One of my favourite novels ever does not, at first sight, have the kind of plot to inspire confidence. Not in sophisticated 21st-century readers, anyway. 12th-century junior monk (Reginald) goes to live in freezing Northumbrian cave with exceedingly grumpy and ancient ascetic monk (Godric), on the orders of another monk, in order write his life story. Hmmm.
Sit at the gnarled feet of a grumpy old monk
But Frederick Buechner’s Godric is astonishing. It was even a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, which, for a novel rich in theological and ecclesiological themes, is unusual, to say the least. Once immersed in it, though, it’s easy to see why it was so honoured. It is a masterpiece, full of human realities, the contortions of the human heart in its self-justifications, confessions and profound regrets. In short, it is about a saint and his sin.
Yes, it was inspired by the real historical person of Godric of Finchale, who was declared a saint by the Catholic church. Yet this is a book far more concerned with the ordinary realities of all saints (in the usual NT sense of the word), as one might expect from a novelist who is also a Presbyterian minister. This is about a church leader who (despite his unconventional ‘platform’) insists on resisting his contemporaries’ worldly temptations to idolize and adulate him. It is about a spiritual hero who knows all too well that he is no hero at all.
Buechner’s prose is as concise as it is richly immersive, written as Godric’s first-person narrative of his shame-inducing former life; he won’t allow Reginald to hear a sanitised version. What the latter does with that is, of course, an entirely different matter…
Buechner’s Godric is a broken man. And we weep with him. But here’s the great gospel irony. It is precisely this recognition and self-awareness that qualifies him for moral authority. Reginald had been commissioned to write a hagiography. Godric will do everything he can to undermine that. He’s simply not having it – because he’s committed to truth-telling.
This illustrates perfectly a dynamic that is all too common in Christian circles. I’ll never forget something that my former teacher, David Jackman, said often.
This, of course, raises a tension (at the very least) with another key dynamic, one derived from something the NT itself encourages: the importance of mentors and older brothers/sisters in the faith, the need to choose whom to imitate, and the necessity of being willing to obey those in authority. Put it in those terms, and you have the perfect recipe for potential manipulation, control and abuse. As, in fact, it has become. So let me chew the cud a little with Paul in Philippians, which intriguingly enough is where he touches on at least something of the problem.
Choose your role models wisely
The centre of gravity in Philippians must, of course, be the famous “Servant Song” of Philippians 2:5-11, God’s breathtaking riches-to-rags-to-riches story that is the Incarnation narrative. There really isn’t a story quite like it in its magnitude and apparent absurdity. But here’s the rub. Far from being a bald doctrinal statement which expects little more than assent, it is a profoundly moral statement that demands imitation. This is how Paul introduces it:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God… (Phil 2:5-6)
In other words, be willing to serve, even to the point of suffering, because of the hope held out. This then creates a kind of imitation baton race in the letter.
So, in Phil 3:15-16, Paul says what at first sight seems an appalling leadership precedent. He seems to anticipate the archetypal narcissistic leader as profiled in Chuck de Groat’s book mentioned previously.
All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Phil 3:15-16)
But hang on a sec. The key is that final phrase: living up to what is already attained. You see, Paul is keen that the Philippians don’t get distracted by the kind of false teaching which heaps intolerable moral burdens on believers (in the 1st-Century Philippian context, that meant the so-called circumcision group). These are the people he brands as mutilators of the flesh in 3:2. Then he contrasts his own worldview with what it had been pre-conversion. He’d piled up spiritual credit with God (or what he assumed gave him credit) only to realise that it was utterly worthless. He was still spiritually bankrupt. To put it mildly, ‘whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.’ (3:7) And it is the life of knowing Christ that Paul now enjoys now and, even more, in the life to come when he anticipates truly gaining Christ. So:
I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14)
In other words, the Now & Not Yet of the Christian life. It is THIS view of things that Paul refers to as a sign of maturity. To think otherwise is simply not gospel thinking. It is not Phil 2:5-11 thinking. So do you see the point? Paul insists the Philippians imitate him in this interim life-stage just as he seeks to imitate Christ’s mindset in it. Service before rest, suffering before glory.
But Paul’s not the only model in the letter. Why else do you think Paul seems to digress immediately after the servant song to these two pen-portraits?
- Timothy: I have no one like him… genuine concern for your welfare (2:20); everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy has proved himself… (2:21-22)
- Epaphroditus: whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you… he was ill and almost died… (2:26-27)… honour people like him because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you (2:30).
Timothy is concerned for Christ’s interests, which explains why he is concerned for the Philippians. Epaphroditus risked his life for serving Paul as the Philippians’ emissary. Both men put flesh and bones onto the Christlike mindset of Phil 2:5; now this church didn’t need to try to imagine what it might look like. They just had to remember their friends. And imitate them.
- Believers in Rome: inspired by Paul’s priorities even in prison. So ‘because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear‘. (Phil 1:14)
- Believers in Philippi: Paul’s longing is that they do what they have already proved themselves capable of, that of shining like stars ‘in a warped and crooked generation‘. (Phil 2:15)
In the end, it’s not a complicated point but it does hint at Paul’s deep psychological insight. Human beings imitate other human beings. The question is always not whether but who we imitate. We seem wired to need heroes; or if not heroes, then at least role models. So choose them wisely. That means using the divine template of the Philippian servant song.
Imitate self-aware servants not celebrities with charisma
It has been one of the greatest blessings of my own life because I can say that I have been mentored and helped by individuals who know themselves. This means both knowing their own weaknesses as well as strengths, their own failures as well as gifts. Chuck de Groat’s analysis of narcissism makes clear that the terror hidden in the hearts of such destructive leaders is that of being exposed as flawed. Which is nuts as well as agonisingly sad. Because who of us can honestly claim not to be flawed?
So one deeply discouraging feature of modern evangelicalism is its celebrity culture. In one sense, this is nothing new. The Corinthians, it seems, made a point of noting who had been baptised by whom (as if that counted for anything) because that had somehow become emblematic of their various factions. (1 Cor 1:13-17) But it is clear that the things that beguile and impress us too often these days are no more than thinly coated models from the world. They might look good on TV, or seem authentically personable when they post Instagrams from the kitchen table or study desk, or have a great podcast manner. But all they prove is the ability to present themselves well. They may be the real deal, but there’s no way of telling from these media.
Now, that’s not precisely true of all circles. But the common feature will be that if there is an attribute or skill that a community prizes, then those who excel in it will gain something akin to celebrity: gifted preacher (or sometimes, ahem, ‘bible teacher’), worship leader, social activist etc etc etc – the nature of the beast that these people get idolized. We want them on our pedestals, for whatever reason. And they want to be there. Unless they have the honesty and rigour of Godric. Despite the Abbot and Reginald’s determination to write a hagiography. We need our heroes pure. And when they’re not, we whitewash/ignore/downplay/erase. Or rather, when they fit the mould we want for them, we plaster over the ways in which they don’t live consistently with the Philippians 2 ethic. “But he’s such a great ____” (complete as applicable).
Paul Tripp has made the vital point, which is so obvious that it oughtn’t to need saying, but it so clearly does. To paraphrase what he’s on about, if you use the world’s values for identifying leaders then don’t be surprised if they turn out to be worldly.
In what ways is that consistent with Philippians 2? None at all. A bully, by definition, is someone who looks out for his or her own interests. Other people are mere instruments by which to salve their own deepest insecurities.
The problem is I know my own heart and I have plenty of my own insecurities. More than my fair share’s worth, probably. We all do. So does this mean all are barred? What would Paul say to that?
My guess is something on the lines of imitating his maturity. That is not conceit because Christian maturity precisely entails knowing how much we need Christ and how far we have to go. Not that we have already attained all this… That is the mark of the mature believer in grace.
It’s common for those outside the church to disparage Christians for their hypocrisy. And rightly so. It’s fair enough! I know full well as a ‘professional’ Christian that there is no way in a million years that I live up to what I preach. Which is truly scary.
But God knows that too. I need to own my hypocrisy. I need to confess it and strive to overcome it – over a lifetime. Not that we have already attained all this…
So here is the ideal model for believers: Someone with the maturity to accept the reality of their sin and failure, to confess it and seek forgiveness for it whenever they can, to keep looking to Christ. In short: someone who knows what to do when they fail.
Not that we have already attained all this…