Pattern Theology

How much should Christians seek to follow biblical patterns for life and the church? Following biblical patterns includes following specific examples that define God’s instructions. Patterns are the order, designs, models, and examples found in the Bible. This “pattern theology” or “patternism” has been rejected by many church leaders, because the biblical examples exclude contradictory practices among various churches. If believers accepted the idea of the following the examples in the Bible, many teachings and practices would change.

Christ is the Pattern

Christ is the Christian example. Jesus’s example of humility is incomparable. Jesus set the example of being a servant by washing His disciples’ feet. Jesus said in John 13:15, “For I have given you a pattern [example], that you should do as I have done to you.” Jesus set the example, the model, the pattern to be imitated. Christ’s Spirit spoke through Peter saying in 1 Peter 2:21, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example [pattern], that you should follow His steps.” The idea of following in one’s steps is to follow one’s example, and in this case, Christians follow the imprinted pattern of Jesus’ steps. Christ being the pattern is the basis of “pattern theology.”

Without the pattern examples of Jesus Christ, then the Bible would be lists of commands with some advice and poetry dispersed across accounts of history. The Bible is not merely list of commands but also of examples, virtues, and principles. The New Testament is a text containing Christ’s words whether from His mouth or from His Spirit through His apostles and prophets (John 6:63; 16:12–13). By this, the New Testament and the whole of the Bible is a book of virtues among other things. These virtues are defined by commands and examples, and these commands are also defined by example. There is a form of pattern theology in the Bible.

Imitating Biblical Examples

Those who follow a pattern or example are imitators. The Greek for imitate is mimetes, and according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to imitate is “to follow as a pattern, model, or example.” Christians are to be imitators. This means that Christians mimic the form, the model, and the design given by Christ.  Third John 11 says, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God.” Christians are commanded to imitate the good behavior of others. In Hebrews 6:12, the apostle urged, “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Elders are commanded to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). All Christians are also to be examples for others (1 Pet 2:12). Paul praised the Thessalonian Christians for being examples to all of Greece (1 Thess 1:7). Are believers going to be inerrant imitators? No. Salvation does not rest on being flawless, but rather that believers walk in the light and therefore diligently striving to imitate Jesus (1 John 1:7). As is seen throughout the New Testament, imitating and walking are one and the same.

Biblical Examples and Principles

In considering following Christ’s pattern, Christians are likely to ask, “What must Christians imitate?” Christians imitate character and virtue. Every New Testament command has a virtuous principle behind it. Therefore, Christians define virtues, which are principles, by God’s commands and examples defining these commands. Defining examples need no specific citations, because the New Testament is filled with these. However, observe the instruction of Christ’s Spirit regarding the virtue of humility. Paul referred to Jesus coming as a lowly servant in Philippians 2. In Philippians 2:5, Paul commanded, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” Jesus gave up His position in heaven to come here as a servant and His example defined humility. His pattern is binding to the instruction to be lowly and to esteem others higher than ourselves (Phil 2:3–4).

The instructions of the New Testament are embedded within specific situations as give examples and application to Christ’s commands. This is common in life. When an employer gives his employees work and shows them how to do what he has instructed, then he expects those workers to follow his example as much as his example is a good. However, Jesus’s example is always good. Throughout life, people set good and bad examples. Children define the roles of father, mother, husband, and wife by their parents’ examples. Christians learn from the examples of the New Testament about what is means to be a Christian. In like manner, the New Testament sets positive examples that define how believers obey God’s commands.

Biblical Examples for Life

The Bible is not just Sunday morning stories, but rather defining narratives of faithful and righteous living. These biblical accounts define Christ, faith, and obedience. When it comes to following the biblical pattern, many teach “church pattern” and the others say “no pattern.” “No pattern” is wrong. Only “church pattern” is incomplete when not considering patterns for Christian living.

The New Testament establishes a pattern of Christian living. In Ephesians 5:1–2, Paul reasoned, “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” In Ephesians 5:3–7, Paul defined further how one should be an imitator of God and walking in love. Therefore, Christians imitate by putting off the sins of sexual immorality and filthy speaking. This virtuous living must still be carried into our homes, workplaces, and stores even though the text does not explicitly command this in the context. The apostle Paul has more to say about following the pattern of Christian living. Paul exhorted in Philippians 3:17, “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.” The pattern is set not just by Paul but in all who walk.

Examples and patterns a synonymous and interchangeable being translated from the same Greek words tupos, hupotuposis, and hupodeigma. How can Christians know this pattern by the examples of the apostles and others throughout the New Testament? Christians read of their lives in light of their obedience to God’s commands. Christ’s Spirit said through Paul in Philippians 4:9, “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” By seeing, one can only receive an example — a defining of pattern of life.

Imitating Christ and Observing Apostolic Traditions

Noting the examples of these who imitate Christian living, these also practice the pattern of doctrine, worship, and government of the church that Christ built. In the New Testament, Christians imitate the apostles’ doctrines and traditions (Acts 2:41–47). Paul also instructed in 1 Corinthians 11:1–2, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.” Paul commanded imitation by keeping apostolic traditions delivering modesty in prayer and the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.

Christ’s example in instituting the Lord’s Supper defined what how Christians observe the memorial. In Paul’s instruction of the Lord’s Supper, he used Jesus’s example and pattern to command the memorial of the Lord’s Supper. What gives Paul’s example authority? If Paul were not an example of Christ, then his example would have no authority (1 Cor 11:1–2). Paul also said in 1 Corinthians 4:16–17, “Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.”

Binding Examples

The New Testament scriptures give Christians the examples they need to obey Christ’s commands. For example, there is no command that one must use water for baptism in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:38). However, there is a pattern and there are examples, which clearly define baptism in Jesus name to consist of water (Acts 10:47–48). Acts 8:36–38 and 10:47–48 is a binding example to the commands to be baptized for the releasing of sins.

Pattern of Sound Words

The Scriptures establish a pattern in words. Christ’s Spirit spoke in 2 Timothy 1:13 saying, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” For which, Timothy is instructed to keep those things committed to him, which certainly included instructions regarding church government in 1 Timothy 3. In fact, no Apostolic teaching or practice can be excluded from “the pattern of sound words.” These sound words are essential, so that salvation depends on following the pattern.

In Romans 6:17–18, Paul expressed, “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form [pattern] of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” The word “form” is the Greek word tupos being a pattern and an example.  What form of doctrine is this? This is none other than the death to sin, burial by baptism, and resurrection unto newness of life in Romans 6:4–6.


When believers consider Christ’s pattern of words regarding baptism, church government, marriage, church music, and the Lord’s Supper, do we consider His words to be perfect and complete? Is there a greater pattern or any higher pattern of words? Should we even think to alter and change that pattern of words? Can anyone find a better example in Christ and His pattern shown through the lives of His followers in the Scriptures? Pattern theology has a point. There is a pattern that Christians must follow and it is not the pattern of the world or the inventions of men and denominations. There are no greater examples than those found in the scriptures.

In conclusion, the Christian’s pattern is Christ, His life, and His words. Pattern theology must consist of our lives imitating Christ along with imitating His church that He built and bought with His blood.