This post will complete the series I have been slowly working through after beginning it a couple months ago. As I oft reminded you, Paul’s words in 1 Cor 9:19-23 have been used to justify a “anything goes” approach to evangelism. In verse 22 we especially see the potential for abuse, where Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” This verse is the Magna Carta of contextualization theory in contemporary missiology. Not a few influential thinkers have cited this verse to defend the church becoming more like the world in order to win the world.1 I have been arguing that Paul means nothing of the kind. Indeed, one might expect that, if Paul wanted Christians to at every possible point become like the world in order to win the world, he would have commanded them to eat idol-food in 1 Cor 8-10, which is in fact the direct opposite of his instructions. He reprimands them for eating idol-food because of the evangelistic obstacles such actions would have imposed on the Jews and pagans living in Corinth (to say nothing of the spiritual damage such actions would have had on believers).
Paul is not advocating “When in Corinth, do as the Corinthians do.” He is arguing that they must renounce rights and freedoms to remove hurdles to the Gospel. This is what he did in giving up his right to receive compensation from his new churches. It is the Apostle’s wish that Christians serve others evangelistically by yielding personal rights. Those who know Christ must not seek their own advantage. As I said last time, we who are believers must not make the faith more like the false religions and worldviews and philosophies all around us, but by living in a way consistent with our faith, so that those who observe us see that we live what we preach. Once again, it means yielding rights so that hindrances to the Gospel may be removed.
I have presented my interpretation of this passage both contextually and exegetically. My first installment summarized the larger context of chapters 8-9. The second post noted clear, prevailing Pauline themes, and I suggested that any interpretation of 1 Cor 9:19-23 must not violate those larger principles (as Jesus said in John 10:35, “Scripture cannot be broken”). The third post briefly explained verses 19-20, and my fourth article was devoted to verses 21-22. My most recent entry explained verses 22-23 and then noted how 1 Cor 10:31-11:1 is a parallel passage for 9:19-23, which, taken with the passage before us, confirms the interpretation I am presenting.
My final post today seeks to suggest a couple more parallel passages in Paul that illustrate and echo the interpretation of 1 Cor 9:19-23. The first is somewhat remote, but still helpful. The second is a striking parallel and sets in the clearest way what it means to become “all things to all men.”
Today, Philippians 4:13 is a sports cliche. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” Paul writes. The well-loved verse appears in a setting where Paul is thanking the Philippians for financially supporting his ministry. This verse is not so much about winning the College Football National Championship, but more about how God brought the spiritual grace of contentment to Paul amid two difficult scenarios, whether he was poor (it can be very hard to be content in such a setting) or rich (as most Americans know by experience, it can extremely difficult to be content when you are rich). In both situations, he “had learned the secret” by God’s grace.
I confess that the connections are not strong, but I’m pointing to this passage for two reasons. That is, Phil 4:10-20 bears at least two helpful contextual connections with 1 Cor 9:19-23. First, is Paul’s use of all things. Paul knew how to suffer for Jesus’ sake. He embraced such suffering for the sake of the Gospel, including the suffering of poverty. This is, in part, what he means by the “all things” he is able to endure in holiness through the God’s Almighty power.
The second way this passage connects with Paul’s words in 1 Cor 9:19-23 is in its reference to Paul’s poverty as a result of forgoing financial support from the churches to whom he ministered. He says, “In the beginning of the gospel . . ., no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.” He rejoices, not that he has more money, but that the Philippian believers are giving to him because of their commitment to the Gospel. “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit,” he says.
The point is this. Paul was able to suffer through all things, including poverty, because he willing gave up his right to receive from new churches, so that the Gospel would advance more effectively. He is able to endure this, indeed, he is able to endure all hardships because God strengthens him. The ability to suffer willingly and give up rights and lay aside freedoms so that the Gospel will advance is only accomplished through God’s gracious strength.
The final passage I’d like to suggest is far more important than the last one. If the connections between Philippians 4 and 1 Cor 9 seemed remote, the ways in which 2 Cor 6:3-10 resonate with 1 Cor 9:19-23 are astonishing, almost to the extent that do in 1 Cor 10:31-11:1.
Both passages speak of obstacles. He says in 2 Cor 6:3, “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.” The word in the original that Paul uses for obstacle is related to words used in 1 Cor 8:9 and 10:32.
In both 1 Cor 9 and 2 Cor 6, Paul refers to himself as a servant. I have already argued Paul’s words in 1 Cor 9:19 governs the whole paragraph in question (“I have made myself a servant of all”). In 2 Cor 6:4, he says, “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.”
Note also the “every way” used by Paul in 2 Cor 6:4. If you’ve given this series any kind of close attention, you know how important the use of all and every is in 1 Cor 9:19-23, where Paul uses a form of the word all or every some six times.
So Paul has set things up nicely. Here is a parallel passage, speaking of ministry, speaking of removing obstacles to the Gospel, where Paul refers to himself as a servant so that he can in every way possible see sinners believe the Gospel. We’re on the edge of our seat. So we ask, “What, Paul, do you mean? How did you commend yourself in every way? What did you do to remove obstacles to your ministry?” If we were embracing the typical American evangelical approach to this passage, we might expect him to say something like, “I visited bars and clubs. I covertly went to pagan temples. I tried to be really hip and cool. I made my worship style more like the entertainment styles of the prevailing culture around me.” That’s not what he says. Indeed, his answer comports with the very interpretation I have been proposing throughout this series: he relinquished rights and freedoms. That’s how he commended himself. That’s how he removed obstacles to Christ. Here are Paul’s own specific examples, as he begins to list the ways in which he became a servant:
 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,  beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;  by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love;  by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;  through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;  as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed;  as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
This, then, is what it means it means to “become all things to all men.” It means giving up the things you have a right to. It means embracing humility and suffering. It means all the marks of a holy, separated life (see verse 6), It means enduring those who are hostile to your doctrine.
When I began this series, I cited Geoff Surratt, who suggests that in order for pastors to become all things to all they go to Starbucks and tailor their church practice to the conversations they overhear. I cited Rick Warren, who advocates from this passage that pastors specifically and strategically target their Christianity to the “unchurched.” This is not the path to putting this passage rightly into practice.
I would have us look at Paul’s example to understand how to put into practice 1 Cor 9:19-23. If you want to become all things to all men, you will be willing to give up your rights and freedoms in order that more men and women will come to a saving knowledge of Christ. This does not mean looking as much as possible like the world. Instead, to “become all things to all men,” we must endure suffering and difficulties in order that we remove every possible obstacle to the Gospel. It means becoming a servant to others, instead of trying to become Lords by building church empires. It means living like Jesus who, as I have cited before in this series, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
- A. W. Tozer said, “The Church’s mightiest influence is felt when she is different from the world in which she lives. Her power lies in her being different, rises with the degree in which she differs and sinks as the difference diminishes. This is so fully and clearly taught in the Scriptures and so well illustrated in Church history that it is hard to see how we can miss it. But miss it we do, for we hear constantly that the Church must try to be as much like the world as possible, excepting, of course, where the world is too, too sinful; and we are told to get adjusted to the world and be all things to all men. (This use of the passage, incidentally, points up Peter’s saying that our beloved brother Paul wrote some things which the unlearned and the unstable wrest to their own destruction.) One sure mark of the Church’s heavenly character is that she is different from the rest of mankind; similarity is a mark of her fall. The sons of God and the sons of men are morally and spiritually separated, and between them there is a great gulf fixed. When religious persons try to bridge that gulf by compromise they violate the very principles of the kingdom of God.” [↩]