What did Paul mean when he uttered that now famous phrase, “I am made all things to all men”?
By comparing scripture to scripture, a conclusion consistent with the teaching of other passages can be discovered.
Firstly, we can conclude that Paul was restricting his rights as a Christian, rather than extending them, with his statement. Specifically, he talks about laying down his rights, forfeiting them for the sake of winning others to salvation.
Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? 14 Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.
15 But I have used none of these things: neither have I written these things, that it should be so done unto me: for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void.
Paul makes a case that he has a right to be supported while preaching the gospel. However, he laid aside that right, lest it should be a stumbling block to any.
1 Corinthians 9:20
20And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
Paul knew liberty in Christ, under the new covenant. He no longer was bound by the burden of the law, yet in order to win the Jews, he laid down his right to exercise his freedom in Christ, and continued to follow the law.
1 Corinthians 9:22
22To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
He was at liberty to eat meat offered to idols, knowing it did not contravene God’s law. However, he again laid aside that right and freedom to eat, lest it be the cause of stumbling to a weaker brother.
This is consistent with Galatians 5:13;
13For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
And 1 Corinthians 9:27
27But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
An example of this today is not that, “I will listen to rap music, so I can relate to the teenager down the road and not look so uncool, so as to win him to Christ.”
It would look more like, “I have liberty in Christ, yet I will cover myself to share the gospel to the Muslim woman, so that she is not offended by my gross sin of wearing jeans and a singlet top.”
Paul was not talking about engaging in worldly activities so we can relate to sinners. Consider –
1 Thessalonians 5:22-23
22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.
23And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Timothy 2:22
Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.
He was not condoning preaching a soft, inoffensive gospel;
27For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.
20And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house,
21Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, consider this vital point:
Paul’s concern was that the gospel not be rejected because of apparent sin:
our concern is that the gospel not be rejected because of apparent holiness.
Friend, this is not consistent with scripture.
Paul conformed to his surroundings in a manner that ensured the appearance of righteousness, so as not to lose a convert as a result of his perceived sin. He did not want the gospel to rejected by the Jews because he failed to observe the law: the law to them represented Godliness.
Contrast this to today’s oft times misinterpretation that we can conform to the world, in order to win the world, and it renders a stark contrast to Paul restricting his freedom in Christ, to avoid the appearance of sin and rejection of the gospel.