Paul’s Policy of Accommodation

“To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)

“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” is perhaps one of the most informative passages on how Paul practiced his faith; and at least for me, it is a guidepost for the practice of Christian community. To understand what I mean let’s look closely at how Paul handles a couple of issues in 1 Corinthians; In the surrounding context Paul deals with eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul’s social status and his choice to refuse money he was justified in accepting.

Chapters 8-11:1 deals with a dispute concerning food sacrificed to idols. Some of the Corinthian Christians have concluded that since idols are nothing, they are free to eat sacrificial meat. Rather than explicitly condemning eating meat sacrificed to idols Paul adopts another tactic to teach Christians why they should not eat sacrificial meat. He points to the “weaker” brother. In this case the weaker brother is probably someone whose convictions are easily shaped and malleable.[1] Instead of focusing on the meat itself, which if it had not been a sacrificial offering would have been permissible to eat, Paul directs his readers to accommodate those who would be damaged by their decision. Paul argues it this way: “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11). Paul is juxtaposing “knowledge” and “love”; On the one hand the knowledge that there is only one God is freeing, and it is true that food in and of itself is nothing to be concerned about, but on the other hand sacrificial meat is associated with demons and it could lead a weak brother away from Jesus. So, love for the weaker and easily shaped brother should encourage the Corinthian Christians not to eat sacrificial meat. Thus, love acts as the modifying and governing agent to the Christian walk over and above any permissive knowledge. As Paul says, “this ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).

This conflict about sacrificial meat reveals Paul’s working policy to accommodate others for the sake of the Kingdom of God and Christian community.[2] To make his point clear Paul pivots from sacrificial meat to the issue of money. In chapter 9 Paul argues in favor of his right to a worker’s wage. Paul says things like, “Am I not an apostle?” and “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?” He does this to show that despite his right to a working wage he relinquishes that right for the sake of winning people to Jesus. The Corinthian congregation apparently has no problem paying Paul. In fact, they would prefer him to live at a level appropriate to his status as an apostle but accepting what is due him conflicts with his policy of accommodation. He is more concerned with those of low status that might be alienated by his wealth.

To be all things to all people comes out of this greater context. The issues of rights and permissive knowledge help us to see the underlying working of Paul’s faith as he reaches out to others. It informs us both what “becoming all things” is and what it isn’t. For example, there is no syncretism between Paul’s policy of accommodation and the old adage “when in Rome do as Romans do”. The verse, “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law” isn’t intended for us to believe that when Paul was with pagans he became a pagan. Instead Paul means that his intention is to walk with people wherever they are and bring them to the cross. He won’t allow his rights to disparage people from receiving the gospel. To be all things to all people is demonstrated in the life of Jesus who emptied himself to become a human being, so he might carry us from slavery into grace. This is what Paul is trying to replicate in his own life and it is this policy of accommodation that Paul is passing on to the church in Corinth.

[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary On the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003), under “8925,” Amazon Kindle.

[2] James D G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006), 576.

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