‘First Things’ as faithful witness: applying Paul’s ministry manifesto today
I think most of us with any sense of awareness can recognize that we are living in one of those great transitional moments in human history. But there is one thing that must not change: the Christian task of bearing faithful witness to the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some would disagree and argue that the Christian witness, to be faithful, must change anything and everything to fit the culture as it changes over time and across locations. They might quote the apostle Paul: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22). I propose, however, that far from a mandate to accommodate all things, Paul’s words here are a manifesto for ministry that puts the gospel above all things.
Where we are in history
We have reached the culmination of an historical progress that has become a pattern in which we must anticipate radical change for the rest of our lives. One of the signs we need to recognize is that we are coming to terms with the collapse of “cultural Christianity” in America. This is something that we knew had to happen, but it did not seem to be happening very fast. But the mechanisms that have delayed secularization here, which has already moved so rapidly throughout Europe, have now largely failed and cultural Christianity is disappearing before our eyes in two directions at once: geographically and generationally. The closer you get to a metropolitan area and the younger you go in the population, the less likely you are to find any form of cultural Christianity.
While cultural Christianity is disappearing, religious unbelief and those who claim no religious affiliation are on the rise. Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, tells us that we have passed through three intellectual epochs. Before the Enlightenment, it was impossible not to believe. After the Enlightenment, it became possible not to believe. But now, for many, the worldview they inhabit makes it impossible for them to believe; they are now so secular that they do not even know they are secular. And along with unbelief, those with no religious affiliation are increasing. “Nones,” as they are known, now account for one out of every five Americans, the Pew Research Center estimates. Under the age of 30, that number jumps to one in three.
Along this trajectory of collapsing cultural Christianity and the rise of radical secularization, the greatest moral revolution this world has known is now spinning almost entirely without constraint. By any kind of historical evaluation, the moral revolution we are now experiencing is without precedent in terms of its scale and velocity. This revolution is overturning millennia of agreement in almost all cultures regarding human gender and sexuality, marriage and the family — and it is taking place within a single generation. I would argue that no moral revolution on this scale has ever been experienced by a society that remained intact.
What we are facing
How in the world are we going to go about the Christian task of bearing gospel witness in the midst of a moral revolution that defies exaggeration? And here I mean “in the world” in both senses: as an expression of musing and as the location of ministry. In times of trouble, silence is not an option. We are called to speak the truth here and now.
To see what kind of theological and missiological thinking is required of us to speak the truth here and now, we must look to the apostles’ example and instruction God gives us in the Scriptures. Doing so, we find sure footing to stand and speak within an unprecedented moral revolution by first listening carefully to Paul’s gospel ministry manifesto:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. … I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Cor 9:19-23).
In short, then, our challenge is to become all things to all people, that by all means and for the sake of the gospel we might save some who hear good news in a revolution that is rebelling against even basic human flourishing.
How ‘in the world’ Christians witness
Reading Paul’s gospel ministry manifesto in isolation could easily lead to a mandate for universal accommodation. Everything would be on the table, from theology to morality to church and family structures. But the problem for such a radical accommodationism is that Paul must be understood in the context of his other writings and the rest of God’s inspired and inerrant Word.
Reading with this presupposition, Paul’s gospel ministry manifesto teaches us how to speak the truth in our own time of trouble in these last days.
We must give up real freedoms that risk the gospel. The church has a severe credibility crisis because the world does not think we mean what we say. We may proclaim the gospel, but it is often difficult to hear and believe when we more highly praise and prize our freedoms in the gospel. Paul, however, always puts the gospel first. Although he has legitimate rights and freedoms as an apostle and in Christ, Paul will not allow any of them to deny him the opportunity to bring the blessings of the gospel to those in need. This is how we become genuine servants of others, when their need for the gospel becomes more important than our freedom in the gospel.
We must serve others under the law of Christ. Many would say that we need to grow up and face the fact that we live in a modern world that rejects supernatural and universal truth claims as oppressive and contrary to reason. The Christians among them would say that serving others by becoming all things to all people requires an unlimited flexibility, even in theology and morality. But while Paul says he is outside the law, he does not mean that he is an outlaw. He says, in effect, “I am outside the law of Moses, but I am under the law of Christ.” This is a very important qualification; Paul again puts the gospel first. No time and no situation can require or permit a sub-gospel witness because Jesus, who is the gospel, has with all authority commissioned his church to make disciples of every nation, teaching them to obey all that he has commanded — which certainly includes matters of doctrine and morality.
We must witness without over- or under-accommodating. Paul is no pragmatic accommodationist. On matters of theology and morality in particular, Paul is strikingly inflexible. He is constantly and consistently concerned with the endurance of sound doctrine in the churches. He tells Timothy to guard the church against those who come in as ravenous wolves, those who are saying, “We need theological reformulation.” And Paul was no less tolerant of the sexualization spreading throughout the culture of his day. When he hears that the Corinthians are doing things that are detestable even to the pagans in the area, he warns them that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
So, if we are not supposed to accommodate doctrine and we are not supposed to relativize morality, then what are we supposed to do? First, we must recognize that the Scriptures give us clear teachings that are of first importance, and these cannot be accommodated. But we also need to see that everything else can be accommodated.
The Christian task can be summarized this way: Christians must bear faithful witness to the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ by holding onto everything the Bible clearly says to hold on to and letting go of all things that would undermine those “first things.”
In the midst of an unprecedented moral revolution, the task of Christian witness will not be easy. It will require our keenest thinking and the most faithful theological and biblical understanding to preach no other gospel than the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, even as we become all things to all people to share with them in the blessings of the gospel. We will, therefore, trust in God’s grace to ground his church in the truth such that we will know what “all” means, all the time.