In the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians Paul tells the church that they ought to imitate him (since he is imitating Christ). In fact, the church is doing just that: they have become a model for other congregations in Macedonia and Achaia. The prayer in chapter 1 does not really explain what Paul means by “imitate me.” Beginning in chapter 2, Paul reminds the church how he conducted himself when he was in the city, providing some details on what he sorts of things he models for them in imitate. Abraham Mahlrebe suggested that this description of Paul’s motivations for ministry are not really apologetic, but rather he intends to present himself as an example of moral behavior he expects out of his congregation. “The philosopher presented himself as a moral example to follow.”
It is also likely that Paul is trying to separate himself from the typical traveling teacher, the sophist who used his oration skills to gain popularity and wealth. In this case, Paul contrasts his motives with those of the sophists or other philosophical mountebanks. Like snake-oil salesmen in the old west, the traveling teacher was a well known character int he Greco-Roman world. Bruce Winter suggested that Paul was distancing himself “from the habits of the sophists, who entered the cities of the empire with great pomp in order to gain an audience and disciples for their teaching.” (Cited by Green, 112.) Gene Green also cites Dio Chrysostom as an example of a philosopher who set himself up as a model to be followed (in contrast to other philosophers and sophists.)
But to find a man who in plain terms and without guile speaks his mind with frankness, and neither for the sake of reputation nor for gain makes false pretensions, but out of good will and concern for his fellow- man stands ready, if need be, to submit to ridicule and to the disorder and the uproar of the mob—to find such a man as that is not easy, but rather the good fortune of a very lucky city, so great is the dearth of noble, independent souls and such the abundance of toadies [flatterers], mountebanks, and sophists. (Dio Chrysostom , 32.11)
It is possible that Paul is responding to attacks against his character made by opponents (either Jews from the synagogue or the Thessalonicans themselves). It is even possible people in the congregation wonder about Paul’s motivation for preaching the Gospel in their city and founding the church. After all, Paul did spend a minimal amount of time in the city and he leave under suspicion from the civil authorities. He did in fact leave town after Jason posted bond, possible giving credence to the rumor that Paul was preaching the gospel for the money and did not really care about the church.
One way to define yourself is to describe what you are not. For example, I might say that I am a Christian, but not like those guys on TV, or those people that protest at military funerals, or like those people that predict the end of the world, etc. My intention is to define accurately what I do believe by contrasting myself to more well known “characters” from our culture. Paul does not want to be seen as a sophist anymore than I want to be seen as the typical “nutter” Christian, the contemporary characterization which is not at all accurate.