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discipleYesterday, we considered the question, “Is it arrogant to tell other Christians to imitate your example?” Today, I’d like to review a book that examines the apostle Paul’s command to imitate him as he imitated Christ.

The concept of imitation has fallen out of favor among some evangelicals today, perhaps because of an overemphasis on practicing virtues that has sometimes led to a tiresome moralizing of biblical texts. Or perhaps the reason is that we no longer think of imitation as part of the discipleship process and are more likely to see spiritual direction as the fulfilling of certain responsibilities common to Christians.

Victor A. Copan’s Saint Paul as Spiritual Director: An Analysis of the Concept of the Imitation of Paul with Implications and Applications to the Practice of Spiritual Direction (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007) analyzes the commands we find in Paul’s letters that infer or make explicit calls to imitate him in his attempt to follow Jesus faithfully.

What Is Spiritual Direction?

The problem Copan seeks to address is a perceived overemphasis on technique in the discussions of spiritual direction and a corresponding neglect of the total shape of the spiritual director’s life and character. Surveying the landscape of various approaches to spiritual direction (often under terms such as “spiritual director,” “spiritual guide,” “spiritual friend,” “mentor,” or in evangelical parlance, “discipler”), Copan provides a working definition:

“Spiritual direction is the (variegated) means by which one person intentionally influences another person or persons in the development of his life as a Christian with the goal of developing his relationship to God and His purposes for that person in the world” (39).

Using this definition as a baseline for understanding, Copan then turns to the example of the apostle Paul.

If we believe Paul fulfilled this vision of spiritual direction, do we find the concept of imitation as an essential component of spiritual direction in his writings? The rest of the book seeks to answer this question.

Imitation in the Ancient World

Copan begins by placing both Paul and the concept of imitation in the context of the Greco-Judaic world. It is interesting to note that the Gospels do not include any specific commands from Jesus to imitation, even though there are numerous calls to follow him. In Paul’s letters, the reverse is true. Paul urged people to imitate him as he followed Christ (40).

Was this concept of imitation common in the first century? Copan shows that the emulation of human beings was widespread in ancient literature, with particular focus on the classical virtues, specific actions of respected individuals, or the overall mimicking of another person’s lifestyle and character.

Paul utilized the relational spheres common to ancient literature (parent-child, teacher-student, and leader-people), often choosing to rely more heavily on one sphere or another, depending on his particular intentions. Imitation in the ancient world was directed toward the improvement of character and was most often viewed positively (although thoughtless mimicry was viewed negatively) (70-71).

Imitation in Paul’s Correspondence

Next, Copan analyzes the imitation of Paul in his letters to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Philippians. As he engages in exegesis of relevant passages, he seeks to answer the question:

“What specifically does Paul want the recipients to imitate, and what do these imitation texts reveal to us about Paul that carries relevance for the practice of spiritual direction?” (73).

Thessalonians

In the Thessalonian correspondence, Copan shows that imitation of Paul was connected to imitation of Christ in two ways: textually mediated imitation (“parallel to how the ancients would imitate the forefathers by means of the oral narrative tradition that had been built up in the community”) and personally mediated imitation (“living persons can be seen as the embodiment of the lifestyle and ethos of another”) (104).

In this case, the Thessalonians could imitate Christ by seeking to live according to the portrait of Jesus contained in the earliest teaching about His life, death and resurrection. They could also imitate Christ by observing Paul’s imitation of Jesus.

Corinthians

In the Corinthian correspondence, Copan notices a general and a specific referent in Paul’s desire for the church to imitate him. Specifically, he points to Paul’s life of humble, sacrificial service to others and his rejection of the world’s view of wisdom, strength, and honor. Generally, everything in Paul’s life (“actions, virtues, emotions, and lifestyle”) that flows from his service to Christ is in view when he called the Corinthians to imitate him (124).

The Corinthian focus on imitation is more comprehensive than a mere correspondence between Paul’s activities and what he desires the church to do. Copan convincingly demonstrates that Paul wanted the people to follow the same “reasoning process” that led him to such actions; he wanted the Corinthians to display the same “ethos” (137).

In summary, imitating Paul (for the Corinthians) would lead to actions that do not cause believers or unbelievers to stumble in their relationship to God and to actions that are missionary in their intention (142).

Philippians

In the Philippian correspondence, Copan points out numerous examples of models that Paul wanted people to emulate. He provides a compelling case for seeing Paul’s self-description in 3:4-14 as parallel to the description of Jesus in 2:5-11, which then implies this truth: to imitate Paul was to imitate Christ (164).

Is the Call to Imitation a Power Play?

Are these calls to imitation a power play that seeks to trap people in a state of inferiority, erase important differences, and maintain a hierarchy that forces others into conformity? Such is the case made by Elisabeth Castelli in her book, Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power.

Copan devotes an entire chapter to dismantling Castelli’s attempt to discard the predominant readings of Paul’s letters. His primary objection to Castelli’s case is hermeneutical.

Appealing to Kevin Vanhoozer and N. T. Wright, Copan makes a case for authorial intent and a critical-realist approach to history, respectively. He is persuasive in his delegitimizing of Castelli’s attempt to isolate “power” and then read and understand Paul exclusively through this lens. The book concludes with a chapter that lays out various implications for one’s understanding of spiritual direction today, most notably the self-understanding of the spiritual director and the orientation and content of spiritual direction.

Discipleship and Modeling the Christian Life

Saint Paul as Spiritual Director is a helpful and thorough volume that, unintentionally, exposes some weaknesses in common evangelical approaches to discipleship.

One cannot read Copan’s work and come away with the impression that spiritual direction can be mass-produced or accomplished through programs. Evangelicals have a tendency to see disciple-making as primarily a knowledge exercise. Teach people truth and doctrine, make them aware of the biblical exhortations to holiness and obedience, and then encourage them in their “personal walk.”

Copan’s work does not deny any of these aspects, but his vision of spiritual direction is more holistic because it includes a healthy emphasis on modeling the Christian life. Modeling takes us beyond the transfer of information; it includes the practice of spiritual disciplines and the intentional copying of one’s thought processes that lead to certain decisions. Wisdom is not obedience in the simplest sense, but is instead a robust understanding of how to live, an understanding modeled by the example of the person who is giving direction.

A holistic view of discipleship means that spiritual direction is not merely delivered; it is displayed. Copan’s research is valuable for evangelicals who are seeking to grow in their faithfulness and Christ-likeness, as well as evangelicals who sense the need to reach out and mentor younger people in the faith.

Two Weaknesses

There are two main weaknesses in this volume that do not detract from the overall thesis or research, but merely point to more work that can be done on this subject.

First, it is understandable, considering the scholarly climate today, that Copan chooses to focus only on the uncontested letters written by Paul, but it would have been especially enlightening to see how the concept of imitation plays out in the relationship between Paul and Timothy or Paul and Titus. Additional chapters of relevant exegesis from other Pauline correspondence would have better served the reader than the lengthy chapter that (convincingly) dismantles Elisabeth Castelli’s postmodern reading of Paul.

Secondly, in the chapter on the Corinthian correspondence, Copan does not devote sufficient attention to the apparent tension in Paul’s command of imitation and the context for the letter (division in the name of following Peter, Apollos, or Paul). Though Copan rightly points out that Castelli’s interpretation of this tension is unfair and misses the point (Castelli believes Paul is setting himself over against the other apostles as a power play), he does not give sufficient attention to the question this tension raises: Can the exhortation toward imitation lead to personality cults and cause division in the church? If the answer is yes, then how can spiritual direction be given in a way that serves the unity of the church and avoids quarrels that result from undue influence given to mere mortals.

Conclusion

Saint Paul as Spiritual Director is a book brimming with insights for evangelicals seeking to understand and foster spiritual growth in biblically faithful ways. Copan demonstrates breadth of knowledge regarding the ancient context of these letters, engages in relevant exegesis, and offers sound advice for those who give and receive spiritual direction today.


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6 thoughts on “Recovering the Role of “Imitation” in Discipleship Today”

  1. a. says:

    “It is interesting to note that the Gospels do not include any specific commands from Jesus to imitation”

    Don’t believe this is true. Don’t have time to think of them but the Lord’s whole teaching of His disciples was essentially “this is what I do, so do this” and: If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. John 13:14 -15

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I think the author is looking for more explicit commands, such as Paul saying, “Imitate me.”

      1. a. says:

        For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you = imitate me?

  2. Clayton says:

    I appreciate this and the previous post. I’m no sociologist or psychologist, but I suspect that imitation plays a significant part in our formation as humans. We all imitate, the question is who do we imitate? This is why it’s important to not only study the Scriptures, but to study the lives of people who fought the good fight and finished the race, so to speak. I think this is an important other aspect to this discussion. If we limit ourselves to imitating only people who are still running the race, we risk becoming disillusioned or even led astray when these people inevitably fall. But when we focus also on imitating people for whom we know how their earthly lives ended, and we know that sin was not victorious in them, and we can learn from their habits and imitate the actions that produced true repentance in them.

  3. Martin says:

    The most important imitation of the Christian is to be a compassionate and humble servant to others. Too often those being discipled fall into the trap of innocently following the belief system of the one who is discipling, without really thinking for themselves. The one who is doing the discipling carries a serious charge to differentiate between the two.

  4. Michael Snow says:

    Imitation has certainly been given short shrift in our day. Just think what light the world might see if we imitated one of our heroes of the faith as he followed Christ. http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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