As Two-Faced as Paul
“For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all…” (1 Cor. 9:19)
This is a powerful and tricky thing Paul is saying here. He declares his subservience, but this service is a gift of tutelage – in the logic of the gospel, Paul inverts the servant-master relationship, dissolving the domination factor, and mixing up who’s in charge, who is giving the orders, who has something to give the other.
But Paul is also declaring that he changes or adjusts himself to meet (at least some of) the expectations of those he speaks to. Sometimes radically. Paul goes on to give examples: to the Jew he became a Jew, to the Gentile a Gentile, to one “under the law” as under the law (though, he points out, he isn’t under the law), to one “outside the law” as outside the law (though, he points out, he is under God’s law). Paul’s examples are seemingly contradictory!
Not only is Paul open to the charge of being two-faced, but in fundamental ways, in ways that are foundational for other people’s identities and faith. He could have said: “To those under the law, I became as under the law (though I am not), and to those not under the law, I was just myself (since I’m not under the law, too).” But no. Paul goes to some trouble to point out that he does not “fit” in either exclusive category.
Paul is saying something terribly important about what it means to be a witness to the gospel of Christ: all other “identifications” or classifications fall by the wayside and are unimportant. And to drive the point home, he lifts up supposed “core values.” It is as if he said, in our day: “to the Believer I was as a Believer (though I am not a Believer); to the atheist I was as an atheist (though I am not an atheist). To the rich I was as if I were rich (though I am not); to the poor as though I were poor (though I am not). To the Conservative I was as if I were Conservative (though I am not); to the Progressive as if I were Progressive (though I am not that either).”
This is terribly uncomfortable for most of us – first of all that Paul could be so profoundly flexible in his self-identification as to meet all these different people on their own terms, as if he were one of them. But also because, if we are one “kind” of person, having Paul at once declare himself not one of us, and paling around with the other kind of person just a chummily as with us, we tend to get a little ticked off. Our friends are supposed to be our friends, on our side. Sure, they can be nice to other people, especially if they are trying to win them over to our side, but when push comes to shove our people should be with us. Even more disturbing is this dawning recognition that Paul isn’t “one of us” and is actually trying to convert us to something else. We’ve been betrayed.
Imagine the sense of betrayal Paul must have been answering in this letter. Presumably there were in the Corinthian congregation people of very different stripes. There were likely conflicts: what should the congregation do, how should they worship, what should they believe, what should they support, what should they discourage or not allow at all? And everyone – widely diverse people – were all appealing to their relationship with Paul as an authority. “Paul is my friend, and I say this.” “Well, Paul is my friend, and I say that.” “Paul converted me saying this!” “Paul converted me saying that!” Who knows the truth? Was Paul two-timing everyone? Was Paul just playing everyone the fool, just to get them to come to church? The jerk!
But rather than denying his duplicity, Paul lifts it up as the model gospel-revealing act. Paul says yes, I was different to each of you – and I’m not really one of any of your “groups.” My priority, says Paul, is sharing the gospel. And the gospel is shared first by meeting people where they are, and recognizing the sincerity, dignity and integrity of people in what they believe and how they see things. The gospel affirms what is best in us, and challenges what needs to be changed. One of the first things that needs to change is our self-identification as separate from others. One of the next things that needs to change is our belief that we are exclusively right, and that it is others who need to change to meet our expectations. (Can you see Paul’s example reinforcing itself here? Paul himself was a slave to all, though he did not need to be.)
Another profound change that needs to happen is that we must get over our death-grip on labels as being fundamental to our understanding of the gospel. Jew or Gentile, believer or atheist, Christian or Muslim – they are not what is most important when we are living out the gospel, when we are witnessing of the gospel in our actions. When we testify to the gospel in our lives, we must give up this fixation on triangulating people (as if labels ever really tell us about a person anyway).
The task of gospel-sharers is to love people where and for what they are. The gospel is shared in community, so welcome these divergent people into your community, into your heart and lives. They have as much to teach you, as you have to share with them. And we all have a lot to learn.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be as mad with Paul for talking to each of us as if he was “one of us.” Otherwise, we might not have listened to him.