‘Imitate me,’ says Paul, ‘as I imitate Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11.1). Those in ministry are specifically called to shepherd the flock, and their pattern for doing so is the Chief Shepherd of the sheep (1 Peter 5.1-5).
Danger of substitution
The problem comes, however, when imitation gets confused with substitution; when reflecting Christ morphs into replacing Christ. It’s dangerous being a ‘mini-messiah’ – dangerous for us and dangerous for those we try to save. Here are some of the pitfalls.
1. Not praying. Given that Jesus was himself so prayerful – and aware that without the Father he could do nothing (John 5.19) – how odd that, in mini-messiah mode, prayer is one of the first things to go. But mini-messiahs are far too busy saving the world to find time to pray.
2. Never saying ‘no’. When we kid ourselves that our potential is boundless – perhaps omnipotence would be a good word(?) – then of course it’s hard to say ‘no’. And since no one can help quite as well as we can, we are also slow to let go. An unhealthy dependence is often the result.
3. A lack of learning and growth. Who can hope to teach a ‘know-it-all’ – they have nothing to learn and no growing to do. If we believe we have already arrived, we won’t be humbly teachable; we will be presumptuous and self-satisfied. We won’t listen and we won’t grow.
4. Self-deceived. When the world won’t bend to our command, even though we are sure that it should, one option is to play make-believe and pretend it already has. Christian history is filled with leaders who not only deluded themselves, but also the people who followed them.
5. A lack of collaboration. Mini-messiahs, being so very sure of their own wisdom, never ask for help. And because they don’t see any need to collaborate, the churches they lead end up shaped in their own image. Instead of collaborative ministry, we find discouraged individuals struggling along in miserable isolation.
6. Compounding of error. This refusal to involve others goes hand-in-hand with a resistance to correction. When we are so very sure of our own opinions, we are not open to redirection and the mistakes we make do much more damage before someone finally intercepts them.
7. A lack of empathy. Having risen above mortal man, the mini-messiah in us won’t minister alongside others or sympathise with others. Instead we take the moral high ground in judgment and condemnation.
Jesus, the true Messiah
The irony, of course, is that Jesus, the true Messiah, was none of these things. He prayed, he said no, and, despite difficulties, he remained steadfast. Jesus was the one who was made perfect through suffering (Hebrews 2.10) and knew himself perfectly (John 13.3). He chose disciples to work with him and sent them out to minister. And though he was without sin, he still sympathised with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4.15). The only thing he didn’t do was make mistakes.
But what’s really dangerous about being a mini-messiah is the way we end up distracting people from the real thing. Mini-messiahs are like a negative version of John the Baptist. He decreased so that the Christ might increase but mini-messiahs do the reverse. Instead of standing to one side when the bridegroom arrives, mini-messiahs are more like someone standing right in front of him. Even so, the Messiah is gracious and will save us from our mini-messiahdom – provided, of course, we are ready to notice it.
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