1 Corinthians 9 and the Charge of Christian Missionary Deception

It is common to find the enemies of Christianity, and specifically of the Apostle Paul, citing the following text to prove that Christianity allows deception in order to gain converts:

"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 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. 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. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NIV

The critics argue that Paul was admitting that he deceived people into thinking that he was whatever they were, and believed the same things they did, in order to deceptively convert them. As one anti-Pauline Muslim writer puts it:

The Christian missionaries are well-known for their deception in order to spread their so-called "God-given" purpose to spread the Gospel to the world. This approach is not alien to the missionary agenda, for it is founded upon the very words of Paul, who laid down deception as the missionary approach: (Source)

The author then quotes this very same text from the beloved and holy Apostle.

Instead of exegeting this text ourselves, with the purpose of refuting those who distort Paul’s true intent, we have decided to simply cite the commentary of a Messianic Jewish scholar named Dr. David H. Stern. Stern, in his phenomenal commentary on the New Testament from a Jewish perspective, has done a splendid job in addressing the charges levelled at Paul as well as the gross distortions of this specific passage. The name of his commentary is, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Jewish New Testament Publications Clarksville, Maryland, 1996).

We will be quoting pp. 462-463 of his book. Sha’ul is the Hebrew name of Paul.

With Jews, what I did was put myself in the position of a Jew, literally, "I became to the Jews as a Jew." Three times in these verses Sha’ul says he "became as," and once that he "became," the distinctive attribute of a group of people; lastly he summarizes by saying that he has "become," as KJV puts its, "all things to all men" (v. 22) - a phrase which today connotes being a deceiver or a chameleon who changes his behavior to suit his audience for the sake of an ulterior goal. We know that Sha’ul rebuked Kefa for behaving in this way (Ga 2:11-16&NN), but did he play the hypocrite? To the same Corinthian readership Sha’ul later wrote, "We refuse to make use of shameful underhanded methods" (2C 4:1-2&N), and then used three chapters of that letter to defend himself against such charges (2 Corinthians 10-12). He could hardly expect them to believe him there if in the present passage they were understanding him as teaching that the end justifies the means.

More specifically, the modern critics take this passage to mean that Sha’ul observed the Torah when he was with Jews but dispensed with it when with Gentiles. And not only those with an axe to grind say this of him; well-meaning Christian commentators friendly to him often appear to have an ethical blind spot which Sha’ul’s critics can exploit. However, I believe the commentators’ deficiency is not in the area of ethics but in the area of exegesis. Their misunderstanding of these verses forces them into a cul-de-sac from which their only escape is to appear to justify, or at least overlook, dissembling for the sake of the Kingdom of God. For they give his circumcising Timothy (Ac 16:1-3) as an example of "becoming as a Jew to the Jews" and "as under law to those under the law"; and they cite his eating with Gentiles, whose food, presumably, was non-kosher (Ga 2:11-14&NN), to illustrate his "becoming as apart from the law to those apart from the law." They reveal three misinterpretations:

(1) They think "becoming as" means "behaving like."
(2) They think "under the law" means "expected to obey the Torah" and as a consequence equate "the Jews" with "those under law."
(3) they seem unaware of the fact that being Jewish is not something one can put on or off at will.

In regard to the last of these, I have pointed out that Sha’ul never considered himself an ex-Jew (Ac 13:9N, 21:21N). So even if he had not been a man of integrity, even if he had been willing to put on a fašade of observing Jewish customs among Jews but not among Gentiles, he could hardly have flouted Jewish law among Gentiles without his duplicity discovered and his credibility undone.

Since Sha’ul remained a Jew all his life, we can eliminate another misinterpretation of "becoming as"- "becoming something that one formerly was not." In principle such exegesis could apply to Sha’ul’s becoming as "outside the Torah" (v. 21) or "weak" (v. 22,), but not to his becoming as a Jew, since he already was one. One Gentile believer who converted to Judaism in order to evangelize Jews argued that by becoming "as a Jew to the Jews" he was only imitating Sha’ul. This I reject, for Sha’ul does not mean he changed his religious status or philosophical outlook to that of his hearers (but see 7:18&NN, Ga 5:2-4&N).

No, Sha’ul did not play charades in "becoming as" the people around him. What he did was empathize with them. He put himself in their position (hence the lengthy phrase I used to translate "became as"). He entered into their needs and aspirations, their strengths and weaknesses, their opportunities and constraints, their ideas and feelings and values - in short, to use the current vernacular, he tried to understand "where they were coming from." In addition he made a point of doing nothing to offend them (10:32).

Having established common ground with those he was trying to reach, he could then communicate the Good News in patterns familiar to them, using rabbinical teaching methods with Jews, philosophical thought-forms with Greeks. With the "weak" he could bear with their overscrupulousness, because he understood its origin (8:7-12). He did everything possible to overcome all barriers - psychological, social, and especially cultural; for he knew that the task of communicating the Good News had been entrusted to him (vv. 15-18, 23), and he could not expect others to meet him halfway. But he never condescended by imitating or feigning ungodliness or legalistic compulsiveness or "weak" scrupulosity, for the degree to which he would change his behavior to make them feel ease was always constrained by his living "within the framework of Torah as upheld by the Messiah" (v. 21).

Moreover, Sha’ul’s strategy of removing unnecessary barriers between himself and those whom he hoped to win to faith, far from being outside the pale of what Judaism can consider ethical behavior, was anticipated by Hillel when he accepted as a proselyte a Gentile who insisted on being taught the Torah "while standing on one foot" (Shabbat 31a, quoted in Mt 7:12N; but on this also see David Daube’s The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, University of London: The Athlone Press, 1956; reprinted by Arno Press, 1973; Part III, Chapter 11).

We highly recommend Stern’s commentary to our readers since it helps bring out how thoroughly Jewish the NT books are, helping the readers see the Jewish influences and backdrop of the Christian Greek Scriptures.

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