The right way to evangelize is a rightly oft-discussed topic but, in hopes of finding the right answer, we’ve made more than a few grievous mistakes along the way. One of the more alarming misunderstandings derives from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19. Is Paul giving us a licence to compromise in order to save the lost?
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 ESV).
In the late 1960s, a heinous cult was formed by preacher David Brandt Berg that went by the moniker of Teens for Christ. The name later changed to Children of God, but the practises and beliefs of the cult remained the same. The worship of Jesus was paired with 60s era “free love” and believed, quite firmly, that the apocalypse was near. This doesn’t sound all that different from the fundamentalist Christians who would go on to make similar doomsday predictions (each one failing to come to pass), however, the cult had some, let’s say, strange ideas. During the 1970s several allegations were thrown at them for sexual misconduct. This likely stemmed from their belief that, in order to “win souls for Christ,” one was allowed to do whatever was necessary. The most well-known example of this was a practice Berg dubbed as “flirty fishy,” which ordered females to become “prostitutes for Jesus” in order to win men to Christ. Apparently, it worked, as Berg reported that it had brought in over 19,000 new converts. However, as we’ll see, if one “converts” through the enticement of sin, in this case the treatment of women as mere tools to progress agenda, that enticement doesn’t disappear.
It didn’t take long before further allegations were being brought up against the group, the most horrific being that of child sexual abuse and that they, too, were being used in the “flirty fishy” scheme (just writing that made me feel dirty, I do apologize). Berg himself was accused of sexually abusing young girls, including his daughters, and the horror stories only continue to become more heinous and depraved from there. Berg passed away in 93 when under investigation from the FBI and since then the cult has changed its name to Family international, but is barely a blip on the radar now. With only 1,700 members, it’s probably only a matter of time before it shuts down for good.
Despite the wickedness and debauchery of this story, it’s an important lesson of how severe the consequences of a false belief (or interpretation) can go. I’m sure that if you were to consult Berg it would hardly be a surprise to see him cite 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 as his case. But does Paul really hand us a licence to partake in such vile acts for the salvation of others?
Paul makes it known that when he says he has become like those “without law,” he adds in parentheses, “not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ.” This gives us a clear limitation on what Paul would, and could, allow. Paul had a profound understanding of the Scriptures and the law. He knew what could be flexible in certain situations and what had to remain cemented. This is why you’ll never find Paul stating that he became a thief in order to win thieves, a liar in order to win liars, a murderer in order to win murderers, and so on and so forth. But in the context of eating certain foods (chapter 8), Paul says,
But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak (1 Corinthians 8:9).
Paul was saying that a rigid following of the law could potentially cause one to stumble by way of offence. To use a modern example, let’s say I was a vegetarian who has been invited to the house of a friend who wants to know more about Christ. This friend, out of his good nature and generosity, offers me a hamburger for dinner. I want to make this man feel loved and I want to be someone he can come to and not feel judged. Would telling him my dietary preferences and rejecting his meal help me become that person or would it make him feel a little ashamed or, depending on how I say it, judged? Of course, this doesn’t mean I can never let him know, but would the world come to an end if I swallowed my pride just that once and ate what he offered to me? This is Paul’s argument in effect. He steps into the shoes of the person he is hoping to bless, perhaps letting minor or insignificant practices of the law go in order to avoid unnecessary offence.
It’s vital to emphasize what Paul is not arguing. He is not arguing that we should water down our message. The one thing that he stated to be the biggest stumbling block (the crucifixion of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:23)) was always consistent. Paul modified himself when it was needed, but he never modified the Gospel or twisted it in a way that gave licence to sinful practice. N.T. Wright beautifully explains,
This statement has sometimes been understood as though it meant that Paul was a mere pragmatist, a spin-doctor, twisting his message this way and that to suit different audiences. That’s not what he’s saying. The message remains constant. It is the messenger who must swallow his pride, who must give up his rights, who must change his freedom into slavery. Woe betide those who trim the message so that they don’t have to trim themselves (1 Corinthians p.117).
There are certain practices that we believe form our identity as Christians. Maybe that’s going to church every Sunday or Saturday, perhaps it’s tithing ten per cent of our earnings every week, or maybe it’s avoiding meats that are believed to be unclean. These are well and good practices if done with the right intentions and for the right reasons. But if our cultural or religious rituals get in the way of us being a friend to somebody, is it possible that we have gone too far? Can we hold them so rigidly that we cannot take the time to serve or love someone in need?
At the other end, if we use this as an argument to “fit in,” that can swing the other way and become harmful to us. We need to achieve a balance of not compromising on basic moral law and not becoming a leaf that flows with the tide, allowing anything and everything in an attempt to win souls. As the depravity of the Children of God cult can tell us, coming to the knowledge of salvation through the enticement of sin isn’t salvation, it’s blasphemy that leads to depravity. Our identity and our message are to be rooted in Jesus Christ and in His death and Resurrection, lest the devil creates yet another string of wickedness.