Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” If this statement is taken all by itself, it seems to imply Paul was willing to do anything to reach the lost. It would also seem to justify Christians living worldly lifestyles, as long as their goal is to “save” someone. Is this true? Should we be willing to become ALL things?
Would a Christian be justified in doing drugs to reach people on drugs? Would a Christian be justified in using profanity and crass slang to “speak” to today’s youth? Would a Christian be justified in dressing provocatively because that’s how people in our culture dress? How about this one, I recently heard someone pose the question, would a Christian be justified in becoming a nudist to reach out to people in a nudist colony?
If 1 Corinthians 9:22 means that Christians can do anything if the goal is to reach the lost, then the answer to the above questions would have to be, “Yes.” Of course, if the answer to these questions is, “yes,” then the Christian would find himself violating a multitude of other New Testament passages (ex. Romans 12:2; Ephesians 5:1-20; James 4:4). So, obviously, this passage cannot mean there are no limits to what a Christian can do to “reach the lost.”
As with any verse, if it doesn’t make sense (in light of the rest of Scripture) the first thing to do is look at the context. In this case, Paul tells exactly what he means by saying he becomes, “all things to all people.” Here are few of my observations:
1. In context, Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles.
He wrote, “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” (1 Corinthians 9:20). For instance, even though Paul knew he was no longer restricted in his diet by the Law, he was willing to live under those dietary restrictions to keep from offending those who still thought the Old Testament was binding.
When Paul was with the Gentiles, he no longer bound the Law’s restrictions on himself. Because he realized he wasn’t under the Old Testament 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.” It would be counter-productive for Paul to live as a Jew, while he was with the Gentiles because he would risk becoming like the “judaizers” who tried to bind the Law on Gentile Christians.
The best application I can think of for this is a Christian missionary going to a place which has self-imposed cultural regulations. For instance, if a Christian woman were to travel to the middle east, it might be wise of her to wear something in keeping with the local customs. She knows God has not bound that attire on her, but if she hopes to not offend those people and reach them for Christ, she should temporarily bind their “laws” on herself. But, when she comes back to her home country, there is no reason to keep wearing that attire.
2. Paul was Speaking Restrictively, Not Permissively
Paul was saying he was willing to deny himself and give up his rights, in order to reach people with the gospel. In fact, this chapter is all about how Paul denies himself his “rights” in order to reach people. He said in verse 12, concerning his right to financial compensation, “We have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” And then in verse 15, “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision.”
He even began the section on becoming “all things” by saying, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). In context, everything Paul is saying has to do with him restricting himself for the sake of others.
When many use this passage today to justify their behavior, they use it in a permissive way. As if to say, “I’m permitted to do anything I want, in order to reach the lost.” This is the exact opposite of what Paul was actually saying. He was saying, “I give up what I want, and what I am entitled to, in order to reach the lost.”
Also, as if in direct response to how this passage would be misused, God inspired Paul to write parenthetically, “not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:20). Paul is saying that even when he lives among the Gentiles, he is still bound by the New Testament law–the law of Christ; he still isn’t free to do anything that the Gentiles do.
3. Paul Beat His Body
Paul ends this chapter by saying, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Paul was willing to serve anyone; he was willing to give up his “rights” for the sake of the gospel. But, he was not willing to give up his salvation! Paul was concerned about everybody going to heaven–especially himself! He wrote to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
There was no amount of pain Paul wasn’t willing to endure for the sake of the gospel. But, to hint that Paul was willing to flirt with sin in order to reach the sinful, is a total misrepresentation of what this passage means.
Since we know Scripture is God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16-17), it must never be made to contradict. If it appears Scripture is contradictory, go back and study the context. Paul would NEVER suggest that Christians become like the sinful world in order to reach the sinful world. He was only saying that we should be willing to give up our rights to reach the sinful world.
If you go to reach the Amish, give up your right to wear colorful clothes. If you go to reach people in California, give up your right to wear a Yankees cap. If you go to reach the Jews, give up your right to eat bacon. Be willing to sacrifice any and every right you have that others may go to heaven!
Always remember, we are to be distinctive, unique, and holy. Peter wrote, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11-12). We are to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). We are to be people who “expose” sin and who “take no part” in it (Ephesians 5:11).
I hope this helps you understand this passage a little more clearly.
I love you and God loves you,