If I asked you to give me a word that describes your impression of the Apostle Paul, I doubt that “flexibility” would be one of those words.
We generally tend to see Paul as a driven, committed follower of Christ who overcame all obstacles to proclaim the gospel. Dedicated? Yes. Willing to adapt his message to reach others? Yes.
We might consider, however, a memorable passage that Paul writes to the church at Corinth. “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,” Paul began.
He continued, “To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am 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,” Paul concluded (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Paul never wavered from his core understanding of the gospel, but he was willing to change his presentation methods to reach his audience.
This is clearly seen in Acts 17 where he uses (at least) three approaches to share the good news with a pagan culture.
First, after a harrowing visit to Thessalonica, Paul and his team went to Berea and, as was his custom, he spoke in the synagogue.
He found there a more accepting group of Jews who were willing to listen, dialogue and examine the Hebrew Bible – their source of authority – to verify Paul’s claims.
Both Jews and Greeks responded positively to the message.
When people from Thessalonica arrived in Berea to make trouble for Paul, he was spirited off to Athens while Silas and Timothy stayed behind to disciple the new believers.
Paul found himself alone in Athens, no longer a dominant political center, but still important as a place of intellectual and philosophical debate.
Here we see a different approach to sharing the gospel as Paul wandered through the marketplace in Athens.
While there, he commented upon, and probably asked questions about, the various gods whose images adorned the city.
He seems to have been engaging the common people in discussion about the popular culture, a culture overcome with a multitude of gods expressing innumerable human needs and concerns.
Finally, Paul was taken to the Areopagus (Mars Hill) to debate the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers there.
No longer a seat of government, the Areopagus was both a place and a group of people where philosophical debate occurred.
The site had become a place where the intellectuals presented their ideas and defended them. Just to be invited there was an honor.
Paul launched into a long presentation that reflected his Greek education and his knowledge of the culture in which he found himself.
He used various quotes from well-known Greek writers to both challenge his listeners and point them toward the Creator God who had provided a savior for them.
Many doubted but several, including at least one member of the Areopagus, accepted his message.
Paul’s experiences recounted in Acts 17 show not only an ability to be flexible but also a model for Christians in a postmodern society.
Paul used the authority that was appropriate to his audience to introduce the gospel – Scripture, popular culture (or superstition) and philosophy.
Did he change his core beliefs? No, but he used those things that were important to the audience to make a connection, creating a bridge to the gospel.
I believe that our postmodern world is much like the pre-modern world in which Paul preached.
When Christians hear about postmodernism, many are moved to attack the concept and belittle it. Paul is an example of how we should respond to the culture in which we find ourselves.
Do we curse the darkness or light a candle? Paul did not fear the darkness but brought light. He engaged his culture to fulfill his mission.
Christians today should not be afraid to enter into dialogue with the authority structures of the world, but we must do so with intelligence, humility and commitment.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, BarnabasFile, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ircel.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.