Cor Bennema looks at what the Graeco-Roman world and the Bible can teach us about using imitation to aid Christians to live well.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the slang acronym YOLO (‘you only live once’) is used, especially on social media, to mean that you should do things that are enjoyable or exciting, even if they are silly or slightly dangerous. Indeed, many people today seek to live the good life in hedonistic ways and find their role models on social media, where influencers promote an often-undiscerning following. In Christianity, the issues of living well and role models also play a crucial role and Christians are not always careful about whom they imitate. What can history and the Bible teach us about how imitation might aid Christians to live well?
In Graeco-Roman antiquity, to live well was a serious moral quest. People were instructed on how to live well in society in several ways. At religious festivals, people gathered in the city theatre to watch the performance of several dramas—and these were not just about entertainment. Plays presented real-life dilemmas that people were facing in society, so the cast functioned as a kind of role model for the audience. In education, orators instructed young people on how to choose good role models and discern what to imitate from them. A few examples will illustrate this dynamic. Seneca, a Roman philosopher and statesman, urges Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily during Nero’s reign, to associate with and observe appropriate role models:
Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the classroom of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus. (Epistulae morales ad Lucilium 6.6, Gummere, LCL)
Ancient education stressed that good imitation was not about aping or cloning but required study and discernment, as this excerpt from Roman educator Quintilian shows:
Consequently the nicest judgment is required in the examination of everything connected with this department of study [i.e. oratory]. First we must consider whom to imitate. For there are many who have shown a passionate desire to imitate the worst and most decadent authors. Secondly, we must consider what it is that we should set ourselves to imitate in the authors thus chosen. For even great authors have their blemishes, for which they have been censured by competent critics and have even reproached each other. I only wish that imitators were more likely to improve on the good things than to exaggerate the blemishes of the authors whom they seek to copy (Institutio oratorio 10.2.14-15, Butler, LCL).
Emerging in the Graeco-Roman world, early Christianity applied this educational method of imitating role models to the Christian life, though there are arguably Old Testament roots (e.g. Leviticus 19:2; Deuteronomy 10:18-19; 12:30). In John’s Gospel and Letters, the recurring phrase ‘just as [Jesus] did, [his disciples] also should do’ expresses the idea of learning through imitation, or ‘mimetic’ learning.
The episode that illustrates this best is the foot-washing in John 13. While the narrative and Jesus’s instruction to follow his example in verse 15 seem straightforward, he does not intend for his followers to mindlessly copy him. When Jesus returns to the table after having washed his disciples’ feet, he does not straight away tell them to do likewise. Rather, he asks, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you?’ (verse 12). A literal, thoughtless washing of someone’s feet would completely miss the point Jesus seeks to make. The disciples are to understand that Jesus has provided an act of humble, loving service that they should repeat regularly in the Christian community, but which can take different forms. Through this repeated imitation, the disciples’ behaviour and character could be shaped to become more Christ-like.
Further on in John 13, the well-known love command is also worded in terms of imitation: ‘just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another’ (verse 34). But John would soon face a dilemma: while he has been able to observe Jesus first-hand, how could Christians in the late first century imitate an ‘absent’ Jesus whom they could not see? The solution is that John preserved the life and teaching of Jesus in his Gospel, so that his audience (and subsequent readers) can mentally ‘visualize’ Jesus and imitate him. The fact that John creates new forms of imitation in his first letter—e.g. to lay down one’s life in imitation of Jesus in 1 John 3:16 is derived from Jesus’s saying in John 15:13—shows that he expects his audience to be able to do so.
The apostle Paul also uses mimetic education in his churches, but adopts a different strategy from John. Paul’s goal in ministry was to present his converts as ‘blameless’ before God at the final day (1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Corinthians 1:8; Philippians 1:10; Colossians 1:22; Ephesians 1:4) but he faced two dilemmas. First, his converts often came from pagan backgrounds, so how could they learn about the Christian life? Instead of giving them a manual of the Christian life (although his letters contain ample ethical instructions), Paul points his converts to others that embody and exemplify the Christian life. For Paul too, Christ is the supreme example for imitation (see, e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:1) and this creates the second dilemma, because how could his converts imitate an unseen Christ?
A peek at Paul’s letter to the Philippians will show how he handles this. Paul presents Christ as the supreme model for imitation in 2:5-11 and then urges the Philippians to model their corporate life on that of Christ in 2:12 (note the plurals ‘you’ and ‘your’). While the Philippians might visualise Christ from 2:5-11 (like John’s strategy), Paul does something different. He presents himself and others as models for imitation. Introducing himself as a ‘slave’ of Christ in 1:1, Paul subtly indicates that he is an imitator of Christ because the term occurs elsewhere only in 2:7, with reference to Christ. In 2:17, Paul’s willingness to pour out his life for the sake of the Philippians echoes Christ pouring out his life for the sake of humanity. Then, in 4:9, Paul urges the Philippians to keep on doing (i.e. imitating) what they had seen in him. But Paul also holds up Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples for imitation. Timothy’s genuine concern for the Philippians in 2:20 reflects the ideal of 2:4 and imitates Christ’s selfless interest in others. Epaphroditus’s near-death experience for the sake of Christ echoes Christ’s death for the sake of humanity. In 3:17b, Paul can even point the Philippians to other Christians who already exemplify the Christ-like life that Paul promotes.
So what can Christians today learn from history on how to live well? In both Graeco-Roman antiquity and early Christianity, imitation was not just mindless repetition, but an intentional, inventive, and interpretive process that involved several steps. The first was to select and associate with good role models, the second, to observe the role models and discern what to imitate about them, and the third, to determine the nature and form of the imitative act. In imitating Jesus, whether by constructing a mental image from the biblical text or by observing exemplary Christians, ‘young’ Christians will become more Christ-like and live a life that is pleasing to God. But imitating Jesus is not simply for one’s personal growth. The ultimate challenge is to become an example for others to follow, whether as parents for their children, as ministers for their congregants or as teachers for their pupils.