“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 11:1
I often think of this verse by itself. By itself, the verse reads as a kind of leadership principle. We see from this verse that Paul seeks to follow Christ first, and then he invites others to follow him on that journey. So Paul’s ministry model seems to be one of leading by example. This is certainly a fair takeaway from the verse…by itself. But the verse does not appear by itself.
Now, at first glance, the verse does seem a little lonely. It appears at the beginning of a new chapter in 1 Corinthians, but as soon as Paul makes this statement, he moves to another topic. Verses one and two connect like this: “ Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.  Now…” (1 Corinthians 11:1-2). That “now” signals a new direction, and what follows is a discussion of head coverings in the church at Corinth. That introductory “now” seems to leave verse one stranded.
To un-strand it, we must remember that the original manuscripts of the New Testament did not contain chapter and verse numbers. These conventions were added later as a means of referencing scripture more easily. (It’s a lot easier to say “go to 1 Corinthians 11:1” than to say “go about 3/4 the way through Corinthians until you find the sentence that starts with the word ‘Be.'”) This referencing system is very useful, but sometimes, as is the case with 1 Corinthians 11:1, it can disturb the context of certain verses.
Because 1 Corinthians 11:1 is not 1 Corinthians 10:34, we tend to read it in the context of chapter 11, and as the opening verse of chapter 11, it does not make a lot of sense. But, if we remove the reference numbers and just read the text, we realize something: Verse one belongs back in chapter 10. (The ESV actually makes this adjustment already in its paragraphing.)
When we move 1 Corinthians 11:1 back to chapter 10, we see something we did not see before. We see that in this section of Paul’s letter “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” is about evangelism!
Read verse one in its fuller context:
 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God,  just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.  Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)
When Paul says “Be imitators of me” in this verse he is specifically talking about his work in evangelism. Listen to theologian John Frame’s take1 on these verses:
Paul says, “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (10:33). Notice: that’s the goal of *everything* he does with his life, to bring salvation to people. Now, you might say, “Well, Paul was an apostle, so of course he is primarily concerned with the salvation of men. I’m not an apostle, not even a preacher, so I don’t need to have the same goal as Paul.” But Paul follows that sentence with this one in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Paul says that the whole Corinthian church should have the same goal as he does. He wants them, too, to have as their supreme goal in life bringing salvation to other people. (p. 1036)
So, what is Paul inviting us to when he says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”? He is inviting us to the work of evangelism. He is inviting us to work with his same conviction and love and drive to bring the Gospel near to others. “That they may be saved” – this was Paul’s goal in everything he did. Sure, he had other goals and tasks along the way, but even in those moments, he had an eye towards reaching others.
May we imitate Paul as he imitated Christ in his compassion for the lost.
- Frame, J. M. (2013). Systematic theology: An introduction to Christian belief. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing. ↩