Thinking it through

All things to all men – using and abusing Paul’s rule

All things to all men – using and abusing Paul’s rule
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Stephen Rees
Stephen Rees Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. He travels widely as a preacher and conference speaker.
25 May, 2022 14 min read

What is the most misused text in the New Testament? There are quite a few candidates. But high on the list must be 1 Corinthians 9:22. Paul writes there, ‘I have become all things to all people, that by all means, I may save some.’ How many times have I heard that text quoted in recent years by preachers, missiologists, church-growth experts, worship leaders! It’s brought out with a flourish to settle debates on all sorts of questions. But often, as I listen, I’m left wondering what Paul would make of the ways his words are used.

I have become all things to all people, that by all means, I might save some.

Let me list out three ways in which this verse is regularly used. First, on the basis of this verse we’re often told that we must be willing to adapt the message that we preach to fit with the people we’re preaching to. We’re told that we must present a message that will resonate with the society around us.

Let me give you a typical example. I’ve taken this from a web page written by an esteemed brother. He writes, ‘It was Paul’s proud boast: I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some... If we follow Paul’s example we shall be accommodating to different age groups, cultures and life styles. For instance I read that the Japanese find it difficult to relate to the fatherhood of God because fathers are rather remote figures in many Japanese families. It is very much the mother who takes responsibility for children. So it might be better to talk about the motherhood of God to Japanese...’ You see? In order to be ‘all things to all men’ we must be prepared to adapt our message.

Second, we’re told that we must adapt our evangelistic methods in order to reach folk from a particular culture. Here’s Mark Driscoll’s take on this verse: ‘If he was alive today, Paul would say to the indie rockers, “I did indie rock!” To the hip-hoppers, “I did hip-hop!” To the tech guys, “I had a blog!” “For the families, I talked about marriage, and kids, and parenting. For the business guys, I did financial seminars and connected it back to God... I tried to figure out how to articulate Jesus in as many ways as I possibly could, to as many people as I possibly can, to win as many people as are possible.”’ I’ve heard many others make the same claim. If we’re to be ‘all things to all men’ we must adapt our evangelistic methods.

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