By Mike Oppenheimer
Let Us Reason Ministries
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. 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: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
What did the apostle Paul mean that he became all things to all men for evangelism? This is his summation after he describes his goal and those people whom he wanted to reach. He adapted his teaching to their thought in their culture to reach them. He divides the world into the religious with the law (Jews), and the Gentiles, without the law.
According to 1 Corinthians 9:20, Paul was emancipated from the law as a means of salvation, yet he knew how to speak to them because of his former beliefs and life with them (Galatians 4:21). He knew how to put the Gospel to them without compromise and without offence.1
To the Jews, he would observe the Mosaic customs as long as it did not affect his duty to Christ. There was no compromise of principles or the law though Paul was a Jew among Jews. He did not act as a person obligated to the law with the Jews, nor as a lawless person to the Gentiles, but always made it evident he was serving them under the law of Christ.
In Acts 17, Paul showed the philosophers they were wrong from logic, their own history, and the Bible and explained to them what is right. He used what the Athenians did not know, an altar to an unknown god, to make known to them what he knew. Paul was not complimenting their religious worship as they were idolaters. These religious men of prestige were offended as he told them they would be judged by a man who came back to life. Yet, Paul’s continual quest was to persuade men to turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Paul certainly made a distinction (as did Jesus) between those who knew what God required and those in ignorance. Paul even pitted the Gentiles against the Jews to humble them from pride. Romans 2:14-16:
[F]or when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel” (giving the same summation as he did in Acts 17).
In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul said, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
If this statement by Paul were isolated from the rest of Scripture, one could assume Paul was willing to do anything to reach the lost, including adopting their lifestyle and compromise his ethics, morals, and beliefs. This is a doctrine that is popularized among the seeker-friendly, emerging church evangelism crowd today. If we use this logic, then for one to reach a drug addict, he must become one; one cannot reach a drunk unless he becomes a drunk, etc.
When we compare Scripture with Scripture, we find that Paul did not mean this. In order for a doctrine to be biblically sound, it cannot contradict other verses. Paul taught that believers are to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Paul would not have done anything contrary to Christ and His ways in his own life and ministry. Remember he rebuked Peter for compromising of the Gospel when Jewish brethren came to visit him in Antioch. Galatians 2:11-13, speaking of the Judaizers: “for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.” Saying to Peter in Galatians 2:14: “If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?”
So Paul did not mean that we can act one way with one group of people and another way with another group to win them.
We have good examples that Paul did not act lawlessly among the pagans who were outside the Mosaic law: Romans 2:14, 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Paul simplified the message, knowing his audience, so they could understand and receive.
Paul explains that he is always under the law to Christ, and he is never free to do things that would be contrary to the new covenant. And in Galatians 5:13, he says, “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.”
Paul’s liberty in his evangelism was not a freedom to sin or to serve the flesh in any way. Paul was always strict in regard to sin, and he did not allow anything in his life that would bring the result of sin by spiritual carelessness.
1. From Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament.