"Copycat discipleship?"

Some sectors of Christian spirituality have held to the idea of imitation as being key to Christian ethics. For example, in recent times think of the WWJD movement (that is, "What Would Jesus Do?"). For some reason, though, scholars seem to have been rather wary of the idea of imitation. Instead, books of Christian ethics have tended to pinch secular ideas of ethics and "Christianize" them (ok, broad brush, but many seem to). But, are we missing something?

Consider the Spirit-empowerment of Jesus at the Jordan in Luke and the disciples at Pentecost in Acts. Now, this connection has long been argued by Pentecostals as an important one regarding the empowering of the Spirit and expectations for our own experiences. Max Turner (in his book "Power from on High"), amongst others, has to my mind shown that for Luke the Spirit also was responsible for ethical empowering (e.g. note Jesus is subsequently led (as in helped)  in the desert by the Spirit during his temptation, including in his use and interpretation of Scripture to bolster his ethical stance). In that case, there is some kind of "imitation" of the pattern of Jesus in terms of how his disciples are empowered by the Spirit for ethics (and, e.g., Acts 2:38-39 suggests Luke thought this is true for us too).

Perhaps, though, we should take a step further back to the fundamental aspects of the idea of discipleship. As Burridge notes in "Imitating Jesus", imitating one's master was deemed a way of knowing Torah and was indirectly an imitation of God. Wisdom of Sirach 30:4 says of a rabbi and his disciples "When his father [teacher] dies, it is as though he is not dead. For he leaves behind him one like himself." It is quite possible, especially if Burridge's thesis regarding the gospels as bioi ("biographies" with some intention of the life depicted being copied to some extent) is correct, that the gospels show us patterns of behaviour for Jesus' followers to emulate.

Paul also openly calls for people to imitate him - 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6. He modelled himself on Christ and to the extent that he did so he thought that he could then act as a model for others (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:1). In imitating Paul, believers could imitate Jesus and ultimately God himself (Ephesians 5:1-2 perhaps evidences part of this thought). 1 Thessalonians 1:7 points to others beyond the apostles in turn becoming models for yet further followers of Christ.

Now, by "imitation" or "copying" or "emulating" we are clearly not talking about having the same hairdo or eating in the same restaurants or even saying the same things. Such a narrow understanding of imitation would result in it rightly being rejected as unhelpful. However, a more nuanced understanding of patterning one's behaviour after role models is surely something that we all can relate to. In fact, it is something that it is hard to avoid doing. Children learn patterns of behaviour from observing those around them. So do adults, although perhaps to a lesser degree. Relationships are places where learning happens, where our behaviour is shaped and our ethical choices influenced. If this is the case, then is it not true that Christian ethics is in fact something passed on (in part at least) through our relationships with one another? Do we not learn how to be God's people by being with God's people?

I would also suggest that our behaviour is often influenced by those we admire. Would it not be a productive thing to present Jesus as our role model, someone to admire so much that we want to be like him? Can we in turn be people that others admire and want to be like? Can we pass on the values of the kingdom through what we do and say, without even having to name the ethical principle behind it?

I don't think imitation is the one magic key to Christian discipleship. Yet, in an age when we are rediscovering the relational and non-rational modes of our lives as well as the rational, propositional sides, surely such an approach to ethics would be useful? The concept of mentoring would fit right in here too, of course.

So, maybe as "churches" and as Christians wherever we find ourselves, perhaps we should be more concerned about what examples we are setting to others and which examples we are following than trying to make people aware of and then memorise the 10 commandments or the like. 
©Joe Lenton, Sept 2011