If you have ever visited another country, or spent time with people who are visiting this country, you are probably acutely aware of the fact that different cultures have different expectations. We often don’t think about our cultural norms, because they normal, they are second nature to us, but the fact is that our norms may differ from those of other countries. I knew that there were “cheat sheets” for people traveling to a foreign country that listed some basic customs that you should be aware of, so I looked on line for some. I found several web sites that have lists like this for international college students, so let me share with you some of the customs on the American cheat sheet.
1. Shaking hands is the customary greeting in America. To shake hands, you extend your right hand and squeeze the other person’s right hand. Don’t stand any closer than 2 feet, because Americans value personal space. Neither hugging nor kissing is generally welcomed as part of a greeting.
2. In America, burping after meals is considered impolite—not a compliment to the chef.
3. Waving” is a common way to say hello from a distance. Hold your hand up with all five fingers extended and move your hand left and right.
4. Americans are very hygiene-conscious and find natural body odors very offensive. They generally shower every day, use deodorants and perfumes to cover their natural scent, and wear freshly laundered clothes each day.
All of these things seem painfully obvious to us, but the fact is, if we behaved in these ways in some other countries, we would be looked at as weird, or worse, impolite or offensive. We expect others to abide by our customs while in our country, and we would endeavor to abide by theirs when in their country.
The same thing is true to a lesser extent when you are a guest in someone else’s home. Think about the number of things you try to cue on when entering someone’s house.
1. Do I take off my shoes? You make the move of starting to try to take your shoes off to see what your host says. If they don’t stop you, then you go ahead and take them off.
2. What seats are ok for me to sit in? Say you’re waiting for dinner and you go to sit down in the living room. Is there a certain chair that your host always sits in? Is there a place you shouldn’t sit?
3. Do we pray before we eat?
We worry about these things because we’d like to have a nice time with our hosts and we’d like to have interesting conversation. Any sort of conversation will be hindered if our hosts are just trying to think of a way to get us out of there because of how rude we are! We know that if we are perceived as rude or disrespectful, we probably won’t be invited back. The last thing we want after visiting someone else’s home is for them to close the door behind us after we leave and remark, “What a rude person that was!”
In 1 Corinthians 9, verses 19-23, Paul addresses a similar problem in the Christian life. He tells us that in order to spread the gospel, he does what he can to “fit in” and as a result, he has “become all things to all men, so that by all possible means, [he] might save some.”
Throughout chapter 9, Paul is talking about the rights of an apostle and the freedom that believers have through Christ. We read in Galatians 5 earlier that if we are led by the Holy Spirit, we are not under law and that we are in fact set free. In this passage he points out that we also have the freedom to place limits on our freedom, which is exactly what he’s done. This is Paul’s strategy in sharing the gospel—he is giving up some of the freedoms he has been given in order to fit in with others. In verses 20–22, Paul explains this principle by giving us some examples of how he has given up his own freedom.
Giving up Our Freedom
In verse 20, he says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” Now, Paul was, by birth, and by education and upbringing, a Jew. However, the Jews still believed that salvation lay in strict adherence to the rituals prescribed in the Old Testament. Paul knew that participation in their festivals and rituals was not required for his salvation, but he also knew that participating in them was not sinful, and that if he didn’t participate in them, they wouldn’t listen to a word he said and as a matter of fact, they probably would have kicked him out of the synagogue or their homes. So when Paul was with the Jews, he participated with them in their rituals.
Next he says, “To those under the law, I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” Probably, the people under the law that Paul was referring to were a specific group of Jews. Again, Paul says that though he was not subject to the law—that he was free from having to keep it—he subjected himself to it for the sake of those he was ministering to.
In verse 21, Paul says, “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law, but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.” When he was with people who were not Jews (Gentiles), he knew that they paid no attention to the Old Testament laws. In these situations, it was pointless for him to adhere to a strict celebration of festivals and rituals like he did the Jews (and as we said earlier, he wasn’t required to anyway). He instead participated in the things the Gentiles did. Notice that he implies that he wouldn’t do everything the Gentiles did, because he was still under Christ’s law. For example, he wasn’t going to worship at the Temple of Diana because that was sinful, but he knew that the people there didn’t see a problem with eating certain kinds of meat that Jews would find unacceptable—so when served pork or other meat, he didn’t refuse it. He ate it because it allowed him to fit in with these people, and because it didn’t violate the law of Christ.
Verse 22 says, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.” When he was with those who were weak (in other words, those who weren’t sure exactly what was permissible and what was not) he didn’t do things that would cause them to fall into sin. Some of those people would have balked at eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, because they may have come out of a religion where they had sacrificed their meat to idols, and it would be a temptation for them, and would be something they’d be uncomfortable eating. So in those cases, Paul simply didn’t serve it. It would be similar to if you or I invited someone who was an alcoholic over to dinner. If you knew they had a weakness for alcohol, you probably wouldn’t serve wine with dinner. You may have freedom to have a glass of wine with dinner—it may not be a temptation for you. So, you could say, it’s my right to drink this. But, you choose to give up some of your freedom in order to accommodate the other person. Paul says that he did what he could to accommodate these people who could easily fall into sin, despite the fact that he personally had no obligation to do so. He was placing limits on his own freedom as an act of love.
The Law of Christ
Note that in all of the examples Paul gives, the guiding principle is that he would participate in their rituals and accommodate them as much as he could, as long as what he was doing did not violate the law of Christ. In other words, Paul was not going to compromise his faith and value fitting in more than serving Christ. Of course, the question is what is the law of Christ? In the Galatians passage we read that we should be led by the Spirit, we should seek God in prayer about what we should do—our motivation should be to please God first, rather than ourselves or others. We also have clear commands given to us throughout the New Testament, and those too would make up the Law of Christ. So, the determining factor is whether the Bible speaks against what we plan to do, and whether, after praying about it, we still believe that it would be inappropriate to participate in some activity.
Now, the big question of course, is why in the world would Paul do this? He has said that he’s free from the rigid guidelines placed upon him by the world, so why would he voluntarily submit to them? A perfect example of this is in the book of Acts, when he recommended that Timothy be circumcised before going to talk to the Jews. (Easy for Paul to say!) He said that these men all knew that Timothy’s father was a Greek (in other words, a Gentile), and that they’d have nothing to do with him if he was still perceived as a Greek, an outsider. Timothy was not required to be circumcised—he wasn’t subject to Jewish law, but rather to the law of Christ. Yet, Timothy was circumcised before going to see the Jews. So why would Paul suggest this, and what could possibly motivate Timothy to submit to this? I mean, it isn’t Timothy’s problem that they aren’t willing to listen to him! If Timothy’s offering to share with them the truth that will set them free, but they aren’t willing to listen to it, then they deserve what’s coming to them, right? Well, that isn’t the attitude that Paul and Timothy take. In verses 22 and 23, Paul explains why he gives up some of his freedom.
I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
The motivation that Paul and Timothy both have is to become part of the culture as much as they possibly can, so that others will hear the gospel and be saved. They make it their responsibility to do whatever they can for a chance to share the life changing message of the gospel. Their reward is to see others understand and experience the love of Christ, and they view that as more valuable than exercising their freedom.
Now, if you’re like me, you may have some red flags being thrown up here. You may say, wait a second—are you saying that we should just play a part, that we should just pretend to be just like whoever we’re around? Are you saying that I should just be a chameleon, simply changing my outward appearance to blend in with my surroundings? Absolutely not. Nor do I think Paul is saying that. If you look at the rest of this letter and the rest of Paul’s writings, he is clearly advocating consistency. He says that we should consistently live for Christ and submit ourselves to His authority. Notice that he doesn’t say, “To the idolaters I became an idolater,” or, “To the adulterers I became an adulterer.” There are some things that we simply must not take part in. However, he points out that there are a lot of things that are essentially indifferent—there are not really any guidelines for them mentioned or implied in scripture. I think that Paul is saying in these cases there is no harm in being accommodating, and as a matter of fact, by accommodating others, we gain the right to be heard.
21st Century Missionaries
Now, you might say, this is all well and good, but Paul and Timothy were missionaries in the first century. They had to do a lot of things in order to fit in, or else people would shut them out, or think that they were blasphemers. They could even risk being killed if they didn’t accommodate. You might argue that you’re not a missionary, and even if you were, these verses wouldn’t apply to us today. You would of course be wrong. One of the things that missionaries to foreign countries do even today as part of their training is to learn about the culture of their mission field. Their reason is the same as Paul’s and Timothy’s—they don’t want the fact that they are outsiders to distract people from listening to what they have to say, from hearing the message of the gospel. They want to build relationships so that they earn the right to be heard.
The fact is that you and I are missionaries too. Before Jesus left the earth, he commanded us to go into the world proclaiming the gospel. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to go to a foreign country. We should start right where we are. Even though we live in America, we will still find ourselves in various different cultures as we attempt to share the gospel. In order for people to listen to what we have to say, we will have to fit in—we will have to be seen as something other than an outsider.
It’s just like when we visit someone’s house for dinner and attempt to abide by their customs. It’s not that we’re pretending to be a part of their family, but rather, we are trying to show respect for their family, because it gives us the opportunity to build a relationship. It shows that we care for the person, and it opens up our conversation and gives us a chance to really connect with one another. If we went to dinner and said, “I have a right to wear my shoes whenever I want—if you didn’t want me to wear my shoes in their house, you shouldn’t have invited me”, we could be sure that they wouldn’t make the mistake of inviting you ever again. Paul’s point is that we must show respect to these people and make it our responsibility to open doors for a deeper relationship.
So, we are to go into the world not as chameleons, but also not as rigid, inflexible people. We are to be a beacon of Christ’s love to all the different classes of people we encounter in life, regardless of their culture. Paul encountered a few different classes—Jews and Gentiles, weak and strong. We have a number of different classes as well. We have Republicans and Democrats and everything in between and beyond. We have sports fans and non-sports fans and Cubs fans and people who root for lesser teams. We have those who enjoy playing cards, we have those who like to watch movies, we have those who prefer to bowl. We have those who work the day shift, we have those who are home during the day. We have a seemingly infinite number of different classes of people—and in nearly every case we can respect and accommodate them, earning the right to be heard. We have the freedom to serve them, to meet them where they are, build relationships, and earn the right to be heard.
So, what should this principle look like today? With all of the different groups of people we encounter, it would be impossible for us to accommodate everyone, right? Well, that may be true. However, I think we already do a pretty good job of picking up on the “cultures” of those around us all the time. With those people who are our friends, those whom we value and respect, we make every effort to find out what is important to them—what they value—and we try to ensure that we do things that are pleasing rather than offensive. You see this with your family, you work hard to do the things they like and avoid the things they don’t like. You do it with your boss. You do it with your friends. When we see a person as valuable, we make an effort to understand that person’s “culture”, to know what makes them tick, and to try to meet them at their level.
In college, our group would make an effort to share the gospel in a variety of different ways. Sometimes we’d go down to the party place on a Friday night and talk to people down there. Sometimes I’d find myself sitting in the hallway or at the lunch table debating some issue that related to the Christian faith. I know that in these situations I was completely shut out if I tried to dominate the conversation, showing them how they were wrong. The most effective conversations I had were the ones when I would listen to the argument that the person was making or listen to the story of what they’ve faced in their life. If I would engage myself in trying to understand it, drawing them out, they would tell me all about themselves, and they’d start to trust that I really cared about them. It was after I had listened to them that they would then ask me what I thought, and then I would receive the same respect I had given them. I also knew where they were and what obstacles they had to overcome to trust in Christ. These were the times when I’d get to sit back and see God work.
So, why don’t we act like that all the time? I’ll be honest, the times where I was willing to invest the amount of time that was really needed were pretty few and far between, so don’t think I’m perfect at this. What is it that keeps us from really listening to a person, from working to build a relationship with them? Why do we take a defensive stance against so many people?
Quite frankly, I think the problem that we face is that there are a number of people that we just don’t view as valuable enough to warrant that much effort. These are people that we just write off. Why? Well, to be honest, I think it’s because we think they have nothing to offer us. When it’s put so bluntly, we realize just how self-seeking and rude of an attitude that is. So, how do we look at people differently? How do we move beyond being self-seeking and rude to being self-sacrificing and accommodating?
The way that we can begin to accommodate others is not to look at the people we deal with every day in terms of what they have to offer. We shouldn’t assign value to people based on what they can give us. Instead, we need to look at the people we encounter each day and see a person that God created. We need to see a person who needs the forgiveness that Jesus can give and rather than saying, “what can they give me,” we need to say, I have something I can give them—I can give them the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. When we view people in this way, we’ll start trying to understand them, to know what they like and what they don’t, to see the concerns they have and the obstacles between them and Christ. Then we can begin to move away the barriers, we can forge a relationship and help them to understand the good news of Christ.
So, I encourage you to look at yourself as a missionary. God has placed you where you are for a reason. There are a number of people that you come in contact with each day that you could minister to—people who need to hear and grasp the love of Christ. We need to view our encounters with these people as a chance to learn more about them, to understand them, and to learn how best we can serve them.
I would suggest that you start small. Don’t worry about becoming all things to all men just yet. Pick just a few, two or three that you want to make a conscious effort to reach. Maybe it’s a co-worker or a family member. Maybe it’s someone who’s a friend, or just someone who sits near you during the basketball or volleyball game. Whoever it is, respect them by learning about them and seeking to understand where they are. Begin to build that relationship and begin looking for ways you can show Christ’s love to them. Look for ways to break down barriers they have to God, and look for the opportunity to share with them the greatest gift of all—the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.
As you work to accommodate these people, and begin to build relationships with them, you’ll start to understand them, and you’ll start to see them change. They’ll open up to you, and may begin to open up to God. When you see how God can work through your relationships, you’ll realize, as Paul did, that it’s worth giving up a little of our own freedom to give others the ultimate freedom.