What did the Apostle Paul mean about being “all things to all people”?

JOHN’S QUESTION:

(Paraphrased)  Sadly, many American churches cling to buildings, music, and tradition at the expense of reaching others with the Gospel. Was this the issue in the church of Corinth that the Apostle Paul rebukes in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Before looking at St. Paul’s 1st Century strategy for planting churches in cities like Corinth, The Religion Guy should say something about the 21st Century. John’s viewpoint is quite surprising. It’s possible that no prior generation has seen so many churches undertake such sweeping efforts to make Christianity appealing to the surrounding secular culture.

Since the Second Vatican Council, many venerable Catholic practices have eroded or disappeared, most notably the use of common languages rather than Latin in worship. In developing nations, churches often supplant a long-sacrosanct European heritage with indigenous practices, not just in worship styles but governance, sometimes allowing polygamy. In the West, some Protestant bodies have downplayed or formally dropped age-old doctrinal and moral tenets.

With U.S. Protestantism, especially for evangelicals, younger congregations will often shun anything that signifies “church” or “tradition” in hopes of luring seekers. Theater seats or sofas replace pews at worship. Gone are robes and collars for clergy or understood dress codes for attendees. Instead of liturgies, choirs, and pipe organs, rock bands perform under spotlights or strobe lights with eardrum-piercing amplifiers. Onscreen words replace hymnals and toted Bibles. Preachers behind Plexiglas pulpits or using roving microphones will avoid Bible lingo or include skits and videos. Some churches don’t pass offering plates because younger worshippers are so stingy. A few cancel worship services when Christmas falls on Sunday.

Add your own examples.

That said, let’s turn to John’s question about these words Paul sent around A.D. 55 to the church he’d recently founded in Corinth, Greece:

“Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (New Revised Standard Version translation).

Corinth was a strategic town, the bustling chief trading center for the eastern Mediterranean, located at a narrow isthmus between two saltwater gulfs. According to Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, its citizens were multicultural, “skeptical and preoccupied, but new ideas were guaranteed a hearing.” Sounds like 21st Century cities. Paul applied his “all things” approach to three groups in town:

First, he wanted to win fellow Jews, those “under the law,” to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. He didn’t require Gentiles to observe the Hebrew Bible’s requirements on ritual, diet, or circumcision of males and, though ethnically Jewish, felt no personal requirement to observe those religious laws. Yet he’d respect the laws if it would help befriend and evangelize fellow Jews.

Second, the majority of the population were Gentiles “outside the law.” In this complex passage, Paul felt bound by “God’s law” as well as “Christ’s law,” presumably referring to the Bible’s broad moral expectations for all humanity such as the Ten Commandments, as opposed to distinctively Jewish regulations. He would observe Jewish laws among fellow Jews but taught full freedom from them in commending faith in Christ to Gentiles.

Third, “the weak.” C.K. Barrett said that meant Jewish Christians temped to “legalism,” as though law-keeping brought salvation rather than belief in Jesus whose death atones for sin. But Murphy-O’Connor thought Paul meant the “socially and economically powerless,” while John Barclay said this referred to people with “less knowledge and less social significance” than the city elite. A wider consensus holds that Paul echoed his earlier warning (in 8:7-13) that “weak” Christians could be tempted with idolatry if fellow believers ate food sacrificed to idols, even though in principle Christians were free to eat.

Norman Hillyer summarized that Paul’s “all things” did not mean “compromise on Christian principles, but that he will sacrifice his own legitimate interests and preferences completely if thereby he may save some.”

Today’s missionary theorists talk about “inculturation” by which foreign workers learn about another culture, assimilate, and reshape methods to attract adherents. The same applies to outreach within a culture that is secularizing or post-Christian. But how to do this yet uphold the essentials of Christian belief?

It’s a longstanding issue. Consider pioneer Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who successfully planted Catholic Christianity in China between 1583 and his death in 1610. A century later, the Vatican and other religious orders condemned as idolatry Ricci’s tactic of showing deep reverence toward Confucius and one’s own ancestors. The resulting clampdown caused China’s church to dwindle. Missionaries in Africa have faced many such conundrums over the past century.

 

 

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