Paul didn’t just pass out workbooks and tell his disciples to fill in the blanks for next Sunday. He didn’t go on TV and tell millions of people how to live, then pack up and go home. No, he was a day-to-day living model of how a Christian should live: “you became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Thess 1:6a); “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). This method is traditionally known as mimesis.
Christian leaders must assume that they are always being watched and imitated. In this way they are like the parents of small children, who will imitate whatever they see and hear. At no time may they “let down their hair”; flesh and blood examples are forever on duty. There’s an excellent cautionary tale in James Baldwin’s classic, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). There has been a series of church meetings. Gabriel is the youngest preacher of the group. The others are black ministers of great renown who have come from all over to participate. But when the doors are shut the preachers take it that they have permission to be themselves since there are no laypeople present. One of the preachers makes a vicious slur against a woman who had just served their dinner, poking fun at her because she had once been raped by white men:
Everyone at the table roared, but Gabriel felt his blood turn cold that God’s ministers should be guilty of such abominable levity, and that that woman sent by God to comfort him, and without whose support he might readily have fallen by the wayside, should be held in such dishonor. They felt, he knew, that among themselves a little rude laughter could do no harm; they were too deeply rooted in the faith to be made to fall by such an insignificant tap from Satan’s hammer. But he stared at their boisterous, laughing faces, and felt that they would have much to answer for on the day of judgment, for they were stumbling-stones in the path of the true believer.
Now the sandy-haired man, struck by Gabriel’s bitter, astounded face, bit his laughter off, and said: “What’s the matter, son? I hope I ain’t said nothing to offend you?”
“She read the Bible for you the night you preached, didn’t she?” asked another of the elders, in a conciliatory tone.
“That woman,” said Gabriel, feeling a roaring in his head, “is my sister in the Lord.”
“Well, Elder Peters here, he just didn’t know that,” said someone else. “He sure didn’t mean no harm.”
“Now, you ain’t going to get mad?” asked Elder Peters, kindly – yet there remained, to Gabriel’s fixed attention, something mocking in his face and voice. “You ain’t going to spoil our little dinner?”
“I don’t think it’s right,” said Gabriel, “to talk evil about nobody. The Word tell me it ain’t right to hold nobody up to scorn.”
“Now you just remember,” Elder Peters said, as kindly as before, “you’s talking to your elders.”
“Then it seem to me,” he said, astonished at his boldness, “that if I got to look to you for a example, you ought to be a example.”
Teaching by example is not the same as an instructional video, which may be turned off and which asks the viewer to imitate one skill set or other without concerning themselves with the moral character of instructor. The apostolic model is the imitation of the pattern holistically, and the pattern is on duty whether on Sunday morning or during vacation or when awakened by phone at 3 AM in the morning. Anything else is a flawed model, which will result in a flawed disciple, who will produce flawed followers in turn. Christian leaders such as Baldwin describes, who give themselves a free pass from accountability, are setting a corrosive example to others and setting themselves up for corruption.