For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NASB)
It is easy to read this passage and think that in order to share the gospel with a group of people, believers must somehow mimic some of the behaviors of that target group. In order to share the gospel some might wonder how far one can or must go with the mimicking; is there a point which is too far? Couldn’t someone use mimicking as an excuse to engage in certain activities or to get close to certain people but not primarily to share the gospel message? Mimicking is the most straightforward reading of the passage, but there are situations which may prove challenging for some. For example, personally, because of my own state of sin, when I think of “all men” I also think of Antifa, violent criminals and career politicians. Additionally, alcohol is problematic for me, so, I cannot imagine adopting the habits of people who drink then go to the places where they drink to share the gospel. I do not think I could make that suggestion even implicitly in case a person has a disposition towards addictions. Certainly, one may continue to hold to the well-known interpretation of imitating the behaviors of others and glorify God, however, this article will attempt to offer an alternative approach which might help in our effort to imitate the apostle and strive to be all things to all men.
There are a couple of assumptions which need to be kept in mind. The first is that believers often understand differently what sin is; in other words, what is and is not permissible in the life of faith. While it is not wrong to say that all things are permissible, sin still exists, and people apply scripture in their lives differently. What the correct or incorrect reading of scripture may be is an ongoing debate which will not be resolved in the next few hundred words. We are all coming from different places and backgrounds; what people have been raised to believe as “good and bad” varies greatly. Constant correction of the understandings and behaviors of others from one’s own subjective perspective makes being all things to all men more difficult. Also, because of this diversity in beliefs, the conversation of “how far can one go” becomes tricky with a vague regulatory feel with all of its pitfalls.
The second assumption is that “all men” means everyone. When reading a passage like this, people have a tendency of calling to mind specific types of people while not considering others. This is quite natural but also restricts the scope of the application of their interpretation and any method they develop. In other words, an interpretation which seeks to develop a method to approach a certain kind of person may be inadequate for another group of people. One such example would be the kinds of people we “dislike” and those we attempt to avoid when possible. It should go without saying that personal preferences vary but do not remove the challenge to be all things to all men.
How to be All Things to All Men
It is possible to be all things to all men and not require believers to imitate others. Instead each believer can focus on becoming Christlike by growing in their faith through the increase of knowledge and understanding of the word of God. The passage might not be referring to an imitation of people in the world; after all, we were people of the world until we started to live by faith. Instead believers are trying to imitate, that is, follow the example of Jesus. We become more Christlike when our faith grows. This growth of faith involves more than just knowing more of what is written or having the “definitive/correct” interpretation of scripture. Growth also includes living by those words of life in a consistent manner in all situations. Believers should remember that our comprehension and appreciation of the gospel develops over time and with continued learning. It follows that our behavior will also be transformed with new knowledge and understanding. The more Christlike we are in our thinking and behavior the less we need to first mimic people’s behavior and habits in order to share some good news. In other words, I do not think that the Lord tried to mimic others when he shared a meal with sinners and tax collectors. It is safe to say that he shared the gospel message without condescension or disgust; he shared the gospel message with love with people who were willing to hear it. As we know already, many wanted to at least hear it.
This approach answers the question of how far one must or can go in one’s imitation of others. One does not need to go anywhere or do anything beyond what is necessary to make conversation possible; e.g. learn a language. Instead of putting on a facade, believers must be able to honestly and humbly provide an explanation for their hope in word and in deed. The humility comes in part from the memory of once living in ignorance of the Lord’s love and the joy one felt with rebirth and understanding the will of God. Remembering how we once were, believers can share the gospel as the Lord did, with compassion and mercy rather than with an air of superiority. Believers should live a life that others want to imitate. Because believers live in peace, satisfaction and joy, others should want a piece of that action. It is interesting to see many self-described believers taking on the beliefs of other religions as if to say scripture failed to provide the knowledge and comfort they needed.
Striving to be Christlike means that one does need to “pretend” to be anyone other than oneself. Personally, I tend to adopt many of the behavior ticks and accents of the people with whom I spend a lot of time, but it is not to put people at ease when we are together. I adopt behaviors I like and exhibit them even when I am no longer in the company of those friends. The attempt to mimic behavior to pursue an agenda (even a biblical one) runs the risk of being perceived as disingenuous or dishonest. The danger of misrepresenting oneself is real when trust and transparency are important. Sharing the word of God should not require subterfuge, instead it requires one to be knowledgeable in the gospel. We must keep in mind that it is the message which is most important, and the messenger becomes a living testimony of the life of faith. We should try not to undermine the message we are trying to share by being hypocrites.
With the prescription of mimicry removed, one does not have to put oneself in situations which may become a stumbling block for oneself or others; e.g. my own struggle with alcohol. Instead one can focus on sharing the hope and testimony of the blessed life of faith. For some, what is and what is not a stumbling block is not actually known; this is especially true in unfamiliar situations. Rather than discovering what one’s stumbling block(s) might be, one can focus on how to present the message which would draw people near to hear. Take for example teaching in a diverse state university. In any given class one is speaking to a variety of people with different religious beliefs, morals, cultures and prior knowledge. Creating an atmosphere where ideas can be shared freely is possible but not always easy; in other words, one must be all things to many people at the same time. One cannot also simply address one group while ignoring everyone else in class. I do not think that the classroom situation would be an exception to Paul’s exhortation, nor could the classroom be used as a situation where one could compromise one’s faith. The person speaking to the class is still a child of God. That representation as a child of God should be a kind of invitation to knowledge. This is not to say that all students will become faith-curious. However, one can strive to be a faithful representative of the Kingdom in interesting circumstances simply by being oneself.
Believers often do not choose the people with whom they share the gospel. Personally, opportunities simply present themselves in unexpected situations. I am quite confident to say that no two situations were alike and my ability to answer difficult questions to the satisfaction of the inquirer was sometimes surpassed. The results of the encounters are unknown to me. Even if people were introduced to the gospel through me, I know that the Lord takes it from there. We do what we can with the abilities and opportunities God gives us. Salvation is not by human effort. It is the Lord God who calls people, bestows the gift of faith and helps people to see and hear. We are merely the means through which the Lord brings the message to some. Though we may strive to hone our methods and become gifted speakers, it is still the Lord who does the heavy lifting of salvation.
Thus, we are not selling ourselves, we are representing the message of life. We can share the gospel message if we have the message inside of us. The core of that message is the truth that is Jesus Christ. The truth of God in us is what is perceived and recognized by people when we open our mouths and live out our faith. Though our transmission may be imperfect, the humility of continued growth in faith will help to make our imperfections less of a distraction. The focus is always on the Lord.
The truth of God is absolute. It is life, value and joy for all who are called by God. Again, it is not the messenger, it is not the speaker, it is not the personality, it is not the context or style we decide to employ. Rather, it is the truth upon which we build our lives, which will always be the heart of the matter. Paul was able to become all things to all men because through faith he behaved consistently with his teaching and he knew the truth of God. It was the truth of God in his heart and it was the truth which was seen and heard everywhere Paul went. People called by God will see the truth and recognize it and believe it. It is not necessarily Paul, the man, that people identified with, rather it was with the truth Paul carried in his heart.
I had an experience years ago which made me imagine how this might look to us, today. I was chatting with people to test some of the ideas on racial identity I wanted to use to finish my dissertation. In my conversations, I focused on presenting a clear argument so that the listener could give me feedback on identity construction of a Korean born and raised in America. I spoke to a classmate who was from Germany studying in America. After a few minutes she laughed and said that I thought and spoke more like a German than an American. A few days later I was chatting with a student from Kenya and he remarked that I thought and spoke more like a Kenyan than someone who lived in America. The conversation was repeated with someone from Korea; I spoke more as a Korean who had been born and raised in Korea. Finally, chatting with some Anglo-Americans, they all agreed that I sounded more like someone who was born and raised in the USA. It was unexpected. I had not modified my behavior, content or delivery in any way and yet, different people saw and heard something with which they identified in themselves. I was being me, and they saw themselves. Needless to say, my mind was blown. Perhaps this could be an alternative way to understand the exhortation of Paul to be all things to all men.
This does not mean that everyone will always be willing and eager to hear what one has to say. The apostle wrote that he tried to win “some.” In these confusing days, the challenge to reach some may seem daunting; most people will reject or decline the offer to hear more. Believers may even be hated for the message they carry and the lives they live, but that is part of the life as imitators of Christ. It is a blessing, though often it does not feel that way.
We should not be discouraged for our success or faithfulness is not measured by how many people we have “converted,” as if that could be assessed, anyway. To complete the thought, our success is known when we finish the race having kept the faith and receive our eternal blessing. In the meantime, we should not forget to work on our own personal relationship with the Lord by increasing our understanding of scripture so that we may live by the will of God for his glory, always. Our knowledge of scripture expresses itself through our abilities and talents which also becomes the way to glorify God. Though the Lord will surprise us with situations and people we had previously not imagined or even knew existed, the patience, tolerance and desire for peace in our hearts will guide us through to continue to be all things to all men.