1 Corinthians 9:19-23 – Paul Becomes All Things to All People
SummaryPaul states that he has not accepted payment for his ministry so that no obstacle might be put in the way of the gospel. Instead, he has renounced various rights and has become "all things to all people" (1 Corinthians 9:22) so that some might be saved.
AnalysisPaul regularly uses his own experience to help bring a point home to his readers. In the discussion of whether Christians should eat meat that has been part of pagan rituals, Paul argues that the voluntary limitation of one's rights may be called for in cases where eating such meat would cause offense to one's fellow Christian or give the wrong impression (of a Christian honoring the idol) to a non-Christian. In the midst of discussing the topic of idol meat, Paul spends a chapter detailing several "rights" he has as an apostle yet which he has not exercised: the right to have a wife, for example, and the right to be paid for his work in the church. He argues that he has practiced this self-restraint so that no one will be able to imply that he is more interested in payment for his work than he is in the work itself. (Paul's general trustworthiness will surface in 2 Corinthians as a problem between the apostle and his Corinthian congregation.)
In this context of a discussion of rights Paul has refused to exercise, he says, "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22). Some readers wonder whether Paul is not here commending his own lack of integrity as a mission strategy. Yet we know from other things Paul writes that he would reject such a lack of integrity. An example is the irritation Paul reports feeling toward Peter after Peter withdrew from table fellowship with Gentiles in Galatia (see Galatians 2:11-13).
In this passage, Paul is likely using hyperbole to talk about the way he sought to build Christian community across ethnic and class divisions. As he urges the Corinthians voluntarily to restrict their preferences or rights, he uses himself as an example. He has tried to identify with the experience of people different from himself so that he may understand them better and speak the gospel in meaningful ways to all kinds of people.