1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul on Accommodation

A couple of days ago David Young made this observation about my comments on 1 Corinthians 9:22b:

Now that we have heard what the text is NOT about, I’m curious to know what Dr. Ascol believes the text IS about. He wrote that he believes there needs to be some reconsidering, so how about another post??

Fair enough. Below are comments I made on that text in the course of a larger treatment on biblical accommodation that I prepared several years ago. They still represent my thinking. Paul’s attitude and example in this area are a tremendous challenge to me. Love for Christ and love for people should lead us, like it led him, to go as far as we possibly can under Christ for the purpose of seeing people saved.

In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul personalizes his teachings on the exercise of Christian liberty. He speaks with full confidence of his freedom to take a wife, even though he does not take one. He is free to receive a salary, but he does not do that, either. He willingly gives up those things that are rightfully his as Christ’s free man for the sake of preaching the gospel. In vv. 19-23 he begins to sum up his point by describing his own practice in this area. He formulates a principle that governs all his conduct as a gospel minister. And in so doing he outlines for us what we could call the doctrine of accommodation.

Where he encountered prejudices that resulted from ignorance, misunderstanding, or custom, Paul accommodated himself to them by willingly giving up things which he knew to be indifferent.

Having assured his readers in 1 Corinthians 9 that he is without question Christ’s free man, he goes on in 1 Corinthians 9:19b – 22a to express his conviction regarding appropriate Christian conduct.

That conduct can be summarized by the word, “accommodation.” That word has taken on rather negative connotations in our day. It tends to be equated with compromise. That is not the way that I am using, however. I would make a sharp distinction between compromising what God has revealed in His Word and accommodating others where we can for the sake of gaining a hearing for the Gospel. In the latter part of 1 Corinthians 9:19 we see the extent of Paul’s accommodation. He says, “though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all.”

Is Paul saying that he submitted himself once again to the slavery from which Christ had set him free? Hardly. He is not saying that, having been freed by Christ from the whims and notions of man, he now places himself in bondage to them a second time.
Paul refuses to budge one inch in giving up the essence of the liberty that he has in Christ before God. But he is more than willing freely to restrict the exercise of his Christian liberty before men.

It is vitally important to distinguish between the essence of our liberty before God, and the exercise of that liberty before men. There is an important difference between Christian liberty and the use of Christian liberty.

In his commentary on 1 Peter, ,John Brown helps understand this further when he writes, “Christian liberty is an internal thing–it belongs to the mind and conscience, and, has a direct reference to God. The use of Christian liberty is an external thing–it belongs to conduct, and, has reference to man. No consideration should prevail upon us for a moment to give up the essence of our liberty, but, many a consideration should induce us to forego the practical assertion or display of our liberty.”

Do you see that distinction? Paul would not give up his liberty before God, but he willingly and freely chose not to exercise his liberty in certain circumstances with certain people if doing so might enable him to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to them. This principle explains the apostle’s meaning. Even though he knew himself to be Christ’s free man, with regard to the use of his freedom he acted as if he were a slave.

He describes his actions in relation to 3 groups of people: to the Jews who were under the law; to the Gentiles who were without the law; and to the weak or overly scrupulous Christians (cf. 8:9-12).

With regard to the Jews, Paul did not hesitate to participate in certain Jewish customs (treating them as nonobligatory indifferent things) for the sake of gaining a hearing with the Jews. At least three times in the book of Acts we see him doing exactly what he says he is willing to do here. In Acts 21, Paul goes to Jerusalem, and after conferring with the leaders there in that church, discovered there were some who were accusing him of preaching against the law of Moses. Some of the brethren were about to undergo a purification rite. Paul agrees to undergo that Jewish rite with them and even to pay the tax that was due for it. This is an act of accommodation. We see it also in Acts 18 when a vow being taken at Cenchrea to shave his head was fulfilled. He was willing to accommodate this Jewish ceremony. Then in the opening verses of Acts 16, when he was ready to embark on his second missionary journey, he wants to take a young man with him. Yet, this young man had not been circumcised. So Paul circumcised Timothy and took him along. To the Jews, he says, “I became as a Jew, as one under the law.”

To the Gentiles, in verse 21, those without the law, he identified with them by showing himself to be truly free from the civil and ceremonial requirements of Judaism. He did not take any advantage at all of his Jewish heritage at their expense. He never lorded his spiritual advantages over them.

Then in verse 22, with regard to those who are weak in conscience, knowledge, or faith, he was willing to act and live as if he himself were weak for their sake. He was willing to eat no meat to gain them for Christ. He was willing to forego his liberties in this area. He was willing to be a vegetarian, if need be, for the sake of preaching the gospel to them.

Paul was willing to go to great lengths to accommodate. But we should not conclude from this that there were no boundaries to his accommodation. In verse 21, in the parenthetical comment, the apostle tells us that indeed there are limitations–important limitations. There is a fence around Paul’s field of accommodation. He says that he is not “anomous theou, alla ennomous Christou” (genitive case, as opposed to the TR which has it in dative case).

Paul would go as far as his freedom would permit, but he would not transgress the standards of God (“God” and “Christ” should not be pitted against one another as if Paul is referring to two different standards). Though he would readily accommodate himself to all men, where he might do so lawfully, for the purpose of gaining some, he would violate no laws of Christ to please or humor any man.

His accommodating conduct was limited by the precepts of God’s Word. He often denied himself and resigned his own rights for the good of others, but he would not sin against his God nor give up the rights of his King to save the soul of another. Here is where Anselm gets his thesis that the slightest sin can never be justified even if by committing it the whole world would be saved. This is why Paul could not circumcise Titus–it would have meant denying the gospel by giving in to the legalistic demands of the Judaizers.

Accommodation is not possible when the truth of God’s Word is at stake. When the battle lines are drawn (either by you or by someone else) over the revealed precepts or principles of God’s Word, the Christian only has 2 options, and accommodation is not one of them. He may contend for the faith once delivered to the saints, or he may compromise. In such matters you are not free. For you, like Paul, are subject to the law of Christ. To compromise is to break that law. Accommodation must end where biblical precept and principle begin.

After expressing his comprehension of his freedom in Christ and outlining his convictions on accommodation, Paul concludes t
his paragraph in 1 Corinthians 9 with a concise statement of the principle of accommodation. In the last part of verse 22, he says, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” Paul is not advocating a convictionless Christianity with these words. Rather, he is saying, “I will accommodate as many as I can as far as is lawfully allowable.” In this statement, he is giving to us the purpose of accommodation. He says, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

Paul lays down this principle of accommodation with one end in sight: the salvation of sinners. Spurgeon said that in his day, some ministers he knew took this verse to read: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save a sum.” That is not what Paul means by this at all. He is burdened for the salvation of sinners. And this includes not only those who are presently outside of Christ, but also weak believers whose consciences are still bound due to ignorance or misunderstanding. Both classes are, I believe, referred to in 1 Corinthians 14:16, 23, 24 where Paul distinguishes between “unbelievers” and the “uninformed” (idiotes). The gospel minister must conduct himself with the awareness that such people are indeed among us in the church.

Paul gives us not only his burning passion and purpose for accommodation in this statement of the principle, but he also gives us the motive behind his accommodation. In verse 23, he says, “now this I do for the gospel’s sake that I may be a partaker of it with you.” “For the sake of the gospel,” Paul says, “I am motivated to accommodate the weaknesses of the weak, the Jewishness of the Jews, and the unceremonialness of the Gentiles.” He wants to be of service to the gospel of Christ.”

How does Paul’s accommodating activity benefit the gospel” He certainly does not benefit its truthfulness (it does not become more true). Neither does he benefit it in its power to save (it is not more inherently powerful). Rather, Paul’s practice of accommodation benefits the gospel in the same way that a holy life adorns the doctrine of God our Savior (Titus 2:10). Such practice demonstrates something of the character of those who have been vitally changed by that gospel. The practice of accommodation manifests the spirit and the savor of the gospel and gives the gospel an opportunity to be heard.

There is a character of life that is commensurate to the gospel. The desire to live such a life, Paul says, is what motivated him to practice accommodation. Do you think it was easy for Paul, having been delivered from the bondage of Judaism and all of those customs and details that kept assailing him and weighing him down, to go back in to his Jewish brothers and live as a Jew? It could not have been easy for him to accommodate their bondage to all of their traditions and customs. He knew and had tasted the liberty that is in Christ Jesus, but he was willing to forego the exercise of that liberty with his Jewish brothers in order to preach the gospel to them. He passionately desired to win some and that is why he was willing to become as a Jew to the Jews.

Paul does not want to conduct his ministry in a way that is inconsistent with gospel he preaches. He is concerned not only for the truth of the gospel, but also for its spirit. We, like Paul, must also be concerned to manifest that spirit of the gospel. He knew the utter inconsistency of trying to proclaim a self-giving Savior while living a self-serving, self-seeking life.

The Puritan John Flavel said this, “A crucified stile [style] best suits the preachers of a crucified Christ.” It was this very point that had captured the apostle’s heart. Paul wanted his life to be compatible with his message. He did more than just pay lip service to his own exhortation in Philippians 2:3-8:

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

By a crucified, self-sacrificial life Paul consciously sought to exude the spirit of the gospel in the way he conducted himself toward others. Not only did he proclaim the gospel, his life reeked of its savor.

How far should we go in accommodating the people to whom we minister? What about our colleagues–some of whom at times act and talk in ways that assault our theological sensitivities? How far should we go? As far as the law of Christ will allow. As far as we possibly can without violating either God’s Word or our own conscience. How should we go to relate to the ignorant, uninstructed, weak believer? Should we not try to accommodate his or her weakness . . . for the gospel’s sake?

Listen to the words of John Calvin on this point:

Now, if we consider how great a man Paul was, who stooped this far, ought we not to feel ashamed–we who are next to nothing in comparison with him–if, bound up in self, we look with disdain upon the weak, and do not deign to yield up a single point to them?

How many conflicts have occurred in our churches because of our unwillingness to accommodate the weak sheep of the flock? How many wounds have been inflicted upon Christ’s Church because of the failure of God’s ministers at this point?

May God help us not only to minister the Gospel, but also to do so in the spirit of the gospel.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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