Many Christians use the following verse to say that we have to fit in with whatever culture, practice, society, tradition, etc so that we may win people to Christ. Many believe that Paul acted like a Greek among unbelievers and like a Jew in Jerusalem. But is this what Paul means? Let’s examine this idea.
1Co 9:19-23 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
Paul is speaking of “Food sacrificed unto Idols” in this particular section which started at 1Cor 8:1 and finishes in 1Cor 10:33. In the 9th Chapter he touches on making himself a servant even when he has authority over the congregation. This particular section shows the Corinthians an example from Paul’s life, on how he put others before himself. But who were these others? and how did he put them before himself?
Checking what the referenced groups in this particular section are, will further help us understand what Paul means.
1Co 9:20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
1Co 9:21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
1Co 9:22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
At first glance, there seems to be 4 groups above. But actually Paul speaks of only 2 groups as shown below.
The Jews = them that are under the Law
them that are without law = The Weak
The Jews that are spoken of here, are those who are still in the understanding of being saved through the works of the Law. These are those who Paul calls them that are under the Law. If so, who are those who are without Law? They are called Weak, here as well as in 1Cor 8:10. These are people who are weak in the Faith – new converts who are still not grown in their walk. Hence, they do not know God’s Law fully, and are not living yet according to the whole Law.
A Jew unto a Jew and Weak unto the Weak
Paul was a Jew (Acts 21:39, Rom 11:1, Phil 3:5) and identified as one. He had no need to become a Jew in the midst of Jews. This is why becoming a Jew is connected to being as “one who is under the Law”. He had been careful to not do anything against even the traditions of the elders (Oral Law) all throughout his life (Acts 25:10, 28:17). Tradition is not an issue even for Messiah, upto the point where traditions start overruling the Word of God, as seen in Matthew 15 & Mark 7.
Being under the Law
As Paul understands, we are not “Under the Law”, for whoever is under law is under dominion of Sin(Rom 6:14). Although we are not under the law, does not mean we are free to sin(Rom 6:15). Since the Law defines what Sin is (Rom 3:20, 7:7, 1Jn 3:4), it is then important to understand what being “Under the Law” really means. Being under the Law is trying to be justified by the Law. In other words, having faith in ourselves to be able to receive salvation through adhering to the precepts of the Law. By doing this, we not only discard God’s Salvation & Grace, but because we cannot keep the Law perfectly – we fall into condemnation and stand judged by the Law, and under the Curse written in the Law which comes to all who transgress – Death. (Gal 3:10,11, Rom 7:5). So, to recap, being under the law is how Paul defined the mainline teaching of the Jews (Act 13:39).
Being as one who is under the Law, that I may gain those who are under Law
Paul is obviously not saying that he kept the Law for Salvation. But we know that he lived a life adherent to the Torah/Law (Acts 21:24). So he lived according to the Law after being made righteous through faith, among people who believed were saved through the Law. Wherever Paul travelled to, his first stop was the synagogue, so that he may speak to his fellow kinsmen. This is what he means by saying “being as one who is under the law”.
Being without Law
A person without Law would not know what sin is (Rom 7:7). If the knowledge of Sin is through the Law (Rom 3:20), then a person who lived without Law, would ultimately live in sin, as he/she does not know what God calls good & bad / holiness & sin. All who were new to the faith would be like this, and would learn about the Law every Sabbath (Act 15:21).
Not without law to God
Paul did not live a lawless life as he himself testifies (Acts 24:14, 25:8). James also says all of the rumours about Paul teaching against the Law was false and that he walks according to the law (Acts 21:24). So Paul’s mention of not living “without the law of God” is apt inclusion to make here.
Under the law to Christ
Even though he says that he is not under the law, he expands the idea of adherence to the law here, by saying being under the law TO christ. Note that it is not under the law OF Christ, so that we may think this is some other law. As Christ is the End-Goal (Telos) of the Law (Rom 10:4), Paul considers himself coming under the jurisdiction of Christ when he is living according to the Law.
Being as without law that I might gain them that are without law
Paul is obviously not saying that he is living a lawless life – which is a life of sin (1Jn 3:4). as seen above, we know that he lived a life adherent to the Torah/Law (Acts 21:24). So just as he lived according to the Law, among people who believed were saved through the Law (the Jews), he also lived according to the law in the midst of people who did not yet know of the Law properly. In light of all of the above, we can conclude that Paul is not saying he lives a hedonistic lifestyle among people who don’t know the Law. He attempts to say that he lives with understanding of all people and their weaknesses, in trying to place himself in their shoes.
I am made all things to all men
Paul does not say that he pretends to be all things to all men, or that he acts one way in front of one group and another way in front of another group. If he was pretending or acting, it would make him a double hypocrite, as he rebuked Peter for the exact same thing in Gal 2:11-14. Paul was not trying to please anyone(Gal 1:10) or act in a certain way in cunning (2Cor 4:2). “I am made” simply means I have lowered myself down to each man’s level, so that I may win them over to Christ. If Paul lowered his standards, swayed in certain places or blurred the lines when it was convenient, we would have a hard time believing anything he says.
This passage speaks of Jews who were “under the Law” and the Weak (new converts) who were “without the Law” and how Paul would lower himself to understand them from the place they come from. This does not mean that he was a chameleon, changing colours whenever it suited him best. He was not without Law to God, as he himself says, and was in subjection to the Law to Christ. The context of the chapter further proves the point of Paul speaking of lowering one self even when they have power and authority over others, so that they may become strong in their walk with God.
I leave this discussion with an interesting question. If the “weak” are called “those who are without law”, who are the “strong”?