On the Imitation of Christ as Key to Pastoral Discipleship
I have found myself thinking of my own graduation from seminary in the midst of this commencement season, as well as the charge that was given to me and my fellow graduates by our professor of New Testament Interpretation, Dr. Dan McCartney.
Dr. McCartney delivered a charge based on 2 Timothy 2:23-26, and I still return to and ponder his counsel from that night. Imitation of Christ is the foundation of ministry. To be a disiscpler, I must be an imitator of the one who is discipling me. The meat Dr. McCartney’s charge is below.
Paul gives Timothy an interesting title in v.24 – he addresses Timothy as a “servant of the Lord,” a title that is assigned to Jesus himself, taken from the servant songs in Isaiah 40-55, where the Lord’s Servant is described as gentle and patiently enduring evil. Jesus is the ultimate Servant of the Lord; if we are also to be the Lord’s servant we must be imitators of Jesus.
This has many dimensions, but here Paul focuses on five characteristics in particular:
1) The Lord’s servant (the imitator of Jesus) must not be quarrelsome.
The word translated “quarrelsome” might be put in modern parlance as “always itching for a fight” – Paul says the servant of the Lord should not be a lover of controversy. Yes, Paul also enjoins Timothy to fight the good fight, and sometimes one must indeed contend for the gospel, but the proclivity to controversy, a lust for it, should not be part of the disciple’s character.
2) Kind to everyone.
Kind to everyone? even people who oppose you (and the gospel)? Yes (v.25). One must correct those who oppose the gospel, but with gentleness! That’s a harder way to fight, but more effective if the goal is to have your opponents also imitate Jesus.
3) “apt to teach.” This is a single word in Greek. We have a word in English, “teachable” which means someone who is willing and able to be taught, but for this we need a word that means willing and able to teach – something like “teacherable.” The Lord’s servant who imitates Jesus must be “teacherable.” Jesus led people by patient teaching, he was the discipler.
If I might again illustrate by referring to the problem of teaching someone how to play a musical instrument. When I was first starting to learn to play the horn I had a music teacher who was a good musician but he was a violinist, not a horn player (no french horn players in my little town in WV). He could tell when something was wrong, but was unable to show me how to do it. Needless to say, I didn’t make much progress with him. He was not “teacherable” for my instrument because he did not know himself how to play horn and therefore couldn’t show me. People who are really apt to teach (“teacherable”) are able to provide a pattern, and can help a student to follow that pattern. How are we going to be “apt to teach” someone to imitate Jesus? Well, chiefly by working hard on imitating Jesus ourselves, and by watching others who are already good at it.
4) The fourth characteristic is really hard – the servant of the Lord must be “patiently enduring evil,” one of the main attributes of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah. It goes against our grain to be patient with people when they are doing us dirt. Yet the servant of the Lord must in this too imitate THE servant of the Lord; he or she must patiently endure evil, hardship or illness or slander or whatever other evil may come along, again following the pattern of Jesus. As he suffered reviling without reviling in return, so must his imitators do. The fact that Jesus treated with respect even those who were not respectful to him has left us an example that we might follow in his footsteps. That’s poignant to me, because I’m not at all inclined to respect those who don’t respect me. How much transformative power would the church wield if we began imitating Jesus in this matter. Perhaps we would once again find ourselves cultivating a culture of respect instead of one of suspicion, and people would again be drawn to the church as a place of safety.
5) The fifth characteristic is “Correcting.” This one looks at first like it might be what we American Christians are good at. Yes, let’s get out there and correct all that bad theology and all that wrong-headedness we see in the church. But even the “correcting” that’s in view in v. 25 is a gentle, a teaching kind of correcting, a correcting that works by patterning. It is the word used for a parent gently and patiently teaching his or her child how to do something correctly, usually, again, by showing how it’s properly done, not by simply punishing the child for doing it incorrectly. Again I think the word “respect” is worth bearing in mind.
The goal of the correcting is of course that “God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” It’s a cliché, but I’ll repeat it anyway: The goal isn’t to win the battle but to win the person!
Paul also reminds us here that those who oppose the truth are in fact ensnared by the devil.I think we should remember that this is what we once were (Tit 3:3). And the hope is that we all, by seeing the truth through the efficacy of someone imitating Jesus, will “escape [the word commonly means “come to their senses”] from the snare of the devil.” There is an interesting principle here; those who oppose the truth can be won over, but not by accusation, compulsion, or excision – rather by providing them with a true pattern to imitate.
By being imitators of Jesus, not the world, we break the cycle of disrespect and begin a new cycle of respect. That, not worldly power, is how we may yet win even those who have been ensnared by the devil.