As I mentioned in my post “Lessons in Imitation,” the idea of imitation is very important to the authors of the New Testament. This is especially true of Paul, but John (at least) also exhorts his readers toward imitation. In that post, I listed several of the passages in Scripture in which people were exhorted toward imitation. Those instructions included the imitation of God as well as the imitation of other followers of Jesus (both the authors and others).
When we read through those passages, we can see that the primary concern of the authors is for the readers to consider who they are imitating. They are not to accept just anyone as someone to be imitated. And, in fact, there are no indications that they should accept someone else to imitate simply because others are imitating that person.
While the authors do not always specify reasons to imitate someone else, a few do. Perhaps John write the most general exhortation when he writes, “Do not imitate evil but imitate good.” (3 John 11 ESV) If you read that passage in context, you’ll see that John is actually comparing two different examples that could be imitated: Diotrephes or Demetrius.
Similarly, we see Paul exhorted others to follow him “as he follows Christ,” to follow others in suffering, and to follow others in hard work. The author of Hebrews says to follow someone’s “faith” only after considering “the outcome of their way of life.” (Hebrews 13:7 ESV)
Finally, think again about this passage that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:
I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:16-17 ESV)
So, not only did Paul encourage the Christians in Corinth to imitate him, but he sent Timothy to them as another example to be imitated. This tells us something important about imitation: we should only imitate people we know and spend time with. “Imitation” in Scripture is about following the example of someone else’s way of life, not simply “following” what the person says.
So, in these passages, the authors are exhorting their readers not only to imitate others, but to carefully consider who they are imitating. And, what is to be considered? The way these people live… what they do… how they respond in difficult situation… are they loving, joyful, peace-filled, etc. even when most people are not?
It is only those who are truly following Jesus consistently that should be imitated. This is the primary concern of the authors of Scripture when they tell their readers to imitate others.