GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 581 • November 8, 2020
ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE
As the basis for this essay read 1 Corinthians 9:16-27. Verses 19-23 are often misquoted and misapplied. In particular Paul is misunderstood when he says, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
We will examine several questions and/or assumptions about what is set forth in these verses. Did Paul tolerate or approve error? He did not. Does he say that he, and therefore we, can share fellowship in Christ with those who are in religious or moral error? He does not. Does he say he, and therefore we, can participate in the errors of others? He does not. Does he say that he, and therefore we, should be anything anybody wants us to be and do anything anybody wants us to do? He does not.
We will expand upon all these questions in more detail in due time. We will say at this point that the text we are studying here does not advocate or emphasize toleration of all those who differ with us about the word and religion of God, the gospel and the church of Christ. That will become clear when we study the context of the selected passage, the meaning of the statement, and the present application of it.
THE CONTEXT OF THE STATEMENT
Paul is answering questions asked by the Corinthian Christians and responding to certain positions taken by the church in Corinth. The particular question he is answering at this point is about his refusal to take any financial support from the Corinthians (9:1-15). His work among them and his ministry to them deserved support, but he refused it. He emphasizes his voluntary restriction of his liberties, his right to give up a right or privilege when exercising it might produce undesirable results.
There is a great difference between a liberty and an obligation or requirement, or between an expedient and a commandment. Example: in behalf of brethren whose conscience and faith were weak and who might be led to sin if he exercised his liberty in eating meat (sacrificed to idols), he would forego the privilege forever, rather than cause anyone to sin. Even things lawful for him were not always expedient for them (8:13).
He recognized and wanted others to recognize his rights (9:1-6). He was free in Christ (9:1-2). He specified certain rights: The right to eat and drink (9:4). The right to marry and to take his wife with him wherever he went to minister the gospel (9:5). The right to forbear working or supporting himself by work not related to the ministry of the gospel (9:6).
He establishes his right to be supported by those to whom he preached the gospel, and by those who would send him out to other places to preach the gospel. He establishes it by social custom (9:7). He establishes it by stipulation of scripture – the law of support for the worker has not changed; the principle still applies (9:8-10). In particular, the Lord has ordained that those who preach the gospel should be compensated appropriately – “receive their living from (those to whom they preach) the gospel” (9:14 NIV). Note: in a later letter Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that he had “robbed other churches”– he took money and support from those who could not really afford to give it – so that he could preach at Corinth (and many other places) without requesting or receiving support from them (2 Cor. 11:8, compare Phil. 1:5 and 4:15-17). There seems to have been no question on the part of the Philippians (or, we may assume, those at Antioch) that Paul’s mission trips were worthy of their support – whether brief, short term, or extended stay in one place, as in Corinth and Ephesus.
Why did Paul give up his right to receive support from the Corinthians? (9:15-18). He preached the gospel as a matter of necessity – he felt impelled, perhaps compelled to preach the gospel (9:16a). Not just to be a preacher, to be busy preaching as opposed to other works. But, more important, to be sure that what he preached was nothing more or less than the gospel. “Woe to me if what I preach is not the gospel” (9:16b). This calling or work was imposed upon him by Christ (9:17). It was not something he chose or asked for, for which he could expect a reward. “A dispensation (stewardship) of the gospel is committed to me” by the Lord who called me. Compare Acts 9:15-16).
He had rewards other than physical compensation or support. By refusing to take compensation he could prevent the idea that he was selling the gospel or preaching for personal profit (9:18). He would not have to feel restricted or controlled by the supporting church. Those who pay a preacher often feel they have the right to tell him what to preach and to whom, when and where to preach it, and just how it ought to be preached. They can tie him up with so many “strings” that he becomes an ineffective mouthpiece for the congregation, rather than an oracle of the Living God (1 Peter 4:11). Many, perhaps most preachers accept that system because, “After all, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you – you don’t cut off the hand that signs your paycheck.”
Paul wanted to be free from restrictions and restraints placed upon him by those to and for whom he ministered the gospel (9:19a).
But the real reason that Paul preached the gospel, and was anxious to do it without requiring or receiving compensation from those to whom he preached, was his desire to save as many as possible (9:22 “that I might by all means save some”). “Though I am free from all, yet I have made myself a servant of all, that I may gain more of them” (9:19b). He told the Romans that he felt a debt, an obligation to all people, and was therefore willing and eager to preach the gospel to everyone, including Rome (Rom. 1:14-15). Paul wanted to share the gospel of salvation with others, and he wanted to have fellowship with all those who accepted and obeyed Christ (9:23).
To another group of Christians to whom he had ministered, Paul said his great desire and motivation for preaching was to “magnify Christ” – exalt and glorify Christ and bring praises to him. If he died he would go to be with Christ, and that was better than anything life had to offer. But if he lived, he would continue to minister to others (especially the Philippian Christians), to build them up in Christ (Phil. 1:19-26). To save as many as possible, Paul became “all things to all people” (9:22b). What did he mean by “all things to all people”?
THE REAL MEANING AND APPLICATION OF THE STATEMENT
There are some things Paul did not mean. He did not mean that he literally became everything that others were. He did not become a Jew, a pagan, an outlaw, a weakling, or a skeptic, etc to accommodate those he was trying to reach for Christ. He certainly would not take drugs with the drug users, lie cheat and steal with the dishonest, skip the assemblies of the church in order to go fishing with a fishing buddy or watch some special event with a sports addict or movie junkie, or worship idols with the idolater. You can’t win the world by joining with it (Acts 13:10, 17:30; 1 Cor. 8:4). How could he convert anyone by sinning with them, and then asking them to give up those things for Christ, or indicate that they could keep on sinning if they became Christian? He did not mean that he adapted the gospel to everyone or anyone in order to make it “relevant” and painless for them (9:16, compare 1 Cor. 2:1-5, Gal. 1:6-8). Notice: he says, “I became” not “the gospel became.”
The meaning becomes clear when we emphasize the word as. This does not imply any uncertainty on Paul’s part (9:26). He did not vary the meaning of his message, preaching one for the Jews, one for the Gentiles, and another for denominational believers, etc (Rom. 1:14-16, 1 Cor. 1:10-12). He became “as a Jew…as one under the Law…as one without law…as one who is weak, etc” (9:20-22). AS implies both sympathy and empathy – put yourself in the other person’s place, try to understand him, try to know what you would do if you were in his place. Sympathy and empathy are always in order. Be able to say, “I know how you feel, and I know why you feel that way, but…” Most of us are great at telling others what is wrong with them. Very few take time to find out why others are what they are, and so we do not really know how to reach them.
Those who try to put themselves in the other person’s place to understand his faith, motives, attitudes, and actions will certainly be more compassionate – “There, but for the grace of God, I might very well be.” And compassion will go a long way toward opening doors of the hearts and minds of persons whose souls you want to save.
Paul did not suggest or practice toleration or approval of error, and certainly did not indicate that he or anyone else should participate in the errors and sins of other persons. “Do not be a partaker in other men’s sins” (1 Tim. 5:22). He is not saying here that as long as people are sincere and honest in what they do, they should be left alone and not judged as “sinners.” He is saying, “Try to be all things to all people, so that by all means you may win some of them to the Lord. But stay within the gospel itself – otherwise both you and those you teach may run in vain, lose the prize and be cast away from God” ( 9:24-27).