Parents, when caught by their children in some hypocrisy, often say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I haven’t said that to my 18-month-old son yet – mostly because he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak gibberish. But I will say it someday. Imperfect a father as I am, I know that I will need to uphold the authority of life’s rules even as I occasionally (and inadvertently) break them.
Of course, it would be better by far for me to say to my son, “Do as I say precisely because I say as I do.” Or, more briefly, “Do as I do.” This is the essence of Paul’s message to his spiritual children in 1 Corinthians 4:14-16:
I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me.
Remember the context of these words. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21, Paul is writing the Corinthians to correct their patterns of thinking, which are misshaping their patterns of living. Though Christians, their thought patterns are determined by classical philosophy and rhetoric rather than Christ’s cross, thus making them proud, judgmental, and divisive. Paul’s own thinking is cruciform, however, so his behavior is humble, gracious, and reconciling – like Christ’s.
Have we become so cynical about the power of God’s grace that we doubt a human being can make progress in holiness? That, under the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit, a human being can really and truly become more and more Christlike? If we have, then we haven’t paid much attention to Paul.
Paul believed he was Christlike enough to urge the Corinthians to imitate, not just Jesus, but himself. Or, as put it in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” The goal of spiritual formation is to become like Christ so that, as a secondary goal, you can lead others by example, not just words.
To lead others requires that we have a stake in their lives. Leadership is not about command and control, let alone about guilt and shame. It is, instead, about taking a fatherly (or motherly) interest in another person. When I look at my son Reese, I think about him differently than I think about other 18-month-old children. He’s my son. Together with his mother, I made him. He reflects me. His wellbeing is my concern.
Because leaders have a stake in the lives of their followers, they pay more attention to the example they set, knowing that they will be followed. The other day, Reese picked up my phone and said, repeatedly, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He learned that from me. Do I want him to talk so abruptly on the phone? No, and I don’t want him to live badly either. I must set an example.