By Dr. Rick Flanders
“To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men,that I might by all means save some.” (First Corinthians 9:22)
Pretty well the theme of most evangelical churches at the present time is “all things to all men.” Many changes have been made to update the operation, the message, and the feel of these traditionally-conservative ministries so that they can be more “relevant” to the culture as it has turned out to be. The hope is attracting and winning millennials to Christ. While the motive is worthy in some ways, the adjusting of standards and practices is mostly misguided, due in significant measure to seriously-flawed interpretations of a Bible verse, First Corinthians 9:22.
That verse, it should be noted, is found in the section of the First Epistle to the Corinthians that deals with what’s wrong with eating meat that has been sacrificed to false gods. To “abstain from pollutions of idols” was a controversial standard sent out from the Jerusalem church some years before to the new Gentile churches after a big council had been held to discuss legalism (read the whole story in the fifteenth chapter of Acts). These “pollutions” were defined by the church as “meats offered to idols” (note Acts 15:19-29), which it was said that Christians should refrain from eating. The standards set by the Jerusalem council were beneficial to the Gentile churches that heeded them (as we see in Acts 16:4-5), but they met with resistance from many who considered them too restrictive and offensive to the culture of the Roman world. Consequently they had to be defended by leaders like the apostles Paul and John. Paul’s divinely-inspired defense of the standard to abstain from dedicated meat is found in First Corinthians 8, 9, and 10. John’s defense of the Jerusalem standards (actually the words of Jesus in their favor) is featured prominently in the second chapter of the book of Revelation.
The thrust of the teaching in First Corinthians on the subject is that Christians ought not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to the idols worshipped in the pagan temples. The Gentile believers were no longer worshipping the idols, but they should abstain even from eating the meat sold in the restaurant of the temple or in the meat-markets as having been dedicated to the gods. This was the standard for Gentile Christians formulated by the Jerusalem church. This epistle argues for this standard based on three principles.
1. Love (Chapter 8)
Although instructed Christians know that an idol is “nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one,” they need to have a concern for the idolaters and for the new converts who don’t have this fact totally figured out yet. If somebody who thinks of an idol as a god sees a more knowledgeable believer sitting “at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols,” and might he not be caused to stumble? Chapter 8 says that there is something that ought to come ahead of our exercising our liberty based on superior knowledge. That something is “charity” or love. Out of love, Christians should abstain from doing things that might trip up somebody who sees us doing them, such as eating meat sacrificed to idols. First Corinthians is plain about that.
2. Evangelism (Chapter 9)
The next chapter is about exercising restraint and practicing self-denial in order to make our efforts at evangelism more effective. This principle of self-denial for a greater purpose was found also at the end of Chapter 8, where it is applied to our influence on new Christians. In verse 13 we read, “If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth.” Self-denial, don’t forget, is at the heart and the foundation of Christian life and service (Matthew 16:24-25). The point made in Chapter 9 is that Paul and Barnabas refrained from doing many things they technically had a right to do so that their work of evangelism could be more effective. They didn’t take wives around with them, although they were not forbidden to marry, and were permitted to travel with a wife. They did secular work so that they didn’t have to look for others to give offerings to provide for them, although they certainly had a right to live on the tithes and offerings of God’s people, as the priests at the Temple did. They might be expected to abstain from doing secular work, and would not have been blamed if they had, but they worked anyway, “lest we should hinder the gospel.” All of these policies were based on the principle of Christian self-denial, and were followed in order to keep the doors for evangelizing pagan people open. This is also why Paul would not eat the meat sacrificed to the idols.
3. Faithfulness (Chapter 10)
In Chapter 10, Paul writes plainly that eating the meat devoted to an idol provokes God to jealousy. Idolatry must be avoided and fled by faithful Christians because they must be loyal to their Lord. Idolatry, we learn, is dangerous, and Christians must not even get close to it! So even eating the meat sacrificed down at the idol’s temple is dangerous. The Lord’s Supper associates us with the Lord and His sacrifice. Does not then the sacrifice offered at the pagan temple associate those involved in it with the worship of the idol? Are not the gods of paganism actually devils? “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and the table of devils.” To do so would be to be unfaithful to the Lord. So believers in Jesus Christ must abstain from eating meat from pagan sacrifices, even though nearly everybody else partook of it.
Clearly the point of First Corinthians 9:22 was not that Christians should adopt the practices of the pagan in order to evangelize them effectively. Such an idea is opposed to the whole point of chapters 8, 9, and 10, and particularly of chapter 9. It doesn’t teach us to lower the standards of Christian living; it tells us to raise them. It doesn’t say that we should exercise our rights; it says that there are reasons we might give them up. Critics of the standard argued that eating meat isn’t worship, the idol isn’t really a god at all, and that food is no big deal. But Paul was saying that believers ought to abstain from dedicated meat in order to keep open the opportunity to win souls. If Christians do what everybody else in the Roman culture did and ate meat from the temple, many would say that they are idol-worshippers, too. So those who spread the gospel must refrain from the practice. So Paul writes.
“For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more,” says the apostle in verse 19. A life of winning men to Christ is not a life of more freedom, but less. Rights are forfeited for the greater good of preaching the Gospel without hindrance.
Who might Paul win through surrendering some of his rights? In the first place, Jews (verse 20). Although he was an ethnic Jew, he was not required by the Gospel to keep the Law of Moses. This was the point about legalism proclaimed by the Jerusalem council. See in verses 1, 5, 10 and 11 of Acts 15 that legalism in its original form taught that men must become Jews (by circumcision) in order to qualify for salvation in Israel’s Christ, and that every believer in Christ must follow the Jewish Law as an observant Jew after coming to Jesus. So Paul did not have to keep the specifically Jewish statutes of the Law, but sometimes he did, voluntarily. Already in Acts 16, we find him circumcising Timothy before taking him as a co-worker in evangelism in order not to offend the Jews he would encounter everywhere he went. “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law” (verse 20). But it was a voluntary practice, based on self-denial and not on legalistic bondage.
Around Gentiles he did not parade his Jewishness as a barrier between them by observing the distinctively Jewish aspects of the Law of Moses. See this is verse 21. Whenever he did follow the Israelite ceremonial law, he did so voluntarily. Around Gentiles he voluntarily did not keep Jewish observances. But notice that Paul makes the point that he is definitely “not without law to God, but under the law to Christ.” It was the abolished ceremonial law of Israel that he as a Jew could follow, but as a believer in Christ was not required to follow. When it was helpful, he would take advantage of his Jewish privileges and observe the statutes (as in Acts 18:18), but usually not around Gentiles. However his varying observance of these laws did not mean that he was lawless, or unprincipled. He lived under Christ’s law (see John 13:34, Galatians 6:2 and James 2:8-12). To teach or imply that Christians must bend their principles in order to conform to the culture is not to follow the spirit or the words of this chapter. Paul makes sure that we don’t get this wrong impression from the idea of being “all things to all men.”
With Christians, sometimes we must defer to “the weak” (verse 22), as we see in Romans 14 and First Corinthians 8. In other words (read those chapters again) we may bend to the right, to the unnecessary restrictions of weaker brothers in order not to cause them to stumble. The motivation for adjusting life for others is to remove things in our lives that hinder our witness for Christ or influence on younger Christians. In all of these cases, we are restraining ourselves and not exercising our rights in order to more good. The idea in First Corinthians 9:22 is not that we should relax and do what everybody else does so that people won’t be bothered by our standards. The whole chapter is about self-denial and restraint. Actually, the word “temperate” in the comparison to athletics given in verses 23 through 27 means restraint or self-control, and describes what our attitude should be. We restrict ourselves for evangelism, rather than tear down the restrictions.
To be “all things to all men” does not mean to ignore teachings of the Bible in order to avoid going against the grain of culture. It means to put evangelism at such a high priority in our lives that we are ready to adjust our lives, our schedules, our budgets, our preferred ways of doing things, and our habits not mandated or implied by the Word of God, so that we can win more people (“that I might gain the more”) to Jesus Christ (“this I do for the gospel’s sake”).