Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Imitation of Paul and the Church's Missionary Role in 1 Corinthians

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Imitation of Paul and the Church's Missionary Role in 1 Corinthians

Article excerpt

Proquest Information and Learning: Foreign Text Omitted

Did Paul want the churches he founded to engage in active missionary work? Though an affirmative response to this question has long been assumed by a majority of scholars,1 this traditional understanding has recently been seriously questioned.2 One point of contention in the debate is the meaning of Paul's commands to imitate him.3 Did Paul in fact expect his readers to imitate him in evangelism?4 The present study will seek to answer this question by studying the imitation texts in 1 Corinthians. The objective is to discover, according to Paul's explicit indications, whether his commands to imitate him include an evangelistic component.


Just as the modern English injunction "imitate me" is inherently ambiguous, only the context of Paul's command clarifies what sort of imitation he expected.5 Before turning to the immediate context of Paul's imitation command in 1 Cor 11:1, we first need to investigate its broader epistolary setting. 1 Cor 11:1 appears at the close of Paul's response to the Corinthians' division over eating ..., "idol meat" (chaps. 8-10).6 Certain "strong"7 members of the Corinthian community are eating meat sacrificed to idols (8:1-9) and attending "non-religious" banquets that gather in pagan temples (8:10-11).s "Weak" members of the community, however, view such activities as having religious significance and are themselves being incited to partake in such meals. From the weak members' viewpoint, when they "give in" and partake of questionable food, they engage in idolatrous syncretism. Thus, the weak are being led to sin against their own consciences by participating in what they consider idolatry, and if they persist, will be "destroyed" (at; 1 Cor 8:11-13). While Paul agrees with the strong Corinthians' assessment of meat sacrificed to idols in theory (i.e. it has no ultimate spiritual significance), he argues that the principle of self-denial for the good of the other takes priority. Paul avers, "Therefore, if food causes my brother to fall, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause my brother to fall" (1 Cor 8:13, my translation).9 Just as Paul gives up his right to receive financial support or take along a believing wife so that no stumbling block will be put in the way of his evangelistic ministry (1 Cor 9:1-27), the strong Corinthians should give up their right to eat meat sacrificed to idols, if that action proves spiritually harmful to their weak brothers.

In chapter 10, Paul shifts from discussing the principle of self-denial to denouncing idolatry as unfaithfulness. Paul cites examples from the OT as to how God deals with the unfaithful. Indeed, the Lord's destruction of the Israelites, even after he had rescued them from Egypt, stands as a warning against presumption and unfaithfulness (10:1-13). An example of similar presumption in Paul's own day would be partaking in an idolatrous religious ceremony (10:14-22).1o Even in cases where idolatry is not involved (e.g. meat from the market or "non-religious" banquets in a pagan temple), if another's conscience is in danger, one should refrain from eating (10:23-30).11


Paul indicates to the reader that he is concluding this discussion on debated eating practices with the inferential ... and a general summarizing tone ( ... ; 10:31). It is here that Paul instructs his converts to imitate him, and as we noted in the introduction to this essay, only the context of this command will clarify the kind of imitation expected. Keeping in mind the broader context outlined above, it is instructive to look particularly at 1 Cor 10:31-11:1. The text reads:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for 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, so that they may be saved. …

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