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The Art of Genuine Imitation
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Paul had been harping on the differences between gospel wisdom and worldly foolishness. In particular, he had been trying to get the Corinthians to see this difference by contrasting the apparent success of the Corinthian church, which had grown large, wealthy and influential, with the apparent poverty of faithfulness experienced by himself and the apostles. It's almost as if he was suggesting that his poverty and difficulties were directly related to the unpopularity of the gospel he preached.
However, he was not arguing that faithful Christians must necessarily be poor and unpopular. Remember that he said that he hoped that the Corinthian Christians would be numerous, wealthy and influential for the sake of the gospel -- not for their own benefit, but for the sake of the gospel. The point that he had previously made was that the Corinthian Christians should not imitate the wisdom of the world, the wisdom of academic scholarship or the apparent success of the prevailing Greek culture. Rather, Paul called faithful Christians to imitate him. He offered himself as a model Christian, and called all Christians to become model Christians like himself.
It is important to note that he did not want others to simply regurgitate what he had taught them, though his teachings were very important, and Christians should know and understand what Paul taught. Rather, by calling on others to imitate him, he meant that they should not only be able to talk the talk that he talked, but they should be able to walk the walk that he walked. Imitation is more than being able to parrot what someone has said. To imitate Paul means to live in the same way he lived -- not in the sense that everyone should be unmarried, itinerant preachers, but in the sense of having the same goals, values and purposes that Paul had. Paul didn't mean that history should be frozen into First Century technology or culture. Nor was he mandating a cookie-cutter Christianity, where all Christians look alike and talk alike.
Rather, Christians are to imitate Paul's compassion and commitment to Christ. In essence, Paul was arguing for the necessity of Christian culture. Not a Christian subculture, where ghettoized Christians only associate with Christians or work to produce Christian kitsch, but a culture in which Christ is at the center and foundation of everything.
Do you know the word "kitsch"? It refers to things that appeal to popular or lowbrow taste and are of poor quality. Think of trinkets and knickknacks. But it's more than that. Kitsch is a German word meaning trash that is used to categorize cheap art imitation that mimics great original art. Kitsch is the product of mass production. Kitsch is produced for only one reason -- profit. It may be difficult for us to understand kitsch because we live in a mass produced world. It may be difficult for us to think of any reason to produce anything other than profit. But genuine art thinks otherwise.
In fact, the difference between kitsch and art provides another example of the difference between foolishness and wisdom, between the values and practices of the world and the values and practices of the gospel. Paul calls Christians to imitate him, but not to be mass produced copies of the real McCoy. Rather, Paul has called Christians to become life artists, artists whose medium is life itself, who work in the same style or genre that he works in -- his genre was culture. Paul was a human culture artist. He was shaping or working with culture. He was not interested in mass-produced imitation Christianity. He was interested in an abundant flowering of genuine Christianity. The two may look similar, but they are not at all the same.
To show them exactly what he meant, he sent Timothy to them because Timothy embodied everything that Paul was talking about. Timothy was a genuine Christian, not a mass-produced sloppy copy. Paul described Timothy as "my beloved and faithful child in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 4:17). Timothy was not Paul's biological offspring, he was Paul's spiritual offspring.
That's exactly what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about -- becoming children of God, heirs of the Kingdom of God, heirs of the covenant of God through adoption by Jesus Christ.
Timothy would remind the Corinthians of Paul's "ways in Christ" (1 Corinthians 4:17). Here we see the primary element that is to be imitated -- not Paul's dress, nor his way of speaking, or anything about him as an individual. We are not to imitate Paul's person, but his way in Christ. The Greek word translated "way" (hodos) literally means road and by implication it refers to the way a person progresses through life, the way a person makes progress in the world. We are to grow or make progress in Christ in the same way that Paul grew and made progress in Christ. This is the imitation that is to be central to Christian living.
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