When I point out the problems inherent in attempting to make the gospel appear culturally relevant, I am frequently met with this response: “But doesn’t the Bible tell us that we need to be ‘all things to all people’?” This is a reference to a statement that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 9:22, a verse that is extremely popular among contemporary Evangelicals. In fact, it is so popular that it could be seen as a sort of “theme verse” for American Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, it is a verse that tends to be misunderstood and misapplied, resulting in cultural accommodation instead of faithful witness.
Over the past few decades, theologian David Wells has been one of the most astute critics of contemporary Evangelicalism’s accommodationist impulses. In one of his books, he makes the following observation about the way in which many Evangelicals relate to our culture’s spirituality of self-realization and self-discovery, a spirituality that has its roots in ancient paganism:
Those who see only the contemporaneity of this spirituality—and who, typically, yearn to be seen as being contemporary—usually make tactical maneuvers to win a hearing for their Christian views; those who see its underlying worldview will not. Inevitably, those enamored by its contemporaneity will find that with each new tactical repositioning they are drawn irresistibly into the vortex of what they think is merely contemporary but what, in actual fact, also has the power to contaminate their faith. What they should be doing is thinking strategically, not tactically. To do so is to begin to see how ancient this spirituality actually is and to understand that beneath many contemporary styles, tastes, and habits there are also encountered rival worldviews. When rival worldviews are in play, it is not adaptation that is called for but confrontation: confrontation not of a behavioral kind which is lacking in love but of a cognitive kind which holds forth ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15). This is one of the great lessons learned from the early Church. Despite the few who wobbled, most of its leaders maintained with an admirable tenacity the alternative view of life which was rooted in the apostolic teaching. They did not allow love to blur truth or to substitute for it but sought to live by both truth and love.
Motivated by a desire to reach people with the gospel, Evangelicals (including Reformed Evangelicals) often allow the broader culture to determine the standard of relevance that the gospel needs to meet. As a result, 1 Corinthians 9:22 is taken to mean that we should employ the tastes and style of a particular group of people (typically the young and hip) in order to reach them with the gospel. Instead of telling people that the human soul needs to be conformed to the pattern of sound teaching that is set forth in God’s Word, the focus of much ministry today is upon showing how Christianity can be made to conform to the things that the world values. Such a move does far more than contextualize the gospel. It changes it, both in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It also cultivates an uncritical posture towards the surrounding culture, causing Christians to fail to listen to the messages that are being communicated by specific forms of cultural expression. In this article I will explore this problem by considering how Paul’s statement about becoming “all things to all people” in 1 Corinthians 9 needs to be held in tension with an assertion that he makes in the next chapter of the same letter: “ ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Cor. 10:23).
The general principle that Paul sets forth in 1 Corinthians 9:22 is that he is not willing to allow matters of spiritual indifference (such as the kind of food that he eats) to be a barrier as he seeks to bring the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. In the words of J.V. Fesko:
Paul was willing to adapt external things (e.g., his diet and dress) to the expectations of the people around him so as not to offend them. This way, they could focus on the gospel rather than a perceived offense. By being mindful of Jewish dietary sensitivities in some contexts and Gentile concerns in others, the apostle allowed the gospel to stand out, not what type of food he ate.
The specific example that Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 9 is that he handled the Jewish ceremonial laws differently when he was around Jews compared to when he was around Gentiles. This does not mean that he was willing to do anything to win a hearing for the gospel. If that were the case, Paul would be contradicting his statements elsewhere that he “renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways,” refused “to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word,” and was committed to “the open statement of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2). Paul was no compromiser. He did not use bait-and-switch tactics in his preaching of the gospel. But he was willing to be flexible on matters that were indifferent to the gospel in order to avoid giving unnecessary offense to people.
Paul knew that the ceremonial and civil aspects of the law were no longer in effect because Jesus had fulfilled them. While Paul was no longer obligated to abide by the law’s ceremonial regulations, his general practice was to keep the ceremonial law when he was around Jews. He did not do this because he had to, but because he did not want Jews to dismiss him as someone who disregarded God’s law. As he explains, “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law” (1 Cor. 9:20). On the other hand, Paul did not concern himself with keeping the ceremonial law when he was around Gentiles. He says, “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law” (1 Cor. 9:21). For Paul, becoming “all things to all people” meant not allowing matters of indifference to be a barrier as he attempted to communicate the gospel to people.
We see a good example of how Paul put this principle into practice in Acts 16:3, where Luke says that Paul had Timothy circumcised before taking him with him on his second missionary journey. Paul did this even though he knew that circumcision was a matter of indifference at this point in redemptive history. Timothy was raised as a Jew by his devout mother, but because his father was a Greek he had never been circumcised. Paul knew that having an uncircumcised Jew in his party would be a source of offense to the Jews among whom he intended to preach. While it was not necessary for Timothy to be circumcised as far as his salvation was concerned, it did remove a stumbling block that potential Jewish converts might have had with Paul’s ministry.
The basic principle being expressed in 1 Corinthians 9:22 is that when we are communicating the gospel to people, we should try to remove all of the potential stumbling blocks that we can without compromising the gospel message itself. For example, if you are talking to someone who has liberal political views, you need to be able to distinguish between issues to which the Bible clearly speaks (e.g., the immorality of abortion) and issues for which there is no clear “Christian” position (e.g., proper levels of taxation). While it is not wrong for us to form an opinion on matters concerning which the Bible does not speak, it is a mistake for us to say that there is only one position that a person can hold on such matters and be a faithful Christian.
It is interesting that Paul made the opposite decision about circumcision when he brought Titus with him to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:3). Paul refused to have Titus circumcised because the false brothers mentioned in Galatians 2:4 wanted to replace the freedom of the gospel with slavery to the law. While circumcision itself was a matter of indifference, the circumstances in this situation made it a threat to the gospel. The false brothers were saying that a person cannot be right with God without being circumcised. Were it not for these men, Paul might have been willing to have Titus circumcised. As Calvin explains, it was as if Paul said, “I would have been prepared to circumcise Titus if higher matters had not been involved.” But because the gospel was at stake in this situation, Paul would not yield.
This relates to 1 Corinthians 10:23, where Paul explains that having the freedom to do something does not mean that it is always the right thing to do: “ ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” In saying, “all things are lawful,” Paul is not promoting antinomianism but is quoting a saying that had become popular among the Corinthian Christians, who were abusing the concept of Christian freedom. While Paul grants that there are matters in life that are not governed by explicit laws from God, he is also careful to point out that this does not mean that Christians should do whatever they want in these areas.
To understand 1 Corinthians 10:23, we need to remember that this verse appears in a context in which Paul says that Christians should always flee from the idolatrous practices of their surrounding culture. In the preceding paragraph he says, “Flee from idolatry…. what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (10:14, 20–21). Paul makes it clear that idolatry is never a matter of indifference. We should never think that we have the freedom to participate in the idolatry of our surrounding culture.
At the same time, it is possible in some situations for a Christian to partake of something that has idolatrous associations without participating in the idolatry itself. As Paul explains:
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’ If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” (10:25–27)
In other words, the fact that pagans use something for idolatrous purposes does not mean that it is contaminated and entirely off limits to Christians. Nevertheless, Christians still need to handle such matters in a sensitive manner, taking care not to offend those who are unable to separate a particular practice from its idolatrous associations. Paul writes, “But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his” (10:28–29). Christian freedom is not to be used for selfish purposes but should be exercised in a manner that is edifying to the body of Christ (see also 10:23–24).
In this last section I will apply Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 9 and 10 to the practice of tattooing, which is becoming increasingly popular not only in the broader culture but also among contemporary Evangelicals. I want to clarify from the outset that I am not suggesting that it is a sin to get a tattoo. While there is a prohibition against tattooing in Leviticus 19:28, that prohibition is no longer in effect because it belonged to Israel’s ceremonial law and had to do with specific cultic practices in ancient paganism. Tattooing is a matter of indifference for God’s people today. Some Christians even think that tattooing is a good way to express their Christian identity and demonstrate the contemporary relevance of their faith. In order to assess this we need to think about the reasons why people in our culture get tattoos so that we can be aware of any assumptions and attitudes that may be in conflict with God’s Word.
It seems to me that people in our culture get tattoos because they see it as a way of creating and expressing their identity as individuals. The person getting the tattoo is essentially saying, “This is my body and I can do what I want with it in order to define and demonstrate what makes me uniquely me.” In light of this it is reasonable to ask whether there might be a relationship between the increased popularity of tattooing and the idolatrous individualism that is so pervasive in our culture. David Wells describes this as an attitude that refuses
to live within the parameters and boundaries which are drawn by others, within doctrine which it has not constructed, within a corporately practiced belief since that would do violence to the delicacy and authenticity of its own private sensibility.
In our culture, the plausibility of this individualistic mindset is strengthened by a number of factors, including our consumerist economy, the use of social media to craft the image of ourselves that we present to others, the importance of being able to adapt in our ever-changing world, and our deep suspicion toward traditional forms of external authority. In short, we are living in a cultural ecosystem that encourages people to think of themselves as autonomous individuals who are free to create their own unique identity.
If we are going to resist the pull of our culture’s idolatrous individualism, we need to be mindful of what the Bible tells us about a Christian’s body and identity. We need to listen carefully to 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 when it says, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” We need to ponder the instructions of Romans 12:1 to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” These passages, along with 1 Corinthians 10:23, set forth principles that can be applied as we think about tattooing. It is permissible to get a tattoo, but how is it helpful? How is it edifying? How does it glorify God? Are there ways in which it could be harmful? Even if a Christian plans to get a tattoo of a Bible verse or a Christian symbol, what is driving him to get a tattoo in the first place? Why does he feel the need to express his individuality in this way when the Bible says that his badge of identity is the mark that the Lord placed upon him at his baptism (see Rom. 6:3–4)? Is it possible that he is adopting an individualistic mindset and being “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2)?
I realize that some Christians may be able to answer these questions without feeling any constraint against tattooing. That is perfectly fine, because tattooing is a matter of indifference. At the same time, I suspect that some Christians have never thought about tattooing along these lines. Some may have regrets because they realize that their decision to get a tattoo was influenced by unbiblical ways of thinking. If so, they can take comfort in knowing that their identity is found in having their lives “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). My purpose in using this example is not to put people on the defensive or to make people feel bad, but simply to encourage us to give more careful thought to these sorts of issues.
We do not have grounds from 1 Corinthians 9:22 to take any cultural form that strikes our fancy and fill it with Christian content in hopes of demonstrating the gospel’s contemporary relevance and transforming power. For one thing, the faddish nature of pop culture makes such efforts a grasping at the wind. As William Inge once said, “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.” (If you have doubts about that assertion, just ask anyone who was into the disco scene back in the 1970s.) In addition, when Christians fail to think through the meaning that is inherent in specific cultural practices, they can come across as poseurs in their attempts to relate to their non-Christian neighbors. This is not what Paul had in mind when he spoke of becoming “all things to all people.” It is the exact opposite. My tattooed neighbor is not likely to be offended by the fact that I do not have any tattoos myself. But he may very well be offended if he thinks that I am co-opting his form of self-expression and attempting to “Christianize” it by getting an image of a cross emblazoned on my forearm. I can show him greater respect by getting to know him and trying to understand why he gets tattoos. Why is this important to him? What is he trying to express by doing this to his body? What does this practice reveal about his basic beliefs and why he believes them? And as I get to know him, I can look for opportunities to explain that the gospel offers something completely different, not just a “PG-rated” version of the life that he is already living.
 David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 155–6.
 J. V. Fesko, Galatians, Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege, 2012), 121.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, trans. William Pringle, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 21 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 51.
 Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, 155.
 Cited in Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 63.
Andy Wilson is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Laconia, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, November 2016.