All things to all men?
By J.P. Thackway
I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 1 Corinthians 9:22.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19a, Paul says that he enjoys liberty: he is “free from all men.” This is something he had stated before in verse 1 “Am I not an apostle? am I not free?” He means that as the Lord’s servant he is not beholden to what men might want. He has only the Lord to please. If he were beholden, he would “not be the servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10), i.e. not be acting as such. Moreover, all Christians enjoy this liberty under Christ’s lordship, therefore Paul says, “be not ye the servants of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23).
Earlier in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul mentions this liberty regarding a particular matter: receiving payment from the churches to whom he ministers. He says he can waive this if he feels it is right, and at Corinth he chose to do this (1 Corinthians 9:18). He resorted to his tent making to support himself. This was probably to avoid being accused of mercenariness. He had enough critics at Corinth, and did not want to be attacked on these grounds as well. He also followed this policy at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 3:8) and at Ephesus (Acts 20:34).
We must say in passing that it is scriptural for a minister to receive a salary from the church he serves. Paul is not implying otherwise. In fact, in this same 1 Corinthians 9 he confirms a minister’s right to payment. He says that a soldier does not have to finance himself – neither should a minister have to (verse 7a). Also, a vineyard owner can eat his own crop, and a herdsman the goat’s milk (verse 7b) – therefore the minister can expect material support from his people. This is confirmed by scripture from the Old Testament (verses 8,9 – quoting Deuteronomy 25:40) and the New Testament (verse 10 – quoting 2 Timothy 2:6). He even says it is like giving spiritual things and receiving material things in return (verse 11), and like the Israelite priests who shared the meat of the sacrifices they offered (verse 13). Then he clinches it with this: “Even so hath the Lord ordained (a divine ordinance) that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (verse 14).
Not all churches have seen this principle clearly. Some have paid their ministers less than realistic stipends. A strange attitude has made officers and members think that this highest calling is above the need of a proper salary for the man of God and his family. “Keep the pastor poor and humble” is not only unscriptural but unnatural. True, some churches struggle to pay a decent stipend and would do more if they could. When so, the Lord understands, and so does God’s servant – and the Lord will provide some other way. However, such churches should do all they can for the minister whom God has placed over them. This must come ahead of non-emergency enhancement to the church building and even donations to missionary causes. Charity must begin at home. Happy the pastor and people where this is as it should be. Paul, therefore, is not implying that material support is not necessary – he is only saying that in his case it would not be wise.
Then in 1 Corinthians 9:19b-23 he applies this principle more widely. He says he also has this liberty of ministry to the different kinds of people who hear him. He claims a freedom to adapt his evangelistic approach to Jews, Gentiles, and the weak. That is, to accommodate himself to them that he might reach them more effectively with the gospel.
This has important things to teach us today, especially regarding evangelism. For the last forty years and more, the verse that heads this article has been a mis-used catchphrase. Zealous Christians have pressed it to justify almost any method of outreach if it gets conversions. Drama and mime, puppetry, conjuring, sketch boards, music bands, even “Christian” clowns have cheerfully operated under the banner of “all things to all men to save some.”
Nowadays things have progressed in their audacity, as these inventions tend to do. Devices are employed now that would have shocked past generations of Christians – even those who tried to justify new methods with “all things to all men.” Things like the “Missional” movement, with its “new way of doing church,” the “new Calvinist” approach – where rap music, dressing down, beer-drinking, and even sexual innuendo and irreverent language are used to engage today’s unbelievers with the gospel.
These, to mention no more, are the agendas of institutions and individuals whose aim, it seems, is to change the face of evangelicalism for the 21st century. The Porterbrook Network, Emerging Church, Mark Driscoll, Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Movement, and so on. These drive their inventions and initiatives, dismissing those opposing them as “traditionalists,” “hyper-separatists,” “culture-bound” and worse. Sometimes the justification for such things is just plain offensive. Take Stuart Townend, whose contemporary worship songs feature in most new hymnbooks. In an interview on YouTube, he was asked, “What would Jesus sing?” he replied:
I think he would be doing thrash metal or hip hop or something where we’d go, ‘He can’t do that!’ … I don’t know what he would sing or whose songs he would sing, but I believe he would do it in a way that would surprise and probably shock us.
This is not just an unscriptural view of the Son of God – it is appalling blasphemy. As in the corrupt days of Israel’s worship, “Her priests have … profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane” (Ezekiel 22:26). No doubt, “all things to all men” is somewhere behind the arguments urged in support of such worship “evangelism.”
Can Paul’s words here be pressed to justify these things? The way to find out is to understand what Paul is really saying here, and what the lessons are for us. The best way to correct an abuse of Scripture is to understand the true meaning of it. In order to do so, let us consider the examples Paul means when he speaks of making himself “all things to all men … by all means to save some.” These are found in verses 19-22,
And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak.
1] The Jews.
Verse 20 “And unto the Jews I became a Jew, that I might gain the Jews” … “to them that are under the law, etc.” Paul was Jewish by birth and privilege. And he longed for the salvation of his fellow-countrymen so much that he wrote,
I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh (Romans 9:2,3).
Paul preached Christ to the Jews in Damascus as soon as he was converted, (Acts 9:20). He refers to them as, “them that are under the law” (verse 20b). This refers partly to the fact that they were zealous for the ceremonial law of Moses: circumcision, vows, sacred days, purifications, etc. These are abolished in Christ, but the Jews were fanatical about them. They would not listen to any preacher who seemed indifferent to the religion of their fathers.
For this reason Paul found some ways he could yield to their scruples and not give unnecessary offence. Matthew Henry reminds us of the obvious one,
Where he preached to them: in their synagogue (Acts 19:8), as Christ used to do. He went and joined them in their synagogue-worship, to take off their prejudices against him, and to ingratiate himself with them, while there was any hope of winning upon them.
Another example is Acts 16:3, when Timothy became Paul’s replacement for John Mark, and he “took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters.” He did this because Timothy had a Greek father and had not been circumcised. Timothy’s circumcision legitimised him in the eyes of Jewish hearers and prevented unnecessary prejudice against the gospel.
Another example is Acts 18:21 where Paul hastens to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. To be seen as a conscientious Jew helps unsaved Jews to take Paul and his message seriously. No great principle is violated in either Timothy’s circumcision or in Paul’s keeping the feast at Jerusalem.
Yet another example is Acts 21:20f where the Jerusalem elders urge Paul to join some Jews in a vow and purification. This is so that the Jews “may know that those things whereof they were informed concerning thee are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law” (verse 24). Paul agreed to their request.
These instances, and others, of “to the Jew I became a Jew, that I might gain the Jews,” were only Paul accommodating himself to their scruples in order to avoid their being put off the gospel. This is a world away for using this to justify unbiblical methods of furthering the gospel.
2] The Gentiles, non-Jews.
Verse 21 “To them that are without law, as without law, etc.” Paul regards the Gentiles as not having received the 10 Commandments like the Jews, hence “without law.” This only means, of course, in the way God gave the Moral Law from Mount Sinai. In an absolute sense, no one is “without law” because Romans 2:14-16 teaches that non-Jews “do by nature the things contained in the law … which shew the work of the law written in their hearts.” This is why the heathen are without excuse before God – in their conscience the feelings of guilt or approval witness to the Lawgiver and the Judge of us all.
Lacking the privileges of the Jews’ Moral Law, however, meant the Gentiles were also strangers to their Ceremonial Law. Paul in his ministry to them, therefore, took account of this. He would not be like a Jew to them. Being a Roman citizen he could relate to those “without law.” For example, in Acts 15:1,2 and Galatians 2:11,12 he rebutted the notion that that Gentile converts submit to Jewish laws to be saved. This included refusing to circumcise Titus (Galatians 2:3). It was that the gospel might win the Gentiles – it did not involve transgressing a vital principle. Again, this had nothing to do with evangelistic innovations contrary to the teaching of scripture.
And just to make it clear that he is no antinomian, Paul qualifies what he means by being “without law:” “(being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ).” In other words, he is not free from a gracious obligation to obey God’s timeless commandments and not the ceremonial laws of the Jews. Concerning to the Moral Law, the 10 Commandments, he “delights” in it, and “serves” it (Romans 8:22,25) out of love to Christ (John 14:15; 1 John 5:14; cf Revelation 14:12). “Under the law” indeed, but in a gospel way, in union with and empowered by, “Christ.”
3] The weak.
Verse 22 “To the weak became I as weak, etc.” By this category, he means people like those he defended in 1 Corinthians chapter 8 who could not eat butchered meat first sacrificed to heathen idols. Christians at Corinth, especially converts from heathenism, had tender consciences about this. For them, such meat was defiled and polluted. They could not eat it, and would be upset and offended to see others eating it; it would be to them “a stumblingblock” (verse 9). Therefore, Paul says he will abstain from the use of such meat in front of them, and urges believers untroubled by this charitably to do likewise. He expresses his sympathy for such over-scrupulous ones is 2 Corinthians 11:29, “Who is weak, and I am not weak?”
Then come the words we are considering: verse 22b “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” All Paul is meaning is that he is prepared to be flexible and adaptable in deference to the different classes of people to whom he ministers. It is not about “anything goes” concerning methods of outreach, but a wise and sensitive approach to people “for the gospel’s sake” (9:23). He was free to do this regarding accepting or not accepting a salary, and he is free to do this in his preaching and pastoral labours also. In verse 19 he had stated the motive: “that I might gain the more,” i.e. in doing this, gain more for Christ and the kingdom that he might have done otherwise.
Concluding this point then, Paul in the words of our text is not saying he is free to adjust matters of vital biblical principle concerning how we communicate the gospel: “all things to all men to save some.” If this were his meaning, might he not have adopted some of the means available in his day? He could have employed the Greek tragedy plays to act out the gospel, or travelling musicians with their harps, tambourines and pipes to perform it, or indulge in wisdom and oratory to impress his hearers. He did not because, like the other apostles, he knew the terms of His Master’s Great Commission: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel…” (Mark 16:16).
To communicate the gospel other than by preaching – audibly or in written form – is to trivialise the gospel. And yet this is the very thing that so many evangelicals are doing today, and ironically justifying it with the verse of scripture we are considering. All Paul means by the words of our text is that he was willing to go out of his way to avoid unnecessary offence or prejudice from his hearers. He would win their good will, and hopefully their willingness to listen to the word of life. He yielded to these different classes of people over indifferent matters for the gospel’s sake. He had done similar over non-payment for services to the churches. He extends this principle of liberty to this matter also.
What are examples of this principle for our day? Consider Hudson Taylor, who dressed like the Chinese so that they were not distracted by his English appearance. They listened to his message as from “one of them.” A man once voluntarily became a slave so that he might preach to the Africans. Casper Ten Boom (father of Corrie) took his place among the Jews of Nazi-occupied Holland and wore the Star of David that he might reach them with the redeeming love of Christ. For our part, we at least seek to get alongside various classes of needy sinners, show genuine interest in them, put ourselves in their place, that we might effectively reach them with our gospel. These, and many other examples of this principle, cost a great deal more than “modernising” the methods of gospel outreach mentioned earlier. This, and many other instances, is the true application of Paul’s principle: “all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” May we be enabled to go and do likewise, and thus serve our generation by the will of God.