“When I was with the Jews, I acted like a Jew,” Paul said. “When I was with people who thought they were under the law, I acted that way, too, even though I am not really under the law” (1 Corinthians 9:20, my paraphrase).
On the other hand, when Paul was with people who did not have the law (Gentiles), he acted like a Gentile (verse 21). This was part of his evangelistic strategy. What would it mean for Paul (a Jew) to say that he acted like a Gentile? It would not mean idol worship, adultery or sin, but what did it mean?
Both Jews and Gentiles recognized three primary customs that distinguished Jews from Gentiles: circumcision, dietary laws, and the weekly Sabbath. For someone to act like a Gentile, they would eat foods that Jews could not, and they would not observe the Sabbath. (It was not necessary to change their circumcision, but some even tried that.) Paul was not talking about the petty rules that Judean Pharisees were concerned about—he was talking about living like a Gentile.
When Paul was with Jews, he kept the old covenant food laws and weekly and annual Sabbaths. When he was with Gentiles, he did not. He sometimes acted differently from what he believed. Why? So he would “win” the people he was with, so he could help them accept the gospel without distracting them with questions about laws that were not important. He bent over backwards to make it easier for people to accept the gospel.
“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak,” Paul says in verse 22. He acted like he was something he wasn’t, “so that by all possible means I might save some.” He acted like someone weak in the faith—perhaps like someone worried about details of the law. Paul did what they did, kept the rules that they kept.
Paul did his best to avoid distractions and objections, so the gospel would get a fair hearing. He set aside his personal preferences for the sake of the gospel. He was seeking peace, and the price he paid was a little discomfort for himself. He explained his strategy to the Corinthian Christians as an example of how he did not demand his “rights” as an apostle, in order to serve other people (verses 15-19).
Not always possible
Paul’s approach may have been a good evangelistic strategy, but it would not be a good pastoral policy. When the congregation becomes a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles, the pastor cannot behave like them both—a decision must be made. A pastor cannot seek peace at any price, cannot always bend over backwards for people who are weak in the faith. At some point, a pastor must model freedom in Christ, not laws that are no longer valid.
Paul describes one such situation in his letter to the Galatians. In Antioch, Peter was eating with the Gentiles, but when some people from the Jerusalem church came to visit, Peter withdrew and began to eat only with the Jews (Galatians 2:12). Paul rebuked him, because he was “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (verse 14).
Some people might say, Peter was trying to do what Paul did—to act like a Jew when with Jews. But the situation was not quite that simple, because Peter was also with Gentiles. He was not only with people under the law, he was also with people who were not under the law of Moses. In such a situation, what does the law of Christ say? What does the gospel say?
The problem with Peter’s behavior is that it sent the wrong signals. It implied that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians should live by different laws. It implied that the Jewish customs were really more proper. It implied that the Gentiles were not really as important to Peter as the Judeans were. Perhaps Peter was trying to hide the fact that he had been living “like a Gentile and not like a Jew” (verse 14).
The gospel says that Jewish believers and Gentile believers are part of the same group, the same family, and they live by the same rules. They are to fellowship with one another not on the basis of Jewish customs, but on the basis of laws appropriate for Gentiles. The gospel says that it was wrong for Peter to change his behavior back to being Jewish.
First-century Jews did not think that Gentiles had to keep the Sabbath, and Paul was quite happy when Peter lived like a Gentile. He was right to break the old covenant laws that separated Jews from Gentiles. The gospel says that those laws do not have to be kept—not even Jews have to keep them. The gospel says that salvation, and our status as the people of God, is on the basis of faith, apart from laws that make us different. The gospel says that, although we can sometimes ignore our freedom in Christ for the sake of spreading the gospel, we cannot permanently live as though we did not have that freedom.
When we are in mixed company, we are to live like a Gentile, not give priority to the old covenant. It would be wrong, especially for a leader, to permanently live as if the weak in faith were right. A leader must model freedom, not just talk about it.
Jews surrounded by Gentiles
Now let’s consider how Paul would deal with a Jewish congregation surrounded by a Gentile culture. Perhaps that could have developed in Philippi, for example, where the first people to accept the gospel were Lydia’s household (Acts 16:14-15). Lydia was a “worshipper of God,” probably a Gentile who had accepted Jewish beliefs. But as more people in Philippi accepted the gospel, the church would have grown from this Jewish core into a mixed congregation.
What would Paul’s advice have been? Would he advise the Jews to separate themselves from the Gentiles, so the Jews could maintain their own customs? Certainly not—that was what he rebuked Peter for.
Would he advise the Jews to preach old covenant laws, so everyone would live the same? Not at all! Would he say that since this church started as a Jewish church, it should be forever Jewish, and everyone who wants to join it ought to start keeping Jewish laws? Certainly not!
Rather, Paul would have advised Lydia to follow his own example, and to live like a Gentile in order to win the Gentiles. He would have advised her, and other Jews, to set aside those aspects of the law that interfered with fellowship with Gentiles.
Christ brought peace between Jews and Gentiles not by requiring everyone to live by Jewish customs, but by abolishing the rules that separated the two groups (Ephesians 2:14-15). He would have told them to leave such rules behind, in order that Christ’s peace might prevail.
In light of Paul’s instruction, does Jesus want us to distract people away from the gospel with customs that mislead them about what it means to follow Christ?
We are not speaking about virtues like honesty and marital fidelity. We are not referring to humility, service and kindness. These customs might indeed separate us from segments of our culture, but they are part of the gospel message, part of the law of Christ, well documented in the New Testament. But observing the weekly Sabbath and the annual Sabbaths are not part of the gospel message.
Do we want the message of grace to be confused with laws that the gospel specifically sets aside? Do we want our customs to give the wrong impression about the gospel, rather than to point people to Christ?
For some congregations, Saturday is the best day to meet, the best day to rent some space, or the best day for a pastor to visit the area. But in our hearts and actions we need to follow the example of Paul, who lived like a Gentile when he was in a Gentile culture, for the sake of the gospel rather than his own comfort.
We need to set aside the Jewish customs (unless you are in a Jewish culture)! And like Paul exhorted Peter, let those who are used to these Jewish customs not separate themselves from believers who live like Gentiles.
It is important for us to leave behind behaviors that imply disapproval of Christian freedom and distract people from the heart of the gospel. For example, no one is puzzled that we encourage honesty and marital fidelity; these are consistent with the gospel. But if we say that people have to avoid all gainful employment on Saturdays, that will make newcomers wonder whether they have to do that to be a Christian. It confuses the gospel with something else. It is easy enough to answer the question, but Paul’s point is that people shouldn’t have to ask such a question. They shouldn’t see a confusing example like that.
As another example, let’s think of a person who refuses to take the Lord’s Supper except once a year, on a specific day of the Jewish calendar. The bread is supposed to represent our unity in Christ (“We, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf”—1 Corinthians 10:17). What kind of message does it send when somebody refuses to partake of the bread? It implies some kind of division, perhaps a lack of faith; at least one foot stuck in the past. It is like Peter, pulling back from the Gentiles in order to revert to Jewish customs.
When people take their children out of school to attend an old covenant festival, does that support the gospel, or distract people from it? Does it cause unnecessary questions about the Christian faith? Our festivals are Christ-centered and gospel-focused, but what is the value of remaining tied to the dates of old covenant festivals? Does this choice of dates uphold the gospel, or does it uphold a familiar and comfortable custom that implies requirements that are in fact not part of the gospel?
Paul did not say that Jewish customs are wrong in themselves. It is fitting to keep them when we are in a Jewish culture, but when we live in a Gentile culture and want to bring the gospel to Gentiles, we should live more like the culture we are in. We should not adopt their sins; but we should shed peculiarities from our past that distract people away from Christ.
When Paul preached tolerance for other customs, he did not encourage anyone to say, “You should accommodate my preferences and tolerate my opinions.” Rather, he urges people to say, “I will give up my preferences in order to help the gospel get a better hearing.”
When it is simply a matter of relations within the church, we are to be tolerant of different opinions and practices (Romans 14:1). But when we want to make the gospel attractive to a Gentile society, we need to eliminate customs that confuse the gospel with the old covenant law.