Exercising our freedom must never come at the cost of offending another brother or sister in Christ. The principle of love demands that, whenever necessary, we willingly sacrifice our liberty for the sake of protecting each other. That is Paul’s theme in 1 Corinthians 8.
In chapter 9, Paul provides some examples from his own ministry to drive that point home. He begins by explaining the church’s responsibility to financially support the man of God, and how he had set aside that right for their sake. He didn’t want his financial needs to be an impediment to the work of the gospel, so he supported himself while he ministered to them.
All Things to All Men
In the subsequent passage, Paul explains the self-sacrificing philosophy that was at the heart of his gospel ministry.
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Sadly, the modern church has turned that principle on its head. Today believers confuse the concept of being all things to all men, using it as license to imitate the world and embody the characteristics of the subculture they want to reach. Even worse, whole churches apply it as a marketing strategy, attempting to fashion themselves according to the trends and interests of the world.
The notion that the church must become like the world to win the world is the dogma of the day. Virtually every modern worldly attraction has a “Christian” counterpart. We have Christian motorcycle gangs, Christian bodybuilding teams, Christian dance clubs, Christian amusement parks, and even Christian nudist colonies.
Self-Sacrifice, Not Compromise
What was Paul actually saying in those verses? He described not his adoption of worldly practices, but rather his willingness to sacrifice himself to win people to Christ. He would give up anything—even become “a slave to all”—if that would promote the spread of the unadulterated gospel.
His desire to win souls is the heart of the text, and he repeats it several times: “that I might win more” (1 Corinthians 9:19); “so that I might win Jews”; “that I might win those who are under the Law” (1 Corinthians 9:20); “that I might win those who are without law” (1 Corinthians 9:21); “that I might win the weak”; and “that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Winning people to Christ was his one objective. In order to do that, Paul was willing to give up all his rights and privileges, his position, his rank, his livelihood, his freedom—ultimately even his life. If it would further the spread of the gospel, Paul would claim no rights, make no demands, insist on no privileges.
And that is precisely how Paul lived and ministered. He refused to adopt worldly methods (2 Corinthians 4:1-3), and he behaved such that he personally would never be an obstacle to anyone’s hearing and understanding the message of Christ. He had an attitude of personal sacrifice, not compromise. He would never alter the clear and confrontive call to repentance and faith. He saw his personal liberty and human rights as something to be used—or not used—for God’s glory, not his own enjoyment. If he could trade his liberty for an opportunity to proclaim the gospel, he would gladly do it.
When ministering to Jews, Paul avoided unnecessary offenses. It’s not that he sought to be a model Jew the Pharisees would be proud of, rather, he abstained from whatever would create a barrier to hearing his message. If it was important to them to abstain from eating pork, he abstained. If their sensibilities demanded that a certain feast be observed, he observed it. Why? Not to appease their pride or win their favor, but in order to open a door of opportunity for him to preach the uncompromised truth, so that he might win them to Jesus Christ.
In the same way, when ministering to Gentiles he became “as without law” (1 Corinthians 9:21). That didn’t mean he was living licentiously or behaving unrighteously. He would have no sympathy with antinomians—people who believe all law is abolished for Christians. Paul is not implying that he lived it up just to make the Gentiles admire him. He did not encourage people to think they could become Christians and hang on to a worldly lifestyle.
“As without law” means he avoided living in such a way that might convey that they needed to adopt the Mosaic Law. When he ministered to Gentiles, he dropped all his non-moral Jewish traditions. He followed Gentile customs and culture insofar as it did not conflict with the law of Christ. He avoided needlessly offending the Gentiles.
To be clear, Paul was not a chameleon who conformed to his audience. He was a man of integrity who simply gave up whatever rights and privileges and freedoms he could in order to gain a hearing. He spoke in terms each audience could understand and lived in ways that didn’t cause offense.
Conscientious Submission, Not Clever Marketing
It should be obvious that modern church marketers cannot look to Paul for approval of their methodology or claim him as the father of their philosophy. Although Paul ministered to the vilest pagans throughout the Roman world, he never adapted the church to society’s tastes. He would not think of altering either the message or the nature of the church. Each of the churches he founded had its own unique personality and set of problems, but Paul’s teaching, his strategy, and above all his message remained the same throughout his ministry. His means of ministry was always the straightforward proclamation of biblical truth.
By contrast, the contextualization of the gospel today has infected the church with the spirit of the age. It has opened the church’s doors wide for worldliness, and in some cases a crass, party atmosphere. The world now sets the agenda for the church.
Paul’s one aim in making himself the slave of all was in order that they might be saved. He was not trying to win a popularity contest. He was not seeking to make himself or the gospel appealing to them. His whole purpose was evangelistic.
Preaching on this passage, C.H. Spurgeon said,
I fear there are some who preach with the view of amusing men, and as long as people can be gathered in crowds, and their ears can be tickled, and they can retire pleased with what they have heard, the orator is content, and folds his hands, and goes back self-satisfied. But Paul did not lay himself out to please the public and collect the crowd. If he did not save them he felt that it was of no avail to interest them. Unless the truth had pierced their hearts, affected their lives, and made new men of them, Paul would have gone home crying “Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” . . .
Now observe, brethren, if I, or you, or any of us, or all of us, shall have spent our lives merely in amusing men, or educating men, or moralizing men, when we shall come to give our account at the last great day we shall be in a very sorry condition, and we shall have but a very sorry record to render; for of what avail will it be to a man to be educated when he comes to be damned? Of what service will it be to him to have been amused when the trumpet sounds, and heaven and earth are shaking, and the pit opens wide her jaws of fire and swallows up the soul unsaved? Of what avail even to have moralized a man if still he is on the left hand of the judge, and if still, “Depart, ye cursed,” shall be his portion?