All things to all men
1 Corinthians 9:1-27
When we hear the phrase we think of two-faced gossips, slick marketing men or political spin doctors. Actually Paul is speaking about a ministry philosophy of deep integrity. He’s talking about a flexibility that seeks to honour something far deeper than cultural expressions.
In 1 Corinthians 9 the Apostle is laying bare his modus operandi. He is discussing how it is that he can move so freely from one culture to the next – from stern religionists in the synagogue, to free-thinking philosophers at the Areopagus, to the common people in the market-place. In every situation he adopts cultural practices that are appropriate. Why? Is he a people-pleasing chameleon? Does he not know who he is? Actually it’s because he does know his true identity that Paul is so able to adapt. Because he belongs to Christ he is free from the claims of culture. Yet, being free, he uses it to serve:
“Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)
Let me ask you a question: What does a Christian look like?
The scandal is – everyone knows what a Christian looks like: Ned Flanders. Christians look white, middle-class, suburban, university educated, sanctimonius and deeply irritating. Of course statistically that’s nonsense. Within my own denomination – Anglicanism – the average worshipper is a 20-something Nigerian woman who has to travel more than 2 miles to get clean water. But nonetheless, the stereotype persists. And it’s a scandal because the gospel stands above culture.
You actually can’t answer the question “What does a Christian look like?” You might ask “What does a Christian act like?” But you’d get the answer “Jesus.” More specifically, “The Jesus who hung out with prostitutes, publicans and sinners, even as he mingles with Pharisees and preaches in the synagogue.” You see Jesus was all things to all men that some might be saved. His people follow suit.
That doesn’t mean we are all spin and no substance. Even when Paul enters deeply into another culture there is still something ruling Paul. In verse 21 he says he’s not free from God’s law but he uses a wonderful phrase to describe his relationship to Christ. The Greek could literally be translated: “I am in-lawed by Christ.” Not that Christ is like the in-laws – that would not be good! It’s the idea of Paul sunk down into Christ. Christ is Paul’s law. Christ Himself is the ruling authority in Paul’s life – Christ has en-law-ed Paul.
So Paul has not just cast off every rule and authority. He is ruled, he has a centre, he has integrity. It’s Jesus.
Which means Paul could never say ‘I became a drug dealer in order to win drug dealers.’ ‘I became a drug user to win drug users.’ Or ‘I became sex worker to win sex workers.’ But it will mean some people saying ‘I hang out with drug dealers and drug users to win drug dealers and drug users.’ ‘I hang out with sex workers to win sex workers.’
But why? Why go through all of this? It’s so much easier to stick with people like us.
We strongly we gravitate towards ‘people like us’. When we’ve walked into a room we’ve assessed those present in a nanosecond. Without even thinking about it, we strike up a conversation with people our age, our race, our tax bracket, our sense of humour, our fashion sense. We’ve made those calculations at the speed of thought, and we slot instantly into cliques. Because we crave acceptance, we deeply want to belong and it’s exhausting crossing social and cultural boundaries.
So how does Paul do it? Well first he knows that he is unshakably one of the “in” crowd. Paul uses the phase “in Christ” over 150 times in his letters. It is the ultimate “inner ring” to belong to. And Paul is constantly reminding himself and his readers that we are in with regards to the one club that really counts. If the Father Almighty accepts us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6) we are free from the need for acceptance with others.
But more than this, in verse 23 Paul lets us in on his motivation: “this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”
Paul does not want to enjoy the gospel on his own. His vision of the future is to sit at Christ’s table with the religious and the irreligious, the moral and the immoral, the cultured Greeks and the Barbarians alike. With that goal in mind, Paul reaches out with a gospel that is big enough to meet and change anyone.
Who do you want to sit down with on that day? Jesus has crossed the ultimate barriers to offer salvation to the world. His blood has paid for every tribe, language, people and tongue. Today we can join Him in reaching out. Let us become all things to all men that by all means we might save some.
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