Christian Liberty

All Things To All Men

In The Nick of TimeFew passages of Scripture are more popular among contemporary Christians than 1 Corinthians 9:19‐23. Especially fashionable is Paul’s line in verse 22 about becoming “all things to all men.” This passage is commonly taken to mean that effective evangelism requires Christians to imitate the people around them. Many evangelicals cannot even imagine this interpretation being mistaken. It is even repeated by some fairly reputable commentators (Gordon Fee, for example) who, however, offer few reasons for accepting it.
Few such reasons exist. The popular interpretation is far more influenced by wishful thinking than it is by any factor in the context of 1 Corinthians 9. In fact, a careful study of the passage in its context yields quite a different interpretation.

1 Corinthians 9 is the center of an extended section dealing with meat offered to idols. This kind of meat was sold at a discount in the shambles and was often served in the homes of non‐Christians. Apparently, the Corinthian believers had asked Paul whether Christians could be permitted to eat meat which had been consecrated in idolatrous worship.

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The Neglected Posture of Conscience

Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. (Acts 15:37-39, NKJV)

There is much we don’t know about this conversation between Paul and Barnabas. But we know it didn’t end in shrugs and placid smiles. The word for “contention” (paroxusmos.) suggests feverish intensity,1 and the two men found it impossible to work together.

We also know something else. Neither Paul nor Barnabas had any direct revelation from God on the question. If the Spirit had said to either of them “take Mark” or “don’t take Mark,” there would have been no dispute. They were both deeply committed to obedience.

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