All Things to All Men: What Does it Really Mean?



Posted at Reformation Scotland:

How much should churches change their message and methods to suit the culture around them? Some believe that whatever methods will connect with people are justified. The gospel must be “contextualised” they say. This means that we must adapt everything but the core message to suit the culture. The main Bible verse that they use to support this idea is when Paul speaks of being all things to all men in order to save them. Does that mean that we must adopt the culture around us and everything we do must be changed? How should we understand this verse?

Reaching back beyond current debates and controversies to learn from the way that others in the past have understood this passage is particularly helpful. It brings a different perspective that help us to see things in a clearer way. We are not the only generation to seek to understand the Scriptures and if we are prepared to learn from other Christians in our own day then why not from the past too? The following is therefore drawn from the way that David Dickson and James Durham understood 1 Corinthians 9:22. In this verse Paul says “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some”. We need to understand these words in their context, not just repeat them as a slogan.

Paul is speaking about his personal conduct

Paul has been speaking about financial support for the ministry in verses 7-14. He then speaks about his own practice amongst the Corinthians in verses 17-18. If my preaching is “voluntary, it shall have a reward” he says “but if against my will, I must still discharge it, because of the dispensation committed to me by the command of God” (Dickson). Paul contrasts this with those who “unwillingly preach the gospel” and “exercise their ministry, not out of any love to God and desire of converting souls but for filthy lucre’s sake or out of vain-glory” (Dickson). But Paul chose to deny himself what he was entitled to by not seeking financial support for his ministry in this context. He chose to “make the gospel of Christ without charge” (v18). If he had sought financial support, those who opposed him would have used it against him and he would have “abused the gospel” (v18) and “abused his liberty” (Dickson).

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