What Does It Mean To Be “All Things To All Men”?
Text: 1 Cor. 9:19-22
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.
Have you ever thought of the Apostle Paul as the kind of guy who accommodated himself to his audience? I bet some of his opponents were surprised to hear him making a statement like, “I have become all things to all men.” After all, this is the same Paul who has been lighting them up throughout this epistle. How can it be that he is “all things to all men” and still such a firebrand?
Answering that question will be the topic of our sermon this morning. Paul does say that he has become all things to all men, that he has accommodated his pastoral and missional strategy to better reach his audience. And yet, that accommodation did not equal compromise. Paul was unflinching when it came to the gospel of Jesus Christ. How did he bring these two realities together? How do we bring these two realities together?
That’s the question that we will try to answer this morning. We need to learn to be like Paul in both respects. We need to know when to stand firm against enemies of the gospel. But we also need to know when to be “all things to all men” in order to be partakers of the gospel. How can we do this? Let’s look to our text.
Paul’s Missional Strategy
In verses 19-22 of 1 Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul explains his missionary strategy, the philosophy he uses in order to effectively evangelize the lost:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak.
I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
Now what is he saying here? There are ostensibly four categories of people listed. We read about “Jews,” “those who are under the law,” “those who are without law,” and “the weak.” It might be the case that these really are four different groups of people that Paul is encountering. Most commentators think that it reduces down to two: Jews and Gentiles. The expression “those who are under the law” would have meant those who keep torah, or the Jewish covenantal law. Those “who are without law” is literally anomos, or “no law,” and would have most naturally referred to all of the people who do not possess the torah, or, simply, the Gentiles. This would make them “weak,” at least in knowledge, and they would also be “weaker brothers” in the sense of being unsure as to how much of the ceremonial law they should keep and how “separate” they should become from their earlier cultural practices.
However one decides on Paul’s classification system here, the main point is the same. He accommodates himself towards his local audience. Or, we might say, he tries, as best he can, to “fit in” to their local cultures. When Paul is around torah-keeping Jews, he also is sure to keep torah. When he is around Gentiles, he feels free to eat their food and fellowship with them, apart from any kosher or cleanliness rituals. He also respects their weakness, their scruples, and their temptations, and so he does not force anyone to act contrary to their conscience. Paul considers all of this an acceptable way of gaining opportunity and influence in their lives so that he can evangelize them and bring them to salvation in Jesus Christ. “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
There are some important points packed into this section. The first is simply that Paul considers both Jews and Gentiles in need of salvation. One’s possession of and even faithfulness to the Law of Moses was not enough to bring you to salvation. You must have faith in the messiah, Jesus Christ, and Paul’s mission was to make that proclamation. By implication, this also means that one’s personal righteousness was also not enough to obtain salvation. The gospel is about hearing and believing not cultural heritage or even personal morality.
We can also see that there is a difference between essential matters of salvation—the gospel to which Paul is trying to “win some”—and secondary or non-essential matters that, while important to people, can also be disagreed with or discarded. Paul is able to distinguish between things like circumcision and the gospel, and he’s also able to distinguish between his liberty to do or not do something based on the effect that it will have on the gospel. So, even though he believes all foods are actually permissible to him, Paul could turn down this right if he thought doing so would be more helpful in bringing someone to salvation.
This is a sort of accommodation that is often easier said than done. You see, Paul could tell the difference between “essential” and “non-essential” matters, but his audience very often could not. He would need to patiently bear with them, even when they might be very worked up about something, and it would probably look like he was compromising or “giving in” in order to build a relationship and get a hearing with certain people. How did he know how to do this? What is the difference between godly accommodation and ungodly compromise?
Accommodation vs. Compromise
Now, as I said at the beginning of this sermon, Paul’s opponents must have been pretty surprised to hear him say something like this. I mean, come on, this is the same Paul who has been taking them to the woodshed for their theological and moral errors and the same Paul who has told them to kick out the immoral brother. This is the same Paul who said, in the Epistle to the Galatians, that he wishes the circumcision party would go all the way with their cutting! (Gal. 5:12) He’s not exactly a soft and squishy character.
So if Paul is not a “people-pleaser” (see Galatians 1:10), then what does he mean by “be all things to all men”? Well, it’s not about morality. He is not saying that it’s ok to “break the law” in the sense of the moral law. No, that would contradict everything he has said in chapter 5, as well as Romans 6. “Shall we continue to sin that grace abound? Certainly not!” (Rom. 6:1).
Paul is also not compromising on his theology. He isn’t changing the gospel, for indeed there is no other gospel but the true one. He made that clear in Galatians. Anyone who changes that gospel should be accursed (cite Gal 1:8-9). No, Paul is here accommodating himself in order to better bring people to that one gospel which he fights for so doggedly.
This is why Paul makes those qualifications. “I become as one without the law, though not without law towards God, for I am under Christ’s law” (1 Cor. 9:21). He doesn’t break the moral law, and he doesn’t disregard Christ’s moral teachings. No, he’s talking about the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law. Since those were always for a specific purpose in redemptive history, and since they have been fulfilled in Christ, Paul is free to not observe them while around Gentiles. But he’s also free to observe them while around those Jews who believe that they should still keep them, just so long as this is not made out to be necessary for salvation. In fact, the way he decides how much or how little to accommodate his behavior and lifestyle is by measuring it according to the uncompromisable gospel.
We can see an illustration of this in the different ways that Paul treats the matter of circumcision in the cases of Timothy and Titus. Timothy was half-Jewish, on his mother’s side, but had not been circumcised as a baby. Paul actually counsels Timothy to be circumcised as an adult, even after the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and he did that, the text says, because of the Jews in the area (Acts 16:3-4).
However, in the case of Titus Paul behaves differently. He will not allow Titus to be circumcised (Gal. 2:3), and he fights passionately to make sure that this doesn’t happen. Why? Because Titus is a Gentile. Timothy could be circumcised as a means of simply continuing to be Jewish as he also ministered as a Christian, a means of not giving offense. But Titus could not be circumcised without sending the message that he had become a Jew in order to become a Christian, and this is the very thing that Paul is fighting. “We did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you,” he says (Gal. 2:5). Gentiles do not need to become Jews first in order to become Christians, and circumcision is not necessary for salvation. There is no good reason for Titus to be circumcised, and the sort of peer pressure that he is facing is of a very specific type, it is a pressure that says circumcision is essential, that he must be circumcised in order to be saved. It would have meant something totally different for Titus to be circumcised than it did for Timothy. Because of this, it was no longer a secondary issue at all. It was made a gospel issue, and so no accommodation is possible on this point. Paul and Titus must both stand firm in their opposition.
So, the Biblical doctrine of missional accommodation has to do with non-essential matters. Your Christian freedom allows you to take obstacles out of the way, to do or not do something in order to make your path of evangelism easier and more effective. This must be done in a way that is consistent with the moral law and which makes the gospel message clear. It must persuade people towards the truth rather than encourage them to remain in their opposition to the gospel.
How Do You Decide?
So, since we want to be able to accommodate ourselves properly to specific groups of people in order to spread the gospel, but we don’t want to compromise with those who would turn the gospel into a false religion, how do we tell the difference? How do we decide when we need to be flexible and when we need to hold firm? I’d like to give three points to consider.
The first is that we need to be able to tell the difference between legalists and weaker brothers. We saw this already with the different way Paul treated the question of circumcision. In the case of Timothy, there was room for discussion. No moral or theological principle had to be broken, and Paul and Timothy were able to take the initiative in removing obstacles. On the other hand, Titus was being pressured by false teachers, teacher in power who were trying to press a false agenda. So there could be no compromise.
The difference is in the motivations. A weaker brother is not trying to bring everyone else under their control. No, a weaker brother is struggling with an issue and might very well “fall.” They need help. They might be nice or mean. They might even be strong-willed and stubborn. But they are actually trying to work through the issue and are not trying to have control over others. A Pharisee, by contrast, is condemning others and trying to boast in their superiority. We need to be soft with the weaker brother and find points of common ground. We need to accommodate their weakness. But we need to be firm against the Pharisees and legalists. We do not need to compromise with them. We need to refute and rebuke them.
Secondly, we need to be careful in deciding what the true obstacle is. Sometimes the obstacle is in something that is too jarring or shocking—it causes “offense.” But other times the obstacle might be the people themselves. They might have some moral issue that is the real problem. The fact that someone does or doesn’t like something is not really the issue. We are not called to make custom-built churches, not even custom-built to the culture we are in. But we are called remove unnecessary obstacles to the gospel. What’s the difference here?
Well consider some basic situations. You are a church in an area that doesn’t speak English. Which language should your church preach and teach in? Well, not English. This isn’t because there’s anything wrong with English, and it’s not because there’s any special spiritual virtue in learning another language. It’s simply because you want to be able to speak to the actual people there and you want to be understood. So you learn their language. Moving out a little bit, you might have a church that does speak English, but the average reading level is pretty low. The church leadership probably shouldn’t be handing out copies of Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. That’s not really a good fit, even if the folks have the ability to “get there” eventually. For the time-being, they need material that is accessible to them. Don’t leave them struggling.
But you can also think of this in the opposite direction. Suppose the people do have a reasonable ability to handle a certain kind of material but simply “don’t want to.” They say that they have no interest in all that fancy stuff. Well, then the problem is different. It wouldn’t be gospel accommodation to say, “Ok, I’ll just tell you what you’d like.” No, at that point the problem is something else, in the disinterest of the people, laziness, or whatever else is going on under the hood, so to speak. The issue, it would seem, is not the issue. You have to find out what the real obstacle is.
Thirdly, you can almost always make a clear division between a Pharisee and weaker brother by seeing how they react to being asked to “give in” for the gospel. If they reluctantly agree, saying that they still feel strongly about their given issue but understand and do want to promote the gospel and strengthen the church, then you are not dealing with a Pharisee. But if the person gets more upset, blames you for not caring enough about them, or starts trying to tell you why your theology is all mixed up, then the problem has made itself clear. It’s usually a combination of pride, self-righteousness, and a lack of love for the brothers. A weaker brother may have their struggles in each of these areas, of course, but the Pharisee holds onto these sins and prioritizes them over the goal of helping others grow in the gospel. If they are trying to help, then you can work with them. But if they bow up and fight for themselves over the needs of others, you’ve got to stand your ground. The gospel will let you know what you need to know.
The gospel really is the goal here, it’s the big picture. Paul concludes this whole section by saying, “Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.” (1 Cor. 9:23). That’s got to be our goal as well. We must want to see the gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout all men, and we must want to be “partakers” of that process by winning men to Christ.
If that holds the first place in our priorities, then we will be able to decide when to “give in” a little and when to “hold out.” The right decision will make itself clear because it will be attracted to the light of the gospel. It starts with our loves. It starts with our hearts. What do we really believe? What are we really hoping for?
Let us pray.