Paul told the Corinthians to follow (“imitate,” NKJV) him as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1). Why not just follow Jesus directly, instead? Why follow Paul?
You may be assured that Christians do not follow Paul in the same sense that we follow Christ. In the ultimate sense, we have only one Teacher-Rabbi-Leader (Matthew 23:8, 10), only one Savior and Lord (Ephesians 4:5), only One who takes us from the guilt and grip of our sins to the glory God’s kingdom. That one is not Paul; it is Jesus the Christ.
Paul the apostle underscored the exclusive supremacy of God’s divine-human Son in all matters of salvation (1 Corinthians 3:11; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:18-22, 27, 28). At the core of our faith and practice, Paul would say Christians follow Christ alone (Galatians 2:20).
Does this mean that we need no human help or guidance along the way? Not at all, according to many Bible texts that speak of others’ leadership in our lives and our influence in theirs. Read this striking explanation, and note how Paul used the word follow: “Not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us” (2 Thessalonians 3:9).
So Christians do follow the lead of good examples, like Paul’s. In 2 Corinthians, Paul laid bold claims to church authority based on Christ’s calling and revelation to him. In Thessalonians and elsewhere, he urged his example, rather than his authority, as the chief reason he should be followed. We follow Paul and others — not just apostles — who model unselfish service to Christ. This truth is echoed in several nearby texts: 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 7; 2:13, 14; 2 Timothy 1:13; Titus 2:7; and Hebrews 6:12.
Why not just follow Jesus directly, then, rather than following Him via Paul or any other imperfect spiritual leader? Simply put, the answer is “Because the Bible teaches the necessity and the benefit of human leadership in God’s church.”
The New Testament teaches God’s people to respectfully follow their leaders in the body of Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13; Hebrews 13:7, 17). Conversely, human leaders, the elders in every congregation, are warned against being “lords” (bosses) over God’s sheep. They are instructed rather to be “examples” to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3). An example is something or someone to be followed — a pattern. All God’s people should recognize their need for some person wiser and stronger to teach us more grace and truth, to show us how in matters of conduct and service.
One application of Paul’s example and of these texts is the mutual accountability of all members of Christ’s body, beginning in each congregation. As no obedient Christian can be independent from other Christ-followers in their area, so every local church seeks to serve in harmony and willing interaction with other congregations in their region or nation that share similar views.
This is the unity and fellowship for which Christ both prayed and died (John 17:20-23; Ephesians 2:13-22). In similar ways, if not with the same salvific result, Paul gave his life and prayers for the unity and the interdependence of the church of God (1 Corinthians 1:10; 12:12—13:13). In this way, may we be true imitators of Paul, as he truly was of Christ.
— Elder Calvin Burrell
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