Christian courage requires us to stand for the truths of the gospel and reject compromise with the world. God’s word is sacred, and those who God redeemed to himself must stand for that sacredness.
Many times we compromise the truths of God’s word to be cool with the world. In most cases, we do this with good intentions – to commend the gospel to unbelievers. We want to be ‘seeker-sensitive’ so that more people can come to the gospel.
We often try to justify our compromises by appealing to Paul and his practice in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. We have used that passage to legitimize the most benign compromise with the world.
We say we are following the apostle’s steps while we ignore the gospel to cater to felt needs, water down the gospel to make people feel good, keep quiet about the sins of our culture to be in the good books of the high and mighty.
What does Paul model for us? Courage or compromise? Are we comrades walking in the steps of Paul when we compromise to spread the ‘gospel’ or are we cowards in the steps of Demas (2 Timothy 4:10)
To eat or not to eat
To follow Paul’s argumentation in 1 Corinthians 9, we must begin with a good understanding of 1 Corinthians 8.
In chapter 8, Paul deals with an issue relating to food sacrificed to idols. From 1 Corinthians 7, Paul deals with matters that the church in Corinth wrote to him about (1 Corinthians 7:1).
These matters were threatening the unity of the church – which was already in a bad state (1 Corinthians 3) – and they sought the apostle’s instruction.
A little background will be helpful as we seek to understand Paul’s teachings in this chapter.
In Corinth, workers often belonged to guilds (think trade unions), which were associations of people working in the same craft or trade. So carpenters will have their guild and blacksmiths theirs. These guilds often have a patron deity with whom the guild (and its members) identify.
These guilds often operate beside the temple dedicated to their particular patron deity. After sacrificing food to the deity, they were then sold at the guild meetings or the market.
Should a Christian buy and consume food sacrificed to these idols?
Knowledge, weakness, and conscience
The church was divided between those who believe it is okay to eat and those who don’t.
In answering this question, Paul begins by recognizing that this was not a mere knowledge issue. In fact, in matters like this, knowledge often puffs up (8:1). Instead, love must hold a central place, since it is love that builds up.
The man who is puffed up by his knowledge must recognize his knowledge is limited. However, those who learn to love God are known by God.
After setting this foundation (the vital place of love), Paul then begins with knowledge. His point is not that knowledge is useless, but that knowledge must be guided and guarded by love rather than pride.
“We know that an idol is nothing at all in this world and that there is no God but one.” The idols to whom these foods are sacrificed are nothing. These idols are dumb works of human hands; they don’t exist (Isaiah 44).
The God who has revealed himself in Scripture is the only God, and Jesus Christ, his son, is the only Lord.
Since these idols are, in effect, nothing, the food sacrificed to them is nothing (1 Corinthians 10:19, 20). The sacrifice does not corrupt the food. Therefore, eating these foods is like eating any other food since the sacrifice to these idols is empty and vain.
However, not everyone in the church had this understanding – that these foods are no different since the idols are nothing. These people who are just coming out of paganism see these idols as real things, and these foods as real items sacrificed to real gods.
To eat such food is to defile their conscience. To them, eating the food is a matter of right and wrong that can bring guilt.
These people had weak consciences – a conscience that has not been informed that idols are nothing.
Therefore, if they see someone with a strong conscience eat the food (because he thinks idols are nothing), they may be tempted to eat (even though they believe idols are something).
In that way, they are defiling their conscience. They are already hardening their conscience by doing something they feel is wrong deep down. Once you begin to act contrary to what you believe is wrong deep down in your heart, you are on a journey to hardening your heart.
The place of love
Christian love will attempt to prevent a brother from going down this path towards a hardened conscience. Now you see why Paul began by emphasizing the place of love.
If I am the brother with a strong conscience (idols are nothing), I don’t want to flaunt my strong conscience in a way that leads my brother with the weak conscience to defile his conscience. “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” (8:8)
The vital principle is that our exercise of Christian liberty does not become a stumbling block to fellow believers. To put a stumbling block in the way of a brother is to sin against Christ (8:12; cf Luke 17:1, Mark 9:42).
Paul will be the first person to allow love lead: therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall (8:13).
So what is Paul teaching us in this chapter?
Though the Christian has liberty, he should lovingly use his freedom, caring for other believers. The Christian must not, by the expression of his freedom, cause another believer to sin. Love for others must guide the exercise of our liberties. We must learn to deny our rights for the sake of others.
The eating of meat sacrificed to idols is a subset of matters indifferent. These are matters that do not in themselves have any moral implication. They are not inherently right or wrong.
Over these matters, the Christian has liberty.
Paul examines some of these matters in Romans 14. Paul calls them disputable matters (NIV). They include things having to do with food and holy days.
Should you eat all meat or should you eat vegetables only? Both. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking. Some believers who love God eat all meat while some eat vegetables only. They both have the Christian liberty to do one or the other.
What matters is the attitude of the heart. The one who eats everything should not look down on the other while the one who eats only vegetables should not condemn the other. The acceptance of God and his ability to make his servants stand necessitate mutual acceptance (14:1-4).
The one who considers every day alike and the one who holds a day sacred must recognize that the other party is trying his best to please his lord. What matters is that everyone should act in accordance with his conscience (each one should be fully convinced in his mind – 14:5).
On these matters indifferent, love must lead. No one should put a stumbling block in the path of the other (verses 13-18). Instead, the strong should bear with the weak (Romans 15:1).
Notice that Paul is applying this principle only to matters indifferent – things that are neither right nor wrong in themselves. To absolutize this principle is to misuse the apostle’s words.
Paul does not use this category to address issues where God has laid moral boundaries. Paul did not say he who steal stole to the Lord, and he who does not steal does so the Lord and no one should judge or condemn the other. Rather, he told thieves to steal no more (Ephesians 4:28).
He did not instruct the strong Corinthians who believe adultery is bad to bear with the failings of the one who believes adultery is okay. Instead, he commanded them to excommunicate the adulterer (1 Corinthians 5:5).
When God has a standard, our singular duty is to follow it. Christian liberty is not a license for sin. The grace of God is not lasciviousness (Jude 1:4).
Christian liberty (as we use it here) extends only to matters indifferent (like food and sacred days) where going one way or the other is neither right nor wrong (and the attitude towards the person who goes the other way is the crucial moral factor).
An apostle and his rights
In his life and ministry, Paul modeled for us what it means to allow love to lead in matters indifferent (matters of Christian Liberty).
Paul, as an apostle, had a right to marry. However, for the sake of the gospel, he chose to deny himself that right (1 Corinthians 9:3-5).
He also had a right to be paid by the church, but he decided to work for a living and depend on the gifts of churches where he had previously ministered (9:7-12).
Paul decided not to take money from the church he is currently ministering to avoid the perception that he was in it for the money. He would not allow anything to hinder the gospel of Christ (9:12). And Paul was not writing this to make them empathize with him and give him money.
This attitude characterized his whole ministerial work. Even in his evangelistic work, he denies himself his rights and freedom for the sake of the gospel. Though he is free and belongs to no man, he makes himself a slave of everyone to win as many as possible.
Jews, Gentiles, and Christ
In what way does Paul make himself a slave of everyone to win as many as possible?
He does this in the way he relates to the Jews and Gentiles in his gospel ministry.
Paul became like the Jews to win the Jews. He goes on to identify the Jews as those who were under the law. Paul was willing to come under some of the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic Law to win the Jews (who are under the law).
Paul, as a Christian, was not under the law. Therefore, even though he was a Jew by birth (Romans 9:3-4, Philippians 3:4-6), Paul is now a Christian and no longer under the law.
On the one hand were the Jews under the law, and Paul did not identify himself with this group – I myself am not under the law. But Paul, though he was not under the law, was willing to act like someone under the law – submitting to its rites and ceremonies to win those who were not under the law.
We see some examples of this in Paul’s ministry. When he went to Jerusalem in Acts 21, he decided to join in the purification rites of the Nazarite vow (verses 20-24, cf Acts 18:18). He also circumcised Timothy, a half-breed Jew, to pave the way for his ministry among the Jews (Acts 16:1-4).
When he went amidst the gentiles who did not have the Mosaic Law (unlike the Jews), he was willing to act like one not under the law. He was willing to let go of the Jewish scruples when he was among those without those scruples.
We see an example of this in Galatians 2:11-14 when he enjoyed table fellowship with the gentiles without regard for Jewish scruples.
However, notice that Paul did not identify himself with the Gentiles. The Gentiles do not have the law, but Paul, as a Christian, was under Christ’s law (verse 21). Gentiles are not under the Mosaic Law or Christ’s law, but Paul was under Christ’s law.
Paul was not a Jew, for he was not under the Mosaic Law. Paul was not a gentile, for he was under Christ’s law. Paul was in the middle with the Jews and Gentiles on opposite ends. From that middle point, he was calling on Jews and Gentiles to come and become Christians.
Paul was not calling Jews to become Gentiles, vice versa. Paul was not also telling Jews to remain where they were – under the law. Instead, he was calling them to become Christians. Paul was not telling Gentiles to stay where they were – not under the law. Instead, he was calling them to become Christians.
In other words, Paul was not trying to add Christianity to the Judaism of the Jews (Messianic Judaism); instead, he was calling them out of Judaism into Christianity. Neither was he trying to add Christianity to the paganism of the Gentiles (Messianic Paganism); instead, he was calling them out of paganism into Christianity.
Messenger, not message or convert
Paul was not doing his evangelism as an autonomous preacher who had the liberty to do whatever he liked as long as it will bring souls to Christ. No! He plainly told us that he was under Christ’s law. The law of Christ was his guide in all his evangelistic endeavors.
Also, notice that Paul was not doing anything to tinker with the message. In fact, he refused to circumcise Titus, a non-Jew (unlike Timothy, who was half-Jew), so that he would not give the impression that people needed to be circumcised to become Christians (Galatians 2:1-5).
He also rebuked Peter for not “acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:13) when he succumbed to pressure from the circumcision party and withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentiles.
Paul will not tinker with the Gospel – justification by faith in Christ without the law’s deeds- even amidst Jewish pressure and opposition.
He would not water down the gospel to avoid Jewish (or Gentile) opposition. He was willing to call Jews and Gentiles sinners (Acts 14:16, Acts 13:27-31, Romans 3) and direct them to Christ, their only savior.
Paul was not looking for cheap converts. He confronted Jews and Gentiles with their sins and called them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
In what sense then was Paul becoming all things to all men?
Notice the context of this passage. Chapter 8 was about the strong surrendering their rights and liberty in love to the weak. In chapter 9:1-18, Paul let go of his rights to marriage and ministerial support to give no offense to the gospel.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19-24 was denying himself his right and liberty as a Christian who is not under the Mosaic Law but under Christ’s law to reach Jews and Gentiles and bring them out of their Judaism and Paganism into Christ.
This passage is an excursus on a messenger’s personal denial of his rights and liberties rather than a method in evangelistic compromise.
As an individual, Paul had no obligation to observe the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic Law. He was free – not under the law. However, because he was a Jew by birth, he was willing to observe these rites and ceremonies to win the Jews.
Refusing to observe these rites and ceremonies will turn off the Jews (in their minds, how can you be disobeying God’s law to our ancestors and be God’s messenger). To avoid that, Paul was willing to deny himself his freedom to preach the gospel and bring the Jews out of their Judaism into Christ.
Notice also that God prescribed the rites and ceremonies Paul was willing to be under. They were God’s commands. God instituted them for his old covenant people. Now that we are in the new covenant, we have no obligation to keep them – we are free from them.
However, because they were God-ordained rites and ceremonies, in and of themselves, Paul was willing, for a time, to forego his liberty and observe them so that he could win some.
Again, the emphasis is on the denial of his rights/freedom.
Paul would not kill a child and eat or sleep with a temple prostitute so that he could win some. He would be sinning in such cases, and there is no right he denies himself of.
Pulling it together
The gospel is not a call to lasciviousness. Instead, it is a call to self-denial. In 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14, Paul teaches us how that self-denial works. In 1 Corinthians 9, he exemplifies that self-denial for us.
Self-denial, for the sake of the gospel, was the hallmark of his ministry. In his evangelism, he was willing to deny himself his rights of marriage and financial support and his liberty from the Mosaic Law for the sake of the gospel.
Paul was not watering down the gospel or tinkering with it so that unbelievers can be comfortable. When it was about the message or the converts, he stood his ground:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Paul was not a man-pleaser (nice guy). “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
But when it comes to his personal liberties, he was willing to deny himself for the sake of the gospel.
So when we replace the gospel with motivational speeches, we are not following Paul’s footsteps. When we are afraid to call out individual or societal sins and call people to repentance, we are not becoming all things to all men. When we compromise with the world to seek relevance and influence, we are not being Pauline.
We are only acting as cowards seeking to preserve themselves and their reputation rather than following the apostle’s footsteps, who was willing to deny himself for the gospel’s sake.
Instead of calling Jews and Gentiles to Christ, we only want people to add a veneer of Christianity to their current religion/philosophy/way of life/ worldview.
What does this self-denial look like?
It looks like a missionary who avoids eating pigs because he is ministering among people who consider them unclean. He denies himself his right to eat a pig (Mark 7:19) for the sake of the gospel.
It looks like a missionary who had to keep beards because he ministered among a people group who cannot stand a man without beards.
Once again, the missionary is not breaking any of God’s law. Instead, he denies himself his liberty for the sake of the gospel.
(You can think of other examples)
Whether we are missionaries or not, the bible calls us to this life of self-denial. Such a life requires courage, not compromise. Compromisers look out for themselves (whatever they may say); God’s children deny themselves for the sake of God’s kingdom.
We need the courage to do God’s will and obey his word irrespective of the opposition and consequences. We also need the courage to deny ourselves to encourage the faith of fellow believers and win souls for God’s kingdom.
May God make us bold.