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.”
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?