January 19, 2018

All Things to All Men—or—Be Ye Separate

Randolph Shaylor

An important principle of the Word of God is separation from doctrinal and ecclesiastical compromise and from unrighteous lifestyles and practices. Yet we are inundated with publications and ministries that insist that we must attract people, especially young people, by appealing to contemporary desires. Paul’s statement “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22) is cited as justification for the methods and practices in many modern churches.

In contrast, believers who take seriously God’s demand for purity consider another statement by Paul an equally important requirement: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (2 Cor. 6:17).

Any supposed conflict is resolved by a thorough understanding of the context and terminology that God uses. We must seek to reach all with the gospel but without compromising moral and doctrinal purity. The two verses above must be considered in their immediate settings.

“I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

Consider Paul’s compelling motive (1 Cor 9:16b): Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! Under that compulsion he is willing to make personal sacrifices. First, he is willing to sacrifice his freedom. Paul was entitled to all the privileges of Roman citizenship, but for the sake of preaching the gospel he was willing to take the lowest societal position— a slave. The obligation expressed in εδο uλωσα , to make oneself a slave, is vividly demonstrated in Matt. 6:24 and Acts 7:6.

Second, Paul was a Jew of the most observant class—a Pharisee. But now as a Christian he is free from the compulsion of the Law with its ceremonies, rituals, and traditions. His identification with his heritage is compelled by love for his Hebrew brethren (cf. Rom. 10:1ff.). When among Jews, he is willing to accommodate himself to their observances—refraining from certain foods, abiding by ceremonial regulations, and observing special days in order to present the gospel of Christ.

Third, when among Gentiles—those “without [outside] the law”—he is willing to follow Gentile customs. In doing so, he makes clear that his responsibility to Christ precludes any violation of the moral law of God: “being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21).

Next, the apostle speaks of “the weak.” Commentators are divided in their identification of the weak. Some, based on “save some” of verse 22, view the weak as unbelievers. Others view the weak as a reference to the believers discussed in chapter 8, whose consciences Paul would avoid offending. Paul’s controlling purpose expressed in verse 23 is the gospel—evangelization. But the context does not support using the words “all things to all men” as justification for “giving people what they want” in lifestyle, worship, or church life. Paul is referring to his personal sacrifices for the gospel.

Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate.

Likewise, 2 Corinthians 6:17 must not be divorced from its immediate context. The focus is on a ministry that does not compromise its effectiveness. The interrelationship of the apostle and the recipients of the letter as workers together indicates that the ministry of all believers is in view. Every believer must be careful not to hinder that ministry.

This leads to three specific concerns: (1) that the grace of God not be received in vain (6:1); (2) that there be no dishonor to the ministry (6:3); (3) that there be proof of the ministry (6:4). To accomplish these, there must be cleansing and perfecting of holiness (7:1). Verses 4–10 list twenty-seven factors that demonstrate approval and lead to two calls for separation, one based on principles, the other on God’s promises.

The principles are set forth in a series of contrasts made vivid by distinct comparisons: no partnership (cf. Luke 5:7) of righteousness with unrighteousness; no communion of light with darkness; no harmony of Christ with Belial; nothing in common between believer and unbeliever; no agreement of the temple of God with idols. These incompatibilities prompt two specific commands: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (6:14) and “Come out from among them, and be ye separate” (6:17). The unequal yoke is a metaphor readily recognized in the New Testament era both by its allusion to the Old Testament Law against mixing draft animals and by the practical problem of two different animals bound by the same yoke. They must both move in the same direction. As God called His people to be separated from idolatry and sin (Isa. 52:11), He now calls those He has redeemed from the penalty of sin to separate from its defilement in order to enjoy His fellowship. “Touch not” carries the idea of purposely touching.

The second call for separation is based on a threefold promise of God. (1) God will dwell in His people; (2) God will walk with them; (3) God will receive them welcomingly and warmly. The context continues through 7:1 with a call for personal cleansing and holiness. ‘ Rather than contradicting or competing principles, these passages are in perfect harmony, leading believers to service untainted by unrighteousness and unhindered by either unnecessary cultural divisions or adaptations to contemporary desires of unregenerate humanity or immature Christians.

Randolph Shaylor, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, Riverdale, Georgia, is an editor and contributor to From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man and God’s Word in Our Hands.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January / February 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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