Will You Accept the Vanilla Extract Marriage Challenge?

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a Zoom call with some Christian couples seeking to share some of the deeper aspects of Christian marriage rather than the shallow conversations that are far more common. During this conversation, I shared with them how struck I was by one sentence uttered by the Apostle Paul in the Bible that I’d never quite thought about very deeply. The simple verse is 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”. 

When we initially hear the word ‘imitator’ it often conjures a negative image. We think of an imitator as being a “knock off” and inauthentic. Imitator seems to imply that we aren’t being true to ourselves—who God made us to be.  

I remember the days of my youth in my grandmother’s kitchen as she baked cakes and pies for people all across the city. I saw her use Imitation Vanilla for many recipes. But, sometimes, she would break out the real deal—the Pure Vanilla Extract. Accomplished bakers say that the Pure Vanilla is more potent in flavor. While it's more expensive, you only need a little bit to do the trick. Serious bakers know that you can use less of the Pure Vanilla and still get a better infusion of flavor than with the Imitation Vanilla.

With this image of Imitation in my mind, you can understand my initial hesitance towards the Apostle Paul’s words. I don’t need to imitate Paul. I just need to be Pure Harold. Pure Harold was created in the image of Christ. Pure Harold has his own God-given strengths and struggles. Pure Harold has everything he needs to be a better husband to Dalia. Besides, I thought, "What does Paul know about that because he wasn’t even married?" 

But, upon reflection, my initial reaction was insufficient to Paul’s admonition because I had the emphasis on the wrong part of the verse. The Apostle Paul’s emphasis is not to imitate him. Rather, his emphasis is to imitate Christ. However, as a Spirit, Christ is invisible to the natural eye. Therefore, Paul is offering himself as a visual representation of that which is invisible. Paul is saying ‘Just watch me and do what I do.’ 

So many Christian couples get theologically bogged down in the verses that follow which speak about headship between Christ, husbands, and wives. But, theologians point out how 1 Corinthians 11:1 is really is an extension of Paul’s words in the previous chapter (Chapter 10) in which he describes how we should not be seeking our own good (10:24) or advantage (10:33) as we prioritize the welfare of others for the sake of the gospel. Paul is saying to us that we obey Christ when we let go of this self-centered mindset and behavior. 

As I talked to the couples about this verse, I felt the Holy Spirit speak that this verse should be written (figuratively, if not literally) upon the doorpost of every Christian couple's home. We should be walking and talking billboards to everyone who sees us—inviting them to “Imitate me, as I am of Christ”. Maybe we all should put it in our email signature, create a decal for our car window, or post it on our social media feed. This can feel scary because you make yourself the target of everyone’s attention and ridicule.  After all, how many of us feel that confident with the constant scrutiny of our marriage?

It means that you can’t just treat your marriage any kind of way. If you’re inviting them to imitate you then Christ holds you responsible for imitating Him. Yes, you’ll stumble sometimes. But, your unquenchable thirst is to have a marriage that channels Christ. 

The Apostle Paul’s words are so important here for us. The Adversary has all kinds of imitators out there that are leading far too many Christian couples astray. Those Marriage Imitators are following carnal principles and fighting with carnal weapons against Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians 10:3-4. Like the baker who prefers always using the cheaper Imitation Vanilla, Christian couples think we are getting away with substituting these carnal principles and values for the real direction of the Holy Spirit. Our distorted Western culture is doing its very best to convince us that the outcomes will be the same—Imitation is just as good. It’s a lie. It’s a distorted yet culturally acceptable presentation of Christ. God is not pleased.

Imitation is only sufficient if the original source is Pure. See herein lies the irony. The Apostle Paul can only instruct me to imitate him as he is guided by Jesus Christ as his source (Absolute Christ). Harold and Dalia can only invite you to imitate us if we are being guided by the Absolute Christ as our source. Here is the other imperative to understand. The Apostle Paul is also saying to us that we are required to make this same challenge to others even as we obey it ourselves. 

Anyone on social media these days has seen the viral challenge crazes that happens. There are all kinds of challenges from dance challenges to fitness challenges to marriage challenges, and everything in between. What the Apostle Paul is doing here is issuing his own challenge to the Corinthian church and by extension to us as well. As a Christian couple, today will you accept his challenge to say “Imitate me, as I am of Christ” to others? Like Pure Vanilla, as you do this you will infuse the full flavor of Christ in the desperate Christian marriage culture all around you.

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