How we engage with our surrounding culture is a very important question for Christians. Culture may simply be defined as how a society thinks and does things. Your city, your suburb and your friends adhere to and embrace certain cultural norms; certain ways of thinking about the world and particular ways doing things. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 makes some important points about how we should engage with non-Christians and with the world around us.
1. The gospel must be our priority
Paul makes a controversial statement in v19,
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them”.
The Apostle Paul was so ruled by the gospel and the cause of Christ that he was willing to be flexible in his dealings with various groups of people so as not to cause them unnecessary offense. His motto was, “If anything is going to offend people, it should be the gospel, not me.” Pail never changed his message, but his manner.
2. Reaching out is a necessity
Paul could never be accused of not sharing his faith with others. Instead his detractors accused him of being an unprincipled, superficial, untrustworthy social chameleon who was one thing today and another tomorrow. Paul explains his actions in v20,
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. 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.”
Paul says that to Jewish people he becomes “AS a Jew”; he did not change his beliefs and actually become a Jew. He instead becomes “AS one under the law” (another term for Jewish people) by choosing to keep the Old Testament ceremonial laws, food laws, customs and festivals as not to offend. Paul knows that he is free from the expectations and demands of others (v1,19). He knows that food cannot make us right or wrong with God. He knows that he can eat anything. He chooses not to eat pork when with Jewish people for the sake of the gospel to be more winsome for Christ.
Yet to the Gentiles, those “outside the law” (those who don’t follow the Old Testament ceremonial laws and food laws etc.) he becomes “as one outside the law” (v21). When having breakfast at the Mug and Bean with his non-Jewish friends Paul was happy to have bacon with his eggs. He did this so “that I might win those outside the law” (v21).
Any good missionary going into a society or culture makes sure that they do not unnecessary offend the very people they want to share the gospel with. For example, on our short-term mission trip to Malawi last year the ladies on our team made sure they wore long skirts (not trousers) as not to offend local sensibilities. We don’t want to put up needless hindrances that keep people from hearing and accepting our message.
The scary truth is that we are all missionaries: either good ones or bad ones. Warwick Cole-Edwards reminds us that every heart with Christ is a missionary and every heart without Christ is a mission field. If we were entering our suburb or friendship circle for the first time, what would we do and not do to be more winsome for the gospel?
3. Godliness is a non-negotiable
You may be asking, “How far should I be willing to go in order not to offend my non-Christian friends?” When Paul said, “I become all things to all people”, does he mean, “I become a murderer to reach murderers or a pornographer to reach pornographers or an assassin to reach assassins or a streaker to reach the nudist colony”? No. There were some things Paul was willing to embrace to be more winsome, but he draws a line in v21,
“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.”
Paul says that you are free to eat pork or not or to wear trousers or not, but you are never free to sin. The Christian always remains under the law of Christ. We can never justify sin to reach sinners. There will be times when you have to leave a party because a line has been crossed; there will be times when you have to withdraw yourself from a conversation or graciously excuse yourself from a bachelor or hen party. We should never treasure that for which Christ died.
Therefore, there are three broad ways in which Christians could relate to culture:
According to this stance, Christians consider all “secular” culture as sinful, bad and dishonouring to God. This view says that because non-Christians are spiritually dead in their sins secular culture must be evil. Christians then reject the world around them, don’t engage society, pray for holy force fields to protect them and only listen to Christian radio stations. This stance is unsustainable . Everything we do, even the clothes we wear, is influenced by culture. The English language we use to read the Bible is part of our culture. We cannot escape culture, we must engage.
The Bible also tells us that God created all humans in his image and therefore all humans are capable of good. “Secular” culture does therefore contain good things. For example, Adele may not be a Christian, but she is still a good singer.
Assimilation or absorption
According to this his stance, we simply blend into our society or friendship circle to be more relevant to them. Everyone is doing it, so do we. We simply absorb our culture’s way of doing things. Some in the church growth movement have bought into this philosophy. They say we should give people at church what they want, not what they need. Sermons, they would argue, are part of the old world, now the focus should be music, meditation, dialogue groups and designer coffee. However, we should remember that Jesus said we are sent into the world, but should never be of the world (John 17:14-19). Throughout the Bible Christians are called to practise discernment; to reject evil and embrace good.
Accommodation, without compromise
According to this stance, we look at our surrounding culture and reject what is sinful and dishonouring to God; but that which is not sinful or evil, or is neutral, we remember that we are free in Christ to partake or not. I think this is correct. We reject the bad, we embrace the good, and we accommodate that which does not matter either way.
For example, in some situations you may want to abstain from alcohol, in other situations it will be appropriate to have a beer with your friends. We ask God for wisdom, like Paul, to be winsome with our friends for the sake of the gospel, especially in areas of Christian freedom.
Jesus, the expert missionary
The bottom line is that we should follow the example of Jesus who reached out without selling out. Jesus engaged his culture. Jesus was socially comfortable with moral religious leaders and despised tax-collectors.
Jesus could have meaningful conversation with fishermen, freedom fighters, prostitutes and Roman governors. He ate and drank with all kinds of sinners, but never sinned.