All things to all people: 1 Corinthians 9:22 (1 Corinthians 9: 19-23)
“I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some”. Paul has been criticized for writing this sort of stuff. He has been charged with dishonesty, subterfuge, wavering with the wind. But, in reality, he was reflecting the way God deals with people. And when you come to think of it, it’s the only effective way we can communicate.
The Importance of Time and Place
People’s outlook and understanding is shaped by the particular place where they live and the particular time in history when they exist. If you had lived in Italy or England, or China for that matter, in the 1500s you would have been a very different person than you are. Your world would have been very different.
Everyone lives on the same planet, but they do not live in the same world. Our worlds are shaped by the language we speak, the stories we hear from our parents and grandparents, the attitudes we absorb from people around us, the cultural situation in which we live. So when it comes to communication it’s not a matter of one size fits all. There is no universal language. People have to hear it in their own situation or they don’t hear it at all.
The Biblical Example
The Bible reflects the story of God’s revelation to one particular people over a period of two thousand years or so. We see God speaking to ancient Israel in ways appropriate to their changing situation.
Through the exodus God spoke to Israel about release from oppression and promises for a land of their own. There were lessons about trusting God as they travelled through the wilderness.
Using the ancient concept of royal covenant the Bible tells of God’s dealings with Israel in terms of covenants – e.g.: with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, with David.
Through Torah, the Law, God reveals to Israel how the people should live in community.
There are many passages like Isaiah 40:29 that show people living through times of hardship or exile discovering that God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.
Jesus couched his message in terms of the Jewish people’s expectations about a Messiah and God’s reign being established on earth.
Preaching in the Early Church
In the NT we can see that different situations called for different emphases
To the Jews, Jesus was presented as the Messiah. To Gentile people who were looking for salvation, he was presented as Saviour. To people of the Roman Empire he was presented as an alternative emperor. In the Letter to the Hebrews the gospel was presented in terms of a better temple and a better high priest than the Jews had. To the persecuted church, the Book of Revelation presents the gospel in terms of victory over Satan.
This sets the pattern for the church’s proclamation of the gospel in every generation and in every part of the world.
There is only one God – the mystery beyond our describing, the Creator within whom we all live and move and have our being. There is only one Jesus Christ. But people in different parts of the world and people of different age groups need to hear of him in ways appropriate to their situation. So we have many different perspectives on the gospel.
Instead of assuming, each one, that our perspective is the only one and dismissing all others, we would be well advised to listen to how other people have responded. Our own understanding may be enlarged. Some people find this unsettling, destabilizing, but we grow through sharing with people of different denominations, with people from different parts of the world.
Within the Christian church there are many different understandings of God, theologies, because people hear God speaking to them in their different language and cultural environments. When I was in college the theological books that we read were written by Europeans and Americans – almost exclusively male, white and Protestant, but since then the emphasis has been placed on the context within which faith is experienced and thinking done, so we have feminist theology, black theology, liberation theology, bamboo theology, coconut theology, etc.
Outside of the church too, I believe God also speaks addressing people according to their capacity to hear. God speaks to Muslims today in the midst of their Muslim faith. God speaks to Buddhists in terms of their Buddhism. God speaks to humanists in terms of their humanism.
Instead of trying to communicate the message about Jesus by shouting, over and over, the gospel as we have heard it in the past, we need to follow Paul in listening to others and then addressing the gospel to them in ways that fit into their world. Missionaries have always had to learn this. It has become the basic missionary strategy.
This doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing their world. The gospel challenges every cultural situation. Christ brings judgment as well as hope. Speaking their language doesn’t mean adopting their values. It means presenting him as the one who challenges and renews every cultural situation.
That’s why the gospel has to be re-presented to every generation because thinking, customs and attitudes change. That is the challenge confronting the church in Australia today – to not only speak with an authentically Australian accent but to address the various Australian sub-cultures with the living and dynamic gospel of Jesus Christ.