All Things to All People
Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Feb 7, 2021, I Corinthians 8: 1-13
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” For many Bible readers, these words are some of Paul’s most familiar. “I have become all things to all people.”
But of all the things that Paul said, this one also seems the most controversial. Most people dispute that “being all things to all people” is even possible; and if it is possible, it is neither acceptable nor wise. The general feeling is that to be “all things to all people” means that you are afraid to be yourself, or to make hard choices. Most of us think the world is pretty much organized like high school. Everyone back then knew that there were the nerds, the jocks, the teacher’s pets, the theater kids and the band kids. Maybe you could bridge two or three of those, but beyond that was impossible. And then there were racial barriers, the socio-economic barriers, the gender and stereotype barriers. You just couldn’t bridge those gaps. It was impossible.
In another Pauline letter, Ephesians, the writer warns us not to be “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). That’s the problem with being all things to all people. It’s like you’re just blown about by every wind. No one can be “all things to all people” without being no one to nobody. Most people agree you need to be clear about who you are. You need to make a choice and then stick to it. That way you are an individual. You are bold and clear. You take a stand.
And boy have people taken stands today. There are Black Lives Matter protestors and white nationalist protestors. There are modern feminists but they are different from Boomer feminists, and you don’t dare get them confused. There are “traditional” conservatives and there are far-right conservatives, and among far-right conservatives there are QAnon supporters, but one shouldn’t assume that all far-right conservatives are QAnon supporters, and definitely don’t mix traditional conservatives in with that bunch. There are traditional liberals and then there are the social democrats, and they may have only a thread of shared beliefs in common between them and sometimes each looks at the other as the problem. And then there are the Christians, and among them there are liberals and conservatives; and then there are the fundamentalists. All of these groups and so many more that are out there have staked their ground, clearly differentiated themselves by what they believe, and taken some sort of stand.
And it all comes to a head in our bare-knuckle politics, in clashing protestors, in fiery exchanges on Facebook, and most painfully, at the family dinner table. I heard a podcast recently called “QAnon Anon” about the distraught family members of those who’ve gotten sucked into the QAnon universe. They feel their loved ones slipping away from them. They are no longer the same person. They can’t talk about anything at the dinner table without either long, sullen silences or a fight. In many cases the family members may not care if they have to listen to ideas they don’t agree with from their loved one. They just want the person they loved to be the person they love, no matter what they believe. They want that person back.
Paul is writing to the diverse and contentious congregation of the fairly new church in Corinth. This church comprised intellectuals and the uneducated, elites and working class and the poor; Christians with different theological points of view, from different ethnic origins, and even diverse gender identities. In many ways it wasn’t so different from St. Stephen, but where we at St. Stephen are doing pretty well at living together with our differences, the Corinthian church wasn’t so blessed. Intellectual, philosophical and theological disputes ran rampant. Like our nation, the Corinthian church was divided by ideology. Not only that, the church was stratified by class and economic status, with the well-off and successful lording it over the less privileged. Again, the Corinthian church was in microcosm very similar to our nation today writ large.
We could say that the situation at Corinth was due to intolerance and prejudice, egoism and arrogance and without question all of that is true. But what it really came down to was lack of respect. If I have aligned with the theological perspective of Apollos, I have no respect for you if you have aligned with the preaching of Cephas. If I have found a way to integrate my Christian faith with the Greek philosophy of the Stoics I have no respect for you if you have instead aligned your faith with the Greek philosophy of the Epicureans. And whether Epicurean or Stoic, neither has any respect for the uneducated day laborer who simply says, “I align with Christ.” Obviously that person isn’t considering the weightier issues. They’re too ignorant.
Several years ago I saw a younger woman leave an interaction with her grandmother in tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. She told me that her grandmother had asked her whom she was voting for in the upcoming presidential election and then had put her down for her choice. When I asked the grandmother about it, she just laughed and said, “She plans to vote for so and so. She’s young. She doesn’t know any better. She’s just dumb.” Unfortunately, she’d said the same thing to her granddaughter. What her granddaughter was upset about wasn’t that they disagreed. She was upset at the clear disrespect that her grandmother had toward her perspectives and opinions.
When I was involved in faith-based community organizing, a huge part of what we did was interact with politicians and community leaders who disagreed with us, or at least were suspicious of our point of view and agenda. What was drilled into us from beginning to end was respect. “You don’t have to agree with a politician’s point of view,” they told us, “but you have to show respect for that person. Show them that you know what’s important to them. Show them that you understand their perspective. Try to convince them of what you want without hammering them over head with how great your opinion is or how dumb their opinion is. Show them you respect them as an individual and a leader. Try to convince them how it’s in their own self-interest to do what you want them to do. If you show them respect, they will show you respect. If they don’t respect you, well, that’s another issue. But what’s more important than winning this particular battle is the relationship you develop with this person. It’s the relationship that matters, because that means you’ll always get a hearing. If you have a good relationship, you may lose on this one issue, but you’ve won where it really counts.”
Last year I saw a good example of this. Our local clergy group, comprised of the big steeple pastors in Fort Worth, were able to finagle a meeting with a local politician who is notorious for avoiding meetings with groups that ask hard questions. It was in the wake of several mass shootings and we wanted to ask her hard questions about a hard topic: gun violence. We disagreed with her strong position on gun rights and she knew it; but she chose to join us anyway, probably because we were clergy in her community. Note this: she was already showing us respect. We asked her the hard questions and listened to her answers; we appreciated her openness and honesty and she listened to our concerns. But the real breakthrough came when one of our number, a Unitarian pastor, asked her, “So what made you decide to enter politics in the first place?” Immediately, the elected official’s eyes lit up; she shared with us about her frustrations with certain local issues as a young mother decades before and how that led her to a career in politics. We were laughing and talking. She hung around another thirty minutes after the meeting was over. Her aide came over to me and said, “This NEVER happens.” It was clear that from that point on, we could get a meeting with her anytime we wanted. That relationship was secure.
When Paul says that he has become all things to all people, he doesn’t mean that he has no opinion of his own, and that he is “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” I mean, we’re talking Paul here. There is never any doubt about where Paul stands. He stands for Christ, and him crucified.
What he means is that he knows where other people are coming from. He may disagree with them, but he has respect for their point of view. A great example of this is Paul’s famous speech at the Areopagus. We can find this in the Book of Acts, Chapter 17. Paul has arrived at another Greek city, Athens, and Acts tells us he is “deeply distressed to see the city was so full of idols.” He is invited to speak at the Areopagus, a great hill in Athens named for the god Ares, where philosophers debated on a regular basis. Though he clearly disagrees with much of what he sees, he frames his entire speech to come from the perspective of his listeners. He starts by bringing up what he has in common with them. “I see that you are very religious.” That’s in contrast to starting, for instance, with, “I see you’re all heathen idol worshipers who are going to hell.”
He then points them to a statue labelled “To An Unknown God.” The statue is there because the Athenians want to make sure they haven’t unwittingly offended gods whose statues they haven’t placed at the Areopagus. Paul’s builds on this idea of an unknown god. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you,” and he begins to tell them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But interestingly, he doesn’t mention the Bible once. This is an almost shocking difference from Paul’s other recorded sermons. Of course the reason is simple: his listeners don’t know the Bible. So Paul instead quotes from Greek philosophers. He quotes the Greek poet Epiminedes. He quotes a Stoic philosopher. My point here is that he doesn’t put down what they believe. Rather he shows he understands what they believe, understands their culture and interests, that he knows where they are coming from and even more important, he respects where they are coming from. He respects it so much that he can quote it spontaneously, right there on the spot, and use it to build his argument in favor of Christ.
This is not one of Paul’s most successful sermons by some standards. He only wins a handful of converts. But the telling moment is when he is told by his listeners, “We will hear you again about this.” He didn’t win many converts, but what he did win was respect—and relationship. He showed them respect, and they showed respect in return.
And this is Paul’s point. “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” In order to share the gospel, to get people to listen to him, he will treat people with other perspectives and values and backgrounds with respect and dignity. He will not threaten them or belittle them. When he is with Jews he will observe their traditions and when he is with Greeks he will respect their culture. When he is with strong Christians he will act one way and when he is with new Christians he will act a different way and when he is with nonbelievers he will act another way still, not because he isn’t his own person, but as an act of respect and of Christian humility. To Paul it doesn’t matter what his preferences are—all that matters is creating that open door of opportunity for the Gospel to be heard. He is willing to put his own prejudices and preferences on the backburner for the sake of building the relationship that opens the door for Christ to enter other people’s hearts.
There is a clear lesson here for how we are to live in the roiling, contentious moment we are in today. Too often we aren’t listening to the other speaking because we’re so busy formulating our response. We disagree with an idea so profoundly that we decide that anyone who has that idea must be evil, stupid or naïve. That is most definitely not respect. I have to say I have never heard the word “evil” bandied about more in my lifetime than now. We have passed the point of just disagreeing and have decided that those with whom we disagree are the embodiment of the demonic. This is not even treating them as human anymore. It’s deeply troubling.
It reminds me of what the journalist Hannah Arent said about “the banality of evil.” When she saw Adolph Eichmann on trial for his war crime of sending millions of Jews to die in labor camps, she was struck by how normal he was.
“He performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realized what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘commit[ted] crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong’.
Note Arendt’s point: the problem was that Eichmann was unable “to think from the standpoint of someone else.” That simple flaw was what made evil flourish—he couldn’t think from the standpoint of someone else.
That’s what Paul is telling us must happen. We must think from the standpoint of others. Why is that Black Lives Matter protestor protesting? What leads someone to believe there is some vast conspiracy trying to take over the nation? You may firmly disagree with that person, but that person is not an idea, some kind of abstraction, but a flesh and blood reality, a human being, and real human experiences have led her to think and act as she does. It’s too easy to dismiss a person because we don’t like his beliefs. But human beings are human beings, made in the image of God, deserving of our respect and of dignity, with real experiences that have led them to the place they are now. As Christians, we are called to be in relationship with them. We may not like it, but we need to try.
And Paul tells us the starting point is to put our personal prejudices, opinions and reactive responses to ideas we don’t like to the side so that we can talk to one another person to person, human to human. You are likely to discover you have more in common than you thought. Ironically, you are more likely to bring them over to your perspective if you start from this humble assumption. Ideas do not change people. Relationships do.
But most of all, if you are a Christian, if you believe that God through Christ has called us to the tikkun olam, the healing of this broken world, then this is what you are called to do: Tearing down the walls that divide us and building bridges of understanding and reconciliation, all the time trusting that it is not grand ideas or political purity or the next election that will save us or give our lives meaning: it is Jesus Christ, who humbly surrendered his divine nature in order to live his life from the standpoint of someone else—of us weak, frail, and misguided humans. He surrendered all that so that he could create a relationship with us that could save us.
With him as our role model, we know what we are called to do, as well.