In this column last month, I highlighted Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:21: ‘I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.’ Paul declared that he was willing to adapt his personal lifestyle for the sake of the gospel. But too often his words have been applied to issues that Paul wasn’t discussing at all.
I listed three ways they’ve often been misapplied. We’re told by some on the basis of Paul’s words that we must adapt the gospel message in order to avoid misunderstanding or offence in a particular cultural setting. We’re told by others that we must be prepared to adapt our evangelistic methods to match the culture of the people we’re trying to reach. And we’re told by others again that we must be prepared to reshape the life of the local church to make it culturally attractive to unbelievers. I gave you examples of preachers and writers who have applied Paul’s words in all those ways.
I’m sure you’ve all encountered these arguments. And we can all understand the big lesson our friends are drawing from Paul’s words. They’re saying that people whom we contact through our evangelistic activities or who come into our churches should feel that we are just the same sort of people that they are. We talk the same language, we use the same methods to communicate, we have the same interests, we do things the same way they do.
The idea is that when they come among us, they should feel comfortable with what they find. They should feel that they’re in an atmosphere with which they’re familiar – because what they find reflects the culture that they already know. I’ve heard it said quite simply that evangelical churches must be prepared to adopt every feature of the prevailing culture unless it’s actually sinful, or unless God has explicitly condemned it.
I remember talking with a missionary who was working in a remote area of Central Asia. He was explaining to me the difficulty of reaching women in that society with the gospel. The women are kept in seclusion. If you visit a home you can talk to the men, but the women are shut away in a back room. And I said to him, ‘Well, what a wonderful day it will be when a gospel church is established in that community and for the first time men and women sit together at the Lord’s table.’ He looked at me horrified. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘we could never encourage that. We’ve got to respect the culture.’
In a culture where men and women never mix, the church must shape its life to match that culture. For him, that’s what 1 Corinthians 9:21 required.