Jerry C. Brewer
Like so many passages in the Bible, this one has often been perverted to force an interpretation which simply isn’t there. I am sure the Community Church folks who believe God accepts any kind of immoral behavior love this one. They probably think, “Do others cuss? Then I will. Do others drink? I’ll drink with them. Do others gamble? I’ll ante up in the game.”
The question must be considered in the context in which Paul uses the phrase, “all things to all men.” The 9th chapter of First Corinthians deals with Paul’s (and all preachers’) right to receive support from the brethren for their labors. In his argument in verse 9, he quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4 which says, “Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn.” His application of this Old Testament passage to the right of preachers to support from brethren clearly spells out the nature of many Old Testament passages. They carry universal principles beyond their immediate statement (Rom. 15:4). In this case, he uses it to prove that God intends for us to learn a lesson from it for our day. “Doth God take care for oxen? or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:9-12).
His point in this passage is that he had as much right to receive support from brethren as any other gospel preacher, yet he chose not to do so for the singular purpose of preaching unhindered and without being a burden to them. He continues in verses 13 and 14, showing his clear meaning that those who preach are entitled to support.
Then he says, “But I have used none of these things: neither have I written these things, that it should be so done unto me: for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void” (verse 15). A key here is to understand what his “glorying” was. He has just said he refused support in order that his glorying should not be made void, but then says, “For though I preach the gospel I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel!” (verse 16). Paul’s source of glory was not in himself, his ability, or in support he received from brethren, but in simply preaching the gospel that others might be saved.
Paul’s life was devoted to one single endeavor—preaching the gospel of Christ for the salvation of others. He often made such statements (cf. Rom. 1:16). His entire life was devoted to the salvation of others through his preaching and he was willing to make any sacrifice that others might be saved. That was why he said, “For though I be free from all men, ye have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And 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; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. 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. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you” (verses 19-23).
Everything Paul has been discussing relates to his preaching of the gospel to save other men, and one of ways he gained the confidence of those to whom he preached was by becoming “all things to all men.” Now the question arises as to how he did this. Going back to our previous question, does this mean that Paul was a partaker of other men’s sins in order to show that he was “just one of them?” No! Paul practiced self-control and regulation of his own spirit, as he noted in that same chapter (verse 27). That regulation would happily restrict his own life in any manner that was not sinful if it would lead to the salvation of “the more” as he noted in verse 19. He could adapt to the ways of others, not for the purpose of lulling them into a complacent satisfaction to remain as they were, but to gain their confidence so that he could teach them the difference between their customs and the gospel and convert them to Christ.
He said, “to the Jews, I became a Jew” (verse 20). In Acts 16:1-3 Luke wrote that Paul had Timothy circumcised “because of the Jews in those parts” who “knew that his father was a Greek.” Why unnecessarily prejudice the Jews? Paul knew (and wrote to the Galatians) that, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision” (Gal. 5:6). Timothy’s circumcision was not done as a religious rite, but as a custom to placated the Jews whom Paul was trying to reach with the gospel.
On the other hand, there were those who came to Antioch, telling the Gentiles, “Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). As a result of this, Paul and Titus went to Jerusalem about the question and Titus became a test case of this false doctrine. It was there that Paul refused to have Titus circumcised when those false teachers sought to compel him to do so. Paul told the Galatians that, “We gave place in the way of subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (Gal 2:1-5). Timothy’s mother was a Jew, but Titus was the son of Gentile parents. To have Titus circumcised would capitulate to the Judaizing teachers who demanded that Gentiles be circumcised in order to be saved.
If a custom, though previously practiced as a religious ritual, is celebrated with the proper knowledge that salvation and the grace of God are not available through it, it may be observed under certain other circumstances. I believe certain holidays in our time are like that. For instance, we have Easter egg hunts, but realize that Easter is not a religious holiday. In the same vein, we exchange gifts at Christmas, but understand that we have no Biblical authority for celebrating that time as the birth of Christ.
Paul’s nature was not to, “Go along to get along.” His becoming “all things to all men, that I may by all means save some” was limited to the realm of matters in which God has allowed a choice. Paul sought to please all men in this area. He wrote in the next chapter, “Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:31-33). His statement that he “pleased” all men did not refer to their sins, but to his freedom in Christ and he wrote the last passage in the context of eating meats against which some people had scruples.
When it came to obeying Christ, what men thought did not even enter into Paul’s decision. “If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). He would not compromise for one hour if it meant compromising any truth of religion or morals, but in the realm of freedom he became all things to all men. in order to save some.