Thursday, May 26, 2011

Paul, the Confused Apostle?

How do we become “all things to all men” without becoming useless to God? Unplugging little phrases from Scripture and building upon them can be dangerous. An attempt to honor the immediate context of the specific situation under address and then the larger context of other Scriptural truths (in their context) serves to help us stay within a healthy, productive mode of ministry.

"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave 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, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it." (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NASB)

"I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:1-2, NASB)

What Has Inspired This Article?

Admittedly, this article is to provide caution about certain unhealthy extremes some have and others potentially embrace of which we should all be concerned. Every age faces its challenges. For my part, I have come to see a difference between discussing the best way to understand the Biblical text and subjecting the Biblical text to the scrutiny of philosophical, cultural or psychological trends. For the sake of brevity, I will site two things that serve as inspiration for this article. First, there are certain ways of understanding and applying the idea of being all things to all men that lead to becoming conformed to the world, which allows the culture to rewrite Scripture in a sense. Second, I recently heard a young, professing believer respond to the question, “If there is one thing you would like to be remembered as, what would it be?” by answering, “A non-conformist.” This led me to ask the question, “Isn’t God’s goal in our lives to conform us to the image of Christ and His death (Ro.8:29, Phil.3:10)? It is true that we are not to conform to this world, which stands in tension against conforming to the image of Christ but aiming to be a non-conformist does not allow one to give due attention to this tension. We should be able to see that the simple desire to be known as a non-conformist is a shortsighted focus, totally unable to capture a healthy balance regarding this issue. This is an issue of what we are driven by. It is my contention that an extreme view of Paul’s statement about becoming all things to all men not only fails to capture a healthy balance but also encourages certain unhealthy approaches toward ministry that will eventually produce bitter fruit.

Though my goal is not to be negative and merely “tear down”, part of the process of finding balance involves being “negative” and tearing down in preparation for building up as opposed to merely being an end in and of itself. I hope to present a positive, constructive perspective that avoids the bitter fruit, referred to above, from maturing. Consider God’s commission to Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1:10. “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

Commending, Cautioning and Considering

I would like to continue by commending all of those who properly recognize the importance of understanding their “mission field” and who have done the necessary homework to gain an appropriate measure of understanding. Along with commending those who gain understanding of the culture within which they “minister”, or which they study, I suggest that there is a fine line between understanding the culture (religion, philosophy, ideology, worldview, etc.) and reflecting or assimilating the culture.

A brief reference to the missionary ministry of William Carey might prove enlightening at this point. Gaining understanding of one’s “mission field” does not equate to conforming to or reflecting the culture when encountering a practice such as sati. Surely, efforts to eliminate such a cultural / religious practice potentially meets with violent resistance from certain sectors of society but being culturally aware and engaged does not justify tolerating practices that are contrary to moral parameters revealed in the Word of God.

As I prepare to consider the two texts around which this article is written, I would like to, again, quote from the apostle Paul as he wrote to the Corinthians on two occasions, “Be imitators (followers, mimic) of me ….” The quotation found in 1 Co.11:1 is, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” To begin with, we have an occasion in which Paul is urging them to follow his example, to do what he is doing, act like he is acting, be what he is being. His doing, acting and being is shaped by his understanding of what it means to follow, imitate or mimic Christ. The following two passages have further instruction about doing, acting and being that broaden the discussion.

All Things, All Men, All Means

“I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” What are we to understand the limits of this concept to be? How is this statement made to the Corinthians, in its context, affected by the statement, “…do not be conformed to this world…,” made to Christians in Rome?” How can we “…imitate me (Paul)…”, “…become all things to all men…” and “…not be conformed to this world…?” Was Paul, by becoming all things, conforming to the world? If so, if we imitate him, will we not become conformed to the world?

What Paul Does Not Mean

Every Wednesday I offer a class to men incarcerated because of legal (and moral) problems associated with the abuse of alcohol and drugs. I would love to “win”, “reach” or “save” some (all) of them consistent with the intention Paul expressed to the Corinthians. What then does it mean to become all things to all men in this context? It seems safe to say that Paul’s statement about becoming all things to all men does not require that I be incarcerated for  legal problems associated with drugs and alcohol abuse in order to be fit to engage or connect with this “people group.” To assume such a view would surely be extreme and prove to be counterproductive on a number of levels. Ministering to murderers does not require one to be a murderer nor does ministering and attempting to reach/save basketball players require being a basketball player. All of this represents an, obviously and purposely, extreme view of the statement Paul made. We could continue to create the list – liars, homosexuals, thieves, Muslims, Mormons, politicians, rich people, homeless people, etc. Is it appropriate to intend and work toward the salvation of homosexuals? Surely, we would agree that it is. Does Paul intend that we must become homosexuals in order to do so?  Surely, he does not. It is not my intention to insult anyone’s intelligence by using such an extreme example but we must be aware of the potential for a misinterpretation that moves in the direction of this extreme. Consequently, I would suggest that, avoidance of conformity to the world stands as a modifier to becoming all things to all men.

Similarly, to “win”, “reach” or “save” a particular segment of society does not require that we condone the practice or lifestyle of those in question. Whether we condone (or even accept) someone’s lifestyle must be based on the moral principles communicated through Scriptural revelation. For example, involvement in ministry to the “gay” community would include assisting them in understanding and forsaking this sexual aberration. It is understood as a departure from proper sexual behavior based on information the Designer of mankind communicates about our design, not on personal opinion and preference. In a morally neutral realm such as, for example, ministering to professional athletes, considerations of this sort are not a factor.  As well, we should realize that we do not “win” people simply by accepting them or becoming their friend. This is not what it means to be all things to all men. There is a need for them to turn from that which is the source of their bondage or separation from God and turn to the source of their deliverance. Part of the process necessary for this to happen is proclamation regarding the difference between their current, inappropriate status and the condition God requires for their pardon, deliverance and salvation. A wrong or shortsighted idea of salvation and the mission / ministry of the Christian community, simply assuming that engaging a particular people is our goal, having no further strategy for genuine conversion, will prove unproductive.

We must also consider cultural practices that are not directly addressed in Scripture. Certain internal dispositions and external practices are clearly condemned in God’s word. When dealing with issues that are not spoken of directly, we must learn to identify and apply principles from Scripture. Two comments are in order regarding this idea. First, an imbalanced emphasis on the narrative reading of Scripture can potentially lead to a rejection of the propositional or principle dimension of Scripture. I believe it is best to take a both/and approach as opposed to an either/or approach. We gain much by appreciating the narrative aspect to the Biblical text. It is also true that there are significant propositional teachings and foundational principles in the Biblical text. Second, as we indentify principles, our ultimate goal must be to please God, not appeal to people. This point is of greater importance than might be initially realized. In 1 Thessalonians 2:4 Paul states, "…we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts." Within the context of aiming to please God supremely, Paul sought to be “pleasing” to people in order to win some from conformity to the world to conformity to the likeness of God and the principles of His kingdom. Consequently, Paul expresses this idea in such a statement as, "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved." (1 Co.10:31-33, NASB)

Please allow me to emphasize the challenge we are considering. First, try to ruminate upon becoming all things to all people, giving offense to no one. My experience is that what pleases person/group A, offends person/group B. Considering the context of our main text, those offended by eating meat would be upset if one did so while those who concluded it was okay to do so would potentially become upset with one who abstained, considering it hypocritical to abandon one’s freedom under the pressure of “legalists.” Such situations, in real-life, tend to be a “lose-lose” arrangement. Second, consider the difficult balance between pleasing God and being non-offensive to all people. A simple reading of the Gospels or the book of Acts will show that Jesus and the disciples/apostles were often offensive to someone! It is not that they intended to be offensive but it is often the case that practicing moral convictions will produce such a response. Is the answer to this dilemma the abandonment of moral conviction, as is the tendency of some?

Regarding the issue of identifying and applying principles (as suggested above), I will offer two examples. Scripture does not make a direct statement about the appropriate length of a woman’s dress. In the cultural and historical context of Scripture, such a consideration was unnecessary. However, as one resolves to please God supremely, one must take into consideration the importance of Scriptural teaching on being chaste, reverent and modest. This, obviously, is not the “rule-book” approach some look for and, on the other hand, some resist, it is a “principle approach” which involves humility and a willingness to avoid being governed by personal preference and mere self-interest, doing one’s best to operate in wisdom and self-sacrifice for the ultimate purpose of pleasing God and advancing His kingdom. Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 has application to his context/culture and to ours as he writes, “…I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments; but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness.” What we see in such a statement and in the main text we currently consider is the need to govern our liberties for the highest good we can identify. Another example is that of drinking alcohol. Scripture does not say, “Drinking alcohol is a sin.” Consider the dilemma. In dealing with those who have legal and moral problems associated with the abuse of alcohol, it would be quite unwise and unloving for me to exercise my liberty to drink wine at dinner because of the influence it would have on the ministry of encouraging their deliverance. My point is simply this; principle, based on Scriptural data, must be our guide. This requires a sincere effort to set aside personal preference and mere self-interest, identify parameters consistent with that which is pleasing to God, taking into consideration cultural factors in light of Scriptural data and acting upon one’s conclusions.

What Does He Mean?

It is often the case that the Biblical truth Christians possess and practice, in word and deed, never benefit those in need because of the distance between the Christian and those in need[1]. Without reservation, I state that as we gain an understanding of our culture we must also find means to engage our culture, our “mission field” – those we aiming to “win” or “save”, to use Paul’s language from the text. However, we must also have safeguards that prevent us from erasing the line of distinction between “us” and “them.” This statement is tantamount to a central concern, increasingly in the form of urgency, that has gripped my mind, not simply in a sterile, “armchair theologian” perspective but as I interact with living beings, especially within the “youth” culture. I believe the spirit of what Paul is communicating in the Corinthian passage is that we need to understand and connect with our “audience.” To reemphasize and contrast the point I made above, we are not to become our audience, we are to find a way to understand what makes them “tick” and gain a hearing associated with personal contact and interaction. To put it into terms that might even push the envelope further, we must be able to relate to our audience, our culture, those we are aiming to “win” without losing sight of their need for God and His truth. We could do a detailed grammatical study of each word and phrase in the aforementioned passage (which is a very good thing to do) but I am certain that we will not arrive at anything that contradicts what I’ve just suggested. In an attitude of love for God and love (love not being a sloppy agape) for our “neighbor” (the people-group in question) we are to govern our liberties based upon a wise and righteous approach designed to engage those in question for the purpose of helping them turn from that which prevents proper relationship with God and turn toward that which restores and delivers. Paul’s point in the passage is that though there is freedom to eat meat sold in the marketplace that had previously been used in pagan religious rituals, abstain from this freedom if it hinders the process of encouraging the Christian conversion or growth of others. This context has nothing to do with engaging in questionable or unacceptable cultural practices in order to gain acceptance by the culture! This passage has nothing to do with rejecting Christian standards because the culture has trouble with them. The instruction in the passage pertains to setting aside that which is acceptable for Christians in order to reach the lost or weak. Please ponder the previous three statements carefully.

As we turn our attention to the passage quoted from the letter to the Romans, we see Paul comparing two possibilities. Of course, we understand that he is addressing slightly different concerns in a slightly different context, which is always important to factor in. However, the point I hope to make is not drastically affected by this consideration. Paul contrasts being conformed to being transformed. The conforming of which he speaks is conformation to “the world.” The transformation of which he speaks is transformation of “the mind.” I suggest that both of these ideas, separately and, particularly, in relation to one another, are pertinent to the issue of our exposure to and influence by “postmodern” philosophy and culture in our current age. “The world” is an overarching term that refers to any and all groups of people that live by and/or encourage a philosophy, ideology, worldview or lifestyle that is inconsistent with the principles (a very important word) of God’s design for life on planet earth. We might recall that John says, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world”. There will always be, in every generation, ideas offered by various individuals and groups about fundamental “truths” and the way life on planet earth is to be carried out. “The world” would have reference to ideas contrary to those of the kingdom of God. We could go through a list such as Nihilism, Marxism, humanism, pragmatism, Buddhism, etc. In making such distinction we run the risk of being perceived as and accused of being arrogant and divisive. It is interesting how Paul, in this passage, suggests that we avoid being conformed to the world and successfully “prove” what the will of God is. It is by way of transformation of the mind. It has something to do with the way we think and what we think. Is this statement addressed only to intellectuals, college graduates and university professors? No, it is addressed to “common” people who possess a mind that has been designed in the image of the mind of God. The call is to use our minds in a manner consistent with its design and the Designer. This involves resisting the mental influences that are not “from the Father” (1 Jn.2:16) and filling one’s mind with something we have traditionally called “truth.”

It is quite easy to recognize that Scripture makes many references to truth. Truth plays a very central role in things pertaining to God and His kingdom. I have noticed that some people seem to assume that truth plays no factor in salvation. It seems as though there is often an assumption that correcting one’s relationship with God is one thing and accumulating truth is another thing and they are completely separate and distinct with no overlap. I find such a position hard to reconcile with statements like that in 2 Thessalonians 2:8-10 that reads, “And then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved." Another passage that has impressed me in this way (though it does not use the word “truth”, it emphasizes the importance of what we teach) is, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” (1 Timothy 4:16, NASB)

With the above brief emphasis on truth, it is reasonable to conclude that this is something Satan will target. His means of attack are often counterfeit and if, for example, you are to counterfeit money, you don’t want the end product to look like monopoly money, you want it to be as close to the real thing as possible while not having the value of the genuine. Much Marxist literature sounds quite Christian (which, by the way, is a not a completely dead issue). As we follow the shifts in the trends characteristic of three huge ages (pre-modernism, modernism and postmodernism) I am convinced that a concern we must not take lightly is the inroads “postmodern” philosophers have made when it comes to eroding and discrediting the concept of truth. This is largely in response to certain failures of the modern age but, nonetheless, it becomes a concern because truth is so central to Biblical Christianity. Is it a good thing to understand what the “postmodern” is saying? Yes, but we must proceed with, not only caution but also much wisdom and discernment. I have personally had experiences with professing Christians when a sort of antagonism is launched toward those who speak of truth or of knowing truth and a defense is raised in support of the “postmodern” philosopher.


Becoming all things to all people does not involve abandoning truth, Scriptural principle, moral convictions or Christianity (properly defined). In its context, the phrase refers to modifying one’s freedom in order to remove obstacles that could potentially hinder one’s ability to be a positive influence on those we are aiming to “reach”, “win” or “save”, those who are in one state but need to move beyond that state to another – to help the unconverted become converted and the weak become strong.

[1] As a side-note, I have become aware of the fact that the “us / them” language has become quite offensive to both “us” and “them.” I will return to and address this in due time.

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