Flexibility requires enormous effort and discipline
In my experience, the passage for today – 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 – is frequently treated as two separate topics: 1) vv.19-22 dealing with how Christians need to adapt their behaviors and message to their audience; and 2) vv.23-27 dealing with how Christians need to discipline themselves so that they will receive the “prize” and not be “disqualified.”
The problem with looking at this passage as two separate topics is that v.23 begins, “I [Paul] do it all for the gospel…” Paul refers to his words regarding adaptation as the goal of his discipline. When seen this way, the commonly given interpretation of “prize” as heaven/eternal life/salvation no longer makes much sense.
Christians often have trouble with the first part as well. Paul seems a bit wishy-wash, an accommodationist. “Why can’t he be consistent in his behaviors?” we might ask. Or, “Why can’t he stick to his principles?” – if he really believes the Torah has no bearing on salvation and righteousness, why does he admit to kowtowing to the Jews?
The range of interpretations that has been suggested by commentators is remarkable, moving from an understanding of Paul as being totally selfless—perhaps in a psychologically unhealthy manner indicative of a loss of identity—to the contention that Paul was an opportunist in his dealings with potential converts. Careful reading of the text, however, indicates that such extreme interpretations are stereotyped, falling short of full comprehension of the subtlety of Paul's methods of mission and ministry.
To put it in more contemporary terms, when he was among Jews he was kosher; when he was among Gentiles he was non-kosher—precisely because, as with circumcision, neither mattered to God (cf. 7:19; 8:8). But such conduct tends to matter a great deal to the religious—on either side!—so that inconsistency in such matters ranks among the greatest of evils… The difference, therefore, between his own behavior and that of his social companions is not in the behavior itself, which will be identical to the observer, but in the reasons for it. The latter abstain because they are “under the law”; it is a matter of religious obligation. Paul abstains because he loves those under the law and wants to win them to Christ. Despite appearances, the differences are as night and day.
The first part of today’s passage is Paul’s defense of his approach to mission. He will go as far as he must to become “weak,” to participate in the incarnational mission pattern of Jesus, to be among the people, to identify with them. Paul will not serve from a position power.
D. T. Niles of Sri Lanka wrote, “To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence… We run schools, hospitals, orphanages, agricultural farms, etc. But what we do not adequately realize is that these institutions are not only avenues of Christian service but are also sources of secular strength. Because of them, we can offer patronage, control employment, and sometimes make money. The result is that the rest of the community learn to look on the Church with jealousy, sometimes with fear, and sometimes even with suspicion.
The second part of today’s passage is actually Paul’s description of how he is able to work cross-culturally. It has nothing to do with personal salvation or his own eternal life. The “prize” is the progress of the gospel. Paul writes here of acquiring and maintaining skills and abilities that will allow him to become a part of each people group that he goes to. Paul writes of the tremendous effort, energy, and discipline that is required to work cross-culturally.
“Disqualification” is not a loss of salvation, eternal life, or heaven. It is about not being fit enough to participate in mission work that Paul was commissioned to do.
With the Isthmian Games sponsored by the city of Corinth, the citizens of that city could not help being fully aware of the time commitments and energy required to complete in those games. Paul builds on that awareness and tells his readers that the same level of discipline is required to cross cultural lines in the name of Christ…
Paul is not talking about ascetic disciplines, he is discussing the high commitment required if one is to successfully cross cultural barriers in the name of Christ. He is discussing mission…
He warns his readers that the task of “all things to all people” takes enormous energy He is discussing the cost of crosscultural, incarnational mission…
Language, culture, history, art, literature, politics, worldview, music, civil unrest and war—all must be experienced, comprehended and embraced if one is to effectively enter into another culture.
According to this passage, the purpose of spiritual disciplines is not for yourself.
- Discipleship and spiritual disciplines aren’t about me. It’s not spiritual self-improvement to express gratitude, to keep in Jesus’ good graces, to prove that I really belong, or even to be a better evangelist and witness (at least not in the usual way of thinking about it).
- Spiritual disciplines are about learning and finding ways to partner with God’s Spirit in the work of the gospel that is already happening.
- Spiritual disciplines are less about an individual’s personal spiritual condition and more about how to benefit others.
- You don’t have to participate – you can be a spectator. Your salvation isn’t the issue. But you might lose out on the greater joy and satisfaction of going beyond the minimum call.
- Spiritual disciplines include more than just the usual prayer, Bible study, and church attendance. It can and should include learning about anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, literature, music, arts, language, mythology, sciences, pop culture, etc. Anything that will help you integrate better with the people you have been sent to.
Paul does not argue that he “must become all things to all people” so that the gospel can receive a hearing and be accepted. For him, God, through the gospel, was already at work across cultural lines and he wanted to become its partner. The gospel train was moving and he could jump on or get left behind.
 Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, entry in section 25 (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
 NICNT, 1 Cor. 9:20.
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