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That by All Means I Might Win Some

On faithfulness and flexibility in gospel proclamation. To what degree should we adapt to the beliefs and practices of the culture of those who do not know Christ in order to reach them for Christ? An exposition of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 says:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I am myself not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

In 1998, in a journal called Evangelical Missions Quarterly (Volume 34), there appeared a short article, two pages, called, "The C1 to C6 Spectrum, a Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of Christ-Centered Communities." The name of the author was John Travis. The name was, in fact, a pseudonym for a husband and wife team who had been living and serving in an Asian Muslim community for twenty years. The "C" in C1, C2, C3, C4, all the way to C6, the "C" stood for Christ-centered Community. So perhaps it should have been "CCC," but they called it C1, C2, and so forth. And it's important that you understand what they meant by these categories:

C1—Christ-centered community one: this is a traditional church using a non-indigenous language. Its believers exist as an ethnic or religious community. The church is viewed as a foreign entity. It's as if, for example, you planted an English-speaking church in Japan.

C2—the same, but now using indigenous language. Apart from the change in language factor so that you're now using the local vernacular, the church looks and sounds and feels like a Western church: Western architecture, Western music, and so forth.

C3—this is supposed to be a Christ-centered community in the indigenous language that is happy to adopt those cultural features of the local environment that are non-religious. If the converts were once Muslims, they now think of themselves as former Muslims, and they are perceived to be former Muslims by their surrounding culture, but they may go in for the kind of architecture that is more dominant in their culture, and so forth.

C4—these often are called contextualized Christ-centered communities. They use the indigenous language, but now adopt many—let's say Islamic if it's an Islamic culture—many Islamic forms wherever it is believed that the Bible does not actually forbid the practice. So, many forms of worship are Islamic, say. But the converts are not viewed as Muslims by Muslims.

C5—they are now viewed as Muslims by other Muslims. They are sometimes called Messianic Muslims by analogy with Messianic Jews. They will reject or modify specifically unbiblical Muslim practices, perhaps, but they are pretty generous in their estimates of what is unbiblical.

C6—these are small Christ-Centered underground communities. This is the church, perhaps, in Saudi Arabia.

Now, that two-page essay exerted huge influence in the missiological world. It has produced endless debate, scores of books, hundreds of essays. Those who defend a C5 approach—who in the case of Islam remain within the Muslim community and adopt Muslim forms in their form of worship—appeal, for a start, to Acts 15. The Gentiles are not forced to change, to become Jews, so why should Muslims be forced to change when they become Christians? And even the Shahada, that is the basic Muslim creed, "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet," even the Shahada can still be recited by such people, because after all, we do believe in one God. And Muhammad inevitably does say some true things, and if he says some true things, then so far as he is saying true things, he is representing God, so in some sense he still remains a prophet of God.

C5 supporters also regularly appeal to our text, "To the Jews I became like a Jew, that I might win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I am not myself under the law), in order that I might win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not myself lawless, I am under Christ's law). To the weak I became weak." To the Muslims I became a Muslim.

Similar arguments, of course, are deployed in some wings of the emerging church: to the postmodern I became a postmodern. After all, those who aren't are really saying, though they don't admit it, to the modern I became a modern. They just got snookered. Now we're doing it intelligently, so that we can actually understand how to accommodate a little better so as to win the postmodern. After all, are there not other indications in the Bible about how flexible early Christians could be? Listen to Paul preach in a synagogue in Acts 13. He assumes all kinds of things, and he focuses most of his attention on the truth that the Old Testament promised Messiah had to be a crucified risen Messiah. But when he comes to Acts 17, he doesn't quote those Old Testament texts. Psalm 2 doesn't show up. He starts all the way back with monotheism, creation. There's a different frame of reference. He cites pagan poets, for goodness sake. So in other words, there is evidence in the Bible that Paul knew how to accommodate to his different audiences and adapt the message accordingly, isn't there?

And then there are specific instances of choices which on the face of it seem initially a little contradictory. There is Titus. According to Galatians 2, no one compelled Titus to be circumcised when Paul brought him to Jerusalem. Some wanted Titus to be circumcised, but not only Paul, the other apostles also agreed he did not have to be circumcised. And then Paul goes and takes Timothy and circumcises him so that he can be a little more flexible when he's trying to reach Jews. In fact, one of the charges against Paul in Galatia was that he was a man-pleaser: changes his message, changes his tune, changes his emphases. Wasn't that a function, in fact, of his flexibility?

So if we seek to be faithful to the gospel, should we not also seek to be flexible in different cultural contexts? To the Jew I became like a Jew, to the Muslim I became like a Muslim, to the postmodern, I became like a postmodern?

But are there not some limits? To the adulterer I became an adulterer, to the child molester I became a child molester, to the drunk I became like a drunk, to the rich dude I became like a rich dude? Where are the limits? How do you demand faithfulness and flexibility? What does it look like? What does this text say?

The Context of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Now, to understand this paragraph aright, we must follow the flow of the argument in chapters 8 and 9. The reason for this, in part, is because our paragraph finds Paul mentioning the weak, in verse 22: "To the weak I became weak, to win the weak." But the weak are introduced in chapters 8. So let me start with the argument there, since the whole flow of his argument shapes how we must understand 9:19-23. As a run-up, then, to our paragraph we must see two things.

1. Paul's approach to the weak and the strong in 1 Corinthians 8

"Now, about food sacrificed to idols. We know that we all possess knowledge, but knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know, but whoever loves God is known by God."

"So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols." Do you hear what Paul has done here? He wants to talk about food that has been sacrificed to idols, and he begins by saying, "Now, we know quite a lot about this," but before he actually gets to his subject he backs off just a little bit and says, "Knowledge is important, I'm going to deal with that, but knowledge regularly has the effect of generating inflated egos. It puffs people up. Anything I'm going to say about what we know and don't know, and who knows it and doesn't know it, needs to be put under an even bigger banner of how we love." And then he comes back to the subject again, "Well then, about eating food sacrificed to idols. We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world."

Now, we heard from Tim Keller on the first day of this conference [Gospel Coalition 2009] that there's a kind of tension in the Bible. On the one hand, idols are dismissed, they're nothing, they're not real gods. You don't have to be afraid of them. This is one of those passages—an idol is nothing, you don't have to be afraid of an idol. Yet, by chapter 10 in the same book, the apostle Paul will warn you against participating in idol worship. You cannot be compromised in this way. You may be involved in the actual worship of demons. So before we have too much flexibility, behind this idolatry we'd better see that there's something deeper that may be going on.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols. Here it is not actually participating in the worship service in one of the pagan temples in Corinth. Rather, there were guilds—we would call them unions today—for all kinds of disciplines and skills and so forth. Butchers had their unions, coppersmiths had their unions, and they all had patron deities. Some of them worked out of the backside of a temple, so as a result, some of the meat offered in pagan worship in the temple was then butchered properly outside afterwards and sold. It was food that had been sacrificed to idols. Do you eat it or not? What Paul says is we know that an idol is nothing at all in the world; there is no god but one. But even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live, and there is but one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone possesses this knowledge.

Now, in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, he responds in the first four chapters to reports that come from Chloe's household, and he's pretty direct. In chapter 5 and 6, he's responding to some further reports. And then at the beginning of chapter 7, he says, "Now for the things you wrote about." So there's a letter that's come through in some way too. And as he handles the things in that letter, you begin to perceive that most of the topics he handles in that letter reflect a divided church. As a result, he has a kind of "yes, but" form of argument, because he turns to one group in the church and he says, "Yes, you're right, but," and then he turns to the other group in the church and says, "You're right too, but …" "Yes, yes, I thank God I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I'd rather speak five words to communicate intelligibly than 10,000 words in a tongue." Here, "Yes, yes, we all have knowledge. An idol is nothing; by all means, eat the meat, but …"

So this "yes, but" argument constrains a lot of his argumentation from chapter 7 on. There is one remarkable exception when he comes to the Lord's supper in chapter 11, and he says, "Now, in the following matters, I have no praise for you." It's all "but"; there's no "yes." But at this point he's still giving the balance, because he is not only trying to articulate the truth, he's trying to bring the warring sides together. Pastorally, it is wonderfully wise and shrewd, trying to get the different sides to see that there are absolutizing insights that have some partial validity, but cannot claim the exclusiveness that each side is mandating. So now, why does he introduce this "but": "But not everyone possesses this knowledge"?

From the first part, you would infer that you could eat this meat offered to idols. "Now, not all have knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god. And since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we're no worse if we do not eat it, no better if we do. It's not the idol meat itself that is the issue," he says. The issue is, how do you preserve the integrity of the individual conscience? He says, "Be careful that the exercise of your rights"—that is your rights to exercise this freedom from the fear of idols, so that you can eat this meat that has been offered to idols. You have a perfect right to do so as a Christian; now you know there is but one God; this meat is not affected.

"Be careful that the exercise of this right does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience"—that's what "weak" means here: someone who has sensitivities to right and wrong even though in the issue itself it's not a matter of right and wrong, somebody who has sensitivities and thinks that something is wrong even though it's not. That's what makes it a weak conscience. "If someone with a weak conscience sees you with all of your knowledge"—you're a mature Christian. "Eating in an idol's temple," they say, "Huh, well, Pastor Blog said, you know, he's been a Christian a long time, he's my pastor, and he eats this food, so I guess I can too."

But deep down—he just got converted out of paganism—deep down he's got sensitivities in this area. Deep down he still thinks that he shouldn't do this. He's somehow betraying Jesus. He's somehow letting down the side. But emboldened by you, he goes ahead and eats it anyway. Result? He's hardened his conscience. The conscience function is now not functioning so well. Isn't it remarkable that Paul does not want you to harm your conscience even if your conscience is so weak it is ill-informed about what is right and wrong? So this weak brother or sister for whom Christ died is destroyed. That is, he's learned now to harden his conscience, and if he learns to harden his conscience in this domain, he may harden his conscience in other domains until he no longer is listening to the sweet whisper of the Spirit saying, "Don't do that. Don't do that."

Now, you can argue, rightly, that on this issue he's still not very well formed, and no doubt in the long haul part of Pastor Blog's job is to reform his conscience in the light of God's Word. That's also true. But meanwhile, while he still thinks something is wrong, even though Paul openly says it's not wrong in and of itself, mature Christians should not be leading that person astray. That's remarkable.

Now, this passage is often abused in some conservative circles. It's less so today than thirty years ago, but today still in some circles, some will say, "I don't think you should drink any alcohol, and if you do, you will be offending me, so 1 Corinthians 8 says you mustn't do it because you would be offending me." Now, most of the people who have said things like that to me really don't have weak consciences; they're control freaks. They're legalists in the worst possible sense. And so I inevitably say in that case, "Do you think that no Christian can drink? That a person who drinks is not a Christian or can't be a Christian? Do you think it's essential to be a teetotaler to be a Christian?" And if they say yes, I say, "Pass the port."

And I'm not being a smart alec, because the Word of God will not allow anyone or anything to jeopardize the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus. It's not Jesus plus being a teetotaler. Now, in fact in this country, I wander around as a teetotaler. When I go to France, I'm not promising anything, but in this country—in this country—I'm a teetotaler. Unless somebody tells me I must not drink or I cannot be a Christian, and then I will gladly have some Beaujolais. You cannot jeopardize the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus.

So this passage is not talking about people with a legalistic frame of reference; it's talking about people with a weak conscience. People whom you could lead astray. People whose sensitive conscience—because it's still not well-formed, not well-instructed—could in fact be hurt by your example. And at that point, what does Paul say? "If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall in sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall." So here is the self-abnegation of a right, out of love and concern for the brother or sister in Christ. That's what's going on in chapter 8.

2. Paul's approach to his own rights in 1 Corinthians 9

chapter 9 is Paul's approach, then, to his own rights. He generalized at this point. He starts talking about the rights that are actually his as an apostle in order to show how it has been a pattern of his life not to live on his rights, not to stand on his rights, but cheerfully to give up his rights for the gospel. "Am I not free?" Well, free to do what? He's going to tell us. "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?"

Now, he asks these rhetorical questions in part because the word apostle in the first century was not a technical term that always had exactly the same significance. In two or three passages, apostle simply means a messenger, that's all. In Acts chapter 1, an apostle has to be one of the twelve or someone who stands in for the twelve, like Matthias, and one of the conditions there is that that person has actually seen Jesus and gone in and out with him and followed him as a disciple, all during the days of Jesus' ministry. The number twelve is symbol-laden. Judas must be replaced, and he must be replaced by someone who's gone in and out with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. Paul is not qualified. In that sense, Paul can't be an apostle.

So what does Paul mean by an apostle? Well, first of all, he says, "Haven't I seen Jesus our Lord?" He means after the resurrection. Well, that limits the number already to about 500. In this sense, you can't have an apostle today. The resurrected Lord has not appeared recently, not in the actual physical presence in which he was displayed in glory on the Damascus road. Visions, no doubt, and so on, but the Damascus road was not just a visionary experience that was private, because others all around did see the light. Even if they didn't catch everything that was going on or hear the words, there was something real that actually happened in space/time history. But Jesus is gone now. He's not coming back until the end. In this sense, there are only 500 or so potential apostles.

And then it gets narrower. He got his actual commission from Jesus. "Are you not also the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others"—some others might write me off. "Surely I am to you." God-empowered ministry, out of Christ-directed mandate, from the resurrected King—that's what I mean by an apostle, he says. You are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

"Now, granted that I'm an apostle in that sense, don't I have some rights? This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don't we have the right to food and drink, that is, to be supported, so that all my expenses are paid? Don't I have that right? Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us? I mean, the rest of them do: the other apostles, the Lord's brother, Cephas." Apparently, when these apostles traveled, they didn't go around as Lone Rangers. They brought their families. It's wonderful to think about, isn't it? "Or must I be the only celibate one? And Barnabas, he comes along too, and he's not married. Am I not allowed to be married? Is it only I and Barnabas who don't have the right not to work for a living?"

Because Paul's relationships with his churches in this regard were actually quite complicated, not to put it too simplistically, by and large he refused to take any money from the church center where he was actually serving. There are one or two exceptions, but that was basically his approach. In any place where he was serving, he was planting a church, he was preaching Jesus, he was calling men and women to him, and he wanted to show them what grace looked like. He didn't want to get paid for it. Especially in an environment where you tended to pay really gifted teachers a lot of money. He didn't want to give the impression that he was being paid for services rendered. What he would do on occasion would be to accept money from an earlier church, like the church in Philippi. Then he was not being paid for services rendered, he was being supported for the work of the ministry so that he could plunge more fully into the local ministry without being distracted by his obligations as a leather worker.

And then some examples are thrown in: Who serves as a soldier at his own expense, who plants a vineyard, and so on. Even the law says the same thing. It is written in the law of Moses, "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain."

I have read some scholars on this point who say, "Isn't Paul distorting the word of God here? He quotes the text, gets it right, and then he says, 'Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn't he?' But in the Old Testament it is for oxen, so isn't Paul distorting the Word of God?" Well, my first response to that is that it has to be for us in some sense, because oxen can't read. Of course it was written for us. I'm sure the ancient Israelites had some very bright animals, but not that bright. Moreover, what is presupposed by all of this is that even God's concern for the animals sets out a pattern, a social structure, a set of relationships, and God's concern for his creatures includes the oxen and includes you and me too. You have to be a really brilliant scholar to be that thick when it comes to reading some Scriptures. I don't know what else to say. Yes, this was written for us, because we read and we need the principles, because when farmers plow and thresh, they should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.

"But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ." Then he looks to the religious sphere. "Don't you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, those who serve at the altar get what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has actually commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. A worker is worthy of his hire." That's the way it's supposed to work. That's the way the Lord has mandated it. "But I have not used any of these rights."

Then Paul says one of the most stunning things about his principle of self-sacrifice I know of anywhere in his writing. Shames me every time I read it. Listen to what he says: "I'm not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me." You know, there are some missionary letters like that once in a while. They describe sacrifice and all that, but you can tell they're written in the hope that the needs are met. "No, I'm not doing that. I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast." That is, this boast that I voluntarily do not use my rights.

Now, why is that so important to him? "For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel." This may be even more than what Jeremiah says about the fire in his bones. Jeremiah wanted to quit, but the fire burned and he couldn't. But this may be even more than that. This may be an allusion to the Damascus road. In Paul's mind, his conversion and his call to preach are so much tied up that he cannot separate them. For some of us, we get converted and then we go for years and years and years and study nuclear chemistry or run a warehouse or whatever, and then somewhere along the line the call of God comes in our lives. And so the two are not tied up intimately and integrally in our imagination. But Paul was converted and was called in one shot. And now he feels the compulsion of preaching the gospel not only in the sense that Jeremiah does, but in the sense that it's bound up with his entire conversion. He cannot possibly abstract one from the other. "Woe is me if I don't, I'm damned if I don't. So how do you pat me on the back and say, 'Well done, Paul, you're preaching nicely today. I'm glad you're preaching the gospel. You get some rewards for that.'" He feels utterly constrained. He doesn't even have a choice.

So how does he demonstrate that, despite this degree of compulsion, he's in it all the way. This is his heart. This is where he really is. How does he demonstrate that? He tells us. "Listen," he says, "when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel. If I preach voluntarily, if I had said, 'Here, my Lord, send me,'" like Isaiah, although Isaiah was sort of compelled morally by the sheer grandeur of the vision. But Paul doesn't let himself have an easy out like that. He says, "In one sense I didn't volunteer. The Lord appeared to me. He captured me, he saved me, he mandated my apostolic ministry. He demanded that I go to the Gentiles, that I would suffer many things, all in one shot. I'm an unprofitable servant, and I'm damned if I don't do it. If I preach voluntarily I have a reward, if nonvoluntarily I'm simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Is there any point in my ministry where I can say, 'Lord, I'm really offering something to you freely, because I want to do this? It's not just that you've compelled me, it's not just that this fire is in my bones, it's not just that I have white-hot flame. I love to do this. I want to do this.' I'll show you how I do it," he says. "That in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge."

Isn't that spectacular? By not using his rights, by giving up his rights, whether in the relatively minor matter of food offered to idols, or as a whole principle of life, not using his rights, anything, if only to promote the gospel more effectively, he can show that he's in it with his whole heart and will, one hundred percent. "I'd like a reward for that, Lord." That's what he says.

Why Paul Has to Flex

And now we come to our text. In verses 19-23, Paul tells us that in preaching the gospel he has to flex. He has to become a Jew, he has to become like someone who is under the law, even though he's not under the law, and so on. He has to flex. Why?

1. He does not belong to any of these categories

Paul has to flex because he does not belong to any of these categories anymore. There are some contexts in which Paul can still think of himself as a Jew. Thus, for example, in Romans 9 and 10, he could wish himself accursed for his kinsmen according to the flesh—the Jews. He sometimes makes distinctions in Galatians between Jewish Christians and other Christians, and he uses the first person singular or the first person plural to designate his associations. In certain contexts, Paul knows full well that at the end of the day, racially, ethnically, he's a Jew. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 11, he can talk about the fact that he's not just Jewish ethnically, he's not just a child of Israel, but he's a Hebrew of the Hebrews. He was linguistically and culturally formed by this heritage as well.

So there are many contexts in which Paul is grateful for this heritage, and he identifies with it, but here he says, "To the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews." He assumes that he isn't one. In what sense is he not one? That's why he gives a further definition in the next line: "To those under the law." Now, that includes Jews but would also include proselytes. But this is the sense in which he is no longer a Jew: "To those under the law, I became like one under the law, though I myself am not under the law." What he means is, he's no longer under the law covenant. He's not introducing complex theories about the exact place of moral law. He's not under the law covenant. He's a Christian. He's under the New Covenant. Yes, I know that raises all kinds of complex questions about continuity and discontinuity, but he says that about as baldly as he can get. "I am not under the law. In that sense I am not a Jew, so that when I start evangelizing in Jewish circles, then I have to start acting like a Jew."

So he goes up to Jerusalem, and some of the authorities say, "You know, it would be a really good thing if you took on a vow connected with the temple." And he does. He's prepared to flex. That's what he's prepared to do with Timothy. "I want him to come with me. Everybody knows he's a half-breed. He was never 'done.' It's common knowledge in the village. Better get him done so he can come with me." So he gets done. Paul is prepared to flex like that. He's not going to say, "No way should any Gentile ever become circumcised."

For the sake of evangelism, he's prepared to become like a Jew, but if somebody in Jerusalem says Titus has to become circumcised in order to become a Christian, then Paul will say, "Absolutely no way." That jeopardizes the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus. You don't do that. So it's not the act by itself that is so significant. In that sense it's a bit like the meat issue. It's not the act in itself that is so significant; it's the connections. The connection with a weak conscience or the connection with whether or not it is jeopardizing the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus.

Under this connection, then, Paul does not see himself as a Jew. In fact, he's going to go on and say he doesn't quite see himself as a Gentile either. He is in what the theologians have long called the tertium quid. (Whenever you get stuck, quote Latin.) The third position. He's in the third position. He's not a Jewish Christian who has to flex when he begins to evangelize in Gentile circles. He's a Christian person who has to flex when he evangelizes Jews, and he has to flex when he evangelizes those who don't have the law. The point is that Paul has to flex precisely because he does not belong to any of these categories.

Now, the next one is still hard to understand. "To the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews." We can understand that. He goes kosher for a while when he's in the right circles, because he's trying to show them his freedom in Christ even in that regard. "To those under the law I became like one under the law, though I keep insisting I am not under that law covenant, so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law, now Gentiles, I became like one not having the law." I have pondered that statement again and again and again. I'm not sure I have it right even now, because if he's not under the law covenant, what precisely does he have to do to flex to those who don't have any law? What does it mean to flex in that regard? He's already there, isn't he? Well, no. He does have a parenthetical expression that helps us. He says, "To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law)."

Whoa, what a minute. You just said you were free from God's law. Well, he explains: "I am not free from God's law in some sweeping sense. I am rather under Christ's law." That is, he is under this New Covenant, this mandate from God that has been mediated through Christ. That will raise all the questions about how you have continuity and discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New.

But what does he mean when he says, then, "Though I am not lawless, I am not antinomian, I am not utterly open to anything that comes along. I am, rather, under Christ's law. I am under his lordship. All that the New Covenant—of which Jesus Christ is the head, secured by his own blood—everything that he demands in the structure of the New Covenant, I am under that. I can't escape that."

But then what does it mean to say that he flexes to those who are under the law? Because after all, he can't escape what it means to be under Christ's law. What does it mean to flex?

I think what it means is established in the next line. Just as what it means to be a Jew is established more clearly by saying that they're under the law, and Paul himself is not under the law, so what it means in this context to be free from the law is established by the next line: "To the weak I became weak to win the weak."

Now, he cannot mean, by weak here, exactly what he means in chapters 8. He cannot, because those in chapters 8 clearly are Christians. They're baby Christians, they're Christians with an ill-informed conscience, but they're Christians. Here, however, he speaks of the weak whom he wants to win, so they're non-Christians. But if the context and the flow make any difference, you have to understand that these weak ones are weak in the same sense that they're weak in chapters 8. They are probably Gentiles who have gotten close enough to Christianity that they've got some real problems with idolatry now, like a lot of God-fearers in the synagogues. The synagogues attracted some who became full-orbed Jews. The men were circumcised. They became proselytes.

But the synagogues also attracted in the ancient world some pagans who came to the end of paganism. They didn't like the immorality of the gods. They liked the vision of holiness that seemed to be pushed by Judaism, and they became God-fearers. They had a conscience about some of these things. Now, they learned their Old Testament. They were Gentiles. They had not become Jews, but they still had a weak conscience. I think those are the people Paul has in mind. That is, they're Gentiles, they don't have the Old Testament law, but they have a weak conscience. And Paul says he'll flex to win them too. He won't eat this meat. He won't do things that betray their troubled conscience. So long as he can remain within all the mandates of what it means to say, "I am a Christian. I am in the tertium quid; I am in the third position. I am under Christ's law. There I will not bend. But apart from that, I'll flex, precisely that I may win people to Christ."

So Paul has to flex because he does not belong to any of these categories.

2. He wants to win people in all of these categories

Paul has to flex because he wants to win people in all of these categories. That's what he says in verse 22: "To the weak I became weak to win the weak. I have become all things to all people that by all possible means I might save some." Now, get this. This is the important bit. If Paul is in this third position, then as a Christian, he is trying to win these non-Christians on his right and left, if you like, to become Christians like him. If he wants them to become Christians like him, he does not wish to leave them where they are. He's in, himself, a third position. He's a Christian. He's under the New Covenant.

He's not saying, "I go to the Jews, and I eat kosher so that I can form a nice kosher Messianic community where they still believe that you have to eat kosher in order to accept Jesus the Messiah. And then I come over here to the weak Gentiles, and I don't eat over there, and I'm very careful not to offend their sensibilities—they've got a weak conscience—so that I can win them to Jesus. And they can remain where they are, and they can form a kind of neo-pagan Christian society, Messianic paganism, perhaps." He's not saying that, because he wants to win them.

He wants to win them out of where they are to where he is, in the third position, the Christian position, where you have freedom. And that means that if they become Christians as Paul is a Christian, then they will have to learn to flex to reach their own people. If they really become Christians, they're going to have to flex now to reach Muslims, because they're Christians. In fact, you might begin to test whether or not a Muslim has really learned something of that flexibility if you send him to go after Hindus.

Thus, if you want to flex to make the gospel a little more flexible and accessible, understandable in some postmodern context—some strong postmodern context, for example, where there may be a really deep suspicion of the possibility of knowing truth that actually conforms to reality (there are softer versions of postmodernism than that, but most of the so-called evangelicals who go into postmodernism seem to me only to know the hard versions)—if you want to go after them, fine, but you've got to understand that to win them you've got to bring them back to being a Christian, such that you then have to flex to go after one or the other. You have to flex to go after modernists. Modernists are full of themselves. They're full of their own absolutes—that's true in some profound sense—but postmoderns are full of themselves too. There are idols everywhere.

That is where the mistake of C5 is so desperately profound. It doesn't recognize that there are idols in every culture. It's not just in the Muslim world that there are idols; there are idols in the West, there are idols in India, there are idols in South America, there are idols everywhere. And all of us, to become Christians, must leave those idols behind and come under the New Covenant.

And then there may be some flexibility in which we engage to go after these people, but the aim is not to leave them as C5. Christ-centered community number 5? How is it a Christ-centered community anymore? It isn't Christ-centered; it's basically a Muslim community with a little bit of Christian gloss. The whole point is to get them into the third position, the Christian position, from which they then may speak intelligently of flexing—not escaping the mandate of what it means to be under the law to Christ—in order to win their particular communities. That's what Paul is talking about here.

In other words, Paul has to flex because he wants to win people in all of these categories.

3. He wants to participate in the gospel category

Finally, Paul has to flex because he wants to participate in the gospel category. Verse 23—most of our English versions, including the ESV and the TNIV and the NIV, render it something like this, with a word or two different: "I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." That's coherent. It means that Paul is saying he promotes the gospel with intelligence and fervor and passion, precisely as an apostle of the gospel, for that is part of his calling, and he thus by God's grace enters into all of the eschatological blessings on the last day. He enters in as well as he brings others with him, since he has been called in his own salvation and in his mandate as an apostle to preach the Word. "I want to share in this gospel blessing." And it's possible it means that.

But the original is a bit more ambiguous. It is literally, "That I may be a participant in it." That is to say, "I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may be a participant in it." That's what it says. In other words, the gospel in its core is about the one who identified with others for their salvation. That's what the gospel is about. He was God's own agent in creation, one with God from eternity, with the Father loving the Son perfectly, the Son loving the Father perfectly, in spectacular glory before anything was, utterly content, utterly holy. In this fallen, broken, damned world, he becomes a human being. He identifies with us. And then he stands in the line of sinners to be baptized by John the Baptist. The whole New Testament testifies that he was without sin, but he identifies with sinners. It's part of the whole pattern of how he's identifying with sinners.

He identifies with Israel. He repeats some of their experiences: abandonment in the desert, temptation to trust something other than the Word of God. We read the temptation narratives, picturing again the experience of Israel. He identifies with Israel. He identifies with sinners so utterly that in the extreme he takes their place. He dies my death, and he rises again, and I have his life. Union with Christ undergirds justification. He comes to me, and he becomes a human being, and my sins are reckoned to him; his righteousness is reckoned to me. How could his identification be any more complete? It is not only personal, it is forensic.

That is what is meant by some passages that we sometimes read only to catch one crucial verse and miss the flow. In Mark 10 and in Matthew 20, James and John, or James and John and the mother, come and ask for special favor when the kingdom dawns: one on your left, one on your right; Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense. Jesus says, "You don't know what you're asking. Can you drink the cup that I'm going to drink," by which he means his impending death. And with astonishing arrogance and ignorance, they say, "We can." You can almost hear Jesus smiling through the pages. He says, "Well, as a matter of fact, you will," because one of them is going to be the first apostolic martyr, and the other one is going to end his days in the back side of Patmos.

So in one sense they are going to share a little bit of his suffering too. And then the other ten find out about this, and they are indignant. "You shouldn't be asking things like this; it's not very godly, you know." Of course, what they really mean is they wish they had got their dibs in first. And that's when Jesus says the rulers of this world lord it over others. That's the way big business is, that's the way political parties are. They all talk of service and so on, but just give them a few years there, and they think the perks are somehow their due. They want the authority. But whoever wants to be first must become servant of all.

And out of this sort of passage, we have picked up expressions like servant leadership. Now, in many uses of servant leadership that I hear, it's all servant and no leadership. It's almost as if the passage is saying something like, "Yeah, yeah, you've heard what it means to be a leader, but I'm telling you, 'Don't be a leader; be a servant.'" That's not what the passage is saying, because Jesus gives himself as the supreme example, and if there is one thing that Jesus does not abandon, it's his authority. How does Matthew's Gospel end? "All authority is given to me in heaven and in earth." Whatever it means for Jesus to become a servant, it does not mean the abandonment of his authority. Rather, so much of the leadership that we exercise is bound up with our own egos, with our own desire for self-promotion, for control, for manipulation. Whereas Jesus so desires to serve—precisely in his leadership—that he dies a ransom for the sins of many.

You're so close to the gospel in all of these expressions. This is the gospel.

And now Paul says, "I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may be a participant in it." Not just that I might share its blessings, but that I might do the same thing. That I might be a participant in the way I go about ministry, and in the way I evangelize, and in the way I cherish people, the way I identify with people. That I might be myself a participant in the gospel. Doesn't that principle come through in many, many biblical texts? What does Paul say in Philippians 3? Yes, he wants to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. Amen, period—except the text goes on to say, "And the fellowship of his sufferings." That's what Paul wants. He wants to be a participant in the gospel. It's as if he is saying, "I am not only preaching the gospel, I am living it. I not only want the power of Jesus' resurrection, I want the fellowship of his sufferings. I want to follow Jesus."

So Paul has to flex not only to win some but to participate in his very existence in the gospel—dying to self, taking up his cross, identifying with others—so that in the very style of his ministry and his care for others he is living out the gospel.

In other words, the flexibility and accommodation envisaged in this paragraph are the flexibility and accommodation of the messenger, not the message. Do you hear that? The flexibility and accommodation envisaged in this paragraph are the flexibility and accommodation of the messenger, not the message, and not the convert. He does not want the Jews to remain as they are. He does not want those who don't have the law to remain where they are. Muslim converts would show that they've got this not by remaining indistinguishable from other Muslims, except that they've tacked on a bit of follower-of-Jesus language, but now by identifying with the third position, with the gospel, with Jesus, with the cross. They are Christians, and now they will have to flex to win their own fellow Muslims, or to win Hindus, or to win Westerners. Paul has to flex because he longs to participate in the gospel category.

There are countless applications. Some of them are funny, some of them are practical, and then there are some things that just should not be taken out. Let me dare to mention a couple of applications.

My first internship as a young, would-be pastor was in French Canada with a man named Ernie Keefe. Ernie Keefe had gotten "converted." He was an American originally, moved to Canada, eventually became a Canadian, started learning the language in his mid-twenties. When I went and served with him, he was already about fifty. In those days it was still dangerous to preach the gospel in certain parts. He had an established church, a small church, but we would go to the surrounding small towns, and we'd go door-to-door visiting, try to distribute literature, and so on. We knew then that we couldn't go back there for about three months, because by the next day the locals would have shut the place down, and in fact you'd probably get beaten up and so on. So we'd go to another village, and two or three months later we'd go back and do what we could do. That's the way we did it.

One night we were coming in from one of these villages in the car, and we were chatting along in English. This was an all-French church, but we were talking in English, and he said, "Don, I'm just too tired. I'm going to have to revert to French." You see, he had identified with French Canadians. That's where he lived and moved and had his being. It was now actually easier for him to talk and think in French than in English. It was a small index, but it was the Savior's heart.

That's why J. Hudson Taylor went to China and let his hair grown down in a long braid. It shocked all the Europeans back at home. There are little things, all the time, besides the big ones.

Although I was brought up in French Canada, my parents are both Brits. They were both born in the UK. And the Brits learn that there's supposed to be 36 inches between people when they're having a conversation. It's polite. And then I go to Latin America. Latin America—they learn it's 16 to 18 inches. So I go down there, and I start talking to somebody, and they get a little closer, and I stand back a little more. They get a little closer; I step back a little bit. They get a little closer; I step back. I think they're pushing; they think I'm distant. So I stick my foot out and see what they'll do then. They step on it. There's such little things. And somewhere I've got to change my sensibilities.

I go to Australia. In Australia you cut down the tall poppy. Nobody's supposed to get puffed up, you know. Ten-year-olds in Australia call me Don. Then I go to China. Nobody will ever refer to me in China as anything less than the reverend professor doctor, or something equivalent. In Australia, the sense of humor—well, some of it's self-deprecating, but some of it is gloriously rude. I love it. I think I'm a secret Australian. They sit around and insult each other and then fall off their chairs laughing. It's wonderful. It took me a while the first time I went there to figure that out. They were treating me with such respect, and I was getting more and more embarrassed because they were busy laughing at each other the whole time. Once I began to figure it out, I got really rude, and then they accepted me, and then I got all the insults, and I knew I was in.

Then I go to China. They have a different sense of humor. There's no way I'm going to start insulting some Chinese pastor, and there's no way he's going to start insulting me. You've got to flex on some of these things, don't you? They're just little matters, they're just cultural matters, but isn't it part of loving people for Jesus' sake? So I've got to change. I'm the messenger. I'm not even saying one way is better than another. I'm just saying I've got to change.

But the message doesn't change. And what you're trying to do is to so promote the gospel that when they're converted, they enter the third position. They're Christians. That shapes everything. And that is why we come back to the cross again and again, for here alone is the exclusive sufficiency by which we are justified before God for now and for all eternity, but it also shapes how we conceive that the ministry ought to be. We are called not only to believe in his name but also to suffer for his sake, to be a participant in the gospel.

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway).

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