Imitation Is Not Discipleship

The Master Plan of Evangelism

[This introductory section is for those not familiar with the book, and may not be a necessary refresher for some of my readers.]

Robert E. Coleman’s book, The Master Plan of Evangelism, was first released more than 50 years ago, in 1964. This book has caused a revolution of sorts, not so much in Western local churches, but more so in parachurch ministries like campus ministries and missions organizations. Coleman boldly sets forth that Jesus’ plan was never that a select few Christians—those gifted in evangelism or missions work—would preach the gospel to all nations; rather, Jesus’ master plan has always been a church that multiplies through personal discipleship.

The key text where we see this most clearly is 2 Timothy 2:2:

And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

As Coleman unpacks in his book, in the context of a single verse, Paul is referring to four different layers or “generations” of disciples:

  1. Paul (“me”)
  2. Timothy (“you” and the “many witnesses”)
  3. Timothy’s disciples (“faithful men”)
  4. Timothy’s disciples’ disciples (“others”)

Coleman also examines Jesus’ choice of the twelve apostles (à la A. B. Bruce). These twelve were not chosen at random. In fact, Jesus prayed all night before choosing them (Luke 6:11-12). Coleman contends that Jesus’ plan all along was that through daily, continued contact and teaching of these twelve disciples, they would incarnate and proliferate his gospel message through those that they would come in contact with. This is a needed corrective to impersonal mass evangelism efforts, and Billy Graham even agreed that this was a needed corrective to his own ministry.

A number of terms have been used both inside and outside Coleman’s book to describe this sort of chain reaction, such as multiplication, faithful (i.e. steadfast) discipleship and multi-generational discipleship. Francis Chan, an able teacher, adopted Multiply as the title of his book on discipleship. And while I understand that the overall teaching is powerful and effective, there are some destructive and confusing mistakes that I see creeping into the body of Christ through hierarchical organizations of discipleship.

The main danger I see here is that multi-generational discipleship can so easily mix spiritual and non-spiritual motives in an intensely communal context. (I’ve dealt with some of these problems in my review of Gene Edwards’ book Letters to a Devastated Christian, but in this article I am looking closely at specific biblical language.) Jewish rabbis and Sunni imams make detailed decisions about the lifestyles of those under their authority, often down to how to trim their beards and wear their clothes. But Christian discipleship has always been a distinctly spiritual activity.

With this in mind, I wanted to delve into some of the biblical terms related to this multi-generational discipleship model, with the hope that they help us to better orient our spiritual discipleship:

  1. “Multiplication”
  2. “Imitation”
  3. “Regeneration”

Conversion Is Not Multiplication

There is a major problem with the term “multiplication” as applied to discipleship: believers are never multiplied in the New Testament. Here are some of the things that are multiplied (πληθύνω) in the New Testament:

  • The Israelites (Acts 7:17, Heb. 6:14)
  • Grace and peace (1 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:2, Jude 1:2)
  • Churches (Acts 9:31)
  • The word of God (Acts 12:24)

In Acts 6, Luke tells us twice that the number of the disciples was multiplied (v. 1 and 7), but he never says that “believers” or “disciples” multiplied. It is a contradiction in terms.

Multiplication implies that what is produced is a copy of what came before. But in the gospel, every new believer is an addition. Every time Christ is born in a human soul, we behold an act utterly unique to human history; the stamp of Christ on that soul has never happened before and will never be repeated in this cosmos. Conversion is an epitome of the creative miracle of God; and evangelical biography is always the exposition of a miracle. Chesterton expresses this unforgettably in Orthodoxy:

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun. It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The word multiplication is used to describe the growth of the Israelites because they grew through natural reproduction (i.e. the copying of DNA). This kind of parental/ancestral language is never used for Christian discipleship. In two passages, Paul uses parenthood as a metaphor for his fatherly and affectionate relationship to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:15) and the Galatians (4:19-20), but he does not adopt it as a primary term for his relationship to whole groups of people. (More on this below.) There may be spiritual children, in a sense; spiritual grandchildren, never. This is the meaning of John’s explanation of regeneration at the outset of his gospel (1:12-13):

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood [i.e. not through a human mother], nor of the will of the flesh [i.e. not through sexual intercourse], nor of the will of man [i.e. not through a husband (Gk. ἀνδρὸς)], but of God.

Attempts to trace a “spiritual lineage” in hierarchical discipleship-based ministries bolster the egos of those involved, but they don’t honor the miracle of Christ in the soul. Discipleship is neither multiplication nor replication; it is two spiritual siblings working out the miracle of Christ in the soul together. They may be unequal in knowledge or experience but the clearest way to express their spiritual relationship is still that of “brother” or “sister,” not “father” or “mother.”

Imitation Is Not Discipleship

Among ministries that take Coleman’s model, it can also be common to quote scriptures on imitation. There are many New Testament scriptures where Paul enjoins his readers either to imitate their teachers, or their teachers’ faith, or something they have seen or heard from Paul himself. Here are the key examples:

Remember your leaders . . . Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Heb. 13:7, ESV)

The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do . . . (Phil. 4:9, cf. 3:17)

Therefore I urge you, imitate me. (1 Cor. 4:16)

Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1)

Does Paul Call Churches to Imitate Him?

It sounds like Paul is asking for a blank check here. I would contend, though, that Paul never teaches unqualified imitation. The kind of imitation that some leaders expect of their disciples is carnal, not spiritual. In the epistles in which Paul calls for imitation, he is not talking about his diet, his music, his car, his hair, or even his talk style. He is talking about teaching, doctrine, and spiritual life. In what follows, I show why I believe that “follow” is probably the better translation for the group of New Testament Greek words that have been translated “imitate.”

This is one point where the King James Version is more careful in rendering the Greek than the modern versions.  Here are some scriptures for comparison:

1 Corinthians 4:17
New King James Version
Therefore I urge you, imitate me.

King James Bible
Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.

1 Corinthians 11:1
New King James Version
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.

King James Bible
Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.

When translating Greek into English, it is difficult to resist the pull of related words or cognates; the phrase for “be ye followers of me” uses the word μιμηταί, “followers,” which is etymologically related to “mimic” and “mime”. The idea that this word must mean “imitators” because it is etymologically related is bad exegesis and is known as “the etymological fallacy.” In a nutshell, it is not true for the same reason that butterflies aren’t flies made of butter—word origin does not equal word meaning. In this case, it seems that the modern versions are translating over-literally. This is fascinating because the usual complaint is that the King James Version is too literal! Using “imitate” to translate this verb is puzzling in 1 Peter 3:13, for example, because the verb is used with a non-human object—how does one “imitate good”?

Another verse uses this verb in a way that does not work with English “imitate”:

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word . . . (1 Th. 1:6, ESV)

How could they imitate the Lord by receiving his Word, when the Lord cannot receive his own Word? It seems like overall, the King James Version’s choice of “followers” may cover the word’s usage better. In fact, the KJV translators translated the verb as “follow” and the noun as “follower” every time they showed up.

Another interesting point on the second verse involves the conjunction “just as” (καθὼς). It may not mean that the Corinthians were to imitate Paul in the same way that Paul imitated Christ; it may also mean that they were to imitate Paul inasmuch as Paul imitated Christ. It is the same conjunction used here:

He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. (Mark 4:33)

With this in mind, a possible translation of 1 Corinthians 11:1 would be “follow me inasmuch as I also follow Christ.” I cannot say certainly that this is the correct translation, but I know that taking these verses in a very literal way has led to many abuses of discipleship. I remember seeing a famous worship leader post a picture of a student who had copied her exotic hair style. It should be emphatically stated: copycatting your pastor in every area of life has nothing to do with spiritual growth. Your pastor’s job is to help you succeed spiritually, not to be your all-around life coach.

Imitation of a teacher in every area of life is something you see only in cults. In his book on unhealthy movements, Letters to a Devastated Christian, Gene Edwards writes that alarm bells should be ringing when we see pastors and leaders trying to make personal decisions for their disciples, like who to date or not to date. This is tricky, though—clearly, every believer should submit to sound wisdom and advice from their believing elders; but believing elders can never force sound wisdom and advice on those they work with. That is not discipleship.

In a nutshell, here is my informed opinion on spiritual authority and on men and women in leadership summed up in two sentences: everyone submits. No one lords it over others. (See Eph. 5:21, Matt. 20:25, 1 Peter 5:3, and cross-references.)

Regeneration Is Not Reproduction

Another common term used for growing movements is multi-generational discipleship. This is used to refer to one leader that disciples another group, some of whom will become leaders and disciple new groups. But, like “multiplication”, this term also desperately needs some qualification. It must be stated that “generation” is being used in a secondary sense, “a group of individuals contemporaneously sharing a status”, and not its first sense, “a body of living beings constituting a single step in the line of descent from an ancestor.” We are not regenerated through any human relationship, and being a part of a hierarchical structure doesn’t legitimize our conversion.

In many Asian societies (at least, in the Middle East and South Asia), you can speak with accuracy of someone being “born Muslim” or “born Christian.” Social norms more or less preclude the possibility of choosing a different religion from that of your parents and ancestors. Any choice to the contrary (in whatever direction) is a confrontational statement that has the power to change the whole of that person’s life and relation to their community.

It can get even more confusing: I have met Filipinos who told me they were “born again” because, literally, that is the brand of Christianity they were born into. What an ironic misuse of biblical terms!

When Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again, Nicodemus took it so literally, that he thought he needed to return to his mother’s womb and come out again! It is amazing that the term has become for many a term frozen in meaning, descriptive only of a certain set of beliefs or dogmas. When Jesus first said it, it was meant to describe a radical spiritual re-ordering such that you become a new person.

Being “born again” should be something that does not depend on any human relationship, whether you’re thinking of your parents, pastor, or discipler. I have seen believers lose their faith because the person who led them to Christ lost their faith. I have also seen believers divorce their wives because the person who led them to Christ divorced his wife. Referring to “children in the faith” is something that should never be done flippantly.

Does Paul Refer to His Disciples as “His Children”?

Paul did refer to a few people as his children, but it was unusual. His usual way of addressing the churches was “brothers.” He uses this word in its vocative form (i.e. as a personal address) 68 times in his epistles; it is used in other epistles 20 other times.[2] In contrast, the word “children” is used as a personal address 11 times in all the New Testament epistles, all of them in the diminutive form (τεκνίον) as a mark of affection.[3] Ten of these are in 1 John—and John calls himself “the elder.” In these cases, it was probably a culturally appropriate way of addressing those younger than you, not necessarily carrying at-issue meaning.

This should interest us because the relation between Father and son (or parent and child) is the single most common metaphor in the New Testament for the way we relate to God. Childhood, or sonship, is Grand Central Station for New Testament concepts.[4] George MacDonald—who probably has the best preaching on this topic—justly said in one of his sermons:

The relation of the Father and the Son contains the idea of the universe.

But the relationship of discipleship is only compared to this central metaphor in very limited ways. As I mentioned earlier, Paul refers to himself as “fathering”  the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 4:14-17; but in Galatians 4:19, he “labors in birth” for the Galatians! Overall, Paul describes himself in relation to his churches as father, mother, servant, sower, steward, apostle, but, most often, brother.

Does Paul Call Certain People “Son”?

Paul does call Timothy his son to the churches, but, as far as I can tell, only when he’s sending him to them and needs to commend him in the highest way possible. He does this only twice, in 1 Corinthians 4:17, and by simile in Philippians 2:22. When he calls Timothy his son, he is not referring flippantly to the fact that he led him to Christ or discipled him.[5] Clearly, Paul had a intimate mentoring relationship with Timothy that did not extend to everyone that he taught (see Acts 16:3!).

In personal letters to Timothy, Paul calls him his son more often, but mainly in salutations (1 Tim. 1:2, 1:18, 2 Tim. 1:2), and he does the same with Titus (1:4). Interestingly, in all three of these salutations, Paul uses terms of affection. This hints to the idea that “son” here has expressive meaning but not denotative meaning.

In summary, calling someone your “spiritual son” or “spiritual daughter” is a biblical and powerful way of commending a believer whom you have personally mentored. It is not a natural, normal or normative way of referring to your disciples or group members as a whole.

Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (Matt. 23:9)

Conclusion: Discipleship is Spiritual Work

There is a certain stage in life when young believers are more prone to imitation. We are  prone to confound the spiritual and the earthly. But Christ never calls us to imitate other believers. All of life is spiritual; but you have to admit that certain decisions have no bearing on your sanctification. No one has a right to a “blank check” in terms of your schedule or personal decisions. If you have been taught that it’s part of your job as a Christian to copy your pastor’s behavior, join their workout plan, follow their diet, imitate their beard, copy their shoes, listen to their music, or gesture like them when you teach—you need to realize, none of these make you closer to Christ.

[1] In verses where Paul uses the related verb μιμέομαι, he is usually talking about imitating specific attitudes and behaviors:

  • The Thessalonian church imitated Paul and the Lord by receiving the Word (1 Th. 1:6)
  • The Thessalonians imitated the Judeans in persecution (1 Th. 2:14)
  • The Hebrews should imitate those who through endurance inherit promises, that is, by doing the smae (Heb. 6:12)
  • The Ephesians should imitate God in forgiving (Eph. 4:32-5:1)

[2] Rom. 1:13, 7:1, 7:4, 8:12, 10:1, 11:25, 15:14, 15:15, 15:30, 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:11, 1:26, 2:1, 3:1, 4:6, 7:24, 7:29, 10:1, 11:2, 11:33, 12:1, 14:6, 14:20, 14:26, 14:39, 15:1, 15:50, 15:58, 16:15; 2 Cor. 1:8, 8:1, 13:11; Gal. 1:11, 3:15, 4:12, 4:31, 5:11, 5:13, 6:1, 6:18; Eph. 6:10; Phil. 3:1, 3:13, 3:17, 4:1, 4:8; 1 Th. 1:4, 2:1, 2:9, 2:14, 2:17, 3:7, 4:1, 4:10, 4:13, 5:1, 5:4, 5:12, 5:14, 5:25; 2 Th. 1:3, 2:1, 2:13, 2:15, 3:1, 3:6, 3:13; Heb. 3:1, 3:12, 10:19, 13:22; James 1:2, 1:16, 1:19, 2:1, 2:5, 2:14, 3:1, 3:10, 4:11, 5:7, 5:9, 5:10, 5:12, 5:19; 2 Peter 1:10; 1 John 2:7, 3:13.

[3] Gal. 4:19, 1 John 2:1, 2:12, 2:13, 2:18, 2:28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4, 5:21. Cf. also the figures of speech in 1 Cor. 4:14, 2 Cor. 6:13, 12:14, 3 John 1:4.

[4] Wycliffe translated the Greek word υἱοθεσία as “adoption” (Rom. 8:15, 23, Eph. 1:5) and virtually all English translations have followed suit. Luther, however, translated the same word as “Kindschaft” (“childship”) and I have not found any German translation that did not use some variation of this. Tyndale hit somewhat close to the mark when he translated Ephesians 1:5 as “heirs,” but for some reason he did not translate the word this way in the other two verses, where he used “adoption.”

[5] Here are the ways that Paul refers to Timothy in the third person in his epistles:

  • Our brother (2 Cor. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Th. 3:2, Heb. 13:23, Phm. 1:1)
  • A servant of Jesus (Phil. 1:1, 1 Th. 3:2)
  • My son (1 Cor. 4:17, 1 Tim. 1:18, cf. Phil. 2:22; also as an address in 1 Tim. 1:2, 2 Tim. 1:2)
  • My workfellow (Rom. 16:21, 1 Th. 3:2)

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