1 Corinthians

Love before freedom. 9:19-23


In chapters 8-10, Paul deals with the issue of eating food associated with idols. He makes the point that although we have found freedom in Christ, we are not free to act in a way that undermines a brother's faith. In chapter 9, Paul illustrates this point by showing that even an apostle will renounce his rights of financial remuneration so as not to undermine the faith of a weaker brother or sister. In our passage for study, Paul develops the principle of becoming all things to all sorts of believers for the purpose of securing their eternal salvation.

The passage

v19. The principle upon which Paul acts is a simple one. For the sake of a brother's eternal salvation, he is willing to put aside his personal privileges, rights etc., even his greatest privilege, his independence. Although Paul is a slave to no men, he is willing to become a salve to a brother struggling with their faith.

v20. With Jewish believers Paul affirms his Jewishness, his submission to the Mosaic law. He does this, even though he now knows that law-obedience is not the way a child of God gains God's good pleasure, his approval, and thus his blessings. Of course, the law was never designed to facilitate the promised blessings of the covenant, but it was commonly believed that it did serve this end. There is no gain for Paul in his submission to Mosaic law, but there is gain for a weaker brother or sister, someone, for example, who still has a deep-seated belief in the existence of pagan gods and of the sin of idolatry. Such a person could easily think they were worshipping another god while eating consecrated food at a pagan feast. Paul is quite willing to abstain, rather than undermine the faith of his weaker brother, and thus secure ("win") the eternal salvation of his legalist brother ("those under the law").

v21. With those not subject to the law of Moses, Paul lives like a person who has little interest in the regulations of the Mosaic law. Paul can live "flexibly" with the Mosaic law since he knows that although it still serves as a guide to the life of faith and a reminder of the need for grace, it can no longer condemn, it can no longer curse us. Those "not under the law" are probably Gentile believers. Paul probably includes in this group the Corinthian libertines, those believers who have found freedom in Christ, but who have forgotten to nurture the fruit of faith, namely, love. Although Paul may, at times, live like a person who has no interest in the law of Moses, that doesn't mean he lives in sin. A believer is subject to Christ, "under legal obligation to Christ", C.K. Barrett. Our legal obligation is one of faith, one of trust in Christ, and it is through faith that we walk by the Spirit rather than gratify the desires of the flesh.

v22. With the "weak" brother, Paul happily becomes "weak". These law-bound believers tend to think that their holiness is progressed by obedience to the law of Moses. With these puritan believers, Paul adjusts to their pietism, rather than allow his freedom to offend and thus undermine their weak faith. Paul is willing to adjust his behavior to secure their eternal standing.

v23. "I do all this for the gospel; I want to play my part in it properly", J.B. Phillips.

Being all things to all men

Some years ago, members of Hare Krishna in Sydney Australia decided to get into politics. Although still with their shaven heads they dispensed with their robes and adopted a three piece suit with blue tie look. They had decided "to become all things to all people", and guess what, it didn't fool anyone!

It is often argued that our passage for study is all about evangelism, becoming all things to all people so that by all means the gospel may be applicable to them. In recent times this argument has been extended to the way we do church. It is argued that the shape of worship must be dictated by the need to attract the unchurched. Church must be accessible, so the argument goes. In many traditional liturgical churches like Lutheran and Anglican, there is a push to replace liturgy and ritual with a club-like entertainment alternative that will somehow attract unbelievers.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to properly identify what Paul really means by becoming "all things to all people." The accessing push for church growth usually involves the implementation of an ideological agenda that overrides the sensibilities of the faithful. Yet, church is not about evangelism; the fellowship exists primarily to meet with Christ, and in response, worship him (worship in the sense of adoration) in praise, thanksgiving, confession, prayer and the hearing of Christ. In fact, it would be true to say that gospel effectiveness is actually undermined when we go down the accessible road. When we think that doing church is about the color of the drum kit in the corner we are in trouble. Once we start dumbing down, as though shape has some gospel importance, we end up doing the very thing Paul is warning us against in this passage. A whole range of people are offended and their simple faith undermined.

Leaving aside the poor pragmatics, sociology and theology of accessible worship, the issue we face in this passage is the claiming of our perceived rights at the expense of our brother's right to salvation. Too often, this passage is interpreted as if Paul would wholeheartedly affirm our following the example of those members of Hare Krishna who dress in suits when evangelizing Westerners. Yet, what Paul is actually encouraging us to do is to set aside our claims when the spiritual sensitivities of our brothers and sisters are in danger of offence. Their ultimate salvation is what matters.


1. Consider the ethical problems behind "I become all things ......" What about integrity in relationships?

2. Give some examples of freedom undermining faith.

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