In First Corinthians 11:1, Paul encourages the believers to be imitators of him as he seeks to imitate Jesus. This may seem like a veiled form of self-promotion, but it may also be Paul embracing an unavoidable reality of leadership.
In the New Testament, the noun ‘imitator’ is rarely used and primarily appears in the Pauline letters to the believers (Clarke, 1998, p. 329), which may give the appearance that being an imitator is a concept introduced by Paul in an attempt to have prominence in the eyes of Christ followers. Only one time in the Gospels did Jesus come close to the idea of imitation found in John 15:12 when Jesus calls his disciples to love one another as he has loved them (Fedler, 2006). It would appear, then that since being an imitator is not an injunction Jesus explicitly placed upon his followers (Clarke, 1998, p. 329), it is a device created by Paul to procure dominance among the young Christian community. (Clarke, 1998)
Another possibility, though, would be Paul’s call to imitate him is recognition of an unavoidable reality of leadership. When Paul is calling believers to imitate himself, he is not calling believers to rote repetition of his life and actions (Fedler, 2006). Instead, Paul is calling believers to imitate his lifestyle (Clarke, 1998, p. 337) as a mentor calls a protégé to imitation for the sake of growth and development in a particular model (Hoehl, 2011, p. 34). In the case of Paul, the model is that set by Jesus in virtues and emotions rather than particular actions (Fedler, 2006).
In the end, a leader cannot help but be imitated by the virtue of his position and influence, so wisdom should compel leaders to be worthy of imitation by emulating a model such as Jesus.
Clarke, A. D. (1998). “Be imitators of me”: Paul’s model of leadership. Tyndale Bulletin, 49(2), 329–360.
Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: study Bible: English standard version (ESV text ed). Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles.
Fedler, K. D. (2006). Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press.
Hoehl, S. (2011). The Mentor Relationship- An Exploration of Paul as a Loving Mentor to Timothy and the Application of this Relationship to Contemporary Leadership Challenges. Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership, Vol. 3(Iss. 2), 32–47.