Imitatio Christi

Sep 2018    

In their book, As Iron Sharpens Iron,1 Howard and William Hendricks emphasise the importance of spiritual mentoring before the idea became fashionable in evangelicalism. Stressing the cruciality of this work of spiritual direction in the Church, they state emphatically that mentoring is not an option “but an essential”.

They write, “At their best, mentors nurture our souls. They shape our character. They call us to become complete men, whole men, and, by the grace of God, holy men.”

In contemporary evangelical Christianity, mentoring may, at times, appear faddish, but it is not a novel concept.  Rather, it is a very ancient practice indeed.

What exactly is spiritual mentoring? And what resources can we draw from the Bible and the rich spiritual tradition of the Church that would help us to understand—and revive—this lost art?

Although mentoring involves teaching, it is much more than that. Mentoring, which can take place either in a group or individually, involves intentionally helping others deal with life and is, therefore, very personal.

We see this in the way in which Jesus related to His disciples. In their book, Spiritual Mentoring,2 Keith Anderson and Randy Resse point out that the “kind of teaching Jesus provided them was very different from the classroom instruction of the academy today”.

Jesus’ approach “assumed a relationship and style that made different demands on both rabbi and disciple, teacher and learner, mentor and protégé”. It is closer to the relationship between a master craftsman and a young apprentice than that between a professor and a student in a modern university.

Relationship is key in the mentoring process, and there must be profound trust between the mentor and his protégé. This intimate relationship is clearly exemplified by Jesus in the way He regarded His disciples-not as servants, but as friends (John 15:15).

As the New Testament scholar William Hendriksen explains: “Clearly implied in these words of Jesus is the thought that he is not satisfied with merely servile obedience. His friends are motivated by friendship when they do his bidding. Obedience is an expression of their love.”3

It is through this close relationship between the mentor and his protégé that transformational learning, on the part of the latter, takes place. The protégé learns not only from the teachings of his master, but also by observing his behaviour in certain situations. He is slowly transformed by following his master’s example.

This concept of imitation (imitatio in Latin) has a long history in Christian spirituality, and its origins can be traced to the apostle Paul. In a letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul exhorts his readers to “imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1 NKJV).

Like Paul, the spiritual mentor must lead an exemplary life that will serve as a model for his protégé. The fifth century theologian, Augustine, considers himself “the servant of servants of Christ”. The spiritual mentor must adopt the same posture and live a blameless life of faith, humility and service.

The spiritual mentor should never try to mould his protégé into his own image. Rather, he should nurture and guide his protégé so that he may—by the grace of God—become more and more like Christ.

Like his protégé, the mentor, too, is a disciple, a learner who must always be willing to be challenged and transformed by God’s inexhaustible Word. In exhorting the Corinthians to imitate him, Paul was in fact urging them to imitate Christ.

The spiritual mentor must take heed of the wise words of Augustine: “Although it is more fitting that old men should be teachers than learners, it is nevertheless more fitting for them to learn than to continue ignorant of that which they should teach others.”


1 Howard Hendricks and William Hendricks, As Iron Sharpens Iron: Building Character in a Mentoring Relationship (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995).

2 Keith R. Anderson and Randy D. Reese, Spiritual Mentoring: A Guide for Seeking and Giving Direction, (Chicago, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

3 William Hendriksen, John (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1954).

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College, and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).

Picture by bestdesign36/Bigstock.com


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