Over the years I have had the opportunity to visit a number of different countries and mission fields. The first was in England and Scotland. You would not think this to be such a different context than America, but in taking a ministry team there, we were apprised of quite a number of items about which to be culturally aware. There were things to both do and say, and things to not do or say. I recall being very surprised at several of these precautions. Doing or not doing these things did not fall at all within the category of sin or ungodly disobedience, it was rather in deference to the people among whom we would be interacting.
Not surprisingly, going into more diverse cultures involved even more adaptation. Entering a village home in Kazakhstan involved taking off shoes, receiving oils, and sitting at low tables while reaching into the center to take food out of a common dish. In Uzbekistan, we were offered some very unusual foods. When I say that at one particular meal (the equivalent of an American Thanksgiving feast) that I ate practically EVERY part of a sheep, there is NO exaggeration. And I came home to tell my horse that he’d better behave, because I ate one of his relatives on the other side of the world and he tasted pretty good!
In going to Great Britain, I didn’t say that I didn’t care about how I might be misunderstood by insisting upon my American rights of expression. And in Central Asia, I did not refuse food offered to me or eat it in a fashion that was insensitive to their traditions and beliefs. I yielded to their ways of interacting and fellowshipping at a meal, not wanting to offend or make an issue out of something that was comparatively a small and insignificant matter. The bigger picture involved putting no obstacle or odd encumbrance between gaining a hearing for the gospel message.
And this is what Paul is communicating in the passage we read today. He had rights that were free from strictures about the Old Testament Law and regarding also the issue of food offered to idols. Paul was cognizant of the traditions of both Jews and Gentiles, and in each instance he desired to put himself into non-offensive patterns so as to be able to present the saving grace of the message of salvation to either group.
Paul is saying that he gave up his rights. These freedoms were not important. He became essentially “a slave” to their traditions. His slavelikeness was to hope that they could meet the Savior and develop in Christlikeness. This is keeping the main thing as the main thing.
The humiliation of Christ in coming from glory and becoming like mankind in all things, yet without sin, was the ultimate example of the giving up of rights and the building of bridges to what was truly important.
9:19 – Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. 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. 21 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. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.