Follow me as I follow Christ?
Sometimes in conversations, preachers often bring up the many references in Paul’s writings where he essentially tells Gentile Christians to imitate his examples. Here are some passages: 1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1, Philippians 3:17 as well as 1 Thessalonians 1:6, and 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9. Generally, those who want to defend the one-man-show churching practice read these passages to mean that Paul became a present, proximal example to those Gentile Christians like Jesus was an example to those who believed in him during his earthly ministry. The obvious deduction being that today’s preachers can be the Christ-figure example for the parishioners to imitate. This reading of Paul is quite problematic, and the deduction is quite dangerous. In all the passages above, Paul does encourage Gentile Christians to imitate his doctrines. Now, what can we say about the doctrines in question? They all emanate from the gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul claimed to have received by revelation and which he ran by the other Apostles in Jerusalem who believed earlier than he did to make sure that he had encountered the right Jesus.
Let us begin with the 1 Corinthians passages. The “imitate me” (4:16) instruction is immediately qualified by “my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (17). Similarly, 11:1 is sandwiched between detailed doctrinal explanations in chapters 10 and 11. So, we see that the imitation is about adhering to sound doctrines traceable back to Jesus. The same applies to Philippians 3:17. In 1 Thessalonians 1, Paul praised the church for having been good imitators of his, his team, and Jesus to the extent that that church became a “model to all the believers in Macedonia” (7) because “the Lord’s message rang out” (8) from that church to believers everywhere in that vicinity. Once again, the imitation is intimately connected to the “Lord’s message.” In the same vein, the 2 Thessalonians 3 passage addresses how one’s (correct) theology ought to influence one’s actions and way of living. Paul speaks of how he and his team members lived exemplary lives among the Thessalonians so as to not be a financial burden on the people, and he encouraged the people to imitate this example.
So, what we learn from these passages is that Paul pointed to himself in ways that ultimately pointed to his master. He was not claiming to be better or unique; more importantly, he definitely did not set himself up as a proximal exemplary model in place of Jesus. In fact, he often used plural personal pronouns—we, us—in his writings to the churches, suggesting that whatever exemplar he thought himself to be was also applicable to other members of his team; he was as Christian as his team members in ministry.
Some preachers want to project themselves as some sort of Apostle figures in hierarchical relations to church elders and parishioners. This is illegitimate for a simple reason. In a strict sense, an Apostle was a person who either witnessed Jesus’ earthly ministry (and was called to ministry) or was specially grafted into the movement in First Century AD. This was the edge an Apostle had over elders of a church, and it was not a mark of superiority in any way.