So writes Paul to the Corinthians, finishing that thought by explaining, “…so that by all possible means I might save some.” Does this suggest an elasticity that allowed him to change according to whoever he was with at the moment, becoming who they were to accommodate their sensibilities and preferences? Or does it imply an ability to recognize one’s surroundings, an understanding of a target audiences culture and background, adapting one’s “delivery system” so as to avoid confrontation even as the message remained true to its roots? (Not becoming what his prospective converts were – pagans – but relating to who they were; people in need, with different reference points, lifestyles and circumstances that mold all of us to one degree or another.) Some see little difference between the two, but they produce starkly different results.
Of particular interest and significance is this scripture’s placement in the middle of Paul’s discourse on certain “rights” he believed he was entitled to. (1 Corinthians 9:1-18) But to benefit others, he voluntarily set them aside. Another insight to be gained from this scripture is found in the fact that even as Paul preached freedom from sin (Romans 1:18) and release from works-oriented salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9); he spoke just as resoundingly of responsibility (Ephesians 2:10), cautioning against manipulating our freedom to personal advantage. In fact, Paul affirmed this message to the Galatian church (somewhat ungraciously in Gal.5:12), explaining, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” (See also Romans 3,4, 5 & 6 – where he unashamedly lays claim to freedom while just as strongly counsels restraint.) “The entire law (being) summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (For) “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” Galatians 5:13-15 (A message desperately needed by the church today as we “debate” the techniques and modes of preaching, worship and outreach.) A key to the mind-set we should all manifest – for leadership no less than those being led – is to be found in Philippians 2:3,4 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider other’s better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (See also 1 Peter 2:16,17)
These directives speak to a number of issues bedeviling the church today; on the surface appearing as minor disturbances, but none-the-less speaking to core values and their expression. Paul advising us throughout his letters to look beyond our differences, finding a place of relationship in spite of them; to become relevant by understanding the experiences and points of view of others and making room for them if and when possible. Which does not include compromising pertinent doctrine but promoting an understanding of the culture you’re attempting to serve – not just of location but age and maturity levels as well. We must never excuse bad behavior or embrace lifestyles that go against scripture but allow for differences of opinion on non-essentials and promote growth – over time – with experience being a valid and sometimes invaluable teacher. Aptly expressed by Paul as, “Be(ing) careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:17,18
This will at times be virtually impossible. Despite your best efforts, some will not only disagree but strongly oppose you. And quite frankly, we all make mistakes. The point being that we are expected to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, striving to genuinely understand the other side’s reasoning – if for no other reason than we can more reasonably debate the issues – refusing to argue. The reality being we can’t successfully force our position on anybody, even if we’re right; although we can enforce a limited amount of behavior. People have to be led to the truth, encouraged to accept it, but allowed to embrace it on their own. The old cliché that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care being eternally true. And that is often best expressed by listening to and loving people where they are, even as we challenge them to raise the standards they live by and accomplish more – not to please us – but to enhance their own lives and please God.
So what does Paul mean when he claims, “To those under the law I became like one under the law – so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law… so as to win those not having the law.”? 1Cor. 9:20,21Two incidents of Paul’s life most-readily exemplify his purpose and intent. Paul freely admitted to his determined efforts against the gospel of Jesus Christ before his Damascus Road “confrontation”. (Acts 22:1-21) Soon after his conversion, his repeated attempts to evangelize his own people were not only by-and-large rejected but, at times, violently so. In response, he focused his ministry on Gentiles, although he never totally gave up hope for his fellow Jews. (See Acts 13:13-48; Romans 11:7-24 & 9:1-5 ) His message being essentially the same to both parties (Acts 26:20); the delivery modified depending on whether he was preaching to people with knowledge of a Messiah or to those whose hearts merely sought for one. Explaining that sincere “religion” is not enough, as we can be sincerely wrong; it being necessary for us to come to God on God’s terms. (Acts 17:22-31)
In an incident found in Acts 21:1-26, Paul returned to Jerusalem to report on his ministry; settling questions of technique and purpose, and convincing many – if not all – that he was indeed fulfilling God’s will in his ministry. The central issue being addressed was the report that Paul was’nt giving proper deference to Jewish principles in his teaching. To help allay those fears, Paul agreed to share in purification rites with several others, shaving his head and undoubtedly approaching the temple attired as any proper Jew would; even supplying the offering to be taken there. Was this done merely to accommodate the strict sensibilities of the Jewish Christians; had he cracked under pressure? No. It was to advance the gospel, to enhance the possibility of ministry; which entailed some accommodation. “…so that by all possible means I might save some.” (And believe it or not, after all the arguing over circumcision and Paul’s insistence that it had no real import for Gentiles, he circumcised Timothy, whose father was Greek but whose mother was a Jewess; to facilitate their ministry in and around Lystra and Iconium, both of which had large Jewish populations. Acts 16:1-3)
Another incident is found in Galatians 2:11-21 where Paul confides that he publicly chastised Peter, the first Apostle called to minister to Gentiles (Acts 10 & 11), for vacillating between his acceptance of them as fellow-heirs of the kingdom of God – unburdened by Jewish sensibilities – and those who demanded an adherence to a Jewish code within Christianity. Paul believed there could be and was in fact a meeting of the minds, a connection of ideas, a cohesion of belief. As, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,… (For) There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28
Paul’s goal was not to refrain from “stirring up” trouble at all costs, because he realized that was impossible; but to never intentionally do so. His aim was to be right and to stand firm, even as he strove to be compassionate and understanding. To, “…not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God… For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” 1 Corinthians 6:32,33
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