We don’t just follow examples; we also set them.
The Bible doesn’t only encourage us to consider who influences us, but how we influence others. So, Timothy has followed Paul’s example (2 Tim 3:10-11); but Timothy now is to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). While that command applies particularly to church ministers, the principle is relevant to all of us.
It’s worth sitting down and asking yourself: what example am I setting to others?
Whether we like it or not, the eyes of others are always watching us. Our children are watching us. Our colleagues are watching us. Our neighbours are watching us. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are watching us. The children in Sunday School are watching us. They unconsciously absorb what they see. A little bit of us is rubbing off on them. That’s why they can predict things about us: how we walk into a room, whom we speak to, the atmosphere we create, how approachable we are, the things that are important to us, how open or closed we are. Others notice what we say in our unguarded moments, when we’re tired, or a bit grumpy. They notice how we react (or don’t react) to our own sin and the sin of others. They absorb how we relate to the local church, and on what basis we decide to be present at worship.
It’s a scary thought. I think a key part of maturing as a Christian is grappling with this reality.
One of the lies of our age is that my life is private and my decisions are mine to take. Others can’t tell me what to do. But that completely ignores the significance of our example. It fails to see that our personal choices have big effects on others. In one of his poems, John Donne asks God: “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won others to sin, and made my sin their door?”. He uses the vivid image of my sin acting as a doorway, which invites others to step over its threshold. It’s similar to Jesus’ in Matt 18:6-9, when he talks about my sin tripping up others.
It’s as if in particular areas of our lives, God hands us microphones, and puts us in front of the camera. So, as mums and dads, what we’re doing is on the big screen, with our children watching. When we sin, we sin on screen; when we act righteously, we’re righteous on screen. Both our lazy behaviour and zealous behaviour is amplified. Sinclair Ferguson says somewhere “the children breathe in what the parents breathe out”. The same is true of church members, and of us in front of our unbelieving friends. It’s particularly true of ministers and elders, who sin with a particularly big microphone.
The Larger Catechism describes four “aggravations” which make some sins more serious than others. The first is if the person sinning is “of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed” (Q.151). So, think of Peter’s behaviour in Galatia, hesitating to eat with Gentiles when the men came from James (Gal 2:11-14). His example even led Barnabas astray! Peter sinned with a microphone.
From this point of view, sins that people see me do are worse than sins that people don’t see me do. Public sins are worse than private sins. Sinning in front of my wife is different to sinning in front of my family, which is different to sinning in front of my church.
This is what the qualification of elders being “above reproach” is talking about (1 Tim 3:1; Titus 1:6). It’s not expecting elders to be sinless, but it is expecting us to be exemplary. An elder recognises that he is to model godliness, including repentance. So, as part of your ongoing repentance it’s worth asking yourself: who’s the audience of my sin? Who are the spectators of my sin? Who have I influenced?
More positively, this truth is an encouragement to set a great example. There are people who raise the spiritual temperature in the room. Their prayers lift the prayer meeting; their cheerful attitude to trial inspires similar attitudes in us. Their piety makes me want to be more pious. Their attitude to possessions makes me want to be more generous. God has handed us microphones and put us on the big screen – that can either be a platform to broadcast sin, or a stage on which to showcase how wonderful Jesus, our Saviour is, who saves us for good works.