Sometimes, inconsistencies in behavior point to an underlying moral problem. And sometimes not. What complicates the matter is that we may scrutinize people differently when we already don’t like them.
Imagine this scenario. Most of the people in the church of Corinth are Gentile converts with a long and taken-for-granted history of pagan worship, including eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul’s told them not to do this, and some of the Corinthians are miffed. And unfortunately, Paul’s own behavior gives them ammunition: sometimes he eats sacrificed meat, and sometimes he doesn’t. Hypocrite, they sniff. Why should we listen to him?
Paul is forced once again to explain himself:
Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them. I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews. I act like I’m under the Law to those under the Law, so I can recruit those who are under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law). I act like I’m outside the Law to those who are outside the Law, so I can recruit those outside the Law (though I’m not outside the law of God but rather under the law of Christ). I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means. All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel, so I can be a partner with it. (1 Cor 9:19-23, CEB)
The churches he planted, pastored, or mentored were culturally diverse, mixing people from radically different ethnic and social class backgrounds. One of the most persistent tensions was between the Gentile majority, who were accustomed to Roman cultic practices, and the Jewish minority. Whether it was permissible to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols was not a minor point of doctrine; it symbolized the social struggles of the newly-founded church itself.
Personally, Paul could eat such meat with a clear conscience. But as we’ve already seen in chapter 8, some converts weren’t so sure. To violate their consciences over the matter of tainted meat would have ruptured their communion with God, even if their more “sophisticated” neighbors thought them silly.
Thus, out of love for those who hadn’t yet shaken their moral dependence on the Law of Moses, Paul curtailed his own freedom and refrained from eating the controversial meat. Such scruples were unnecessary, of course, when dining with Gentiles. In that way, he became “all things to all people,” with the ultimate purpose being the flourishing of the gospel among all people groups.
And yet to some, the very idea of “all things to all people” still makes Paul sound like the stereotypical used-car salesman–he’ll say or do whatever it takes to close the deal. We’ll tackle that misperception in the next post.