Paul's Evangelistic Adaptability

January 20th, 2012
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1 Corinthians 9:19-23

In these verses, in which kerdaino appears five times, “winning” or “gaining” people for the gospel is the dominant motif; it is the governing focus of Paul’s life in response to his call. Irony abounds. The one who most exemplifies freedom in Christ and who has no choice but to preach the gospel as he is called to do has freely chosen to enslave himself to all for the sake of the gospel (9:19, 23). As Paul depicts his evangelistic efforts, his voluntary slavery to all involves a fundamental and exemplary accommodation to people as and where he finds them. To Jews, to those “under the law,” Paul became as a Jew, as one under the law, though he is quick to remind his readers that he, the one who advocates living “as if not” (7:29-31), is not under the law–but all of this was for the sole purpose of winning, gaining for the gospel, the ones to whom he accommodates (9:20). The same regards gentiles, whom Paul here calls “those outside the law” and to whom he became as one outside the law–though he assures his readers that he is not outside the law of God but “in the law of Christ,” probably meaning under the rule of Christ–to win them. His readers, mostly gentiles, will surely recognize what he here so pithily describes and will no doubt positively identify with him and with their experience of the gospel through him. That identification sets them up rhetorically for the next statement: “I became to the weak as a weak person, so that I might win the weak” (9:22).

As surely as Paul has made common cause with all the Corinthian believers, his explicit identification with the weak must be startling to those who imagine themselves as strong, not weak. In 9:22, Paul’s voluntary identification with the weak must remind the readers of his urging them only a chapter earlier (8:10-12) to recognize that some weaker brothers and sisters may not be clear about idols and should, accordingly, not be encouraged, built up, beyond their moral consciousness.

Paul’s self-portrait in this digression is complex in proportion to the dilemma he is addressing: On the one hand he pictures himself as superlative in his freedom and in his exousia, his “right” that pertains to his high status as an apostle, and he treats it as if he assumes that they recognize this self-portrait and readily identify with his strength and determination. On the other hand, he paints a picture of himself as a voluntary slave who, for the sake of the gospel, identifies with the weak. (This reference must surely hark back to the persons mentioned in 8:7ff. who do not possess the knowledge that idols have no real existence and that there is only one God.) Paul, the exemplary strong, the free person, stands in an imitable way with the weak in the gospel, on account of the gospel, as a requirement of the gospel. As he does, so should every believer.

Then in the formulation–the first part of which most modern people know even if they do not know that Paul is the source of it–“I have become all things to all people in order by all means [or “at least”] to save some” (9:22b)–Paul tries to capture his principle of accommodation that he believes so fundamental to life lived in the gospel. His is compressed language, squeezing much into few words. Paul knows that it is not he who saves, but God. Similarly, Paul does not see in this evangelistic accommodation a loss of identity of himself or of the gospel. Intrinsic to it, however, is a fundamental principle that Paul has seized upon and that informs his entire ministry: The gospel, the power of God, always encounters and engages people where they are, where they live, in their social matrix. Inevitably, the gospel moves them and changes them, but it always comes to them, engages them, and nourishes them from that very point, as and where they are. For the concern at hand–the divisiveness of the community and the independent arrogance of some of the believers–Paul’s self-portrait as one who accommodates to others, even to the weak, invites his hearers, who readily enough identify with Paul as free person, to identify with him also as voluntary servant who accommodates to the weak and to their needs for the sake of the gospel.

This article has been adapted from The New Interpreter's® Bible, a commentary in twelve volumes. The complete digital NIB® is included with a subscription to Ministry Matters.

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