Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity... Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them so that everyone may see your progress (1 Tim 4:12; 15)
Paul's instruction to Timothy is well-known. It was written to teach him how to live and to lead as a role model leader when people were looking down on him with condescension because he was young. There is little designed to get a young Christian leader's back up more than people assuming youth = immaturity: "but you're so young." Lacking the insight and wisdom that comes with age and experience is one thing. Assuming that godly young leaders can't lead, teach, preach, evangelise or draw others together to advance the Kingdom is something else and often incorrect. But Paul's instruction to Timothy wasn't to ignore presumptuous or patronising comments about youth, but to set an example. Role models are as role models do.
I got into conversation with someone who was desperate for more transparent authenticity from church leaders. "I want to be able to see their lives. So I know how to follow Christ with my life and so I can see how the gospel works out in their lives in reality." That's a good thing to want. "After all Paul tells Timothy to set an example in his life and let everyone see his progress." It's hard to argue with that.
But what should this look like in a social media age where expectations and definitions of authenticity are running riotously out of control?
The panopticon prison was design in the 18th century. It had cells round a circle or semi-circle with a guard post in the middle. It allowed maximum surveillance by a minimum number of people and is now widely criticised as inhumane because of the power and humiliation that go with being on display, having your every action constantly monitored. But now we have gone way beyond the panopticon. Not only do we accept observation of every area of life as normal but now we display ourselves entirely voluntarily to a degree never before known. A sizeable proportion of the social media savvy equate willingness to put yourself on display with authenticity. Discretion is fast becoming a discredited virtue and privacy confused with secrecy or worse. Unwillingness to display oneself can be perceived as inauthentic at best and suspicious at worst.
How should we think about letting people see our lives in an age when "authenticity" is too easily confused for instagramming what you are having for dinner and vlogging from your bedroom? We should distinguish carefully between:
- becoming a role model (usually a bad one) BY putting yourself on display and encouraging everyone to copy you, and;
- being a role model, who by dint of certain characteristics of your life ought to be at least partly visible so that others know how to live in a godly way and can copy you
The second of these is worthy of display, the first is just bragging and self-publicising, the new way of social climbing.
What should godly role models display of their lives. Whatever it is, according to Paul, it is with the purpose that people will see their progress in the faith and be encouraged to emulate them. It is unlikely, therefore, to include instagramming dinner. Or instagramming very much, probably. It will certainly include:
- how we deal with life circumstances and events in Christ-centred and godly ways so people can see how the our new identity and the good news affects our responses to what life throws our way
- a degree of public exposure about how we repent of sin and walk in faith. If leaders are not chief repenters how is anyone else meant to know how to do it? They'll just assume leaders are perfect. Or, more likely, inauthentic shams. And definitely not to be emulated either way
- how we identify the need for change and growth in our lives and take steps to do it. Timothy was told to let people see not just his godliness but his progress - that he was growing. Of course that implies being straightforward that nobody is the finished article
- our eagerness to serve as opposed to lording it over others (of which online self-publicity is an insidious new form)
- how we are learning to grow in Christlikeness and yearning for the fruit of righteousness in our lives
Its notoriously hard to teach about humility or to point to evidences of how we are growing in the fruit of the Spirit. You might almost say that anyone who is tempted to display on social media how they are growing in these areas quite possibly isn't! People may see those things in a person but that person can't tell them that they experience growth without calling that growth into question. People have to see our lives and that simply can't happen through the self-curated presentation that is social media. There is role-modelling that happens through personal relationship that simply cannot happen through Twitter or Facebook (and perhaps also in churches so large that almost nobody can know anything about the lives of those who lead).
The Apostle Peter instructs us to humble ourselves before God and clothe ourselves with humility (1 Peter 5). Those who do are likely to turn into contagiously godly role models. Their churches will know it, their friends will see their. But they themselves are unlikely to be forthright about their progress. It is caught by being around them and witnessing it, not by them parading their humble clothing.
And they are very unlikely to display themselves much on Instagram.