Parts I and II focused on 1 Corinthians 1:29-23, which is one of the key passages used to justify the Insider Movement. I have shown that Paul never said he became a Greek to the Greeks. The passage, in fact, defeats the concept that we can be Muslims to Muslims. Paul did say however that he became like a Jew to win the Jews.
Two principles of interpretation were used in the last two articles:
1) The text must be interpreted in its immediate context. The passage discussed is to be interpreted in view of the three chapters which make up the entire discourse of Paul on the issue of freedom as to whether to exercise or not to exercise the law.
2) The text must be interpreted in its broader context by comparing it with other passages on the same issue.
Because of the popular misinterpretations of this passage, I find it necessary in this third and final article to introduce a third principle of biblical interpretation that will help us discover Paul’s intent behind the passage under consideration.
3) Every text must be compared with the patterned lifestyle of the author. The author cannot be made to say something that is inconsistent with his normative actions.
It is not enough to read the text in its context or cross reference it with other passages, even within the teachings of Paul. The practice of piecing together verses from here and there to prove a point has been responsible for much of the false teaching spread by heretical sects. As I have demonstrated in a previous article (Sola Scriptura: Biblical authority in Missions. Penultimate paragraph, an anecdote from Matthew 10), interpreting any single text on its own can be misleading. The interpretation of any text must not contradict the main theme or message of the broader context or the normative teaching and lifestyle of the author.
Pauline Style of Ministry
To fully understand 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 it is necessary to compare Paul’s teachings with his lifestyle, which is recorded for us ever so amply in the book of Acts and in his epistles. Acts provides the background story and the geographic context of the epistles. The epistles and Acts are so intertwined with each other that it is quite possible to insert the epistles inside the book of Acts with a significant level of accuracy.
Here is a very short list of principles we can learn from Paul’s lifestyle to help us bring clarity to the passage we are dealing with in this series of articles.
1) Paul’s identity was clear to all, both before and after he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Before his conversion he was an ethnic Jew, “Circumcised the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee;” (Philippians 3:5)
His conversion changed his primary identity from being a Jew to a Christian (Christianos). Every one of his twelve epistles begins with this affirmation “Paul… an apostle of Christ Jesus.” He further declares: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:2) And “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” (Romans 1:16) And “…I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ….” (Philippians 3:8)
We do not find Paul hiding his identity or pretending to be someone he is not. We do not see him assuming the identity of his audience in such a way as to confuse them. He completely and unquestionably associated himself with Christ. This is part of his calling, “15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Acts 9:15,16.
“The name” is a phrase that is used extensively in the new testament referring to Jesus. It is mentioned 41 times in Acts and the epistles. Ethnic Jews knew full well that Paul was no longer an insider. He had become a member of the “way” which he set out to persecute and destroy. The Greeks never thought that he was one of them, or an insider. They viewed him as one who “...seems to be advocating foreign gods. They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” Acts 17:18.
Paul’s message was not familiar to either the Jews or the Greeks. It was a clearly different message that left his audience confused about what he was advocating but not confused about his identity. When they finally understood what he was advocating, many opposed him vehemently, both Jews and Greeks.
2) Paul preached the same message to Jews and Greeks alike. He did not modify his core message to accommodate the needs or wants of his audience. Here is the most powerful evidence of his uncompromising position:
“22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” 1 Corinthians 1:22-23
It is amazing that Paul fully knew that his message was a stumbling block to the Jews and yet he did not water down his message to accommodate them. In the same way, he knew that the Greeks considered his message foolish because they exalted reason, wisdom, and knowledge. Yet Paul preached “…the gospel — not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (I Corinthians 1:17) He did not come up with some culturally sensitive message to avoid a negative reaction by his hearers. He understood his audience very well. He knew what made them tick but he deliberately did not scratch them where they itched. Why didn’t Paul try to appease his audience by preaching a culturally sensitive message that would more likely be well received? Let Paul give us the answer:
“24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:24-25)
For Paul the gospel is an absolute that does not change with any context. He knew that accommodating his audience would not improve his results anyway. His missiology divided his audience into two groups, those who are perishing and those who are being saved. “18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
Those called by God would recognize the power of God in the message of the cross. Those who are perishing will find the cross to be a stumbling block or foolishness, no matter how well it is presented. Who could say that Paul did not have the knowledge and the eloquence that would draw people to his message? Yet he emphatically wrote: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.” (I Corinthians 2:1) He knew that the real power is in the gospel message, not in the method.
For many years it has been my experience that those who are closed to the gospel will not be persuaded by any argument or clever technique. On the other hand, those who are open tend to seek Christ with a thirsty heart and can be ushered into the kingdom through a simple witness. Paul understood well that it is all about God, not about us. “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:6.)
3) Paul’s boldness often caused him persecution. One rationale behind the insider movement is the avoidance of persecution. Conversion is discouraged because of the negative repercussions it could cause on family and social relationships.
Paul did not seem to be overly concerned about his safety or the safety of people he preached to. His style was not irenic or conciliatory. His message was offensive to the general population. Although many believed, many opposed him, including leaders of the community who brought him to court numerous times. Behind his boldness was a vision of Jesus encouraging him and telling him “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent…” (Acts 18:9)
Paul’s attitude toward his imprisonment and suffering is expressed this way:
“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.”(Philippians 1:12) He was not deterred by anything: “19 Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” (Ephesians 6:19-20)
4) Paul’s missiology was clearly transformational. Pauline epistles are filled with contrasts between the old and the new. They remind us of our new position in Christ. Anyone in Christ is a “new creation, the old is gone, the new has come…” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And “…put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24) And “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
This transformation is expected of all cultures in order to unify all who experience new life in Christ: “…put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:10-11)
Application to Muslim Contexts
How do we apply the transformational gospel message in our ministry to Muslims? The answer may be shocking to my readers. But I ask you to prayerfully think it through before you react. Anyone who is more concerned about safety, preservation of family or culture or anything else than they are about the gospel is not worthy to be a disciple of Jesus. A true disciple is a true “follower of Jesus.”
Recently in the last twenty years or so, the phrase “Muslim follower of Jesus” has been used to identify those who accept Christ in their hearts, acknowledge him in their mind, yet still retain their Muslim identity. The reason for this is that they would avoid persecution and become more effective in reaching out to their own families. The sad thing about this strategy is that the phrase “follower of Jesus” has lost its original New Testament meaning. The gospels record to us what Jesus meant when he called the disciples to follow him.
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. 34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn ” ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – 36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ 37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:32-39)
These verses alone are enough to convince us that following Christ includes leaving everything for his sake. Everyone invited to follow Christ needs to be told about the cost that is part and parcel of the call to follow him. Following Christ is not a meaningless action. You cannot follow Christ in your heart and openly dissociate yourself from him.
Before I lead Muslims to Christ, I ask them if they would be ready to give up everything for Christ. They need to count the cost early on. Then they are more ready to withstand the hardships that they will most assuredly face down the road. If they are fearful or hesitant, I encourage them to wait until they are ready. Of course I do not leave them alone at this stage. I work with them and study the word with them and explain the cost of following Christ. The results are usually much better than just extracting a sinner’s prayer from them without their understanding of the cost. Those who come to Christ knowing the cost are usually more passionate and understanding of the spiritual battle. They make a choice between the world and God’s kingdom, between their lives in the flesh and their lives in Christ. Jesus pointed this out to his disciples: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:24)
5) Paul’s primary concern was the glory of God. He did not care what people thought about him, how they felt toward his message, or how they received his message. “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10) Paul’s first and foremost concern was the glory of God. He concluded the discourse of 1 Corinthians 8, 9 and 10 with this:
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
No conclusion of these chapters is stronger than the one Paul ended with. It is all about God, not about the law or anything else. “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:32)
“Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (II Corinthians 4:2)
When we do this we are not compromising the message. We must allow the gospel itself to be a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But we must not let ourselves be the stumbling block or appear foolish for foolishness’ sake. It is our responsibility to preach the gospel clearly while being careful not to cause anyone to stumble by being insensitive to their weaknesses.
The main purpose of Paul’s discourse that takes up three chapters in his first epistle to the Corinthians was to warn them against causing the weaker brother to stumble. He addresses the problem of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian believers is to help them resolve the confusion within the church caused by this conflict. Those of the circumcision group are legalists. They did not want the new Greek believers to eat meat sacrificed to idols because that would be against the law of God. The other faction in the church were grace oriented. They believed that in Christ we are free from legalism. They contended that “an idol is nothing” (1 Corinthians 8:4) and therefore, in itself, it has no spiritual significance. Paul argues that the problem is not with the meat itself or the idol, but rather with the significance of eating that meat in the conscience of the believers.
Paul’s position is consistent with all other teachings and his lifestyle. Paul was preaching a message that is transformational to any audience, Jews or Greeks.