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All Things to All Men | Part 2: Interpretative Principles

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series

"All Things to All Men"

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Before us are Paul’s words to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, 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 not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (ESV)

Paul’s words in verse 22, “I have become all things to all men” have become, as I pointed out in the last post, a rallying cry to “anything-goes” church methods. This verse, in the minds of too many, justifies any cultural assimilation that ends up in a soul saved. So familiar are Paul’s words, that the phrase even has a movie named after it.

St. Peter Preaching.  John T. Spike, Masaccio, Rizzoli libri illustrati, Milano 2002
St. Peter Preaching. John T. Spike, Masaccio, Rizzoli libri illustrati, Milano 2002

Last time I provided the larger context for this passage. As they hankered for food offered to idols, the Corinthians betrayed a lack of charity toward other Christians. Paul, on the other hand, laid down his rights for the sake of reaching unbelievers through Gospel preaching.

This week, I’m not yet ready to get into the text itself. Given its highly ordered structure and rhetorical force, Paul’s words can be easily misunderstood, especially if we forget what he says elsewhere. So I first want to discuss some important ideas found elsewhere in 1 Corinthians and Paul’s other writings that should inform–if not govern–our interpretation.

Governing Ideas to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Before we rush to interpret or even apply 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, I believe we should keep these other teachings of Paul in mind.

1. Paul preached an offensive Gospel.

Despite their “relevance” to the unbelievers in Corinth, Paul refused to use eloquence and human wisdom (see chapters 1-3 or even my series beginning here). Instead, he preached Christ and him crucified, which showed the power of God through the Spirit. He preached the Gospel although unbelievers found it offensive. In 1 Cor 1:23, Paul says it plainly: We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. The Gospel Paul preached he had received directly from the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:1), and he refused to alter that Gospel revealed to him (cf. Gal 1). In fact, Paul says in 2 Cor 4:2, We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. Therefore, whatever it means to become all things to all men, it does not mean that we in any way change our message of Christ crucified.

2. In embracing a Christ-like ministry of suffering, Paul was a misfit to Corinthian sensibilities.

Paul didn’t fit in. Poignant irony saturates his words to the high-minded Corinthians in 1 Cor 4:10: We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.. . . . We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. In case you’re wondering, it is not a good thing to be the refuse of all things. Hipsters usually don’t think of themselves as compost piles or excrement.

Indeed, the Corinthians were ashamed that Paul embodied such humility and suffering, but he embraced this position for Christ’s sake. He says in 2 Cor 6:3-4, We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way. The word for obstacles in 2 Cor 6:3 is closely related to the word for obstacle in 9:12b. How did Paul commend himself? He answers: in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger. Whatever it means to become all things to all men, it does not mean that we try to escape the offense brought upon us by our association with the Gospel.

3. Paul’s primary goal in ministry was to serve God, and he expected believers to do likewise.

Paul speaks of his service to others in 9:19, but this does not inviolate his more fundamental remarks elsewhere. In fact, his service to others was based in his service to Christ. So Paul says in 1 Cor 4:1, This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Paul saw his ministry as being very mouth-piece of God. 2 Cor 5:20, Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. In Gal 1:10 he asks, For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. Paul did not see himself as a servant of others first. If he served others, he was not Christ’s servant.

The same could be said of his expectations of other believers. In 1 Cor 7:23, Paul told the Corinthians, You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. There, the point is that believing slaves must do what was right, remembering that Christ had purchased them with his blood. They were to serve Christ before serving men.

Whatever it means to become all things to all men and a slave of all, this does mean one becomes a slave of the world’s bankrupt values, but to be a servant of Christ first.

4. Paul never commands Christians to live like the world; he repeatedly commands Christians to live holy, separated lives before the world.

In 1 Cor 14:25, the outsider is convicted by the plain teaching and orderly worship of the church. In Eph 5:8b, Paul says, Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. He wanted the unfruitful works of darkness exposed by the light of holy living. In Phil 2:14, Paul likewise says, Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life. Paul wanted them to live blameless lives among the world. In chapter 4, he instructs the Thessalonians, We urge you, brothers, . . . to aspire to live quietly and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we have instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (4:10b-12). In 2 Cor 6, Paul says that he commended himself in his preaching ministry, by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, by truthful speech, and the power of God. 

This is something that A. W. Tozer saw very clearly. He 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.

Whatever it means to become all things to all men, it does not mean that we ever abandon distinct, holy living in godliness before a watching world.

5. In 1 Corinthians 8-10, the specific examples that connect to Paul’s words in vv 19-23 entail the renunciation of rights, not cultural compromise.

"Grilled sausages". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Grilled sausages”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

If we want immediate examples of the kind of life Paul has in mind in these verses, consider

  1. Paul never eats idol food;
  2. He expects the Corinthians to give up idol food;
  3. Paul was willing to give up all meat in 8:13;
  4. Paul left his right of receiving welfare from the church unused here in chapter 9;
  5. The Corinthians are forbidden from participating in idol feasts in 10:20-22; and
  6. Paul told the Corinthians to give up food for the conscience of the unbeliever in the marketplace in 10:28-30.

At least from the concrete examples we have in these chapters, we have a picture of Paul, not actively assimilating to the culture around him, but of him renouncing his rights, which comports with the greater context of chapter 9.

I believe that, if we are going to understand Paul’s words in 1 Cor 9:19-23, we must keep before us these teachings in the greater context of Paul’s letters. Paul preached an offensive Gospel; he was a cultural misfit; he served God first; he taught believers to be different from the world; and he practiced the words in 9:19-23 by giving up his rights. In my next post, I plan on beginning to talk about the passage itself.

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About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).