by Al Maxey

Issue #590 ------- September 19, 2013
To model ourselves upon good men is to produce
an image of an image. We have to fix our gaze above
the image and attain likeness to the Supreme Exemplar.

Plotinus (205-270 A.D.)
"The Enneads"

Imitation of Judean Churches
Reflective Study of 1 Thessalonians 2:14

On February 9, 1928, in Young India, Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) wisely declared, "Whomsoever you follow, howsoever great he might be, see to it that you follow the spirit of the master and not imitate him mechanically." Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) expressed a somewhat similar thought in the November, 1738 Poor Richard's Almanack: "There is much difference between imitating a good man and counterfeiting him." As we examine the lives of those around us we will invariably discover personal qualities, characteristics, attitudes and actions that are worthy of embracing in our own journey through life. A mere mechanical imitation, however, can be deceptive, and even somewhat dangerous, if it doesn't reach into our inner being and transform our nature. Even an ape can be trained to mimic the actions of a man, but it doesn't make him one. Merely "aping" another is extremely shallow; it is surface imitation, leaving us unchanged in our hearts and minds. Jesus had some harsh criticism and condemnation for those religionists who made a pretense of faith and holiness, for "everything they do is done for men to see" (Matt. 23:5). They appear on the outside as "whitewashed tombs," but inside they are full of decay (vs. 27). Their mimicry of righteousness is mechanical; it is external and shallow, merely for show; nothing is changed on the inside.

Our God is far more interested in our hearts than in our outward acts. The acts are only of ultimate value in His sight when motivated by a loving heart; one devoted to Him and to others. In 1 Cor. 13:1-3, the apostle Paul said we can perform any number of good deeds, but if they are not motivated by love, they profit us nothing. Thus, if I imitate the deeds of another mechanically to promote a certain image before others, but am not motivated to do those deeds from a right heart, I am a pretender, a hypocrite. Although I may impress those around me, I will not impress God. Frankly, there is a grave danger in merely imitating another's outward acts, especially if the motivation for doing so is to "look like them." While we may indeed appear (on the outside) to resemble those whom we mimic, if our motivations are not the same (if we are different inside), we are not true facsimiles, but poor counterfeits. This is precisely the failing of those who have sought to "restore" the early church by "imitating" the early disciples. It is largely a search through Scripture for externals (primarily with respect to a so-called "worship service") that may be mechanically mimicked today, resulting, so it is believed, in a complete "restoration" of the first century church. The central flaw in this, of course, is the belief that "restoring" the early church means "imitating precisely its outward practice." This is fallacious in its basic premise, for it implies Christianity must forever be frozen in time and place -- i.e., it can only be acceptably evidenced within the parameters of first century Palestinian culture and practice. I have dealt time and again with this false doctrine, and would refer the reader to the following representative studies: Reflections #3 -- "Restoring the 1st Century Church?" ... Reflections #479 -- "The Great Restoration Fallacy: Moving Forward toward the Distant Past."

Although more and more people within our movement (which was really, in its inception, an attempt at reformation, not restoration, of the church, which, in fact, did not need restoring) are rejecting this theology, there are still some hardened legalistic patternists who insist that we must imitate exactly the actions of the first century church in order to BE the "one true church" today. Such restorationist theology pops up now and then among ultra-conservatives, but, thankfully, it is rapidly diminishing in influence as more and more people awaken to the realities of God's grace and our freedom in Christ Jesus and the universality of the Faith and its expression in our lives. In the southern states of our great nation, however, one will still find this mentality among many Churches of Christ. This was brought to my attention anew last week when I was asked by one of my readers to comment on a discussion taking place on Facebook between several people from Alabama. One of the people in this discussion had posted a quote from one of my articles: "Our goal is not to be like them, rather our goal is to be like Him (Jesus Christ). It is HE we are to 'pattern' our lives after, not a particular congregation of disciples in a particular city in the first century." A minister in Alabama then quoted 1 Thess. 2:13-14 and observed, "Obviously, part of the Thessalonian Christians accepting the word of God was the fact that they became imitators of the Judean churches. Paul said that was a good thing. ... It makes sense that they would pattern the way they did things after them. Why would it be any different for us today? I don't understand why Al Maxey would tell us NOT to do something Paul commended the Thessalonians for doing."

There are a few tired old "proof-texts" that the rigid restorationists keep dragging out, and which they misuse and abuse in the hope of convincing people that their view is rational. One of those texts is 1 Thess. 2:14a -- "For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea" (NASB). It is argued that Paul's intent here is: all future congregations (of which the church in Thessalonica was representative) must "pattern" the way they "do things" after the churches of God in Judea. In other words, we must look just like them. If you push these restorationists into a corner they will eventually admit that what this means is that with regard to church organization and worship, we must mimic exactly these early Judean disciples. Of course, if we REALLY did that (recreating a Judean congregation in 21st century Alabama), this "restored church" would probably be immediately disfellowshipped by the restorationists. Restorationism is little more than an attempt to justify one's religious worship traditions during a Sunday morning assembly. If they don't use instruments, have the Lord's Supper every Sunday (and only on Sunday), etc., they believe they have "restored" the church (unlike all those "denominations" who have "digressed" from the "pattern" of the early church). The preacher in Alabama is convinced that we must look like the early Judeans, and he is appalled that "Al Maxey would tell us NOT to do something Paul commended the Thessalonians for doing."

Yes, the apostle Paul commended the Thessalonians for imitating the Judean disciples of Christ. BUT ... what did Paul mean by that? Was he commending them for singing without instruments? Not having a Sunday School? Not eating in the church building? Using "one cup," rather than those godless "multiple cups"? Not having a "fellowship hall" or a kitchen in the building? Not taking money from the "treasury" to help support a home for orphans or the aged? WHAT were they commended for imitating? Were they imitating the particulars of some "pattern," the specifics of which are left to the speculations of subsequent generations? Must we infer, assume and deduce "the pattern" in order to meet with the Lord's approval? And just suppose that we actually COULD reproduce exactly, in every detail, the practice of the Judean congregations -- would the replication of these externals impress our Father? Or, is He looking at our hearts?! Brethren, look at the CONTEXT of this passage in 1st Thessalonians -- it is not talking about imitation of external religious rites; it is talking about imitating the perseverance of a people being persecuted for their faith. Look to their example of endurance under fiery trials and tribulations, and imitate THAT, for "you suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews" (1 Thess. 2:14b).

When one embraces the Good News, as the Thessalonians did (1 Thess. 2:13), affliction from the world is never far behind. Time and time again in Scripture we are warned that men and women of faith will face persecution, and we are urged to faithfully endure whatever comes our way. We also are given, as examples of faith under fire, accounts of the lives of fellow disciples who endured. Stephen comes to mind (Acts 6-7), as does Antipas in Pergamum (Rev. 2:13) and the galaxy of the faithful in Hebrews 11, many of whom endured unbelievable affliction (vs. 35-38). The saints in Thessalonica, like their Judean brethren, were not strangers to the reality of being afflicted for their faith, and, like their Judean brethren, they had endured (thus, following in the footsteps of those saints in Judea in this respect). "In spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia ... your faith in God has become known everywhere" (1 Thess. 1:6-8). Just as the Judean disciples served as a model of "faith under fire" for those in Thessalonica, so the latter became a model of the same for others. It was a "pattern" not of form, but of faith, a critical distinction that seems to elude the legalistic, patternistic restorationists. [For further insight into some of the afflictions generated by the jealous Jews against the saints in Thessalonica see Acts 17:1-13.]

To take 1 Thess. 2:14 out of its context, making it a proof-text for the particulars of a "pattern" involving a "worship service" or church organization, is to completely miss the message of the apostle to these brethren (and, by extension, to us today). The Thessalonians became "imitators" of the Judean churches, "to wit, in their sufferings. This does not mean that they were founded on the same model, or that they professed to be the followers of those churches, but only that they had been treated in the same way, and were thus like them" in the endurance of their faith under affliction; "they had borne their persecutions with the same spirit" [Dr. Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. They were "imitators of the churches in Judea" by virtue of "enduring persecution faithfully" [Dr. B. W. Johnson, The People's New Testament, vol. 2, p. 243]. The Judean churches were models of "constancy and patience under sufferings and trials for the sake of the Gospel," and the brethren in Thessalonica imitated them "with like courage and constancy, with like patience and hope" [Dr. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim. 3:12), yet those who stand firm in their faith serve as "models" to the rest of us when WE face similar trials (and we then serve as models to others when we also stand firm in faith). It is THIS we are to imitate in our brothers and sisters. "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7).

Constancy of faith in the face of tribulation is not limited to one specific time or place or culture ... it is universal and it is timeless. Christians, regardless of their cultural or traditional differences, will face affliction for their faith. Some will falter and fall in the face of these trials; others will persevere. It is the faith of the latter we are to imitate. The faithful Judean churches became models for those afflicted disciples in Thessalonica, who, in turn, became models for those in Macedonia and Achaia, who, in turn, became models for ... etc. ... etc. "The unity of all Christians, no matter what ethnic background or geographical locality, underlies this description of their common experience in suffering. ... Persecution inevitably arises from the outside when a Christian patterns his life after the Lord" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 11, p. 258]. "Paul has already said (in 1 Thess. 1:6) that the Thessalonians were 'imitators of us and of the Lord' when they received the Word 'in much affliction.' This is now amplified" in 1 Thess. 2:13-14 [Dr. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Thessalonians, p. 263]. The Pulpit Commentary characterizes the Judean churches of God as "patterns of patience to other churches" in the face of fearful affliction [vol. 21, p. 34].

Those today (and in every age) who seek to impose legalistic patternism upon their fellow believers will often seek to employ such passages as 1 Thess. 2:14 as a "proof-text" for their dogma. As one can quickly perceive, if they take the time to examine the context, this passage provides no such "proof." The Thessalonians were NOT seeking to model their church organization or worship after the "pattern" of the Judean churches. Rather, they sought to imitate their faith under fire! David Lipscomb agreed with this assessment, even declaring: "I do not understand that they tried to fashion after the example of the Jewish churches" [A Commentary on the NT Epistles, p. 32]. As Lipscomb points out, it was the faith of the Judean brethren, which remained constant under trial, that was a "model" for other disciples, NOT the particulars of their religious rites. Again, this is a distinction seemingly lost on the hardened legalistic patternists and restorationists, but which is becoming more and more obvious to discerning disciples of Christ. May God help us to help others to discern this distinction, and may He also strengthen us to become, like the Judeans and Thessalonians, "models" of enduring faith under fire "worthy of imitation" by other believers in similar straits.

Special Book & CD Offers
Click on the link above for a listing of the
books and biblical studies and audio sermons
and Bible classes by Al Maxey, and for
information on how to order these items.

Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Zambia, Africa:

Thanks so very much for the well-written article ("Snake Eggs and Spider Webs") in which you addressed my questions. This is all crystal clear now.

From a Reader in Georgia:

I've been reading and writing through the Psalms on Facebook (Big Daddy -- PFV) and your latest Reflections reminded me of the numerous times in Proverbs that God warns people to beware of devious people. It seems that WE bear a great deal of the responsibility for asking for discernment and wisdom when dealing with the greatest flawed product on the market: human beings. Thanks again for spending time and sharing your insights with us. Be blessed, my friend.

From a New Reader in West Virginia:

I was raised in the Church of Christ, as was my husband, who is a minister, and we live in West Virginia. Please subscribe me to your Reflections. I am excited to read these weekly articles! Thank you and best wishes.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

I just read the last Reflections on adders' eggs and spiders' webs, but the part of the article that fascinated me the most was the gal with the spirit of divination in Philippi. I thought I was pretty well up on the Greek gods and their deeds, but I'd never heard of the famous, or infamous, oracle of Apollo at Delphi, or that Apollo himself had been connected with the "Python" spirit. I also didn't remember, if I ever knew, that Apollo killed the critter. I guess this proves one is never too old to learn (I'm in my mid-eighties)! The reference to the uselessness of a spider's web for a covering reminds me of the tale of The Emperor's New Clothes. I do enjoy your Reflections when you give these deeper insights into things about which I've often wondered. I know the Scriptures frown on divination, so have always wondered about the casting of lots to pick a replacement for Judas. I've never really felt good about that.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Brother, it is so refreshing to me to read not only your weekly Reflections, but also, in the Readers' Response section, how many well-read men of the Scriptures write to describe to you how you have helped them to see what they have missed over the years in their own reading and studying of the Bible. You have opened a great many eyes around the world to the real truth of God's Word and helped them in their own teaching of these truths to others. I am so blessed to have you in my life, and to hear your preaching and teaching on the difference between liberty and legalism (of which I had a barrel full in past years before you came here). We love you so much, brother!!

From a Reader in Alabama:

I continue to read your studies on sectarianism in Churches of Christ, and the legalism that deprives them of their freedom in Christ, and just wanted to encourage you today. I have never met you in person, but I thank God for your work! I was bound up for quite some time in all that legalism, but today I preach about the true freedom found in Christ alone.

If you would like to be added to or removed from this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: