Do We Need to Be “An Example”?

May 16, 2013

I recently came across an online piece from a Christian author that dealt with the struggles of young women who are trying to be “examples,” but feel like they are failing. The piece was engaging, and good things were said.

But ultimately, it went sideways, because it made the great dichotomy all too many modern Christians make: a divide between Christ and behaviour. Her answer to the example problem was to deny that young Christian ladies (or implicitly, any of us) need to be examples. And while she admitted that we are already “light in a dark place,” she insisted that the light comes from Jesus, not “awesome behaviour.”

There is, I concede, something that sounds right there. But there is also something gravely wrong, and this approach is ultimately unbiblical and unhelpful. In the comments section, I responded this way:

I liked the start here, and some genuinely helpful things were said. But frankly, this article takes a bit of a wrong turn.

The fact that you recognize that Christians already are light in dark places indicates that you have the tools to further recognize that being an example is not an option, and saying “You don’t need to be an example” is not the solution. Throughout the Bible, we are taught to follow good examples frequently. And guess what? the examples were human beings too. When Jesus says that the Church is a “city set on a hill” and “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth,” He also warns that salt which has lost its savour is good for nothing. And He speaks elsewhere of the absurdity of putting a light under a basket. Being an example is an indicative in Scripture—but it most certainly involves a corresponding imperative.

Now, some of what you did say actually works very well with this: Apologizing when you wrong someone just  is being a good example. There is no tension whatsoever between being an example and being authentic.

Okay, maybe that’s mostly your choice of words there. But then you say this: “Her light comes from Jesus, not from her awesome behavior.”

And who can argue against “Her light comes from Jesus?” After all, Jesus is Himself the Light who makes us the light of the world. That’s very good.


Then the wedge, the dichotomy again. “NOT her awesome behavior.” And if that just means that she shouldn’t be comparing herself to others and thinking what a good girl she is, that’s great, although that’s not really what the article says.

But the dichotomy between Jesus over here, and behaviour over there, is a modern invention and undercuts what the Bible actually says.

Take Galatians, for instance. Paul says says that he is crucified with Christ, but “nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). And that theme underlies all the behaviour-related things he mentions in chapters 5–6. To be united to Christ means to be led by the Spirit means to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, which (as it turns out) is an articulation of the character and pattern of Christ. To say that one’s light is Christ cannot, biblically, take us out of the realm of behaviour at all.

Granted, we do need correctives to widespread “Christian” perceptions (or at least practice) on this point. For a lot of folks, “godliness” is bound up in a bunch of rules that aren’t biblical to begin with (the old “don’t drink, dance, or chew”). But the answer to false godliness is genuine godliness, not denial of the necessity (or possibility) of godliness altogether.

There are genuinely godly young ladies (and young men) who are confused and need affirmation, and it is good and necessary to provide it. But such affirmation should stand squarely upon the Scripture rather than imply dichotomies and contradictions where the Bible has none.

We need to recapture the biblical vision. Evangelical Christianity has put more emphasis than ever on “pointing to Christ,” but has largely hollowed out the core, focusing on a “personal relationship” while ignoring the Bible’s calls to live out and live out of Christ. Genuinely pointing people to Christ is not merely pointing them backward to what He accomplished without us 2000 years ago. Nor is it stressing that Christ wants to have a “personal relationship” (not a biblical term) with us, or, even worse, implying that He wants to be something like our Lover (He is Bridegroom to the Church, not to individual believers). Genuinely pointing people to Christ involves pointing out that in baptism, they are united to Christ in His death and resurrection, and therefore His pattern of life has become theirs.