All Things to All People – 1 Corinthians 9:19-27

Paul’s desire is to preach the gospel with strings attached (9:18). To do this, he must set aside his rights as an apostle, someone who is an eyewitness of the resurrection, and as someone who was give a specific commission by the resurrected Jesus. But in the second half of this chapter, Paul goes further. He not only does not insist on his rights, but he makes himself a slave to all!  he claims he makes himself “All Things to All People.”

All things to all people

This should be shocking: the Apostle to the Gentiles, personally commissioned by the resurrected Lord Jesus and a Roman Citizen sets all that aside to be a servant. Imagine the highest-ranking Christian Corinthian Christians are likely to meet, and he works in the agora repairing tents as if he is a slave.

This is not just a servant to people who are higher than he is in Roman society. Paul says he is a servant to “all people.”  If Paul had a patron, then naturally he would render appropriate service to that patron when necessary. But the patron-client relationship was not like a master-slave relationship. It was not undignified owe a larger debt to a patron, and it was honorable to serve that patron. However, to be a slave to all people was unthinkable in Greco-Roman Corinth! Would Gallio, the highest ranking Roman in the region, set aside the toga and help the slaves dig out a new cesspit?

Paul makes himself “all things to all people” (9:20-23). To what an extent is this Paul’s model for Christian ministry? “‘All things to all men is better remembered than understood” (Paul Gooch, Partial Knowledge, 124).

In order to reach Jews to the Gospel, Paul makes himself a Jew. In Acts, Paul continued to go to synagogues to preach the Gospel to the Jewish people. Even in Acts 28 he is still reaching out to Jewish people and arguing from Scripture (the Old Testament) that Jesus is the Messiah and that his death, resurrection, and ascension fulfilled Jewish messianic expectations. Romans 9-11 expresses Paul’s concern for the Jewish people. But Paul adds a parenthesis: I am not under the Law, but I will live that way to reach people who are under the Law. Maybe, I do not insist on my right to eat whatever I want, food sacrificed to idols for example, if insisting on that right offends the Jews and I am unable to reach them.

In order to reach the Gentiles with the Gospel, Paul says he becomes like “those not under the Law.” Does this mean Paul was willing to violate the Jewish food laws and eat meat sacrificed to idols? Violate the Sabbath to reach Gentiles? He adds a parenthetical clarification to living like a gentile. Even though he is free from the Law, “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law.” Christ’s Law may be the two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbor. It is remarkable Paul should say this, since James also refers to the “royal law.”

Did Paul intend “all thing to all people” as a model for doing ministry? How does this work out in a contemporary ministry context?

This means Paul accommodated the message of the gospel two different cultural contexts. For example, when speaking to gentiles he uses forms of rhetoric which would be familiar in a Greco Roman context. When speaking to Jews in a synagogue, he quotes the Hebrew Bible and makes arguments which would be familiar two a Jewish audience. The sermons in Acts demonstrate this. In Lystra (Acts 14) and Mars Hill (Acts 17) Paul does not quote scripture, nor does he make a scriptural argument to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. Quoting the Jewish scripture would not be effective in that Greek environment.

The very fact that Paul speaks in a local language using rhetoric with which they would be familiar is a kind of accommodation. In a modern context, missionaries don’t go to a new region and teach the locals how to speak English, and then preach the gospel to them in English. At the very least, they learn the language and the culture of the people they’re trying to reach. It would be foolish to do otherwise!

Did Paul make theological accommodations? For example, he could present Jesus as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy in a synagogue, but Jesus as a kind of philosopher when speaking to Gentiles in the agora. He quotes the Hebrew Bible for Jews, and Greek philosophy to the Gentiles.

Whether preaching to Jews or Gentiles, the core of the gospel message the same, Christ crucified and raised to life. In fact, at Mars Hill his commitment to resurrection may have limited his effectiveness. But the message about Jesus has been contextualized for a different cultural situation.

Would Paul ignore some aspect of Christian teaching and practice when preaching to the Gentiles?  Some scholars suggest Paul downplayed the practice of circumcision gentiles, eventually canceling the practice since it was so offensive to Gentiles. If he was going to have success among the Gentiles, Paul needed to strip out the more Jewish elements.  If Paul is willing to set aside his rights as an apostle in order to reach people with the gospel, is there some small element of doctrine or practice that he could set aside in order to make the gospel more palatable to his gentile audience?

But passages like Galatians 1:6-8 indicate Paul is quick to defend core doctrine and practice. Even in 1 Corinthians Paul staunchly defends doctrine of the resurrection or speaks clearly against some practices such as lawsuits and visiting prostitutes.

So how does a modern church be “all things to all people”? Does this look different in America, as opposed to an African church, or an Asian church?

A Hindrance to the Gospel – 1 Corinthians 9:11-18

Paul claims to have certain rights as an apostle, just as Peter or the Lord’s brothers do. And he agrees that the church ought to support those who serve in the ministry. But Paul does not insist on those rights because it would be a hindrance to the gospel. Paul does not want anything to become a wall keeping people away from hearing the gospel.

A Hindrance to the Gospel

The Corinthian church seems to have support other apostles, maybe Peter visited there, although it is unlikely James ever did. If Peter showed up in Corinth with his wife (and a small entourage, the “support staff”), then the church gave him a place to stay and made sure he and his wife had all their needs met while they are in town.  If Peter is due that kind of respect, Paul says, how much more is Paul due that kind of respect? He was the apostle who first brought the gospel to Corinth and labored in their church the longest. Paul is an apostle with a right to have the Corinthian church take care of his needs (food and daily needs, a place to live, and other expenses).

But he has not made use of his rights so he will not be an obstacle in the way of the gospel.

Paul has rights as an apostle, but also as a Roman citizen. In Acts 16, he insisted on his rights as a citizen after he was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned without due process. But when Paul was arrested and stood before Gallio in Acts 18, he does not mention his citizenship. However, that he was given due process of the Law and received justice from the Roman governor himself may imply he was known as a Roman citizen and received his legal rights. If Paul had access to some wealth, he has more rights in Roman society since he would be seen as Roman citizen of means who can travel extensively through the empire

He sets aside rights as an apostle so that he does not become a hindrance for the preaching of the Gospel. An obstacle (ἐγκοπή, only here in the NT) is something that causes a hindrance, since as great rocks and streams which are obstacles for travel through difficult territory (πολλάκις διὰ τὰς ἐγκοπὰς, Diodorus Siculus Hist. 1.32.8).

Were there people in the early church who sought to make a profit from the preaching of the gospel? An ancient equivalent of a modern televangelist?

Some philosophers were known for charging exorbitant rates for for their services. Philostratus rebuked a Stoic philosopher Euphrates for “money-grubbing and selling wisdom at a discount” (Life, 1.12.3).  Paul will describe the so-called “super-apostles” in 2 Corinthians, teachers who do in fact insist on their right to support (and apparently good support at that!)

Didache 12, Beware the Christmonger! The noun χριστέμπορος only appears in Didache 12:5, combining Χριστός and ἔμπορος “trader.” BDAG suggests “one who carries on a cheap trade in (the teachings of) Christ;” BrillDAG, “trafficker in Christ.”

Didache 12 But everyone who comes in the name of the Lord, let him be welcomed. And then, having tested him you will know him. Then you will be able to distinguish whether he is true or false.  2 If the one coming is a traveler help him as much as you are able. But he shall remain not among you more than two or three days, if he has need. 3 And if he desires to stay with you, being an artisan, let him work and let him earn his keep.  4 And if he has no craft, take this into consideration according to your understanding how he shall live among you as a Christian without being idle. 5 And if he does not want to act in this way, he is a Christmonger.  Beware of such as these. (Rick Brannan, trans., The Apostolic Fathers in English)

Paul does not want to be known as a Sophist or philosopher gathering wealthy students to himself to become rich and powerful. Nor does he want his relationship with the Corinthians to resemble a patron/client relationship. He denies anything he might have by rights if it is a hindrance to the Gospel.

Paul did not insist on this right when he was in Corinth and he not demanding it now (9:15-18). Why? If he is paid to preach the gospel, he has “no ground for boasting.” It is a job requirement! If Paul is just doing his job, he does not have the right to boast (9:15-17). In fact, Paul would rather die than be deprived of his grounds for boasting (9:15) By preaching the gospel in Corinth without demanding his rights as an apostle or Roman citizen, Paul can boast in what God has done and he will receive his reward for being faithful to his commission.

This is challenging to modern the modern Church because we have created a professional class of Christian ministers, many expect to be paid a decent wage befitting their education and preparation. Some have taken additional education in counseling and other people-oriented skills in order to be better prepared for helping people i local churches. I do not think well-trained ministers are the problem, and churches should not expect their pastors to live in poverty or take two or three side-gigs just to make ends meet. But there are many pastors in this world, in America or the rest of the world, who are clearly in it for the money. Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry is almost a hundred years old now (or watch the 1960 movie), but the problem of pastors and evangelists demanding more money from their congregations is still one of the biggest hindrances to the gospel.

The Apostle Paul and Rights – 1 Corinthians 9:1-6

In the 1 Corinthians 8 Paul agreed with the Corinthians that eating meat sacrificed to idols was not sinful. However, if that act of freedom in Christ causes another believer to sin, then that freedom should be set aside for the sake of the gospel. What were the Apostle Paul’s rights?

Apostle Paul

In a series of rhetorical questions, Paul first argues he has the right to be treated with respect because he is an apostle (9:1-6). Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? This is one the main qualifications for being an apostle, and in 1 Corinthians 15:8-10 Paul includes himself alongside Peter and James and individuals to whom Jesus appeared (and commissioned for a particular ministry?)

In fact, the church at Corinth is Paul’s proof of apostleship. He says, “Are not you my workmanship in the Lord?” Workmanship (ESV) tries to express the meaning of the word “work” (NRSV; NIV2011, ἔργον). The sense here is that the Corinthian church is Paul’s accomplishment in the Lord. If anyone doubts Paul is an apostle, the Corinthian church itself are a seal of his apostleship (9:2-3). The church at Corinth is a seal (σφραγίς) of his apostleship in the Lord” (v. 2). The noun translated as seal refers to something that bears an official imprint signing or sealing a document, but also attesting to the authenticity of that document (BDAG). This might be understood as, “you are my certificate of authenticity as an apostle.”

This is my defense (ἀπολογία) if someone wants to examine me (ἀνακρίνω). Both words are legal terms, as if someone is bringing a lawsuit against Paul in a court. Paul needs to deal with people in Corinth who doubted his qualifications as an apostle (or rather, that he has an inferior apostleship compared to the super-apostles). In Galatians 1 he responds to people who question his authority to declare Gentiles are free from the Law.

The next questions have to do with Paul’s rights as an apostle (9:4-5) “Do we not have the right to eat and drink” (9:4)? This may mean Paul and his ministry team have a right to “room and board” while they are in Corinth.

“Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife” (9:5). In the section on 1 Corinthians 7, I speculated the Apostle Paul may have been married and was now single, whether because his wife died, or she divorced him after he began to preach Jesus as Messiah.  This verse implies that Cephas (Peter) and Jesus’s brothers were married. Jesus’s brothers must include James. In 1 Cor 15:6-7, Peter and James are the only named individuals who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus besides Paul. In 9:5 Peter, James (implied) and Barnabas and Paul are the named apostles who have certain rights.

Do we have no right to refrain from working for a living (9:6)? Although there is evidence Jewish rabbis often had a trade, it is possible this manual labor was looked down on by Greco-Roman society. Bruce Winter cites Plutarch, Pericles 2.1 as evidence for disrespect towards manual labor, including leather workers (“we despise the workman…”) Manual labor may cost Paul credibility among the higher placed members of Corinthian society. There was something suspicious about a philosopher who taught for pay.

By asking these questions, Paul establishes he has clear rights as an apostle. In the same way an elite citizen of Greco-Roman Corinth had rights to a certain level of respect fitting his social status. But does Paul insist on the rights? Did Paul intentionally refuse patronage from members of the Corinthian church? If so, he may have offended some elite member of the congregation, creating enmity (along factional lines?)

Do Not Be a Stumbling Block – 1 Corinthians 8:9-13

Paul concludes his discussion of eating food sacrificed to idols by warning his readers to be careful how they use their freedom in Christ. You may be free to eat food sacrificed to idols, Paul says, but be careful to not cause another believer to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:9-10). Most people understand the metaphor of a stumbling-block. The word refers to something which literally causes someone to stumble, a hidden rock in a path, etc. How is eating food sacrificed to idols a stumbling block?

stumbling block

The situation Paul has in mind is the wealthy or elite in the churches who attend a banquet at a temple. A private meal may not have attracted anyone’s attention, but someone who is invited to an important civic function at a temple would make that sort of thing known to others. It seems highly likely the elite in the church boasted in their participation in the civic banquets, and they may have encouraged others to participate as well.

Why would the Corinthians think that they had a right to eat at a banquet? Bruce Winter suggests this may be a right as a Corinthian elite (After Paul Left Corinth, 280).  The elite can eat rich meals at a temple because they were invited. A gentile Christian might consider eating the mean their right because they are free from the Law (they can eat food forbidden by the Law).

It is possible to have knowledge the idol-food is nothing, but not express that knowledge with love, therefore harming brother or sister in Christ (8:11-12). It is possible the Gentile believers in the church had no problem attending meals at a temple, while Jewish believers would find this highly sensitive. Gentile Christians may have been more socially higher class than Jewish Christians and felt more pressure to attend civic banquets. If the Gentile believers were encouraging Jews or others who believed that attending the temple meals with sin, then they would be “causing them to stumble.”

Paul therefore declares it is better to abstain then cause a brother to sin! (8:13) Earlier in the letter, Paul said it is better to be wronged than to bring a brother to a secular court. In 1 Corinthians 8 he applies this same principle to eating food sacrificed to idols. It is better never to eat meat again than to cause someone to stumble.

Setting aside one’s freedom runs contrary to modern (American) ideas of freedom. American freedom should never be confused with Christian Liberty in Christ. Because we have a right (as Americans) to some social behavior, we must evaluate the practice through the lens of the Gospel. As an American I might have a right to do something, but should I set aside that right, as a Christian, in order to not cause another Christian to sin? There are many examples of Christians abusing their rights as Americans which might cause others to sin 9Maybe you can give your own suggestion in the comments section!)

Paul is clear: we have freedom in Christ, but that freedom is an opportunity to serve others in love. For Paul, the Gospel always takes precedence to an individual’s freedom in matters of indifference. His over-riding concern is for the outsider who may be attracted or repelled from the Gospel based on how the church looks from the outside. This does not seem fair, but it is the way things work out in the real world!

Paul must balance Christian liberty in Christ with the need to present the Gospel to an entirely pagan world. He is clear that the Gospel is more important than personal liberty; you’re your freed in Christ interferes with the Gospel, then your freedom needs to be restrained. Like Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ, we ought quickly to set aside our insistence on our rights as free in Christ so we will be able to present the Gospel without hindrance.

Married to an Unbeliever?  1 Corinthians 7:10-16

The ideal marriage for Paul is two people who get married and stay that way until “Death do they part.” Paul views marriage the way most Jews in the first century would. Based on Genesis 2:18-24 or Ecclesiastes 9:9-10, people who marry should enjoy life with their spouse. This is what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, although there is provision in the Law for divorce in the case of unfaithfulness. But what happens if a believer is married to an unbeliever? Can the believer divorce the unbeliever, so they are not “unequally yoked”?

Married to an Unbeliever

As I have stated before, this passage is not a comprehensive theology of divorce and there are many situations in a modern marriage may end in divorce not anticipated in the teaching of Jesus or Paul. If a woman is being abused by her husband, she should get out of the relationship as soon as possible, protect herself and her children. There are more ways for a spouse to break their marriage vows than simply adultery.

What is remarkable is that Paul extends the command to both the husband and the wife. The divorce law from Deuteronomy 24 only allows a husband to divorce, Paul suggests a woman could divorce a husband. In addition, the grounds for the divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 is expanded to include abandonment. If an unbelieving spouse abandons a believer, the believer can “let them go.” So Paul is opening up the possibility for a divorce beyond marital unfaithfulness.

Roman law allowed people to divorce for any reason. Divorce was permitted for infertility or infidelity, but more common among wealthy. “The Romans had one of the most liberal regimes of divorce in human history; legally, divorce could be obtained unilaterally, without cause, by either party, without cumbersome procedural obstacles; the strict separation of spousal property, and the prohibition of gifts between the husband and the wife, abetted easy separation” (Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin, 163).

For most people, there was no official marriage with a marriage contract. Since there was no legal contract binding the two, a couple could split and simply start living somewhere else. The situation was more complicated for slaves since a master could transfer one partner to another part of his estate or even sell the partner. This makes direct application to modern (wester, American) marriage and divorce questions difficult because a marriage is as much a legal partnership as a romantic one.

What about people married to unbelievers (7:12-16). In this section, Paul deals with what was likely a common problem for the first generation of Christians. Some women may have converted to Christianity, but their husbands do not. In the Roman world, a wife would convert to her husband’s gods when she married. This would not be a problem in most cases since she would adopt the family gods of her new family.

“A wife’s conversion to Christianity undoubtedly would have created strife, if only as a slap at her husband’s authority over her…. a wife’s refusal to accept Christianity after her husband’s conversion also would have made things quite awkward since the Christian faith was highly intolerant of other religious beliefs and practices” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 284).

The reason wives are addresses is a husband who converted to Christianity would simply force the whole family to “convert” to the new faith. A pagan wife might simply see worship of this “new God” as her natural duty, whether she really believed or not.

It is likely some in the Corinthian church were using their new relationship with Christ as a “ground for divorce.” After all, Paul has taught the church they need to separate from the world and to not be with immoral people. If a Christian woman took that seriously, she might have sought to divorce her idolatrous husband, who was most likely participating in all the immoral things most Roman men would.

I will treat verse 14 in another post, but for now it is important to hear what Paul has said (and what he has not said).  Paul does not declare all divorce sinful and anyone who divorces their spouse is damned to hell. He recognizes that marriages do end for good (and bad) reasons. People who find themselves in a marriage that breaks up need the support of their family, in the context, their brothers and sisters in Christ.