To understand what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “I have become all things to all people,” we must keep the statement in context. Paul was explaining to the Corinthian church his motivation for submitting himself to a hard life. He had relinquished his rights to be married (verse 5) and to draw a salary from the church (verses 6–12). Paul had completely abandoned himself to the purposes of Christ and bore the marks of that decision in his own body (see Galatians 2:20; 6:17).
Part of Paul’s calling was to preach to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8), and that required him to change elements of his approach when needed: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).
What this does NOT mean is that we are to compromise with the world in order to fit in. Some have used Paul’s statement “I have become all things to all people” as an excuse to live worldly lives, assuming that unrepentant sinners will be impressed and want to come to Christ. But Paul never compromised God’s moral standards set forth in Scripture; rather, he was willing to forgo traditions and familiar comforts in order to reach any audience, Jewish or non-Jewish.
For example, when in Athens, Paul established rapport with the Greeks before telling them about Jesus. He stood amidst their many idols and commented about their devotion to their gods (Acts 17:22). Rather than rail against the idolatry of Athens, Paul used those symbols of pagan pride to gain their attention. Another time, when speaking to educated Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Paul pointed out his own high level of education in order to earn their respect (Acts 22:1–2). Later, when in Roman custody and about to be flogged, Paul mentioned that he was a Roman citizen and avoided the flogging (Acts 22:25–29). He never bragged about his credentials, but if pertinent information would give him credibility with a specific audience, he did what he could to find common ground with them. He knew how to behave in a Hebrew household, but he could dispense with the cultural Jewish traditions when he was in a Greek household. He could be “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel.
There are several ways we can “become all things to all people”:
1. Listen. We are often too eager to share our own thoughts, especially when we know the other person needs to hear about Jesus. One common mistake is to jump into a conversation before we really hear what the other person is saying. We all appreciate being heard; when we extend that courtesy to someone else, he or she is more likely to listen to what we have to say. By listening first, the other person becomes an individual we care about rather than simply a mission field to convert.
2. Be kind. This should go without saying for Christians, but, unfortunately, we can forget kindness in the passion of the moment. This is especially true on the internet. Online anonymity leads many people, even some professing to represent Christ, to make rude or hate-filled comments. Getting in the last word does not mean we won the argument or earned the person’s respect. James 1:19–20 admonishes us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Kindness and respect never go out of style and are appropriate regardless of the subject matter.
3. Be sensitive to culture. Trained missionaries know that, before they can reach a cultural group, they must understand the particulars of that culture. The same is true for every believer, even if we never leave our own city. Western culture is rapidly changing, and in many places Judeo-Christian principles are no longer accepted or even understood. We don’t have to approve of every part of a culture to understand it or reach those immersed in it. By first listening to discern where people are spiritually and then finding commonality with them, we may be able to reach those hungry for a truth they’ve never heard.
4. Deal with prejudice. Prejudice of every kind has been part of human history since the beginning. Despite how hard we try, we all carry some form of prejudice against certain other people groups. Ironically, even those who denounce prejudice of any sort are usually quite prejudiced against those they consider prejudiced! Admitting to God our own pride and repenting of judgmental attitudes and lack of love should be an ongoing process for Christians wanting to follow Paul’s example of being all things to all people. As a former Pharisee, he had to deal with his own prejudice against Gentiles in order to spread the gospel to the people Jesus had called him to.
The goal of a Christian is to be inoffensive in every way except in the matter of the cross. The message of the cross of Christ naturally gives offense, but we cannot water it down. “The preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus warned us not to be shocked when the world hates us—it hated Him first (John 15:18). Our message is offensive to human pride and contradicts the sin nature, so our behavior and our attitudes should not give offense. When we strive to follow Paul’s example and become all things to all people, we must be willing to humble ourselves, let go of our “rights,” meet people where they are, and do whatever Jesus calls us to do. He died to save them. We must love them enough to tell them that in ways they can understand.