When I think of the stereotype of used-car salesmen, I think of “Ralph Spoilsport,” a character created in the late 1960s by The Firesign Theatre. It was a spoof of Southern California car dealer Ralph Williams, whose commercials were a staple of late-late-night TV. Spoilsport, the fast-talking huckster, would try to sell you a car with such impressive extras as “chrome fender dents” and “factory air-conditioned air from our fully factory-equipped air-conditioned factory.”
Ummm…right. Buyer beware.
Paul’s claim to be all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22) can sound a little like evangelistic hucksterism: all that matters is making the sale. As we’ve seen, some Corinthians may have accused Paul of being a hypocritical flip-flopper on the matter of meat sacrificed to idols. And some scholars suggest that Paul probably raised further hackles by refusing to accept patronage on the one hand, but pressuring the Corinthians for a contribution to the Jerusalem church on the other. (To imagine what the Corinthians may have felt, insert your favorite example of manipulative fundraising.)
But one thing seems certain: Paul would not knowingly have done anything to compromise the gospel, not when he had been so compellingly commissioned by Jesus. He wasn’t under the law of Moses (1 Cor 9:20), but that didn’t make him “lawless” or unscrupulous; in something of a play on words in the Greek, he insisted instead that he was “under the law of Christ” (vs. 21, CEB).
Verse 19 captures the tension under which Paul the missionary labors: “Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them” (CEB). Paul asserts here that he is “free,” referring again to his decision not to rely on patronage: he is free of the social restrictions that might otherwise be imposed by those who would pay his way. At the same time, however, he makes himself a slave, voluntarily restricting his own freedom. This is not a matter of being wishy-washy or noncommittal for the sake of blending in or winning the confidence of an evangelistic “mark.” Rather, Paul is giving up legitimate rights and privileges, by his free choice.
Contrast Galatians 2:11-14, where Peter’s socially disastrous flip-flopping was motivated by fear of what others would think. Paul castigated Peter publicly; would this same Paul be wishy-washy on the matter of sacrificed meat? Hardly. He wasn’t unsure about what was right, nor afraid of what others might think, nor being selfishly manipulative. Rather, he had what psychologists might call a developmental view: he realized that not everyone’s conscience was equally robust, and modified his own behavior accordingly.
That was the difference between Paul and the Corinthians who opposed him. Their attitude seemed to be: We know what’s okay to eat; anyone who doesn’t know is immature or stupid; if they won’t listen, it’s their problem; we will do as we please, in good conscience. But for Paul, being all things to all people meant caring enough to be concerned how his behavior was affecting those he wanted to reach.
Christians are often concerned about taking the right stand on social and religious issues. But if we truly care about the gospel, we must pay particular attention to relationships — to how such stands are taken, communicated, and lived out in the company of others.