“I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some.” When I was younger I had a great deal of difficulty understanding that statement. I grew up in a Christian family, and started going to church before I was born. I am thankful for that, but there are some challenges to it too. Because I went to the same church from as far back as I can remember until after I was married, most of my formative Biblical teaching came from that one place. So, when I read the above sentence in I Corinthians 9:22, I thought that can’t be the right thing to do. Certainly God doesn’t want us to compromise our standards, does He? After all, people have been martyred for sticking up for what they believe. What does Paul mean by becoming all things to all people? Is he being wishy-washy? Is he bowing to peer pressure?
As always, context is essential, and I believe that context comes into play in two ways when we seek to understand the passage of I Corinthians 9:19-22: Biblical context, and today’s context. To understand the Biblical context, we should start back at I Corinthians 8. Paul was talking to the Corinthians about not eating food sacrificed to idols. To Jesus, the most important thing is what is in your heart, not what you put in your stomach. (Mark 7:17-23, I Samuel 16:7) So what you eat is not an important issue, but if by eating it you cause someone else to be confused about what is right, or to be turned away from God, then what you eat certainly does matter. So Paul chose not to eat meat in order to avoid causing someone else to sin. The Biblical context continues in I Corinthians 9:1-18. Here Paul is declaring that as a minister of the gospel he does have the right to financial support from the Corinthians, so that he can focus his time and energy of sharing God’s word. But Paul gives up that right, not because he isn’t entitled to it, but so that he is under no obligation to anyone but Christ. For this reason he can bring the message to both Jews and Gentiles. He uses his own life experiences to make connections with both groups. He does not compromise the message of salvation, but he does put it in a context that can be understood by his audience.
That brings us to today’s context. If only we could learn from Paul. Very often, the people who go to church today are there because they’ve always gone to church. They focus on the programs, the type of music used in the service, and how to pay the bills. Meanwhile, outside of the church is a big wide world that doesn’t understand its purpose. They don’t see the point of going to church because they don’t know Jesus, and we as a church are not introducing them to Him, because we are too busy focusing on less significant details or on building bonds of friendship with those who already believe the same things we do. There is nothing wrong with building relationships inside the church, but if we do not associate with people who believe differently, how will we ever show them the truth of the gospel? Unfortunately, many of the people who do engage with others are passing judgement on them, telling them that they are wrong and we are right. The truth is that for many issues we cannot fully know what is right. We are all just flawed humans, and only God is God, and only He knows everything. We can, however, meet people in the context of their culture and share what is truly important: God’s love.