“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
(1 Corinthians 9:22)
My great friend, former college roommate, and “brother from another mother” is one of those people who can walk into a room of strangers and have three new “best friends” within an hour. I have seen him do this time and time again, and it always amazes me. I saw him do it at school. I’ve seen him do this in supermarkets, restaurants, and in crowds of people…all kinds of people: every size, shape, background and hue. He has a way of being forward with people without being offensive to them; and they like him. He reminds me of Paul in some ways; he never stops being himself, but he quickly finds common ground with others.
At first glance, Paul’s comment opens him to the criticism of being a spiritual chameleon, someone who changes his colors and stripes in order to fit-in with those in his immediate surroundings. I think the truth, however, is far from that shallow assessment. The gospel and the sharing of it was, he believed, far too important for him to be parochial. That was the fault of the Pharisees, his former identity and association, whose narrow-mindedness prevented them from seeing GOD at work in their midst.
Paul never lost or hid his core identity, but he did modify his evangelistic approach according to the needs of those he was trying to reach. Quoting Swiss theologian Frederic Godet, Donald Metz wrote, “No observance appeared to [Paul] too irksome, no requirement too stupid, no prejudice too absurd, to prevent his dealing tenderly with it in his view of saving souls.”* The ex-Pharisee Paul, who initially preferred a very small circle, became the Apostle Paul with a greatly enlarged circle (and was always interested in enlarging even that as GOD gave him opportunity).
Christianity is essentially a relational way of life (see Matthew 22:35-40) modeled perfectly by Jesus. Being open to enlarging our circles and seizing opportunities to do so is in harmony with having an identity in Christ. Insistence on maintaining small circles is not in harmony with who Jesus is and who believers are called to be. Small circle mindedness is more suited to the Pharisees who had a very limited view as to who was or could be worthy before GOD. Much of what we see and hear these days speaks to me about preferring small, closely contained circles.
For Paul, a Jew steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures and the history of the “chosen” people, there was no shame in relating to someone weak in their understanding of spiritual things. There was no shame for him in building a connection with the very culturally different Scythians and the proud, and sometimes arrogant Greeks. He was as comfortable in the presence of slaves as he was with the free. And despite the controversies over the last two millennia, his trust in and reliance on a number of women adds weight to his doctrinal statement that, in Christ, there is no difference between female and male.
Paul was making (and continues to make through his GOD-inspired letters) the point that it is the will of GOD that all people become chosen people. Isn’t that the real purpose and message of the gospel? Willingly enlarging our circles to include modern versions of the culturally and socially different is an affirmation of our intent to not be parochial and small-minded with this wonderful gift, the path to abundant and eternal life GOD has given us in Christ. It says, “Everyone I work with or go to school with, everyone I meet, everyone I see but do not know, is my neighbor and I want them to be chosen; and I am open to connecting with them. Who knows; I just may win some.”
* Metz, Donald. “The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians,” Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1968, p. 402.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2019. All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted.