The Power of Example
“Example is not the main thing in life—it is the only thing.” Through that sentence, the famous medical missionary and author, Albert Schweitzer, stated clearly the importance and power of example. How many of us reading this, have been influenced by the powerful life of some pastor, elder or other Christian that we saw early in our lives. If I mention “a faithful pastor,” whose image crops up in your mind? If I mention “a faithful Christian,” who do you think of?
Schweitzer’s statement is an overstatement, of course. Many other things are involved in a faithful life, but they themselves are all combined into the example someone sets.
“Mentoring” and “formation” may sound like new concepts, but they’re not. It seems from the very way God has created us this has been in his mind. He made humans in his image. We are to follow his example, and to imitate his character. In the incarnation of Christ, God came in the flesh in a way that we could understand and relate to him, and, as Peter said, “leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).
We also get to participate in this ministry of setting and following examples. God has created humans to be born and to mature in the company of other humans in the family. We are not self-generated, nor do we instantly appear as mature people. God planned for loving parents to be part of the way humans would grow.
This is also the way God has intended to make himself known in this fallen world.
In the Old Testament, God called forth Abraham and his descendants to be a holy, special, distinct people in the world. They were to be special so that the world would have a picture of a society which mirrored the character of God—embodying his concerns and values. When God told his people in Leviticus 19 that they were to “be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy,” he was not speaking merely to an individual, to Moses or Aaron or Joshua. He was certainly speaking to them, but we see in Leviticus 19:1 that God specifically instructed Moses to say this to the entire assembly of Israel. The laws which he then gave them had much to do with relationships, equity, justice, and social interactions. He demonstrates that as these people cared for each other—for the lost and the least, for the stranger and the young—they would show something of the character of their just and merciful Creator.
Israel’s failure in this modelling ministry to others is one of God’s chief charges against the nation in the Old Testament. So in Ezekiel 5, Israel’s role becomes one of instructing the nations by negative example. The LORD says to Israel, “This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. . . I will make you a ruin and a reproach among the nations around you, in the sight of all who pass by. You will be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and an object of horror to the nations around you when I inflict punishment on you in anger and in wrath and with stinging rebuke. I the Lord have spoken,” (5:5, 14-15). Again and again in Ezekiel, God says that he does what he does to the nation of Israel for his own name’s sake, that is, for the truth about him to be known among the peoples of the world.
This corporate witness to himself is what God has also intended through the church in the New Testament. In John 13, Jesus said that the world was to know that we are his disciples by the Christ-like love that we have for one another. Paul wrote to the Ephesian church, “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Eph. 5:8). In our lives as Christians, individually, and in multiplied effect in our lives together as churches, we hold out God’s light of hope in this dark and despairing world.
By our lives as Christians, we are teaching each other and the surrounding world about God.
If we love each other, we show something of what it is like to love God. And, on the other hand, “anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). In our holiness, we show the holiness of God. We are called to give people hope that there is another way of living than the lives of selfish frustration that our fallen natures and the world around conspire to encourage us to follow.
Fellow pastors and elders, what are our churches teaching the watching world about God?
Are we teaching them that God is limited to our race? Are we teaching them that he tolerates sin and unfaithfulness, self-absorbed lives of pettiness and quarreling? How seriously have we led our people to take the great task and privilege that we have of being the public showcase, the store-window, the advertisement for, the web-page of God’s character to his creation?
What a tremendous privilege he has given us, and how little we seem to consider it. We think that if we get more people in our church, that somehow negates our responsibility to those who are already named as members. But what testimony is every one of those providing right now? How many of their bad witnesses must you labor to overcome in order for people to see the good witness that God is providing through those who are truly converted, and are showing it.
The whole exercise of church discipline is not finally about vindication or vengence. Those are matters for God, not forgiven sinners like ourselves (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19)! But we do have a concern to present a good witness to others of what God is like.
We are to be exemplary in our lives and conduct. Have you noticed that in his pastoral epistles, Paul seems particularly concerned about the reputation that an elder would have with those outside the church? While there may be a number of reasons for this, one must certainly be the elder’s representative role of the church to the world. This, then, is also what the church as a whole is to be like. That is why Paul was so enraged in 1 Corinthians 5. And have you noticed exactly who Paul yells at? He didn’t scold the man who was in the sinful sexual liason; rather he sharply rebuked the church which would tolerate such sin among it’s members!
We know the sad truth that some of our number will show themselves to be lost in sin, even though they’ve made a good profession at first. We trust that at least some of them will live to repent and come back. But we do not ever expect the church corporately to default on its responsibility to well-represent God by standing for holiness and against sin. It was this issue—very much like the sin of idolatrous Israel in the Old Testament—that was the focus of Paul’s sharp rebuke of the Corinthian church.
Friends, what would the apostle Paul say of your church and mine? How much non-attendance do we tolerate in the name of love? How many adulterous relationships or unbiblical divorces do we allow to pass uncommented on in our churches, yet that scream out to the world, saying, “We are no different than they are”? How many divisive people do we allow to rend the church over tiny issues, or how many false gospels do we allow to be taught?
Dear brothers, if you are reading this as a pastor, an elder, a leader, teacher or fellow-member in a church, think of the great responsibility that we have. Consider how we can bear witness to God best—is it by ignoring sin in our midst, or by working to restore gently those who are caught in sin, as Paul instructs in Galatians 6:1? Which better reflects the God we worship? Does God’s mercy ever obscure his holiness in his word? What about in his church? What is our stewardship in this matter?
Give heed to what example you set for the world around you. God has a great plan for his people and for his world; he calls us to show that by our words and our lives. Are you doing that?
May God help each one of us to be faithful in this great calling.