Twice in the last month or so I have encountered some pretty egregious stuff that had the Christian label slapped across it.
In one case, it was a church dishing out merchandise, its altar – excuse me, “stage” – decked out like the set of “Wheel of Fortune.” In the other, it was a friend contending that the best-life-now babble of a motivational guru really amounted to nothing less than the teaching of Christ.
In both cases, advocates for these tactics trotted out 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” It’s the kind of bumper-sticker sloganeering that reduces Holy Scripture to a grab-bag of quotable quotes suitable for all occasions.
So just for the fun of it, let me try to set the record straight and delve into just what Paul meant by that “all things” crack.
I begin by granting that the stealth evangelism school has a venerable history. No less an exegete than John Chrysostom argued that “Paul did not become a Jew in reality but only in appearance.” The idea is that the apostle was not above donning a little Hebrew camouflage so as to sneak up on unsuspecting sons of Abraham and bag ’em for Jesus.
David Garland, in his magnificent commentary on 1 Corinthians (in the “Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament” series) argues otherwise. He insists that we read this passage alongside 2 Corinthians 11:24, a verse that nobody quoted to me in defending the above-mentioned practices: “Five times I received from the Jews 39 lashes.”
The idea here is not that some gaggle of enraged rabbis hunted Paul down and honed their skills with a bullwhip in an effort to shut him up. No, it was really quite the other way around. The Mishnah, or compilation of oral tradition built around the Torah, listed 36 sins that warranted excommunication. Blasphemy, the category into which Paul’s preaching would have fallen, made the list.
So when Paul preached Christ crucified and a gentile-friendly salvation, the authorities very properly 86’d him out of the synagogue. The Mishnah did, however, list a form of community service as an alternative to this spiritual death penalty: the culprit could choose to take a flogging.
“If,” explains Garland, “one wanted to stay a member of the Jewish community, one had to submit to its discipline. Paul accepted these penalties to keep open the option of preaching the gospel message in the synagogue.”
So here’s how Paul became “all things to all men.” He showed up at the synagogue and preached a message that was so offensive and so upside-down to every value held by that community that their imaginations left them no option but to blacklist him or beat him.
He took the beat-down, slapped on a little Bactine and headed right back in. He’d flash them his newly reactivated membership card, then preach again the Jesus who outraged every standard their society held dear. And he performed this suicide mission five times.
Now, that’s clearly not the same thing as offering the unsuspecting world a chameleon Christ who blends the wounds of his bloodied body to match the leather upholstery of a shiny new Jag. This bait-and-switch “gospel” seems to work on the same principle as pushers handing out dope at a school playground – we’ll get ’em hooked on the free stuff before we mention the price tag.
And if savvy consumers, upon discovering that the initial windfall was only a promotional gimmick, choose to walk away, whom can we blame but ourselves? We can’t even say that they’ve rejected the gospel because they’ve never heard it – and certainly never seen it.
Paul did not say – and did not imply – that “to the johns I became a prostitute and to the junkies I became as a pusher.” Becoming all things does not mean that anything goes. It means we pay any price to tell a truth so offensive to every standard the world knows anything about that we may leave them no categories by which to understand us.
So that if they ever do understand us, it will be because their categories have undergone a complete change.