I Corinthians 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. And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you."
What does "all things to all" mean? Some think it means we should use great flexibility of methods to preach the gospel. Others go further, suggesting we must do "whatever it takes" to reach the lost (perhaps even reaching the unstated conclusion that the end justifies the means). Was the apostle Paul a wishy-washy hypocrite who would use any available gimmick to further his cause? Does I Cor. 9 suggest that? Does the historical account of his ministry demonstrate that?
I Cor. 9: 19-23 means something quite different than what many of us have been taught -- we must be willing to yield our rights for the sake of the gospel -- a meaning that will harmonize with both the context and what the Scriptures reveal about how Paul conducted his life and ministry.
The broad context is an entire letter written by the Apostle to clarify doctrine and practice and to correct error in the Corinthian church. The letter may be readily divided into two main parts: Chapters 1-6, in which Paul deals with issues that had been reported to him (cf. 1:11 & 5:1) and Chapters 7-16, in which Paul deals with questions sent to him by the church (see 7:1). These are usually introduced by the words "now concerning" or "now touching" (peri de).
The immediate context is Paul's addressing the question of whether to eat meat offered to idols (Chapters 8-10). Paul stated that every Christian had the right (liberty, freedom, power) to buy and each such meat. It is only meat and an idol is nothing. But the freedom should be given up if this becomes a stumblingblock to a weak brother (8:9-13). Paul was not asking them to do something he himself would not do (8:13). These are not words merely written for effect. In Chapter nine he illustrates the principle and fortifies his case by the example of his own practice.
Paul's example was that he had given up some of his rights and privileges in preference to the furtherance of the gospel (cf. 9:23, 10:33). Paul shows that it was his right as an apostle to receive some maintenance or support by the Corinthian church. Yet he emphatically states that he (and Barnabas) had not used this power (exousia, right, freedom) "lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ".
Placed in context, we see verses 19-23 as Paul's next example of the principle. Paul was free -- both a free born Roman citizen and a free child of God -- yet he has voluntarily become a servant in order to gain as many as possible. Though he was free from the law, in his dealings with the Jews, he would if necessary lay aside his freedom in order to interact with the Jews (as in Acts 16:1-3).
These thoughts are followed by Paul's asserting the need for self-discipline (verses 24-27). The Jews, despite their privileges and advantages (10:1-4), abandoned self-discipline, gave in to their lusts, and brought on themselves judgment and destruction (10:5-13). The Christian is to have no part in idolatrous practices (10:14-21), but is at liberty to purchase and eat the meat previously offered to idols (10:25-30). The good of others and the glory of God (10:23, 24, 31-33) must be the guiding principle. There is an important correlation between 10:32 and 9:19-22: Give none offence (cf. 8:13), neither to the Jews (9:20), nor to the Gentiles (9:21), nor to the church of God (9:21; the weak were brothers - 8:11-13).
What some others say:
"He would not sin against God to save the soul of his neighbour, but he would very cheerfully and readily deny himself. The rights of God he could not give up, but he might resign his own, and he very often did so for the good of others." -- Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible
"Though his conscience is free before God, he does not disregard man. Rather, he lives to serve other men. This is meant in a spiritual way - that is to render true spiritual service to man; not that Paul catered to every man's whim or personal preferences.
"Paul required Timothy to be circumcised lest he be perceived, as a man of Jewish descent, of lightly esteeming the law - Acts 16:3. Paul did not require Titus to be circumcised lest he, as a Gentile, be perceived as condoning or compromising with the Judaizers who falsely asserted that it was needful for Gentiles to submit to circumcision - Galatians 2:3-5.
"These last two examples are important because they prove that becoming 'all things to all men' has nothing to do with appeasing others or fitting into a culture foreign from your own. It was all about abstaining from the appearance of condoning evil and error and always behaving in such a way as to magnify truth and right in the eyes of men." -- Mark Osgatharp, Landmark Missionary Baptist Church, Wynne, Arkansas
"Paul is commenting on his willingness to lay aside external ideas and even the manner in which he approached some religious convictions for the greater good of being able to minister to the flock of GOD in general...Paul's willingness to circumcise Timothy was born out of this spirit of willingness to compromise on non-essential matters. Later he would not circumcise Titus for this very reason, because some had made circumcision a necessity." -- Mike McInnis, Grace Chapel, O'Brien, Florida
"I am made all things to all men; which is to be understood, as in all the other instances of his being so, not in cases and things criminal and sinful, contrary to the moral law, and the dictates of his own conscience, subversive of the Gospel of Christ, and of the order and discipline of it, but in cases and things of an indifferent nature:" -- John Gill's Exposition of the Bible
The primary application of this Scripture is the giving up of our rights or liberties that we have as a direct consequence of our status as children of God. Will we insist on our rights to the detriment and destruction of others, and for our own glory rather than the glory of God? We should not interpret Paul's "all things to all" based on our own preconceived ideas, but by his own practice. Are we, like Paul, willing to give up, if necessary, every right we have and every privilege we enjoy in order to further the gospel? If not, perhaps we have not learned the true meaning of I Cor. 9:19-23.
Here are links to two blogs by Tom Ascol that also address the subject:
1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul on Accommodation
All things to all men