1 Corinthians 9:16-23New International Version (NIV)
16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 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. 21 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. 22 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. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Chameleons. What do you know about chameleons? We know that they are lizards. We know that they live in warm climates. One interesting fact about chameleons is that their eyes are independently mobile, so they can look and move their eyes different directions at the same time. But of course, the best-known characteristic of the chameleon is its ability to change color.
The color change isn’t complete, and it is not as drastic as you might see in the cartoons. You can’t hold a chameleon in front of a rainbow and watch him develop stripes of ROYGBIV. But many chameleons can change their colors from greens to yellows to browns. There are different theories for why and how chameleons change their color, but what is often cited is that this change in color is intended as a camouflage. A chameleon changes its colors to match its surroundings; it doesn’t want to stick out. It is safer to blend in.
I’ve known a few politicians like that, too. Politicians can change their “color” to match their surroundings if they think that they might win a few more votes. If you ask a politician how they feel about DACA or healthcare reform, they will probably answer slightly differently in different settings. Many politicians are simply going to tell you what they think you want to hear. If someone calls you a chameleon, they probably don’t mean it as a compliment.
But before I go critiquing the politicians, I need to do some personal reflecting, too. Because I’m just as guilty of changing my colors from time to time based on my surroundings. If I’m spending time with my politically progressive friends, I may use certain language and criticize certain leaders. Yet when I’m with my conservative friends, I may use different language and criticize other leaders.
I’m trying to fit in; I want people to like me. Is that really so bad? No, I don’t think it is the worst thing in the world, but I do think that there are better ways of doing it. I think we really do need to be authentic, especially today when so many people are suspicious of Christians and Christianity. So how can we try to fit in and be authentic at the same time? And what about Paul and his claim to be “all things to all people?” Is he being a chameleon, changing to his surroundings? Or worse, is he being a hypocrite, putting on a mask to conceal who he really is? Jesus had a lot of things to say about hypocrites.
To understand what is going on in our text for today we need to turn back a page and remember the text we looked at last week. Last week Paul was talking about whether or not it was okay to eat food that had been used in ritualistic sacrifices offered to idols. Paul’s point comes down to yes, you can. But don’t allow your freedom to cause another person to stumble. The meat is just meat, the idols are just wood and clay. What is really important is the relationship that you have with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Relationships are more important than your freedom.
That was 1 Corinthians 8, and in our text from 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is attempting to strengthen his point. It may seem like Paul goes down a number of rabbit trails, and perhaps he does, but these rabbit trails eventually circle back to the main path. Most of the time, anyway. So after a little diversion and a discussion on whether or not he is a true apostle and whether or not an apostle should be paid, Paul returns to this idea of elevating relationships over our personal freedom.
In verse 19, Paul writes, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.”
Paul uses the word “slave” quite frequently in his writings. Often he talks about being a slave of Christ. Here he says that he is a slave to everyone. The noun that is usually translated as slave is “doulos.” Or here it is a verb, “doulow.” Our modern understanding of slavery may make this a little bit challenging to understand, and that is why many translations choose instead to translate doulos as “servant.” I prefer “servant” because you may volunteer to serve someone, while entering into slavery is usually compulsory. But they didn’t ask my opinion when translating the NIV, NRSV, or any V, for that matter.
I find it helpful to think of a doula. The term doula, which comes from doulos, refers to a person who provides nonmedical care to a woman who is bringing another life into this world. From DONA, the largest doula licensing organization in the world, we find that a doula is “a trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a mother before, during and shortly after childbirth to help her achieve the healthiest, most satisfying experience possible.”
This is what Paul is claiming to be. He provides continuous physical, emotional, informational, and I would add spiritual support to young Christian communities. I like this metaphor as it is consistent with what Jesus says in John 3:16 about being “born again.” There’s this birth of new Christians and the birth of a new Christian community, and Paul offers to be the doula to this community, making sure they get off to a good start.
I can get behind that concept. Let us all be doulas for the kingdom! But then Paul keeps going, and I start to have my concerns. In verse 20-22, Paul writes, “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.”
It sounds to me like Paul is becoming a bit of a chameleon, just changing his colors to blend into his surroundings. When he is around people who keep the Torah, Paul keeps the Torah. That means certain dietary restraints. But when he is around gentiles, he enjoys his crab cakes and lobster rolls. Paul sounds a lot like the politician trying to get your vote, telling you what you want to hear. Sure, Paul’s intentions are better than the politician. Rather than trying to get your vote, he is trying to save souls. But I don’t know about you, I can smell a disingenuous person from a mile away. And that’s usually where I like those dishonest people to stay, a mile away! Paul seems like a chameleon, and Paul sounds a bit like a hypocrite.
But what if Paul isn’t talking about being fake? What if instead he is talking about being hospitable and full of grace? What I think Paul is saying here is that we need to allow room for other people to practice their culture, their dress, their lives, and express their world view and their identity without always feeling condemned or challenged. This isn’t to say that you do things that you believe to be unethical or even encourage other people to do unethical things. But in matters that are not foundational to your faith, we need to let some things slide. If nobody is being hurt, no laws are being broken, and no sins are being committed, I think it is best to let certain things slide.
Notice here that Paul is on the progressive side of this one. He does not consider himself to be under the Torah. He doesn’t eat kosher. But his Jewish friends do. So even though Paul doesn’t eat kosher himself, he is willing to do so when he is with his kosher friends. It’s not hurting anyone, no laws are being broken, and no sins are being committed. Giving up crab cakes is a small sacrifice toward strengthening relationships.
I’ve mentioned before that I come from a pretty conservative branch of Anabaptism. To this day the church of my youth requires that men sit on one side of the sanctuary and women sit on the other. Women wear long dresses or skirts and head coverings over uncut hair. Many people don’t go to college, unless they are going for teaching or nursing degrees. And then you go to a church-approved college.
When I visit my conservative cousins, I don’t start bragging about my freedom in Christ. I wouldn’t walk into the church on a Sunday morning with my wife and her uncovered head and sit in the front of the sanctuary. Are there things that we disagree upon? Absolutely. But if nobody is being hurt, no laws are being broken, and no sins are being committed, I’m comfortable with them being as conservative as they want to be. And like Paul, I may make a few sacrifices so we can all feel comfortable together.
Now if someone was being hurt, that would be different. If they were performing child sacrifices, I’d do something. (Not that they would ever do something like that. I’m looking for an extreme example here.) Or if I thought the women were being forced to dress plainly without them having any say, I would voice my concern. But while I’m in their community, in their place of worship, or their homes, I’m going to be respectful of their tradition.
Like Paul, I am elevating relationships above my own, personal freedom in Christ. I’m offering them grace, leaving room for their interpretation of the scriptures. And I’ll admit, for me, I find it the most difficult to offer grace to people who are in places where I used to be (theological, spiritually, socially, and politically).
I think rather than considering Paul a faker or a chameleon, we need to think of him as a doula, one who cares for the church and the community. Now let’s put a different spin on this whole idea of being all things to all people.
During my time in Virginia, I have had to endure way too many conversations about topics that I don’t care about, namely NASCAR and Virginia Tech football. Confession time: ten years ago I could count all the NASCAR drivers I knew by name on one hand and still have fingers left over. And this might seem blasphemous to you, but ten years ago, I didn’t know who Frank Beamer was.
But today, after I have been a part of this worshipping community, I can say without hesitation, reservation, or equivocation that I…still don’t really care about NASCAR or Virginia Tech football. Don’t get me wrong, the crashes are exciting, and the end of the race is too. It’s just that everything else in the middle gets a little boring. And ACC football is simply inferior to the game that they play in the Big Ten (which is a bit inferior to the SEC, I’ll admit it).
My point is that today I at least pay attention to who wins the NASCAR race and I can name a lot more drivers. I know that there are people here who like Truex, some who like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and even some who like the Busch brothers. And I didn’t even need to look up “Virginia Tech coach” to know Justin Fuente’s name. I pay attention to these things because I know that they are important to some of you.
Let me give you another example so you can see why I pay attention to these things. Every day when our kids get off the bus, I ask them about their days. What did you paint in art class? What did you play at recess? Who did you sit by at lunch? I’m not really interested in finger paintings, kickball, or the social practices of Kindergarteners. But yet I do care, not because of the activities themselves, but because of the people taking part in the activities.
I love my children, so if something is important to them, it is important to me. I love my church, so if there is something that is important to you, it is important to me. So if I ask about NASCAR or Virginia Tech, I’m not trying to be a chameleon, or worse, a hypocrite. I genuinely do care about these things, because I do genuinely care about you.
I wonder if this isn’t a part of what Paul is getting at when he talks about being “all things to all people.” It isn’t about faking it to make people like you. It is about loving people so much that you are willing to eat kosher around Jews. It is about loving people so much that you care about the things that are important to them. This is about putting relationships first, because the kingdom of God is by nature relational.