“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” 1 Cor 9:22. This verse, and the verses surrounding it (1 Cor 9:19-23), are what some church leaders consider “the Magna Carta of contextualization.” These words of Paul toward the end of the ninth chapter of 1 Corinthians have been used to justify all sorts of horrific practices in the evangelical church.
“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” 1 Cor 9:22
In his book, The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren explains this passage to mean that Paul’s advice to Saddleback Church would be “When in southern California I became like a southern Californian in order to win southern Californians.”1 Again: “Paul always allowed his target to determine his approach.”2 In his book Ten Stupid Things That Keep Churches from Growing, Geoff Surratt also observes from this passage that Paul had a very targeted audience. His advice to pastors is that they skip church, go to Starbucks, note their community’s demographic, and eavesdrop on their conversations. From that field research, they’re to begin preaching on the topics brought up at Starbucks. He asks, “Does your church seem as accessible as Starbucks?”3
These verses have also become a key passage in missiological discussions on how Christian missionaries should contextualize or make the Gospel coherent to unbelievers in different cultures.4 Indeed, a popular misunderstanding of this passage has become in many corners the foundation of a whole new kind of Christianity.5
The scope of this blog will not permit me to provide a full response to all these views. I hope, however, to address at very least the right meaning of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 in a series of posts. While 1 Cor 9:19-23 does call us to Christ-like servanthood in our evangelistic efforts, the passage does not advocate positive cultural accommodation per se.
Paul’s words in 1 Cor 9:19-23 do not fall out of the sky onto a placard for the pastor’s desk. They appear in a context, and understanding that context is necessary to our understanding what Paul is saying with these highly crafted words.
First Corinthians 9:19-23 finds itself in the middle of a large, three chapter section of the book. In 1 Corinthians 8-11:1, Paul is addressing food offered to idols (1 Cor 8:1, 4). The best interpretation of these chapters is that which was held by the early church and more recently presented by interpreters like Alex Cheung and David Garland.6 The Corinthians had written Paul asking him to reconsider his ban on food offered to idols. Paul does not regard idol food as a matter of indifference or adiaphora, but upholds the Council of Jerusalem’s decision in Acts 15.7
Yet, instead of addressing the matter of idol food outright, Paul needs to first deal with the lack of love among the “knowers.” So, he writes, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He is concerned about Christian brothers who have a “weak conscience.” When someone has a “weak conscience,” it means that they are unable to reach a sound moral or ethical conclusion. Conscience here speaks to judgment before a moral action rather than the appraisal of moral actions after someone has committed them (the way the term is most often used today). Those with weak consciences would be immature believers who could see the older, “more mature” Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 2:6; 14:20) “with knowledge” eating in the temple, and decide that they could go and participate in idolatry alongside their devotion to Christ. Verse 10: “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?” Pushing a brother into sin is a grievous, horrendous sin. Christ died for this brother. Paul is beside himself: “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble!” So closes chapter 8.
The ideas in chapter 9 build directly on chapter 8.8 Having said he would never eat any meat if it could hurt his brother, Paul explains how he has done just that–he has given up the basic provision of food for the sake of the Gospel. As he asks the Corinthians to do the difficult things of giving up things for the benefit of others, Paul gives himself as an example to help spur them on to better obedience (cf. 11:1).
Before he can make the point about how he sacrifices his rights to receive from the churches, however, Paul must first establish that he actually has this right. The first eighteen verses of chapter 9 are devoted to this discussion. Paul asks emphatically in 9:1, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” Paul had a right to receive for he was free and he was an apostle. They themselves knew these facts first hand, for Paul’s gift of apostleship had been exercised clearly in their midst. Paul follows this with arguments from reason, the Old Testament, and even the words of Christ himself, all showing that ministers have a right to receive from those who benefit by them. In fact, he repeatedly references giving up food (8:13). Verse 4: “Do we not have the right to eat an drink?” The question about taking along a wife relates to believers providing her provision as well. The three examples in verse 7 each have to do with food. Food is withheld from the ox treading out the grain. The temple workers “get their food from the temple.”
Having made an overwhelming case that he should have been compensated by the Corinthians, but Paul then reminds them that he refused to take it. Why would he do this? Verse 12b gives us a clue: “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” Paul wanted to see the gospel advance, but he would not do anything to hinder its progress. For some reason, he knew (as he did, for instance, in Thessalonica [cf. 1 Thess 2]), that receiving from the churches would hinder his ministry among the pagans in Corinth. Perhaps he was concerned that he would be indentured to them. Maybe he suspected that they would not understand the free grace of Jesus Christ. Maybe he was worried that taking from them would make him appear as a charlatan or somebody seeking personal wealth. Either way, he knew receiving from the churches could be an obstacle.
Paul also left the right unused so that he could boast in his ministry. He makes this clear in 9:15-18. He had to preach the Gospel because he had been called as the Lord’s slave in gospel preaching. Therefore, he had no reward for Gospel preaching. Slaves are not paid for doing what their Master has told them to do. So Paul had to find a “reward” somewhere else. He explains in verse 18, “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge.”9 Where the Corinthians were more than ready to take up a right they did not have (eating food offered to idols) when a brother’s spiritual vitality was at stake, Paul was ready to give up what he had a right to do for the sake of the Gospel. Paul loved identifying with Christ. He gave up his rights just as Christ did.
This, then, is the preceding context of 1 Cor 9:19-23. The Scriptures that follow verse 23 return to the matter of idol meat (I take v24 to be the beginning of a new section about temptation). Here Paul will make an even more forceful case for prohibition from idol food. Where the Corinthians showed a distinct lack of love toward other Christians with their enjoyment of food offered to idols, Paul was laying down his rights for the sake of the Gospel and for those who had not even believed on Jesus Christ.
- Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 171. [↩]
- Purpose Drive Church, 197. [↩]
- Geoff Surratt, Ten Stupid Things that Keep Churches from Growing (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 56. [↩]
- See, for example, this defense of the so-called Insider Movement to Muslims from Acts 17:1-2, 17; Acts 21:20-24; and 1 Cor 9:19-23. http://www.thepeopleofthebook.org/strategyQuotes.html [↩]
- Just a few weeks ago, I heard some pastors presenting to their church the reasons behind a newly proposed name change. At the very end of the talk, one of the pastors read this passage. With respect and love to these fellows, I consider this just one more anecdote of the misuse of this passage. [↩]
- See Alex T. Cheung, Idol Food in Corinth: Jewish Background and Pauline Legacy, Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplemental Series 176 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999) and David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). [↩]
- It’s important to note that Paul never commends eating food offered to idols. The only possible exception to this is when he tells the Corinthians not to research where the meat obtained in the market came from. He never says he eats idol food. He never sides with the strong (unlike Romans 14-15). Many interpreters have read the problems in Romans 14-15 into 1 Corinthians 8-11:1, but the situations are quite different–Romans is about Jewish food laws and 1 Corinthians deals with idol food. [↩]
- Some interpreters see chapter 9 as a severe interruption in Paul’s thought, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. [↩]
- I take the last phrase of v 18 [“so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel”] to be a restatement of verse 15. [↩]