On Role Models

I taught Sunday school yesterday, and our focus was on finding encouragement in the faith of others. If you’re familiar with the epistles, we worked from Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica.

And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia–your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
–1 Th. 1:7-10

I have a rant to make here, but it has a purpose. Our society wholly screws up the term “role model”. When Charles Barkley famously said, “I am not a role model,” he was wanting to excuse his behavior off of the court [and maybe some of his on-court behavior, including his expectorative abilities]. But Sir Charles is a hell of a role model: the undersized power forward.

Being a role model means that you model a role. Bill Clinton was a great role model for being a successful politician–whether or not you agree with the man’s politics, you cannot doubt his political ability. As with Barkley, being a role model doesn’t make Clinton a model citizen–one would never make an admitted adulterer into such.

Because I believe in the Gospel, I know that there are no model citizens. However, I know that there are role models all around us. When I look at Christian music, I look at how Rich Mullins did his ministry. As you probably know by now, I’m friends with the Caedmon’s Call guys, and they’ve told me a couple Rich stories. They’ll tell you, as Rich would, that Rich wasn’t a perfect person. But was Rich a very good role model for showing everyone how not to let the fame and money that come with a solid musical career affect you? I would say that he was.

I extended this to our church. “I can tell you, as someone who’s been around a bunch of youth folks, that Darin”—our YD—“is a good role model for a youth director. Is he a model citizen? No, he is not. He’ll tell you that, and I’ll tell you that.” All I had to do was remember the prank he pulled on his old youth group when we were all at Sumatanga a couple years ago to know that. “But his inability to be a model citizen does not damage his utility as a role model for us.”

I also explained it in terms of work. “My boss is a great role model for how to manage people, especially engineers. Is my boss a perfect man? No, he is not. Is he a good role model for engineers? Yes.” He really is, and I would sooner quit this job than work for someone else.

Similarly, the Thessalonians were a role model only in the sense of how they took to and spread the Gospel. That doesn’t make the individual congregationalists perfect citizens; they’re still screwed-up sinners like the rest of us. But the sanctifying power of grace is enough to help you through and do as you should, and in those areas where we do have the gifts and the grace, we can be role models.

We just can’t be model citizens.