By Steve Smith (Serving In Mission UK Director)
I become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
How comfortable are we with this statement in our ministry? Paul lived out his life to God’s glory by following Christ’s example in this way (1 Cor 10:31-11:1).
He calls the church in Corinth to do the same. Which begs the question of us: how would God have us embody this principle where he has us serving his mission? Just how adaptable does Christ call us to be?
Taking a look at how Paul lived this out helps us hugely:
- To his fellow Jews, he spoke from the Old Testament in a way the Jewish rabbis will have been accustomed to, in order for them to hear the gospel. Paul also recognised circumcision was a national mark of distinction. Therefore, while utterly denying its necessity to salvation (Acts 15), he did circumcise Timothy, who had a right to it by his mother’s side. Why? In order to remove any barrier to the Jewish people receiving the gospel (Acts 16).
Principle 1: Paul accommodated his life and ministry to the customs of the receiving culture. Accommodating himself to their means of receiving instruction and any cultural custom that did not compromise faith in the gospel.
- To those without the law, he acquainted himself with the poets and ways of the Roman world, in order to speak about God’s revelation in Christ in terms they could understand, and so lead them to turn and give their allegiance to the Lord Jesus (Acts 17).
Principle 2: Paul spoke the truth of the gospel in terms they already understood. Immersing himself in the language and world of the people he moved among, Paul used the ideas of their world to explain God’s revealed truth and call for the response God commands.
- While boldly asserting the biblical truth that ‘an idol is nothing’ and that ‘there is no God but one’, he is full of tender consideration, tolerance and charity where the great principles of the gospel are not at stake (1 Corinthians 8)
Principle 3: Paul respected the consciences of the people he shared the gospel among. Holding firmly to the gospel liberty that God wins for believers in Christ, he loves the people he serves and calls the church not to damage the Christian conscience that is weak in biblical truth.
- This is how Paul made himself ‘at home’ with the thoughts and practices of the communities he lived among. He made every effort to operate within their practices, and even prejudices; he sympathised with their world and ways – by all possible means to save some
It’s worth praying through these three areas.
This month, I’m praying through this for Serving In Mission's task of serving churches, developing mission opportunities and supporting workers. Part of our support for each other is to ask these questions of ourselves and our mission communities:
How does God train us to accommodate ourselves to others, without changing who we are or compromising our allegiance to Christ?
How does God call us to love others in their condition and adapt our way of life to remove barriers to hearing the gospel?
Paul did this in order for them to hear the message of Christ crucified in a way they could understand. He did this so they could cry out to Jesus for salvation. He served in this way so that more people gave their undivided devotion and joyful worship to Jesus as Lord and no other.
There is a concession that springs from cowardice, a tolerance that is born of indifference, a versatility that can only be called bare-faced fraud. This is not the apostle’s principle of action. Paul’s adaptation was not a slavery to self-interest but a self-imposed slavery to the salvation of others.
I sometimes wonder what Paul’s ministry would have looked like if he’d chosen to stand on the letter of his rights? The story of early Christian mission would have been very different. He’d have claimed more and done less. He would have overcome fewer barriers to people receiving the gospel free of charge.
In 1 Cor. 9:1-18, he boldly asserts the rights he has waived so that we understand what motivates genuine gospel ministry and the kind of means of gospel mission employs with integrity.
I am become all things to all men.
Paul’s was an ‘elasticity’ born of a passionate, consuming, constraining love, that watched every moment and seized every opportunity, in order to gain access for the gospel truth – the only truth that will save a soul from sin, death and judgement and gain it for God.
Behind all effective Christian service lies these principles of adaptation.
There is an urgent need for adaptation in the methods of our work with people who are of different backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and cultures frpm us. As one expositor puts it, ‘to fail to throw ourselves into the different mental and moral states of our people will be to fail to deliver our message aright'.
This requires us to use the language people will understand. We need to speak with that simple directness that seeks to make the Bible’s message clear.
We need to respect community conventions as generously as our personal commitment to Christ allows us.
We must seek to understand the settled convictions of others, recognising these are often arrived at through heartfelt concern and hard-fought passions.
We need to live with people’s prejudices, an individual’s idolatries, so long as we don’t participate in false-worship and compromise our allegiance to Christ.
Let’s become story-tellers to the illiterate, rural-dwellers with the rural, urbanites amongst the urban, digitally-astute to a digital age, childlike with children. Who are you seeking to share Christ with?