Be Imitators of Me
by John Nunes
We need better leaders! That’s a perception these days — that what’s needed most in churches is upgrading the quality of its leadership. Too often, this is defined secularly, in terms of vision implementation, strategic planning, and management models. Whether or not this so-called lack of leadership is the primary problem, there are biblical models of mentoring. These godly lifestyle patterns for transferring effectively the faith will prove helpful to leaders in strengthening their local churches.
The writings of Saint Paul especially demonstrate how the informal networks of mentoring work, most often toward a missional aim. Paul’s co-worker, co-writer, and co-citizen was Silas, who, like Paul, was a Jewish citizen of Rome. Silas used his passport, his passion, and his personal relationship with Paul to proclaim the Gospel to the world. Dr. Jerry Kosberg, a coach and counselor to mentors, defines a mentor as “somebody who has moved a little further down the road than you have.” Mentors often possess maps to get around the distracting traps presented alluringly by the Devil, the world, and our own inevitable corruption. For example, Paul dares to offer his own experience as a text of instruction: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things” (Phil. 4:9).
Both the learners and teachers acquire new vitality from these relationships of refreshment (Rom. 15:33). Paul and Silas accomplished more together than they could have individually, going “through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41). Embracing Timothy as a son, Paul sent him as a church-strengthener to Corinth, to remind that wayward community that though “you have countless guides,” he, Paul, was like a father, not only to Timothy, but to all the faithful. Again, modeling is a central function of this family-like framework. Paul blatantly exhorts: “I urge you then, ‘be imitators of me’” (See 1 Cor. 4:14–17). It should not go unnoticed that Timothy’s Spirit-inspired combination of mature faith and relative youth serves to reverse our expectation that older people are always mentors to younger people. Youthfulness, in itself, is not to be looked at derisively, but steady, stalwart believers of any age of can be signs of God’s grace (1 Tim. 4:12).
Mentors can unfortunately become tormentors when they misappropriate and misapply their God-granted authority. “Exhort and rebuke with all authority” says Paul (Titus 2:15). Authority is a gift. Rebuking comes like a scalpel with care, not like a sledgehammer with careless judgmentalism. Authority is to be exercised for building up, not tearing down, for edifying, not destroying (2 Cor. 10:8). Mentors provide: support through hard times, navigation through bewildering times, hope through despairing times, and joy through perilous times. In order to provide positive feedback for those who are fed-up, mentors must be well-fed on the grace of Christ that comes through God’s Word and sacrament.
That’s the focus: the resurrected and living Christ. Mentors center on Jesus’ sacrificial love, shown in the crucifixion, that in everything this Christ “might be preeminent” (Col. 1:18). Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it like this in his rich volume Life Together: “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.” Jesus Christ mentors the mentoring relationship as the hidden middle-man, visible only to the eye of faith. The best mentors embody mystery. They are seen through. Since God’s hand of providence upholds godly leaders, protégés may, at times, scratch their heads in delighted confusion: Is this Christ or is it my mentor? Paul talks about this imitative function in such double terms. By following penultimately his team of missionaries, the church became “imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:6). Pointing to the Savior is the overriding purpose of mentoring — there is one mediator, one Mentor, between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). When Christ is displaced, whenever human personality becomes sinfully uplifted by an inward curvature of the ego, difficulties will always creep in (Rom. 2:8–9).
Developing a biblically grounded mentoring relationship is worth the sweat and investment. In my own ministry, I have sensed that engaging protégés — usually no more than three at a time, and almost always younger men — returns me to an ancient pattern. The apostolic age was largely pre-literate. As such, it resonates with our postmodern, post-literate culture, especially in urban areas. Oral tradition, storytelling, and enacted spiritual practices shaped the burgeoning early church. They can shape us too as Christianity is handed down person-to-person, preserving catechetical continuity in living relationships. This mentoring method might tax our creativity, stretch our patience, and demand careful timing, but we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Gal. 6:9).