In Part I, we have established that Paul never said that he was Greek to the Greeks. We demonstrated that the text must be read in its context, which is broader than the chapter and extends to Paul’s entire discourse, encompassing all three chapters of 1 Corinthians 8, 9 and 10. We expounded on the main theme of the discourse, namely the legalism surrounding the eating of meat that was sacrificed to idols. We briefly brushed by the cultural elements of this religious practice and showed how Paul appealed to the Christians to be sensitive to the fragile conscience of new believers from pagan backgrounds. We showed that this in effect is not contextualization but its opposite, decontextualization. The new believers needed to break away with pagan practices from the past. But some Christians who wanted to exercise their freedom in Christ, were causing the weak brother to stumble. In regard to ministry to Muslims, we proposed that Christian workers should heed Paul’s warning by not participating in Islamic festivals and practices to avoid being a stumbling block to new believers lest they return to their former practices.
Finally, I promised to tackle the text of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 in Part II, which I am doing here.
Interpreting 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
This passage is simple, and its meaning is discovered when read in its full context. Yet, a number of missiologists and missionaries have committed grievous errors in interpreting it to mean the direct opposite of what Paul intended it to mean.
Here is the text 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
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.
In Part I we showed that the text needs to be read in its immediate context of the full discourse of Paul in Chapters 8 to 10. Here we will build on that principle of hermeneutics and apply another principle, which is that the text needs to be cross-referenced with other texts that have a direct relationship to the passage or story.
We will look at passages from Acts, Romans, Galatians, as well as various chapters from the two letters to the Corinthians. We shall see that without looking at all these other texts, it is easy to misinterpret our passage.
What did Paul really say?
In chapter 8 Paul established the argument that we must not exercise our freedom or right when we know it may cause a weak brother to stumble. Paul continues to make the same argument in Chapter 9 which opens with the question: “Am I not free?” Paul goes on to argue that indeed we have freedom and the right to practice even those things that pagans practice. But then he points out: “But I have not used any of these rights.” (9:15). Consequently, even if one claims that this applies to Islamic practices, we must refrain from participating with Muslims in their religious practices. The true meaning of the text does not permit us to exercise this freedom, for the sake of our weak brothers who have converted from Islam and have not yet been completely “freed” from their past.
To illustrate his point, Paul reminds the Corinthian church that he had the right to receive financial support from the churches he planted. Yet he did not. “I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast.” (9:15). Paul is adamant about not using our freedom to hurt others. He always wanted to be above reproach and not give anyone a reason to accuse him of serving Christ for financial gain.
“…I became like a Jew…”
The popular misconception is that Paul said he became a Jew to the Jews. Paul said he became “like a Jew.” Is this significant? By all means.
It is well known to students of the Bible that Paul had dual citizenship. In reality, he was both a Jew and a Greek at the same time. So what is this about him saying that he became like a Jew? Is he denying his Jewishness and saying that he is like a Jew but not a true Jew? Certainly not. Is he reminding the believers in Corinth that he was a Jew when it was well known that he was? There has to be a deeper meaning. Paul did not have to become a Jew nor a Greek because he was already both biologically. So when he says “like a Jew,” he is not using the term Jew in the physical sense to refer to his Jewish roots.
The meaning of the word Jew
The Bible frequently uses terms in more than one sense. Paul particularly uses terminology that is paradoxical or that simply carries different and sometimes opposing meanings. For example, he writes “…not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” (Romans 9:6) Here he uses the word Israel in two senses. One, the physical branch from Abraham through Jacob (renamed Israel.) The other meaning is spiritual. Paul says in this verse that not all who are from the blood line of Abraham are children of faith.
In another passage, Romans 2:28, 29, Paul had explained that “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”
Here Paul is making the distinction between being an ethnic Jew, (outward and physical) and the spiritual Jew, (inward and spiritual). When Paul says that to the Jews he became like a Jew to win the Jews, he uses the word Jew in both senses. The first and third refer to the race, the middle (like a Jew) refers to his obedience to certain Jewish laws. In this case, not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Various times in the Bible the word Jew is used in either or both of these two meanings. Sometimes it is hard to tell. But a sincere student of the Bible who lets the Bible speak for itself rather than imposing his or her bias on it, can easily find out the difference.
Paul in Corinth
Since the passage we are discussing in this article, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, was addressed to the Corinthians, why don’t we go to the story recorded for us in Acts 18:1-18. The significance of this story is that it tells what Paul did in Corinth, where he stayed and served the church for one and a half years. It contains elements that shed light on our text. Let us see how the word Jew is used here. “Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately” (Acts 18:24-25). Apollos was a Christian, yet in Acts he is called a Jew. Paul more than once also spoke of himself as a Jew. “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia…” (Acts 21:39) Here he is referring to himself as an ethnic Jew.
Many have jumped to the conclusion that if Paul said that about the Jews, he could have said that about the Greeks too. So they put words in his mouth and say that Paul became a Greek to the Greeks or Gentile to the Gentiles. Paul was capable of saying those words, but he did not. In any case, had he said that he was a Jew or a Greek, he would have been right because he was both a Jew and a Greek. Yet he deliberately did not say he became a Greek to the Greeks.
To those not having the law
When I have pointed this out to some people, they quickly responded: “But it is implied that he became a Greek to the Greeks.” This is a huge error.
The discourse in all three chapters of I Corinthians 8, 9 and 10 is addressing the issue of freedom from the law. Paul’s theology is clear that the law does not save and that we must not practice the law as a means of salvation. But he never said that the law is bad. He, in fact, wrote, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” (I Timothy 1:8) The proper use of the law is to apply it not for salvation but as a result of salvation. So if Paul was willing to practice some aspects of the law to avoid being a stumbling block he would. However, in dealing with those who do not have the law, he does not find it necessary to go out of his way to observe the law.
Let us not forget that the entire issue is about whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols. The law dictates not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Grace gives us the freedom to eat it in good conscience because idols are nothing. So if you are eating meat with someone who does not know the law and is not expecting you to keep it, go ahead and eat that meat. Yet even so, if your Greek friend tells you this meat was sacrificed to idols, then refrain.
Interpretation: handling the word of God Correctly
We have no right to put words in God’s mouth. We have no freedom to interpret the text beyond the scope of its original meaning. Paul has warned us to handle the word of God correctly (II Timothy 2:15). And he added: “… we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.” (II Corinthians 4:2)
Peter and the Law
The 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 passage should be balanced in light of Galatians 2:11 “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.”
This is a challenging passage. Paul called Peter’s accommodation hypocrisy. What was wrong? If Paul promoted the idea of being a Jew to the Jews, why was he disturbed by Peter’s accommodating the Jews? Why was Peter wrong when he was sensitive to “the circumcision group? Wasn’t he being Jew to the Jews and Greek to the Greeks?
This passage in fact demonstrates what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. He certainly did not mean to be all Greek or all Jew. The text was limited to the issue of our freedom in Christ.
The circumcision group promoted full adherence to the law. They were Christian Jews who had not broken away with their Jewish practices. The problem with Peter was hypocrisy. He was compromising his own convictions to please the wrong crowd.
Based on the above explanation, no one can make Paul do in 1 Corinthians 9 what he emphatically said he would not do in Galatians. He did circumcise Timothy but not Titus. Why? Timothy was a half Jew like Paul. Circumcising him was not a problem because circumcision has no value. In a sense Paul is saying, with it or without it, there is no difference. Titus on the other hand was Greek so he did not need to go out of his way to practice Jewish law. This confirms that the issue is about the law, not culture.
Elsewhere Paul asserted: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” (I Corinthians 7:19)
To the weak I became weak
What does Paul mean by “weak”? To understand that we need to go again to Chapter 8. There Paul uses the word weak five times. In each case he refers to new converts who have freshly left idol worship and have not fully broken away with pagan practices. Paul made himself weak in the sense that he refrained from eating meat for their sake even though he himself has no problem eating meat.
Therefore, it is clear from 1 Corinthians chapter 8 that to “become weak” meant that Paul did not insist on his freedom. Weak converts could not handle such freedom when they are still emotionally tied to their past. Rather, he was extra careful to stay away from the former cultural/religious practices of the weak in their presence. Furthermore, it is clear from Galatians Chapter 2 that becoming “like a Jew” certainly did not mean preserving Jewish law and practice. It would be wrong then to conclude that Paul would become Muslim to the Muslim and indulge in Islamic practices.
All things to all men
Paul concludes his passage with these words, “I have become all things to all men.” These words have been misquoted and abused to a shocking degree. Did Paul mean literally that he became all things to all men? Would Paul be a prostitute to prostitutes, a Hindu to the Hindus, sorcerer to the sorcerers, or an idolater to idolaters? Absolutely not.
Paul was very specific in this passage. What he wrote must not be interpreted beyond the scope of the context of the passage. These words: “all things to all men”, are a generalization that aims to show the heart of Paul as one who is willing to deny himself and do anything for the sake of the gospel.
These words must not be taken literally as though Paul believes that the end justifies the means. Paul adds an important qualifier when he added: “…though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law.” This means that there are limitations to what he would do. It is like saying I would do anything for Christ as long as it does not violate Christ’s law. This excludes any sin or act not honoring to God such as being a stumbling block to others who are weak.
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 have been grossly misinterpreted by those who promote the Insider Movement, Common Ground and other contextualists. They have used it to promote the concept of becoming Muslim to the Muslims. When solid principles of hermeneutics are utilized to interpret this passage, we find that what Paul intended to say is contrary to the notion of taking the identity of people of other religions. He, in fact, was decontextualizing by asking mature believers to exercise their freedom in Christ responsibly by not doing what pagans do and not participating in their religious rituals.
Therefore, we must exercise extra care in not causing anyone to stumble, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ who have left Islam. We must not tempt them to return to Islam by indulging in Islamic practices that could cause their weak consciences to be enticed by the old ways. Though they left Islam behind, they still struggle with the emotional baggage. We must not hinder them from leaving Islam behind and letting the Holy Spirit transform them into the likeness of Christ.