All Things to All People? Really, Paul?

If you’ve heard more than 1 or 2 sermons on evangelism or outreach you’ve probably heard Paul’s declaration: “I became all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) Paul here makes the point that he has used his freedom in Christ, not for selfish gain, but in order to identify as far as possible with people in all cultural, racial, and socio-economic categories in order to present the Gospel to them. We would expect no less from the Paul who says that, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

Paul preachingPaul was about reaching everybody and so should we be. Right. I think a lot of us might pay lip-service to this but we don’t understand the real scope of who Paul interacted with–the fact that for Paul this wasn’t just a preacher’s hyperbole, but a straight-forward description of his practice. Historian Robin Lane Fox gives us an eye-opening summary of Paul’s ministry in his magisterial account of the Christianization of the Roman Empire:

Paul admitted to being “all things to all men,” and our best account of a Christian mission, the Acts of the Apostles, bears him out. Paul’s churches included slaves and people who needed to be told “not to steal”: Paul himself referred to the “deep, abysmal poverty” of his Christians in Macedonia. Yet his converts also included people “in Caesar’s household,” slaves, presumably, in the service of the Emperor. At Corinth, he converted Erastus, the “steward of the city,” another eminent post which was often help by a public slave: it is quite uncertain whether this man could be the Erastus whom a recent inscription in Corinth’s theatre revealed as a freeborn magistrate, the aedile of the colony. He attracted women of independent status and a certain property, people like Phoebe, the “patroness” of many of the Christians at Corinth, and Lydia, the “trader in purple,” a luxury commodity. These women ranked far below the civic, let alone the Imperial aristocracies. But Acts adds a higher dimension which we might not otherwise have guessed: Paul was heard with respect by one member of Athen’s exclusive Areopagus and by the “first man of Malta.” He received friendly advice from “Asiarchs” in Ephesus, men at the summit of provincial society, where they served at vast expense as priests in the Imperial cult. On Cyprus, he impressed the Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, by a miracle which he worked in his presence.  —Pagans and Christians, pg. 293

Paul’s boast was not empty; his contacts range from prisons to palaces. Now, aside from having Jesus come to personally knock him off his horse and commission him to preach the Gospel, Paul was a uniquely gifted man. Orthodox, brilliant, and cosmopolitan he was able to relate to the upper echelons of intellectual culture and society with ease. No doubt this is what impresses many of us–it should. Not all Christians can interact at the high levels at which Paul did. God calls and equips some of us for these extraordinary levels of witness and that deserves a special appreciation for the gifting and sacrifice that requires.

What ought to be even more fascinating in the example of Paul though, is that a man of such native talent and ability did not count it beneath him to pastor people who “needed to be told ‘not to steal’.” Part of what captivates us about Paul’s high-level contacts is that we would love to rub shoulders with the elite, the rich, the social movers and shakers. It’s a glamorous ministry to most of us. (Of course, Paul got a lot of these opportunities after getting arrested or having the tar beat out of him, so it wasn’t that glamorous.) Still, much, if not most, of his ministry was not to the social elite but to the outcast–both racially (Gentiles), and socially (slaves, barbarians, etc.) He humbled himself, made himself as nothing, going to dregs of society in order to share the Gospel. Of course, in this he was only following his master. (Phil 2:6-9)

That’s something for us to consider in this new year: am I striving to become the kind of person of whom it could be said “she became all things to all people” for the sake of the Gospel? Even of the poor? Even of the dregs? Even of the outcast? Are our churches the kinds of places where pastors need to be continually reminding people “not to steal”? Who is welcome among us? Who catches our attention as an object of God’s grace in the Gospel? Have I been humbled by the Gospel enough to follow Paul, who followed Christ?

For those of us struggling with this, it might be helpful to recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians when they were getting too big for their britches:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Soli Deo Gloria

3 thoughts on “All Things to All People? Really, Paul?

  1. Any time you quote 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, perhaps my favorite passage in the Bible, you’re going to win my heart. It’s funny though how I’m so ideologically on board with this but I have a very low tolerance of people with annoying idiosyncrasies and so forth when I actually have to deal with them in person. God is constantly calling me out on this.

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