The following might be a familiar scenario: After noticing a new addition to your Christian friend’s arm, you couldn’t help but ask what inspired him to pay money to a stranger to stain his skin with a tool forged in the pits of Mordor.
(Can you tell I hate needles?)
The response might have gone something like this, “I got this tattoo to share the gospel with other people that have tattoos.”
It’s important to state that not every believer that gets a tattoo does so for this reason, but many do. And some believers do other things in order to “share the gospel,” like attend certain parties, drink certain beverages, abuse certain substances, or even talk in certain ways. It’s all “sacrificial,” some argue, in order to reach people with the gospel. After all, Paul said, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:22-23).
The question must be asked, however, “Are there things a believer shouldn’t do in order to reach people with the gospel?” In other words, is there some kind of limit to the phrase “all things”?
UNDERSTANDING THE PHRASE “ALL THINGS”
Contextually, it’s important to know that Paul’s statement has limits. This is to say that, while Paul’s declaration of becoming “all things to all people” cites various lengths he has gone in order to share the gospel with unbelievers, it also cites lines he was unwilling to cross.
Since Paul’s statement is a reflection of his missionary journeys, it’s best to consider some of his experiences as described in Acts. Doing so will help us understand how far we should and shouldn’t go in order to share the gospel.
PAUL BECOMES A LAWFUL JEW
Towards the end of Acts, Paul has stirred up a reputational controversy concerning his opinion of the Jews. This is to say that many of the Jews, especially those in Jerusalem, were extremely upset at Paul because of the rumor that he was bemoaning their practices. In fact, they were so upset that if they ever happened to see him, they would not hesitate to harm him. This is why he was consistently warned that “bonds and afflictions await [him]” in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23). The Tyre believers warned him of this (21:4). The prophet Agabus warned him of this (21:11). The Jerusalem believers warned him of this (21:20-21). And the Holy Spirit himself warned him of this (20:23). Thus, when Paul arrived in Jerusalem, he was greeted by a group of believers eager to help him cultivate a better reputation among the Jews.
This is where we begin to learn an extraordinary lesson as to what it means to be “all things to all people.”
The Jerusalem believers encouraged Paul, in order to demonstrate his reverence for the Jewish Law and spare him of a potential beating, to associate himself with four men under the Nazarite Vow (Num 6). Paul obliged, revealing the fact that, “To the Jews [he] became as a Jew … to those who are under the Law, as under the Law” (1 Cor 9:20).
However, it’s vitally important to note that, although acting as a Jew “under the Law,” that Paul himself states that he was not “under the Law” (1 Cor 9:20). In other words, in this particular situation he was able to participate in a vow that honored the Jewish Law, but at the same time didn’t threaten the integrity of his relationship with Jesus, the one who is “the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4).
This is an important lesson, because it shows that Paul made sure that, in sharing the gospel, he didn’t alter the gospel.
PAUL SPEAKS THE AUDIENCES’ LANGUAGE
Unfortunately, the act didn’t work. The Jews recognized Paul and stirred one another up to do exactly what the Spirit had warned–bind him. Eventually a Roman soldier intervened and pulled Paul from the mob. Just when he was about to be taken into the barracks, Paul spoke to the commander, asking, “May I say something to you.” The catch is that he did this in Greek, the commander’s language. The commander was obviously impressed, asking, “Do you know Greek?”
Paul informed the commander that he was a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia. He then requested that he have an opportunity to speak to the people. The commander granted it, and Paul begins speaking, but this time in a Hebrew dialect. The response is interesting, for the crowd, after hearing him speak in a Hebrew dialect, “became … quiet” (Acts 22:2).
This is all to say that Paul was wisely keyed in to his audience. He spoke Greek to the Romans and Hebrew to the Jews. Thus, when each of the audiences heard him speak, they were more eager to listen than if he spoke in a foreign dialect, not necessarily because they wouldn’t have understood it, but because they appreciated and respected the hearing of their own language.
The message here is this: Paul was willing to become a lawful Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Roman military, and in both cases he operated within the parameters of the gospel. This is to say that he didn’t threaten the integrity of the gospel in order to share the gospel, which is the epitome of becoming “all things to all people.”
The difference is that he contextualized the gospel, instead of compromising it.
COMPROMISING VS. CONTEXTUALIZING
The word “compromise” means that, in order to settle a difference, both parties give up something imperatively valuable in order to reach an agreement. On the contrary, the word “contextualize” means that, in order to settle a difference, both parties give up something valuable, but at least one of the parties doesn’t give up something imperatively valuable.
The idea is that the gospel should never be compromised, only contextualized.
Paul was unwilling to compromise his faith in Jesus in order to reach people with the gospel. Thus, you never see Paul saying, “to the drunks, I became a drunk … to the drug addicts, I became a drug addict.” Instead, you see Paul operating within the confines of the gospel. Like Jesus, he went to the “sinners and tax collectors,” but also like Jesus, he didn’t participate in their sin. (You never see Jesus sitting beside Matthew helping him collect taxes.)
This is what it means to contextualize the gospel: You meet people where they are, but expect them to alter their lives towards the gospel, instead of altering the gospel towards their lives.
Paul provides a perfect example of what it means to reach the lost with the gospel, while operating within the bounds of it. He was willing to forfeit his personal pleasures and methods in order to better reach the lost. To the lawful Jews he became a lawful Jew, but he did so within the confines of a voluntary vow that didn’t threaten the integrity of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law. To the Greeks he emphasized the fulfillment of the Law in Jesus, freely forfeiting the traditions of the Law.
And through it all you never see Paul participating in sin in order to reach people living in sin. He became “all things” while not participating in all things.
Compromising the gospel means that you move the gospel in order to get people to believe in it. Contextualizing the gospel means that you move people in order to get them to believe in it. The former results in a redefined gospel that saves no one. The latter results in upholding the gospel that can save everyone.
Disclaimer: This post is not designed to suggest that tattoos are sinful or not sinful, which is another topic, only to suggest that we ought to be mindful with what we do and how we do it when discovering ways to contextualize the gospel.