In 1 Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul gives an insight into how he approached ministry. After discussing how he related to Jews, gentiles, and those whom society had looked down upon, Paul sums up how he related to each of these groups by saying that he became “all things to all people.”
For the Jewish people, they had the Law. In the early church, there was still some uncertainty over which (if any) aspects of the Law people were required to follow.
Paul was respectful of Jewish customs. He had been born and raised Jewish. And for the sake of building relationships, in certain circles, he would still participate in accordance with various Jewish customs. In Acts 16, Timothy is a young minster who begins doing ministry with Paul. Knowing they would be traveling in heavily Jewish areas, Paul actually has Timothy get circumcised.
All things to all people.
People needed to understand that adherence was not what saved a person. Faith is what saves. But it’s also important to understand that, for Paul, in ministering to Jewish people, the purpose wasn’t to get them to give up every aspect of their former life. Practicing things like circumcision or still eating in accordance with the Jewish dietary restrictions were not things that people needed to give up.
Paul’s purpose was to preach the gospel, the salvation through faith and the work of Jesus at the cross.
From Jews to Hindus
I was at a missions conference a few weeks ago and one of the presenters was talking about barriers missionaries face in evangelizing Hindus in India. India has a billion people, but is only about 2.3% self-identified as Christian. And those numbers haven’t really changed in the past 50 years, in spite of all of the money and missionary efforts in that country.
Part of the challenge is that Hindus who convert to Christianity often times make radical changes. Not simply Spiritually, but external changes: things like changing their names, changing how they dress, essentially separating themselves from anything that has to do with Hinduism.
Many American Christians might think that’s a good thing.
But is it?
Think about it like this: you know someone and they start going to a new church. And then they start dressing differently. And then they tell you they’ve changed their name….would you think “well that’s wonderful.”
Of course not.
You’d think they had just joined a cult!
Coming to faith in the gospel of is always a spiritually transforming event. But depending on a person’s background, it can also be a significant social change as well. There can be stigmas in certain circles. It can be at the expense of relationships. While the gospel is worth whatever the cost, it does not need to be at the cost of lifestyle decisions that aren’t matters of sin. It can be easy to have extra-Biblical expectations of what a real Christian should act like or do. We should encourage and exhort people to turn away from sin, but not from things which are morally neutral, things like style of dress, tattoos, piercings, and smoking.
For the Hindus, with things like the style of dress or their first name, or like the Jews to whom Paul was ministering who still practiced circumcision, these weren’t sin issues. These weren’t things that were inherently wrong for the people to be doing.
While this passage is not an exhaustive manual on how to do ministry, I do think that it is providing an important bedrock example of how we are to spread the good news of the love and forgiveness of Christ in our world.
All things to all people.
We have a God who meets us and loves us where we are. And we are to love other people where they are. It’s not about a person getting things together so that we can find them lovable.
Originally published April 6, 2016
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Josh Benner has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.