In 1 Corinthians, Paul repeatedly makes the point that we must adopt as our aim the salvation of men and women. “I make myself a slave to everyone,” he writes, “to win as many as possible” (9:19). “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews” (9:20). “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak” (9:22). And this: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:22).
At the end of the section, the same thought is still on his mind:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks, or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (10:31–11:1)
Will It Hinder or Help the Gospel?
Paul is not interested in setting aside his rights as an end in itself. “I make myself a slave to everyone,” he points out, “to win as many as possible” (9:19). If no one’s spiritual wellbeing will be threatened if he eats meat, he will order a steak. In some instances, standing on one’s rights may be exactly what is called for.
Yet one should always be ready to abandon the appeal to one’s rights. Precisely which is the wisest course of action in a particular crisis may largely be determined by this question about the aim and effect of the options: How will this course of action contribute to, or hinder, the work of the gospel?
It is also important to recognize that becoming a world Christian—one whose commitment to Jesus and his kingdom is self-consciously set above national, cultural, linguistic, and racial allegiances—cannot be an end in itself. The aim is not to become so international and culturally flexible that one does not fit in anywhere; the aim, rather, is to become so understanding and flexible that one can soon fit in and further the gospel anywhere.
Reverse Culture Shock
I have learned that reverse culture shock is the worst culture shock. Many who go abroad for a few years brace themselves to handle the new culture; they almost never brace themselves to handle the jarring impact of re-entry into the culture they’ve left behind. At the seminary where I teach, we constantly warn international students of the kinds of reverse culture shock they must expect to face when they return home.
This sort of disorientation also accounts, in part, for the frequency and intensity of the criticism of Western institutions and churches uttered by many Third World leaders. God knows there is enough to criticize in the West. Nevertheless, in my experience, very few Third World leaders spend much time criticizing the West and stressing the need for properly contextualized theology until they’ve spent a few years studying in the West. Many of them no longer quite fit back home. Meanwhile, where have they learned their criticisms of the West? In the West, of course! To criticize the West is an extremely Western thing to do. In fact, to criticize wherever we are is an extremely Western thing to do. Very few of these leaders, for whatever reason, actually engage in much contextualized theology. Instead, they make their reputations criticizing the West.
Of course, I have met some wonderful exceptions to all these generalities. But the generalities ring true to many who have traveled in Christian circles in different parts of the world.
All of this criticism would change its face considerably if the aim were always “to win as many as possible.” So much of the awkwardness of not quite fitting in anywhere would disappear, if we simply chose to act in such a way as to accomplish this aim.
The more a gap opens up between the culture of the church and the culture of the surrounding society, the more important it is to know how to bridge it. But the concern must never be to prove how cosmopolitan and sophisticated and flexible we are. The aim must be “to win as many as possible.”
Avoid Cloister Christianity
Certainly it is easy to recall instances where that was not the aim. A friend of mine, a minister at a church in England, was asked to go up to Scotland and speak at a mission sponsored by a Christian group in a Scottish university. Astonishingly, though they had been expecting about 75 people to show up the first night, 150 turned out—half of them Muslims who had decided to come as a group to find out for themselves what Christians thought.
The Christians in the university thought they needed to “warm up” the crowd, so they produced a singing group that went through a number of Scottish ballads. Then this musical group, bright eyed and bushy tailed, announced they would like to sing some Christian songs. They began with “Awake! Awake! O Zion / Come clothe yourself with strength”—and 75 Muslims walked out.
One must not be too hard on those young Scottish Christians. They simply didn’t think. But that is a tragedy in itself. They never carefully asked the question, “What should I do to win as many as possible?”
Barriers must be overcome. Different groups have different languages, smells, tolerances, history, shared memory.
We must adopt as our aim the salvation of men and women. Only this vision will enable us to avoid cloister Christianity. We need to meditate on Psalms 96 and 98; Isaiah 49:1–13; Jeremiah 12:12–33; Micah 4; Colossians 1:15–29; and Revelation 4–5. We must become global in our awareness and compassion. Cultural sensitivity and flexibility must become tools to enable us to address the challenges of cross-cultural evangelism wisely and courageously, rather than ends in themselves to create a myopic elite of lovely, flexible people.
Editors’ note: The following is an excerpt from The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians by D. A. Carson (Baker, 2004), and published in partnership with Baker Books.