"All Things to All Men"

A Scriptural Look at Modern Evangelism Techniques in Light of First Corinthians Chapter Nine
by Matt D. Costella
©FOUNDATION Magazine, Jan-Feb 1999

The Book of First Corinthians provides a wealth of information as to the message and doctrine of the apostle Paul and reveals many facts regarding his personal life and methods of evangelism. Believers today, and especially church leaders who are called to evangelize the lost and disciple their flocks, can learn much from carefully studying this dynamic book and following the message and method of the apostle Paul. The instruction contained in First Corinthians is vital doctrine for the edification and enlightenment of the entire church, and the Holy Spirit has placed it in the Canon of Scripture for the body of Christ to heed and obey.

The ninth chapter of First Corinthians is a text that many Christian leaders grossly misinterpret and misapply. Those pastors and evangelists who strive solely for church growth or mass evangelism tend to pull certain verses from this chapter out of context in order to support their ungodly methods of church growth or evangelism. Not only do they misunderstand and misapply certain texts from this chapter, but also they neglect to compare Scripture with Scripture to see whether or not their new methods are supported or rejected by other clear passages from the Bible.

The purpose of this study is to carefully and honestly analyze this chapter in order to see how Paul sought to win the lost to Christ and subsequently endeavored to be a godly example of Christian growth to the believers who lived in Corinth. The unscriptural teachings of many leaders today have served as an impetus for this vital study. Therefore, this analysis will continually match up the truths found in First Corinthians nine against the ideas and philosophies of those today who misapply and contradict Paul's teachings in this text. Verses 19-22 contain the crux of the entire chapter while the preceding and succeeding verses shed a contextual light on the true meaning of these verses.

Paul begins this chapter with a discussion concerning his apostleship and the rightful liberties he forsook as an apostle in order to be blameless in the sight of the believers to whom he ministered. He then moves to his role as an evangelist and highlights the methods he used in order to fulfill his God-given responsibility to win the lost for Christ. At the same time, Paul also relates the importance of the centrality of the Gospel message. The facts of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ were to have preeminence in every aspect of Paul's message to the lost and in every aspect of Paul's method in reaching the lost.

Paul Surrendered Some of His Rights as an Apostle

First Corinthians chapter eight primarily concerns the need for the believer to oftentimes sacrifice certain rights in order to refrain from offending a weaker brother in the Lord (1 Cor. 8:13). In chapter nine, Paul told the Corinthian believers that he heeded this principle of self-sacrifice even though he was a bonified apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and possessed many more liberties than those he actually used. Paul's life and ministry revealed the three evidences of true apostleship as found in Scripture:

Certainly Paul had evidenced each requirement in his life and ministry, and he likewise reminded the believers at Corinth that he was most assuredly an apostle of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:1 cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-2). In fact, the Corinthian believers were the "seal" of Paul's apostleship (v. 2). Not only did Paul claim to be an apostle in other epistles (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:1), but Galatians 2:79 proves that he was also recognized as an apostle by Peter, James and John.2

As an apostle, Paul possessed every right to be fully supported by the church. He possessed every right to raise a family like many of the other apostles. He possessed every right to refrain from secular employment and to spend every moment of his time carrying out his ministerial duties. In fact, Paul mentioned that both human logic and the Old Testament teach that the individual who works diligently should be paid accordingly by the one who receives the service (vv. 8-10). According to the New Testament, "Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel" (v. 14). Paul had the right to receive money from the Corinthian church for all that he had accomplished in Corinth. In fact, he said, "If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?" (v. 11). In other words, because Paul had given the church at Corinth spiritual instruction and counsel that were far more valuable than material wealth, it should have been easy for the Corinthian believers to give Paul monetary compensation in exchange for his spiritual counsel.

However, Paul surrendered his right to receive monetary compensation from the Corinthian church for one purpose— to show those at Corinth that he was not ministering unto them in order to receive anything from them. This, in turn, showed Paul's selfless attitude and was a demonstration of his teaching that believers needed to be servants to all those with whom they came in contact. Paul also mentioned this same principle in First Thessalonians 2:9 where he said he worked diligently night and day so that believers at the church of Thessalonica would not be burdened by his financial needs.

The basic idea here is twofold: First, Paul sacrificed his apostolic rights in order to prove that he was not working with the believers at Corinth in order to gain financial remuneration from them, and second, he sacrificed his apostolic rights in order to provide an example of selflessness and Christian humility to the believers at Corinth. One Bible commentator notes "[Paul's] love for the souls of men, as well as for the Gospel he preached, caused him to refrain from demanding those things which were rightfully his as an apostle."3 Paul had the power to require of the Corinthians the monetary compensation that he and the other apostles deserved. But Paul said, "Nevertheless we have not used this power" (v. 12b). Why did Paul not use this power? "Lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ" (v. 12c). The Gospel of Christ was the foundation of Paul's ministry, and he personally sacrificed his own rights so that no one would be able to hinder or speak evil of the Gospel he preached and loved.

At first glance, it may seem presumptuous to find any method of evangelism from these first fourteen verses, but verse twelve makes it clear that although Paul was sacrificing his apostolic rights for the benefit of the believers at Corinth, his actions also had an impact on the unbeliever's response to the Gospel. Harry A. Ironside paraphrases verse twelve in the following helpful manner: "We prefer to forgo our own rights in order that you may see that our service is an unselfish one and in order that the heathen may not say that we are in the ministry for what we can get out of it."4 The believer today should likewise purpose to be an example to his fellow Christians in order to be noticed and recognized by the unbelievers as well.

After contemplating the first fourteen verses in light of verse twelve, it becomes clear that the believer's behavior and attitude around other believers is in itself a tool of evangelism. Oftentimes, believers tend to make a distinction between their walk and witness before fellow believers and their testimony in front of unbelievers. Many times these believers do not quite demonstrate an attitude of servant hood or selflessness around other Christians when they would intentionally purpose to demonstrate such qualities around unbelievers.

However, these inconsistent attitudes and actions are not scriptural. The apostle Paul was careful to be selfless and humble around believers, not only to be an example to them and instruct them in the right ways of the Lord, but also in order to win unbelievers to Christ. Paul did not act one way around believers and another way around unbelievers, as is so often the case today with many who name the Name of Christ.

Paul Kept the Gospel as the Center of His Method and Message

The remainder of chapter nine emphasizes two great principles that believers must heed in order to have a biblical procedure for evangelism. The first principle is found primarily in verses 15-18. These verses teach that Paul kept the Gospel message of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ as the center of his evangelism method and message.

Paul wrote that he was compelled to preach the Gospel. "Necessity is laid upon me," he said (v. 16). The Gospel was the center of Paul's method and message because he was not ashamed of the Gospel, for he was firmly convicted that It was "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Rom. 1:16). Paul had an "inner compulsion, a divine urgency, to preach the Gospel."5 G. Campbell Morgan notes the centrality of the Gospel in Paul's ministry: "This was a burden upon his heart forevermore, his sense of the deposit committed to him, entrusted to him, and of his consequent responsibility for that deposit."6  In this very chapter the word 'Gospel' occurs nine times. It is running all the way through the Gospel, his sense of the supreme importance of his deposit. There are times, however, in the lives of believers when they feel as though they are weary of proclaiming the Gospel or dissatisfied with their God-ordained responsibility. Paul recognized this and said that whether he felt like it or not, the message of the Gospel was committed to him and he was responsible to proclaim It to the lost. Concerning verse seventeen, Dr. Charles Ryrie says, "Willingly or unwillingly, Paul could not escape his responsibility to preach the Gospel, because a dispensation (stewardship responsibility) had been committed to him, and he was under orders to preach even though he was never paid."7

Believers today, like the apostle, have been entrusted with the message of the cross and are responsible to manage the distribution of that message in a proper manner. Ryrie mentioned that the word "dispensation" means "stewardship responsibility." Therefore, from this It is clear that the Gospel which has been committed to the believer is not his own message. The message belongs to Christ, and therefore, all instructions concerning the message itself and the distribution of the message must come from God, not the philosophies or novel ideas of men. Believers must be aware of two principles: First, the message must be correct and accurate. Second, the message must be the center of attention. Many religious leaders today tend to forsake both principles. They fail to provide an accurate message, and they fail to make the message the center of their evangelistic activity. Many pastors, evangelists and church growth experts believe it is possible to reach more people when they compromise the message or use techniques and programs modeled after the world. But subsequently, the worldly methods and attractions become the center of attention while the Gospel message is relegated to a place of lesser importance and visibility.

First Corinthians chapter nine provides a clear illustration that the Gospel was the center of Paul's message, and his method for proclaiming the Gospel never compromised the message. First, Paul taught that the believer must surrender his liberty and make himself a servant to other believers in order to further the Gospel. Second, Paul instructed that the Gospel must be the center of the believer's message and method. In light of these two principles, it is obvious that the believer should surrender his rights for the sake of the Gospel, but he must never surrender the Gospel message for the sake of anything. Morgan accurately summarizes this observation as follows:

What [Paul] was not going to give up were his rights in the Gospel. He could give up his rights of maintenance, but not in the Gospel. That is what he now argues at length. He said, "Necessity is laid upon me, constraint, something from which there is no escape... I can do without your material gifts. I am willing to waive my right there, but not in the necessity that is laid upon me."8

The second principle of the latter part of this chapter will now be examined. It is this second principle that many pastors and evangelists today so often abuse and misapply.

Paul Surrendered Some of His Rights as a Christian

Not only must the believer humble himself as a servant to fellow Christians and maintain the centrality of the Gospel in his message and method as he evangelizes the lost, but also he must actually surrender some of his rights as a Christian in order to witness to those who are not believers in Christ. This is the final principle in this chapter revealing how the believer today, like the apostle Paul, should pattern his method of evangelism. This principle is primarily found in verses 19-23 and is best summed up by Paul's statement "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."

Alfred Martin introduces this section of Scripture with extremely accurate insight when he says, "This paragraph has been widely misunderstood and misapplied, as though Paul were endorsing partaking of other men's sins in order to make a good impression on them." It is a fact that many leaders of today's megachurch growth movement and many leaders of parachurch evangelistic organizations use this portion of Scripture to support their philosophy that "One must become like the unsaved in order to reach the unsaved for Christ."9 However, Martin emphasizes that instead of embracing this attitude, "Paul was saying that he had tried to work with people on their own level and to give as little offense as possible in order to procure a hearing for the Gospel."10 Paul certainly did not become a law unto himself, nor did he pretend to act or live like the unsaved in an effort to evangelize them. The issue here concerns the amount of offence inflicted upon those who know not Christ.

The late Dr. Charles R. Erdman, professor of practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary at the turn of the century, also refutes the evangelism philosophies of modern day pastors, evangelists and church growth experts in his exposition of First Corinthians. Apparently, even in Erdman's day, Christian leaders were quoting the apostle Paul's statement "I am become all things to all men" and using such scripture to support their questionable evangelism techniques. Erdman says, "By this phrase Paul means exactly the opposite of what it means in common speech today. He does not signify any weak compliance with the wrong actions and immoral practices of others. He is not approving the maxim: 'When in Rome do as the Romans do.'"11 No, Paul knew that to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God. He knew that God is holy, His Word is holy and that all believers are to be holy and separated from the world unto the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The philosophy of many religious leaders is that the believer must use the music of the world, the dress of the world, the language of the world or the entertainment of the world to reach the world for Christ. Yet this philosophy of evangelism is completely contrary to Scripture and cannot be supported by Scripture, especially by First Corinthians chapter nine.

Several points must be noticed within the context of this chapter concerning Paul's method for evangelism. First, Paul gave up his rights when it was necessary in order to proclaim the Gospel to the lost. He never gave himself additional rights to act like the world or partake of the pleasures of the world for the sake of the Gospel. Those who teach that a believer has the right to use the world and act like the world for the sake of evangelism completely misunderstand Paul's purpose and method. Paul said he "made [himself] servant unto all, that [he] might gain the more" (v. 19) and then explained how he did this in the next few verses. To the Jews, he became "as a Jew." When Paul was in the company of Jews, he refrained from doing anything that would offend them, even though he had the liberty to do those things. Gromacki mentions that "[Paul] did not alter his message or his morals. He was both firm and flexible at the same time."12 Again, Martin says, "It is as though Paul were admonishing that if you want to give a testimony for Christ to an orthodox Jew, you don't begin by serving him ham for dinner."13

The second point to notice is that Paul did not compromise his fidelity to God and His Word in order to win those "without law," that is, the Gentiles to whom he witnessed. Just as Paul sacrificed some of his liberties and became a servant of the Jew in order to win the Jew to Christ, Paul sacrificed other liberties in order to win the Gentiles to Christ. However, Paul did not sin in order to reach the sinner! Verse 21 explains this by saying that even though he became a Gentile to the Gentiles, he was not "without law to God, but under the law to Christ." This point completely contradicts the philosophy that believers must live like the unsaved or use those things which attract the unsaved in order to win them to Christ. No, the method of evangelism in this text fits within the context of the chapter and ties the need for humility, sensitivity and servitude together with God's command to reach both the Jew and the Gentile with the good news of the Gospel message.

Paul was sensitive to the culture and community of those to whom he ministered, and he even forsook his Christian liberties in order to more clearly and effectively communicate the Gospel. This is the underlying principle of verses 19-23. Many other portions of Scripture clearly instruct the believer to be holy, even as Christ is holy, and to separate from the lifestyle of those who know not Christ. The believer is never instructed anywhere in Scripture to be like the world or to conform to the world, even if it is for a good purpose (such as evangelism). In Isaiah 55:8, God says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD." From this text it becomes evident that while man might take a pragmatic approach to evangelism, God requires fidelity to His Word whether or not man thinks God's way is effective. Compromising the message of the Gospel and the method of reaching the lost may amass great numbers of people who make professions of faith, but God judges man's results solely by whether or not he has been a good steward of the Gospel message-and this includes whether or not he has accomplished God's work according to the dictates of God's Word. The world praises "results," but the Lord desires obedience (1 Sam. 15:22).

So from First Corinthians chapter nine, the believer is instructed to win the lost to Christ by following Paul's example and obeying the Word of the Lord. A biblical method for evangelism is to be accomplished in three distinct ways: First, by being a servant to the saved and sacrificing some liberties so as to not hinder the Gospel; second, by keeping the Gospel at the center of the message to the lost and at the center of the method for evangelism; and third, by being a servant to the lost and being sensitive to their needs in order to more effectively win them to Christ.

The believer will be rewarded one day for his faithfulness. God knows who is proclaiming His Message according to His Word, and He will reward those who diligently seek to honor and obey Him in all things.

Endnotes

1. Charles Hodge, An Exposition of First and Second Corinthians (Wilmington: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1972), 91.
2. Robert G. Gromacki, Called to be Saints (Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 1977), 108.
3. Paul R. Van Gorder, The Church Stands Corrected (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1976), 79.
4. Harry A. Ironside, First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York,: Loizeaux Brothers, 1962), 254-255.
5. Manford George Gutzke, Plain Talk on First and Second Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 87.
6. G. Campbell Morgan, The Corinthian Letters of Paul (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1946) 117.
7. Charles C. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible: Expanded Edition. King James Version (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994.) 1737
8. Morgan, p. 118.
9. Alfred Martin, First Corinthians (Neptune: Loiseaux Brothers, 1989), p. 90.
10. Ibid., pp. 90-91.
11. Charles R. Erdman, First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1928), 86.
12. Gromacki, p. 113.
13. Martin, p. 91.

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