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“All Things to All Men”: Paul Preaches to the World

First Corinthians 9:19–27 is often read in the context of cultural sensitivity. This is understandable because we live in a time in which the world has shrunk to a global village, a time in which knowing how to work with and appreciate each other’s culture has become a matter of survival. Thus, when Paul writes that he became all things to all men, the immediate instinct is to read it as addressing the need for contextualizing the gospel. The fact that Paul could divest the gospel of one cultural form and re-dress it in another, seems to be reason enough to believe that the gospel is many things to many people, or different strokes for different folks, so to speak. The feeling on the part of many who read 1 Corinthians 9:19–27, this way is that if we study carefully not only this passage, but also Paul’s letters and the account of Paul’s missionary activities in Acts, we can arrive at a reasonably clear understanding of the principles by which Paul was able to contextualize the gospel for various cultures. This, however, is a misreading of Paul and Acts.

The most obvious reason is that the notion of culture was unknown in Paul’s time. The word culture came into use in the Western world only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to distinguish human artifacts and activities from those of nature. The word began to take on its present connotations of cultural sensitivity and contextualization with the emergence of anthropology and corresponding missiology in the late-twentieth century. (The meanings of the word culture are too numerous and confusing to discuss here.) In any case, it suffices to say that it is anachronistic to read the cultural concerns of our time, however legitimate, into 1 Corinthians 9:19–27 and Acts, which were written in a time that was oblivious to the modern notions of cultural sensitivity. I am not trying to condone the abuses committed by the Western missionaries of colonial times against the cultures of other peoples in their zeal to promote the values and lifestyles of the West. Nor am I trying to overlook the overly simplistic ways in which Western missionaries and evangelists sometimes equate the Western world with Christianity and the rest of the world with paganism and demonic influence. My point is, rather, that to read 1 Corinthians 9:19–27 from the perspective of cultural sensitivity commits the same fallacy as the medieval painters who depicted biblical figures in medieval European garb and armor.

Another important reason why 1 Corinthians 9:19–27 should not be read from the perspective of cultural contextualization is its immediate context. In verses 1–14, Paul argues that he has the right to demand payment from the Corinthians for his apostolic service. Then in verses 15–19, he states that he relinquished this right so that he might not abuse his “authority in the gospel” (v. 18 NKJV). Clearly, the context of 1 Corinthians 9 is Paul’s apostolic rights, not his cultural sensitivity. Thus, the statement in verse 19 (“For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” [NRSV]) simply means that Paul voluntarily gave up his apostolic rights and freedoms so that he could save as many types of people as possible. The passage is not about Paul’s strategy of cultural contextualization.

First Corinthians 9:19–27 goes against the grain of our postmodern concerns over cultural diversity in two important ways. First, although 1 Corinthians 9:19–27, does deal with the question of meeting people where they are, it is not about one’s own rights or even the rights of other people. Rather, the concern of this passage is about the importance of giving up one’s rights for the sake of others’ salvation. It describes the various ways in which Paul gave up his freedoms for the sake of those he was trying to save, even when they least deserved it. For example, he became as one under the law to save “those under the law”—the legalistic Jews—when some of them were trying to destroy his life and reputation. Too often in our time, the questions of cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity are discussed in a way that calls attention to one’s own rights and advantages. Nothing could have been further from the mind of the apostle when he penned 1 Corinthians 9:19–27. Paul was calling for a life and ministry modeled after the self-sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Another way in which this passage goes against the grain of our time is that it promotes the gospel at the expense of culture. Paul writes: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (v. 23 RSV). He does not say, “I do it all to respect the cultures of those I evangelize.” Certainly, it is important to package the gospel sensibly so that it makes sense to our audiences.1 But it must be remembered that, even with careful packaging, the Christian gospel eventually becomes a disruptive force in the life of the people who accept it. I say this largely from my own personal experience. The gospel has rendered me incapable of fully participating in my own Korean culture, a culture whose soul is ancestral worship and other domestic and Buddhist duties that collide with the demands of the gospel. It is not the fault of Western missionaries that I have become culturally defective. It is the gospel that has done it. Acts fully recognizes the disruptive nature of the gospel. It reports that wherever Paul’s preaching succeeded, there was an outcry that he had disrupted the local customs, religion, and economy.

Anyone who accepts the Christian gospel (including the Westerner) accepts the consequence of becoming an agent who disrupts his or her native culture with the gospel. I am not aware that there is any other way. The gospel that burst open Judaism like an old wineskin cannot be expected to do less for the fabrics of other cultures. The gospel demands absolute allegiance to the Creator God who raised Jesus from the dead, and it requires us to treat each other as Jesus treated us. In matters of culture, whatever interferes with this mandate is rejected, and whatever does not is allowed to remain as one’s right that could be given up to win others to Christ.

Notes and References

1. This is what most evangelical missiologists mean by contextualization.

P. Richard Choi is associate professor of New Testament Studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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