Paul makes a number of evocative statements in today’s reading. He talks about pastoral pay, about voluntary slavery to the church, about his own freedom from the OT law and his subservience to Christ’s law. Each of these needs reflection, but today I want to talk about his famous phrase, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
I have heard this simple phrase used in various ways in ministry, some spurious and some legitimate. I have heard people use this to justify very ungodly behaviors and dangerous connections with very ungodly groups. This is not a good verse to justify a recovering alcoholic regularly visiting a bar, or a youth joining a gang. But I have also heard this verse used by people to push themselves out of their comfort zones and to reprioritize their life. It is a good verse to justify joining a group that will stretch you or seeing the world through another’s eyes.
But Paul makes some startling statements here. “I became a Jew, like one under the OT Law, like one not having the law, and weak.” Who Paul is seems to be determined by who he is with. When we do this, we call it “people-pleasing” and see it as a weakness. So what’s the difference?
For Paul, this is a leadership choice, not a weakness. For us, people-pleasing comes from a fear of criticism, but for Paul, it is a self-sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel. And as we’ve seen, for Paul, and ideally for the rest of us, the gospel must come first, before our reputation (“weak”), before our rights to freedom (“under the law”), and before our legalism (“as one not knowing the law”). We need to be willing to put ourselves behind our passion to see lost people found, infant faith grown, and servants taught and sent into this world.