Formations 08.17.2014: NBA Star Acts Like a Role Model, if He Is One or Not

1 Corinthians 4:14-21

Charles Barkley visiting a military hospital during a USO tour to a forward-deployed location in 2005

Charles Barkley visiting a military hospital during a USO tour to a forward-deployed location in 2005

NBA great Charles Barkley asserted, “I am not a role model” in a 1993 Nike commercial. “I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”

His protestations notwithstanding, the former 76er certainly acted like a role model after carjackers killed three Philadelphia children during a hit-and-run as they sped away from the scene of their crime. He called the local district attorney and offered to help pay for the children’s funerals.

“All Philadelphians have been moved to tears by this crime,” District Attorney Seth Williams told reporters. On August 4, the three siblings, aged 7, 10, and 15, were laid to rest. Their mother, Keisha Williams, was in a local hospital in critical condition.

Barkley’s actions have touched the entire community. Without fanfare or public comment, he simply offered to do what he could to give the grieving family one less thing to worry about as it copes with such devastating loss.

“Like most Philadelphians, many Americans and people across the world that heard about this and were moved, he wanted me to know that he wanted to pay for the funeral for these three children,” Williams said, “and I put him in touch with the family so he can do that.”

More than that, however, is the influence Barkley’s actions have had on others. A spokeswoman in the DA’s office stated that “People from all over the country have also offered to help after hearing about Mr. Barkley’s kindness.”

It is at best ill-advised to seek one’s role models on a movie screen or a basketball court. We can’t really tell whether someone is worthy of imitating until we see how they live when the cameras aren’t rolling and when the final buzzer sounds. But certainly in this instance, we can hail Charles Barkley as someone worthy of emulation.

We need role models because some lessons cannot be learned from a book. In this vein, Paul appealed to the Corinthian Christians to imitate his example. To this end, he even sent them Timothy to remind them of Paul’s behavior among them. The example of flesh-and-blood leaders was especially important in an era before the New Testament had been fully written, but even today Christian ethics and morality are more often “caught” than “taught.”

“Editorial: Role Model or Not, Barkley Proves He Has a Huge Heart,” Reading Eagle, 4 August 2014


• When have you been moved to action by the example of another person?
• Who have been your role models in life? What made these people worthy of imitating?
• Was it boastful or heavy-handed for Paul to offer himself as an example to be imitated? Explain.
• What can positive role models do for a congregation, especially one that is struggling to fulfill its divine mission?

Reference Shelf

Paul’s Missionary Method

The usual image of Paul is of an energetic, tenacious, individual preaching, but one should recognize that Paul’s missionary activity was team work. His Letters reveal that he coordinated the activity of a systematically organized band of missionaries and that his method was fairly consistent. Paul would move with a group of seasoned missionary colleagues to the capital city of a Roman province. Upon arrival he and his associates would approach the local synagogue, and if possible set up a base therein for the proclamation of the gospel. If no synagogue existed, the team would seak out the “God-fearers,” i.e., gentiles who were attracted to the theology and morality of Judaism but who had not become full converts. If there were no God-fearers, Paul and his companions would take the message to the local marketplace. In the process of moving into a city Paul would gather any Christians who already lived there and incorporate them into the missionary enterprise, thereby expanding his staff. While Paul seems to have remained in the capital city and its immediate area, his fellow workers appear to have dispersed themselves throughout the other cities, towns, and villages of the region in order to establish satelite congregations. Paul would remain in one location until the job he set out to do was done (he was in Corinth a year and a half and in Ephesus two years and three months) or, more often, until he became embroiled in a controversy that forced him to leave the region. Paul then moved on to repeat this process in a new location. But, he did not loose contact with the churches he founded. Indeed, he paid checkup visits to the churches when he deemed it necessary. Moreover, he used the writing of letters as a part of his missionary strategy, employing the written communication (like a modern “bishop’s letter”) to influence and build up the congregations he addressed.

Marion L. Soards, “Paul,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 659.

”Be Imitators of Me”

As their father, Paul claims a unique relation
ship to this church. He acknowledges that in
Christ they might have “thousands of
guardians” (myrious paidagogous), but they have 
only one father (pater). The paidagogos was
 essentially a servant or hired “babysitter”
entrusted with the supervision and protection of the child. The paidagogos might discipline the child but only because that was a part of the job, unlike the parents’ disciplining, which presumably would be motivated by love and concern for the child. Perhaps Paul intends a veiled reference to the teachers in whom the Corinthians have placed so much trust. If so, then he is demoting them to the status of hired hands. Paul became their father in Christ through his preaching that established the church.

On the basis of his paternal relationship to the church, Paul issues his second direct appeal in this section: “Be imitators of me.” As noted previously, this parakalo statement forms an inclusion with the appeal of 1:10. The first appeal to “agree” finds its corresponding method in this second appeal to “imitate” their father. The combination of paternal identity with the call to imitation could be viewed as overbearing. Paul may be seen here as seeking to impose a totalitarian control upon the church. As noted above…, the authority of the father in a Roman family was essentially absolute. In respect to this concern, two observations are in order.

First, the idea of imitating one’s parents, teachers, or good persons is found as a sound ethical principle in Hellenistic literature. Furthermore, the Corinthians lacked other concrete examples to follow. Theirs was a young church drawn predominantly from non-Jewish elements that lacked the benefit of a deep grounding in that ethical tradition. One cannot say that Greeks and Romans did not also aspire to ethical ideals that promoted harmony and service, but the ideals that prevailed in the church in Corinth were drawn from principles of behavior that encouraged competition and division, not unity. Clearly they needed a better model than the ones they were then imitating.

Secondly, the image of “father” that Paul has already defined in his argument is of one who does not assert preeminence over others but rather one who submits to menial service on behalf of others. It was also noted above that in Paul’s portrayal of God as “father,” the sovereign dimension of the paterfamilias recedes into the background in order to highlight the gracious aspect of God. … So, too, Paul’s identity as “father” emphasizes the self-giving, other-serving way of life called for by the word of the cross. What Paul asks them to imitate here is the cross-shaped life that he has described throughout his argument, not the strict self-assertion of the paterfamilias.

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009), 129–30.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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