Before writing this article I asked a few people who wrote these words, “I have become a Jew to the Jews.” Without hesitation each of them had the same answer “Paul.” Then I asked “What else did Paul say in the same passage?” Again each one answered the same: “and a Greek to the Greeks.” Some of them were quite familiar with the passage and were able to complete it by adding: “I have become all things to all men, so that I may save some.” 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23.
For several years I have heard these words attributed to Paul so often that I too was fooled into thinking that Paul said that he became a Greek to the Greeks. This popular misconception has been responsible for many malpractices of missionaries to Muslims. Some have concluded that becoming a Muslim to Muslims is the God given strategy to win Muslims.
A few years ago the international director of a large mission agency told me personally that if he was asked: “Are you a Muslim?” that in good conscience he would say “Yes.”
It is incredible how much confusion there is on the mission field because of the serious misinterpretation and as a result, mis-application of this passage.
Let us examine the text to see for ourselves what Paul wrote. I will then try to apply hermeneutical principles to unearth the intent of Paul, both implicit and explicit in this text.
“1 Corinthians 9:19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
Where in the passage can anyone find the phrase: “Greek to the Greeks?” It is obvious that Paul does not mention the Greeks at all in the quoted passage. When I pointed this out some were quick to say that the meaning is implied in the reference to those who do not have the law. Is it?
The Context of the Text
Contextualists and Insider Movement proponents are desperate to find biblical support for their theories. It is understandable therefore that they find a gold mine in this passage. Rick Love calls it the Magna Carta of Contextualization. Some of them I know personally to be knowledgeable in the scriptures. Yet in their eagerness to prove their position they jump to conclusions too quickly. Admittedly, it is hard not to. Paul seems to provide the perfect formula for dealing with people of other cultures. However, if we were to start from the context of the text rather than a preconceived idea, we will discover a different meaning altogether. This may come as a surprise to many of my readers.
Most people who reference this passage to support contextualization or the Insider Movement have zeroed in on that particular passage on its own without much consideration to its broader context.
Applying hermeneutical principles to this text we find that the part needs to be viewed in light of the whole. The part is the five verses in 1 Corinthians 9:17-23. It cannot and must not be interpreted on it own for it falls in the center of a long discourse encompassing all three chapters, 8,9 and 10. These three chapters are to be taken together as one whole. In fact, even the three chapters are part of a larger whole, namely the life and teachings of Paul in Acts and the epistles.
Just as in a mosaic or puzzle, the parts fit together to make the whole. Paul presents a teaching that includes various arguments and illustrations leading to a conclusion. In the whole (Chapters 8,9 and 10) we also find the background, the bases and the concepts that fit together to form the conclusion of the discourse.
The passage we are dealing with comprises 5 verses out of 73 which is only a small part of the discourse. The interpretation of any word, verse or even all five verses in this passage must agree with and not contradict the major theme or the conclusion.
Can Christians Eat Food presented to Idols?
This in fact is the major theme of the entire discourse. Paul starts chapter 8 with it and ends with it in chapter 10. The church in Corinth had many new believers from pagan backgrounds. Idol worship was part of their culture all of their lives. Some who abandoned idol worship continued to eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. The church had a mixed response to this problem. Those who were grace oriented and emphasized freedom in Christ did not see this practice as a problem. On the other hand there were Jewish background Christians who continued to adhere to the law of Moses. Their orientation toward a stricter lifestyle, and so they were not supportive of the practice. This issue became divisive in the church which necessitated intervention by Paul as the apostle who shepherded that church for 18 months.
The Cultural Issue
Paul understood pagan culture quite well. Corinth was one of the most advanced cities in ancient Greece. The predominant culture was pagan though there was a small community composed of the exiled Jews from Rome. Paul alluded to this cultural aspect in 8:7 “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” The word “accustomed” indicates that it became a habitual cultural practice.
Those who had a weak conscience were caused to stumble by those who were strong. The strong held that idols are nothing and the fact that the meat was sacrificed to idols does not make any difference to them who had solid faith. Paul admonished the strong believers to be sensitive to those with a weak conscience. He argued that these had not completely broken away with the associations from their old religious practices. If a mature Christian begins to exercise his or her freedom in Christ and thinks nothing of meat sacrificed to idols, (we know that an idol is nothing), the weak brother could easily be caused to stumble. The association with idol worship is still there and that can endanger his new Christian walk.
Does this sound like contextualization? Certainly not. This in fact is evidence that Paul’s sensitivity toward the weak is not an attempt to contextualize but rather to decontextualize. His aim is to give them a chance to heal from associating meat with idols.
The Theological Issue
Even though there is a cultural element at work in this problem, the primary undergirding issue is theological. It has to do with the Law of Moses. Paul is pitting legalism against freedom in Christ. He was defending his right to exercise his freedom in Christ. Yet on the other hand he stressed that our freedom needs to be restrained by our love for those who may be caused to stumble by our exercise of freedom. He appeals to love rather than knowledge (8:1,10), sensitivity rather than freedom (8:9) “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
What is Paul really concerned about in Chapter 8? Is he concerned about protecting their cultural practices? Absolutely not. He wanted to do everything in his power to help new converts transition from their old thinking about idols to a new way of thinking and lifestyle. Meat was closely associated with idol worship. If necessary, Paul was willing to give up meat the rest of his life for their sake. “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” (8:13)
Fast forward to Chapter 10 and Paul picks up the same argument again. This time he throws out a huge explosive to the idea that these chapters are about culture. “19 Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.”
Who can question the real intent of Paul’s teaching in these three chapters? To the knowledgeable, idols are nothing but to the pagan they are demonic. You are free to eat meat sacrificed to idols if you do not give it a spiritual value. But you cannot guarantee that new believers are not confused about what they are doing when they eat that same meat. Paul put his foot down and warned: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” 10:21
Here we find the core biblical teaching on culture. At the core, cultural practices are demonic. We cannot separate the secular from the sacred, the cultural from the spiritual.
Paul concludes his discourse with these words: “Everything is permissible” — but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible” — but not everything is constructive.” 10:23.
By this Paul teaches us that our freedom needs to be exercised responsibly toward others who are not yet completely free from their past. Certainly he is not promoting cultural sensitivity but spiritual sensitivity. He is not promoting a contextual approach but its opposite, decontextualization. Paul’s inspired teaching prohibits us from practicing things that we may have the freedom to practice, but for the sake of others we must refrain from practicing.
How does this Apply to Muslim Ministry?
If Greeks coming to Christ struggled with meat sacrificed to idols because it reminded them of the old life, what are some practices that Muslims associate with that could cause them to stumble? I am amazed at those who are so insensitive to the fragile new life of new converts from Islam that they practice the very things that Paul warned us against. If Paul’s message regarding eating meat is clear, why is it not clear that we must keep away from things that could cause a new convert to stumble? These include refraining from reading the Qur’an in the presence of Muslims or new converts from Islam. Going to the Mosque, using Islamic terminology and calligraphy, prostrating to pray, displaying pictures of Mecca among other Islamic symbols; all these bring negative memories and temptations for a new convert who is trying to break away with his past.
Some missionaries feel the freedom to go to the Mosque, read and recite the Qur’an and follow Islamic rituals. One huge issue is participating in Ramadan and other Islamic holidays and feasts. It is not uncommon for some missionaries to even prepare iftar meals (breaking the fast) for their Muslim friends or go to their homes to eat it with them. Paul would plead: Do not practice those things. Do not push them in the face of a weak convert. Your knowledge that these do not matter to you personally must not allow you the freedom to cause your weak brother to stumble. (8:11) You did not grow up with these strong associations. You have no idea of the strongholds associated with these practices.
It is amazing that even though many Christians from Muslim backgrounds object to such practices, some missionaries insist on continuing to practice them. I have seen some converts so hurt and angry that they refused to believe that these missionaries are genuine Christians. Others have been pressured by their missionary leaders to return to Islamic practices, and by this they have nipped their fragile hearts and minds in the bud.
In the next article, I will be analyzing the text of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Stay tuned.