(1Co 9:20-22 ESV) 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
This passage will surely be in album 1 of Paul’s “Greatest Hits.” I mean, this gets quoted all the time for all sorts of reasons. Let’s start in context.
Paul’s overall argument is that he has “rights” that he has surrendered at the foot of the cross for the sake of the gospel, even rights he has by virtue of the gospel. And this is to persuade the “strong” among the Corinthians to submit to the scruples of the “weak.” It’s not about rights, even God-given rights; it’s about the gospel.
Therefore, we should take Paul to be speaking not so much of mission methods as surrendering himself for the sake of the mission.
20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.
I, Paul, gave up my right to no longer live as a Jew. Christ freed us from the Law. I’m no longer required to live as a Jew, to eat kosher, to leave certain locks unshaved, to wear a prayer shawl. But among the Jews, I continue to live as a Jew, surrendering my rights as a Christian, freed from Law, in order to win the Jews — so that they may enjoy freedom from the Law.
21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.
Among the Gentiles, I live as a Gentile. Rather than let them believe I consider myself superior, I eat what they, wear what they wear. But I am a Jew, and I love and honor my traditions. It may surprise you to learn that I prefer the life of a Jew, kosher foods, and Sabbaths of rest. But I surrender my ethnicity, my family roots, and my identity for the sake of the gospel to win Gentiles to the cross because surrender is the cross: the law of Christ.
22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.
There are Gentiles who believe in Jesus but can’t shake their lifelong belief in gods of rocks and stars and planets. They know what I teach, but the gods — demons really — have been a part of their lives for so long that, to the weak, the gods are real. And the weak — in their weakness — seek to worship God by refusing to have anything to do with the pagan gods. They won’t even eat meat offered to a non-existent idol in a market by a butcher who likely doesn’t believe in the god to whom he sacrifices. In a real sense, these are the “strong” because they make some of the greatest sacrifices of all.
And among the weak, I honor their scruples. I don’t ask them to take on activities that they believe would be sin against God. How could I dare? God judges the heart, and I as an apostle of Christ would not dare ask them to do what they consider sin. They might consider me — an apostle! — an agent of sin, a tempter! May it never be!!
I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
All my time, my money, my health, my everything is given to Jesus, and it earns me nothing other than the privilege of doing what I already want to do: preach the gospel! And I’ll give up even more if it gets me a hearing from the lost.
(1Co 9:23 ESV) 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
My joy is not in exercising my rights or getting my way or having my Kingdom investment rewarded with control and power. My joy is in seeing the lost enter the Kingdom and share with me the blessings Christ gives.
(1Co 9:24-27 ESV) 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Just as in track and field or in boxing, the winner is the one with the discipline to prevail. As Nick Saban says, there’s always pain: either the pain of discipline or the pain of disappointment. Celebrate the discipline!
Surrender your rights and submit to your brothers for the sake of the Kingdom and peace, and your discipline will be rewarded with a crown!
Now, I think that’s what Paul was meaning to communicate, but there are some important side notes here.
The first is that in doing evangelism or mission, the task of the evangelist is to express the gospel in terms of the culture in which the listener lives. We don’t Americanize the listener and then preach an American gospel. No, we express the gospel in terms that the listener can understand right where he is.
He does not have to become an American, wear a suit to church, or bow his head to pray. He may express his worship in ways appropriate to his own culture and his own heart. Missionaries thus give up their ethnicity and heritage for the sake of the gospel.
The same is true of church planters — and of churches generally. We should not ask visitors to become enculturated fundamentalist or evangelical Christians as a condition to receiving Jesus. Jesus speaks to their present circumstances, and that’s what they need to hear.
I’ve heard of African converts who walk dozens of miles and spend their last dollars on a suit just so they can be a Christian.
In the former Communist bloc, many converted to Christianity to become like the Americans. When they realized that their future was as part of the European Union and that European prosperity did not require conversion to Christ, it became harder for American missionaries to win converts. Evidently, the attraction was the superior lifestyle of Americans, not the cross of Jesus.
Obviously, Christianity contains some non-negotiables. Speaking gospel in the culture of someone else does not and cannot mean surrendering the essence of the gospel, the cross, the resurrection, faith, hope, and love. The Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12 apply all the time everywhere no matter what.
Discernment is required. And I’ll admit that some Christians go too far, cursing in sermons and such. Some, to win the lost, refuse to draw lines between lost and saved. But we cannot surrender the gospel itself for the sake of evangelism.
 It’s well established that if Paul were a 21st Century writer, he’d quote Nick Saban.