“Imitate me”?

As we saw in a previous post, Paul tells the Corinthians to imitate him, to follow his example.  And this is not the only place he does so; the same theme can be found in his other letters.  Here’s a sampling, taken from the NRSV:

  • Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.  (1 Cor 11:1)
  • Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.  (Phil 3:17)
  • And you became imitators of us and of the Lord… (1 Thess 1:6)
  • For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us… (2 Thess 3:7)

I know that I need the example of others, and I’m conscious of the importance of being a living example in turn.  But I doubt that I would ever say it straight out: “Imitate me!”  That seems to violate rules of social propriety, and it’s hard not to feel a touch of chagrin at Paul’s boldness.

But here’s how I make sense of it.

First, and most generally: imitation is central to human learning.  A great deal of excitement in recent years has centered on the discovery of so-called “mirror neurons“–if you like, the neurological basis for “monkey see, monkey do.”  If Charlie the chimp watches his buddy engage in a goal-oriented action–like picking up a banana to peel and eat it–then certain neurons will fire in Charlie’s brain as if he had done it himself.

Evidence suggests that human brains work the same way: when we merely watch others engage in purposive behavior, parts of our brain light up as if we had performed the behavior ourselves.  We’ve known for a long time that babies are capable of imitating facial expressions almost from birth; mirror neurons may be what makes this possible.  All that to say this: we are already prewired for social imitation, and this is the foundation for learning how to behave.

Second: Paul’s command, “be imitators of me” (1 Cor 4:16, NRSV), seems to be a direct consequence of the statement “I became your father through the gospel” (4:15).  When my children were small, I did in fact expect them to follow my example in many things, from how to eat with a spoon, to proper table manners, to how to be polite to other people.  It wasn’t always said directly, but it was always implied: Do as I say, and do as I do.

Paul has already told the Corinthians that they’re still acting as mere babes in Christ (3:1).  If Paul really does see himself in some way as their spiritual “father,” then asking them to imitate him is a natural part of the relationship, and the same may be true of other congregations.

Finally, we have to remember the historical context.  Today, if you want to know more about Jesus or the Christian life, you have choices galore–or at least, more choices than the Corinthians had.  For example, you can get Bibles in umpteen different translations, and read them in the privacy of your own home.  The list of possibilities goes on.

But the Corinthians had no Bible, only what oral tradition had been passed on to them and a letter or two from Paul.  They had to learn the Christian life by the conspicuous example of their leaders.  As small pockets of believers in a large city, they had to figure out from scratch what it meant to be the church.  Examples of worldliness abounded; examples of Christlikeness were few.  Is it any wonder, then, that Paul would urge them to follow his example, and the example of any other person in the vicinity who had given their lives to being more and more like Christ?

We all need examples to follow, to imitate.  It’s how we learn.  And we should be thankful for the ones we have.

Who are your examples, and why?