Seeing Souls with a Gospel Lens
1 Corinthians 9:19–23 sets an important example for effective evangelism and discipleship.
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.”
I must begin with the fact that this is one of the most abused passages in Scripture. It has been used to justify all sorts of pragmatic and ungodly ministry methods. For example, “become(ing) all things to all men,” means we should bring worldly practices (e.g., foul language, immodest dress, irreverent behavior) into the church in order to make unbelievers feel at home. The problem with this kind of application is that Paul draws an absolute line in the sand, when he clarifies that he is always “under the law of Christ” (v. 21). Therefore, Paul did not tolerate ministry methods that compromise the nature of God or the commands of Scripture, and neither should we.
But within the framework of the law of Christ, this passage provides a needed push for conservative churches. Specifically, we don’t always appreciate how much culture and tradition shape our individual lives and our life as a church. Furthermore, we don’t appreciate how foreign our culture and traditions feel to most unbelievers. For example, a couple of years ago, a young man started attending Life Point who had recently been released from prison. He had a broken childhood and got into trouble as a teen. God miraculously saved him in prison, and he was passionate to know the Lord. He loved what he was learning at Life Point, but he always felt uncomfortable. The way we dress, the way we talk, and even the stable families felt foreign to him. He thought he stuck out like a sore thumb, and he struggled to make relationships. Ultimately, he decided to look for another church.
Similarly, when an African-American walks into Life Point, he likely feels out of place, simply because he looks different. Someone who grew up in an urban context may feel odd being surrounded by conservative fashion. Someone who has always been in contemporary churches may feel odd singing hymns in a traditional auditorium. Frankly, I’ve felt out of place at times as a Midwesterner trying to relate to people who’ve lived their whole lives in the desert. We have subtle differences in our interests, how we think, and in what we value. All of these things create relationship hurdles even if the majority group doesn’t notice them.
Now, these things are ultimately insignificant compared to what unites us—our new life in the gospel and our common passion to the know the Savior and to make him known. Therefore, a mature believer who feels out of place should push through the occasional awkwardness, because the gospel matters more.
But this reality does not mean the majority can simply ignore these concerns. We should also be passionate about reaching unbelievers with the gospel, discipling them into maturity, and incorporating them into the life of the church. And we can’t just be passionate about pursuing people like us. Ephesians 2:11–3:13 teach that one way the church glorifies the Lord and the power of the gospel is by building a unity that transcends issues that normally divide like race, culture, or socio-economic background (cf., Gal 3:26 –28; Col 3:10–11). We should be zealous to reach everyone in our community and to see them incorporated into the church.
How do we pursue this God-honoring, Great Commission-advancing unity? 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, teaches that we must sacrificially step out of our comfort zone to remove unnecessary ministry hindrances. Consider the fact that Paul surely had a strong cultural comfort zone. He grew up in an elite Jewish home, and he lived a rigid Pharisaical life into adulthood. But Paul wasn’t content just being himself, preaching the gospel, and expecting people to listen. Rather, he states, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (v. 22). In other words, Paul adapted to his setting (while staying faithful to the law of Christ), and he gladly restricted his freedom if it created a greater opportunity for the gospel. “Restricted” is key, because Paul wasn’t looking to excuse worldliness; rather, he was looking for ways that he could get out of his own comfort zone for the sake of the gospel. For example, when Paul was with “a Jew” or “those who are under the law,” he didn’t flaunt his freedom from the Law; instead, he restricted his freedom and followed Jewish custom in order to remove gospel hindrances. He stepped outside his comfort zone so that others wouldn’t have to step outside theirs.
This is so important, because very often we just do our thing without any thought of others. We implicitly ask unbelievers or immature Christians to step outside their comfort zone, while we never move out of ours. We are oblivious to how many unnecessary hindrances to evangelism and discipleship we cause. Therefore, what are some practical steps we can take to mimic Paul’s example?
Very often the only voices we ever hear are ones just like our own. We live in an echo chamber. Therefore, we don’t understand people outside our niche, and we struggle to relate to them. We must find ways to listen to people, cultures, political groups, etc., with a heart to understand them Afterall, we expect cross-cultural missionaries to do this. If the Eads are going to reach Tanzanians, they can’t just show up, act like Americans, and plant American churches. Instead, they must work to understand Tanzanian culture and the concerns of Tanzanians so that they don’t create unnecessary burdens and hindrances to the gospel. We must do the same. For example, if I love African-Americans, and I want to reach them for Christ, I should care about reasons they feel uncomfortable in my culture. Don’t let yourself get so caught up in the political noise of our day that you fail to hear these sorts of things. We need to be quick to listen and hungry to understand people, their passions, their fears, and their concerns.
There will always be aspects of the gospel that are offensive, and there will always be essentials of godliness that seem strange to unbelievers. Afterall, we are “sojourners (i.e., aliens) and pilgrims” on the earth (1 Pet 2:11). As our culture moves further from a biblical ethic and worldview, the biblical family, modest dress, etc., will seem strange to more people. We can’t compromise these things to make people feel comfortable. But genuine love goes a long way toward breaking down barriers. We can overcome a lot of obstacles with aggressive love and a strong focus on what unites us—the gospel.
- Adapt Discerningly
There are innumerable ways we can lovingly adapt to people in order to remove unnecessary ministry hindrances. Maybe you have a coworker who loves NASCAR. Even though you hate NASCAR, you watch the weekend race so that you can talk about it with him on Monday. It might be that you were an English major and you are passionate about grammar, but you learn to use different lingo to make a coworker feel comfortable. Maybe you do a fist bump rather than a handshake to help someone relax. We could go on, but hopefully you get the point. Work to understand people and be willing to get out of your comfort zone to build a relationship.
We live in troubling days where our society is undergoing dramatic cultural shifts, many of which are uncomfortable and ungodly. We easily can begin to view people purely through the lens of culture wars. We see people fundamentally for their religion, political affiliation, or even their disgusting sin practices, and it kills our witness. We must discipline ourselves to see everyone primarily through a gospel lens. See each person as God’s imager bearer, and in need of Christ. Then work to understand them, love them, and sacrificially go after them “for the gospel’s sake.”