Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
In 1 Corinthians, Paul undertakes to address a series of church conflicts, theological debates, and disputes over community practices.
These range from the nature and reality of Jesus’ resurrection (ch. 15) to the correct foods to bring to or eat at a church supper (ch. 8-10). This epistle stands as Exhibit A for anyone seeking to understand the complexities of ministry and congregational life.
Paul demonstrates a keen awareness of competing factions in his audience, balances the relational challenges of both honoring and seriously critiquing convictions deeply held by people he knows and loves, and serves as a first responder to first generation Christians. As he addresses this fractious community’s list of questions, he barely restrains his frustration then gets to their demand to know why they should pay him to do any of this.
After addressing that last question (1 Corinthians 9:1-15), Paul states a key element of his overarching approach to ministry: “I have become all things to all people” (9:22). Some interpreters treat that statement with skepticism and derision, as evidence for Paul’s over-inflated estimation of his abilities. They suggest it does more harm than good, that it is a claim undeserving of canonical status. To be sure, heads nod all around whenever someone reminds an individual or a group, “you can’t be all things to all people.” Those reminders are correct. We can’t.
At the same time, it is worth considering a brief defense of Paul against charges of an overly abundant self-esteem and unrealistic concept of his own abilities to relate to everybody. In first century Greco-Roman culture, leaders were expected to trumpet their virtues and proclaim all the reasons people should listen to them and follow their advice. Otherwise, in that culture, why should anyone believe or follow them?
In our day, pretty much no one except professional athletes is allowed to get away with that, and often, even for them, they get away with it only barely. Even politicians who campaign to convince the population that they are worthy of office must walk a line between recounting their successes and being considered arrogant braggarts. In contrast, Paul’s day took an approach more like Yosemite Sam from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. If leaders weren’t exactly expected to burst through the doors and exclaim, “I’m the hootinist, tootinist, shootinist bobtail wildcat in the west!” they were expected to come close.
Pauls’ statement in 1 Corinthians 9:22 is best understood in light of the argument that precedes it, beginning at 9:16. “Woe to me if I do not speak the gospel!” He speaks helpfully to a present day society that often approaches life — particularly church life — through the lens of a self-centered, self-protective sense of entitlement. It is easy to assume that God favors church people over “unchurched” people and to act as if church people do not need to think about how their own practices and attitudes might unhelpfully assure that those “unchurched” people will stay that way. Too often we give those outside of the faith no reason to feel invited or welcome to become insiders.
Paul hopes that others might share the benefits of relationship with Christ. His words suggest that people in relationship with Christ actually want to understand what matters to those who are not. They actually want to act toward others in ways that demonstrate respect for their status as human beings created and beloved by God — even before or apart from explicit relationship with God.
Paul does this not as a marketing tactic or evangelism strategy. He does it because “an obligation is laid upon me” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Mainline congregations have long been faulted — often appropriately — for losing sight of the fact that their primary obligation is not a building, a mortgage, deferred maintenance, or well-established, comfortable patterns of being a church. In contrast, Paul remembers the God who sought him and the people who showed him — not just told him — that God was seeking him, and, most importantly, was seeking him along with seeking everyone else on the planet. Paul understood that God’s desire to be in relationship with him was “about him,” but not only about him. Many congregations come together for their own sake in order to worship a God who they know cares about them. They are also vaguely certain that God cares about other people in their neighborhood, city, or region. A casual appreciation for God’s love for others removes from them any sense of urgency about those people; it lays no burden on them to meet those people, know their names, understand their lives.
In order for Paul to “become a Jew” (he already was one, but was seeking to connect with those of his own people who did not share his new understandings and practices) he had to care about a group of people who differed from him, care enough to meet them on their own terms. Whether Jew or Gentile, under the Law or outside the Law, under the gospel or outside the gospel, strong or weak, seeker of the things of Christ or seeker of the things of this world — in order to connect with them and guide them to the fullness of life in Christ, he at least had to know them, seek to understand them, try to see the world through their eyes, attempt to see the ways that they see their own stories before telling them of a larger gospel story.
We would help ourselves and our neighbors if we were to reflect on how well or poorly we embody Paul’s approach, as individuals and as communities of faith. Paul, in fact, by his own telling, was not all things to all people. He was run out of town, beaten by mobs, thrown in jail by people with whom he did not exactly fully connect. We will not be all things to everyone either. But, one quarter of the New Testament came from the hand of someone who lived a mission that mattered, treated everyone as if they mattered to him and to God, and sought to embody a still more excellent way.