‘feasting’ & ‘resting’ by the indwelling life of the Father within Him. This was how humans were designed to live from the beginning. In the same way, we ‘imitate’ Christ when we live by His indwelling life that now resides within our inner being.
His life on the inside is our continual feast.
His life on the inside is our continual bed of rest.
His life on the inside is our continual wellspring of love for God & others.
Although the institutional religious system interprets ‘abiding in the vine’, and ‘eating Christ’s life’ as external religious works, they are not. If they were external actions, Jesus would have lived like a ‘monk’ secluding Himself from the world so He could focus on His ‘prayer life’. He did nothing of the sort. Rather, Jesus demonstrated that feasting & resting in Christ through abiding in Him is a continual state of being. Jesus demonstrated this in the way He interacted with the Father at all times.
Equipping The Saints To ‘Imitate’
If information acquisition or external religious works were enough to equip the saints to ‘imitate’ Christ, then simply attending bible studies, listening to one person preach a sermon each week, spending hours in seclusion ‘praying’, or going on missions trips, etc… would be sufficient. Although this is the norm for ‘committed’ folks in the religious system, it is foreign to New Testament church life.
I have heard some amazing sermons in my life, and I have been a part of some incredibly moving worship services, but NONE have ‘equipped’ me like actually being with a group of people who are beholding Christ and living by His divine life as a daily reality. The greatest gift that I have ever received is the gift to see & hear Christ in every situation. I have received this gift through the example of others who live this kind of a life as a daily reality. The life of Jesus Christ (vine) is fully carried out through the community of believers (branches) who are being built together in community. ’Imitating’ Christ was never intended to be an individualistic lifestyle.
Although the world may think we are ‘imitating’ Christ, in reality, it is Christ who imitates Himself through His body. After all, He is the only one who can actually do that. May we abandon the fatal ambition of trying to ‘imitate’ Christ, and may we allow the one who can ‘imitate’ Himself to live His life through us unhindered.
For the imitation of Christ,