Believers and Unbelievers

The Question: I have some questions concerning two verses in Paul's letters to the Corinthians: 1 Corinthians 9:21 and 2 Corinthians 6:14. I read the versions of these verses in the KJV and the NIV. In both I get the same interpretation. If Christians are not under the law of God, but now under grace, what does the verse 21 mean? To me it sounds like it is saying that we are still under the Law, alongside Grace through the blood of Jesus. Also, my understanding of all the verses is that we are to make ourselves equal to unbelievers in order to win them, which is confusing to me in light of the command not to become unequally yoked. How do we make ourselves equal with non-believers without compromising the command and ourselves? To me, Paul can be very confusing sometimes.

The Response: Short answer: We are NOT to be like (equal to) unbelievers; not to win them, not to impress them, not for any reason. That's the short answer. Before writing anything more, let's look at the how the verses read in the KJV.

To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ) that I might gain them that are without law.--1 Corinthians 9:21

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?-- 2 Corinthians 6:14

Yours are difficult questions, but I am glad you asked them. In responding I am afforded another opportunity to beat a favorite drum: Verses should be read and interpreted in context. Taking isolated verses out of context, and without interpretation, for use as proof texts or for formulating doctrine may at times seem to strengthen an argument, but the practice often results in confusion and distortion of God's message. Reading 1 Corinthians 9:21 as a standalone is a case in point. In order to better understand what Paul is saying in this verse, it should be read as a component of the entire chapter in which it is found, and that chapter must be considered in the context of the entire letter. In other words, one needs to perform good exegesis. This is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. In other words, the exegete wants to receive the passage as those to whom it originally was addressed received it. This involves a bit of effort, but the result is a clear understanding of God's message.

I suspect that most who read the Scriptures do a bit of exegesis now and then; especially when what we believe we read in a text seems to not suit our culture or understanding of God's will. This is a good thing, of course, but I believe that the Christian should use exegesis every time he reads in the Bible. It should be his first step in reading any text. At first, the process may take a little time, but it will go faster as one adds to his knowledge of the context of various passages.

Good exegesis demands that one learn to read carefully and to ask the right questions of the text. I invite readers to work with me as I do a quick run-through of the process in order to get to a correct understanding of what Paul said in verse 9. We're not going to approach this task as would a "professional" Bible scholar, who might dedicate months, even years, to the study of a single verse or short passage and then compile the product of his effort into a thick tome that can only be read by those able to exist on a diet of No-Doz® and Mountain Dew®. This will be a short course for the Christian who wants to discover more of the unfathomable richness of God's written revelation.

There are many methods used to study the Scriptures. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, employs a variety of approaches - no doubt as a consequence of that body's need to "find" things in the Scriptures that God never put there. As far as the honest Christian student is concerned, there is only one sound approach to interpreting God's written Word: a consistent historical/literal/grammatical hermeneutic. To apply any other methodology must result in either adding to or subtracting from the Scriptures.

Before we can discover Paul's message in verse 9:21, we need to know the historical context of the letter. We need a feel, if you will, for the times and culture of the author (Paul) and of those to whom the letter was written. In other words, what geographical, topographical, political and social factors bear on the setting and what condition or event prompted the author to write the document under study? For some of this information, one almost always has to look to sources outside the Bible, such as a good Bible dictionary. What was going on in Israel or the church that prompted the author to write the document can usually be found in the document itself--if it can be found at all.

When Paul wrote his first letter to "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Corinthians 1:2), Corinth was the most important city in all of Greece. Because it was built on a narrow isthmus between the Aegean and Adriatic seas, it was bustling commercial center with a population of some 700,000 souls. Corinth was also a religious center, with a number of shrines and temples. The Temple of Aphrodite, built atop an 1800-foot promontory, dominated the city. Some 1000 consecrated prostitutes served the goddess of love, and worshippers made free use of their "ministries." Corinth had everything one expects to find in a thriving metropolis: commerce, entertainment, vice and corruption. It functioned as a destination resort for travelers with money to spend while enjoying a vacation from morality.

It was in this setting that Paul planted a Christian church while on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-7). The Apostle taught for a time in the Corinthian synagogue (during which time Crispus, leader of the synagogue, was converted), before opposition compelled him to move his ministry to the home of one of his followers. After laboring in Corinth for about 18 months, Paul moved on. After he left, Apollos came from Ephesus to minister to the Corinthian congregation (Acts 18:24-28)

Without the Apostle's hands on the tiller, it appears that quarrels and factionalism became major concerns within the Corinthian congregation. When Paul's third missionary journey took him to Ephesus, he received reports of the troubles in the Corinthian church from the household of Chloe, a member of that congregation (1 Corinthians 1:11). Three members of that church carried a letter to Paul, asking his judgment on some of the issues (1 Corinthians 7:1). Though Paul had written previously (1 Corinthians 5:9), he wrote the epistle we are studying as a response to these new problems and questions.

First Corinthians may be divided into three sections, based on the contents of each part. The first four chapters specifically address Chloe's reports that personality cults centering around Peter, Paul and Apollos had grown up in Corinth and that this had led to divisions and false pride. In his response, Paul reminds them that it was not their own cleverness that had brought them to Christ and that the truth of the Gospel is spiritually received. After pointing out that the conditions in the Corinthian church were indications of spiritual immaturity, he tells his readers they should pride themselves in Christ, not in His human servants.

In the second section, Paul deals with a report of incest involving a member of the church and his stepmother. The Corinthian congregation had not exercised church discipline in this matter, so Paul directs them to remove the offender from their fellowship until he repents. The Apostle also points out that legal action between believer and believer is a poor witness and tells them they must learn to arbitrate their differences within the Christian community. He closes this section with a warning against immorality.

The text we are interested in, verse 9:21, is in the third and final section of this epistle, where Paul gives authoritative answers to several questions raised by the Corinthians. After addressing the issues of marriage, celibacy, divorce and re-marriage in Chapter 7, he devotes the next three chapters to 1st century issues that, for the most part, have no 21st century counterparts or which, though they possibly could happen, are highly unlikely to happen today. In chapters 8-10, Paul addresses three issues:

1) Some Christians were arguing for the privilege of continuing to join with their pagan neighbors at their feasts in Corinth's pagan temples (verses 8:10 and 10:14-22);

2) Some Corinthians were questioning Paul's apostolic authority (verses 9:1-23);

3) Whether Christians might eat the food that had been sacrificed to idols which was being sold on the open market (verses 10:23-11:1).

In the remainder of this section, Paul addresses matters of public worship and closes with instructions concerning the collection he will make for the saints in Jerusalem.

This pretty much takes care of the historical context of Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. Now, it's time to examine the literary context. There is nothing very esoteric about reading a passage of Scripture in its context. Though this is the vital task in exegesis, it is something that just about anyone can do well, usually without having to call on "expert" help. Actually, about all we're saying when we talk about literary context is that words only have meaning in sentences and, for the most part, sentences in the Bible only have meaning relative to other sentences that come before them and follow after them. When we read a passage in Scripture, we should be trying to follow the author's train of thought: what is he saying and why is he saying it here? Once we figure that out, the next concern will be to discover what he says next, and why. The simplest way to do this is continually ask yourself "What's the point," as you carefully read each sentence and paragraph in the text.

When dealing with the literary context of a passage, it is necessary to know the meanings of the words the author used. This is not always easy, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, unless one is able to read the Scriptures in the original languages, he will be reading a translation - a product that has been filtered thorough the minds of translators who almost assuredly were not native speakers of both the biblical language and the language being read and who were separated from the events by a great expanse of time. Despite his very best efforts not to allow it, I believe it is impossible that his own background and presuppositions not affect the scholar's translation of a text. Add to that the changes in language that have occurred over the past 3600 years or so, and it can be seen that careful attention must be given to word meanings. A good example of how failure to adequately address this issue can lead to error has to do with the differences between the ways Catholics and non-Catholics understand the words translated as "If we confess our sins" in 1 John 1:9a. When a Roman Catholic reads these words, he likely thinks of declaring his sinful thoughts and acts to a priest, through whom he expects to receive absolution. To the non-Catholic believer, the words have to do with agreeing with God about sin--looking at his sins from God's viewpoint. This seemingly minor difference in interpretation has contributed significantly to the division between Catholicism and the churches that grew out of the Reformation.

Bearing all the above in mind, let's now look at the context of the verse that prompted my correspondent's questions. In verses 9:1-14, Paul lists his rights as a minister, particularly his right to financial support - which he has given up. Then, in verses 9:15-23, he uses own life to illustrate the twin principles of Christian liberty and the law of love -- and points out that believers sometimes must limit their own liberty for the sake of weaker brethren. Notice that the Apostle defends his actions in matters of indifference in verses 19 through 23.

15 But I have used none of these things: neither have I written these things, that it should be so done unto me: for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void.
16 For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!
17 For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.
18 What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.
19 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ) that I might gain them that are without law.
22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
23 And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.
--1 Corinthians 9:15-23

The issues Paul addressed in Chapter 9 don't exist today. We no longer have among us apostles who, like Paul, actually have encountered our Risen Lord (verses 9:1 and 15:8) and who have founded and have authority over new churches (1 Corinthians 9:1-2; 2 Corinthians 10:16). So, how do the answers to these 1st century questions speak to Christians today? For the answer, we turn to the "science" of biblical hermeneutics, which is the search to discover the contemporary relevance of ancient texts.

By now, some readers likely are wondering why they should bother with exegesis at all; we need to apply the sacred texts to today's living, not something that happened thousands of years ago. After all, they may reason, surely the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writing of the Scriptures, can also inspire those who read the ancient texts now. Certainly this is so, in that devotional reading brings us a sense of being in direct communication with the Holy Spirit. However, I believe the Christian should not limit himself to devotional reading every time he opens his Bible. We need to learn how to study the Scriptures so that, once we do, our studies might inform our devotional reading. Good hermeneutics is based on solid exegesis

When studying a text, it is imperative not to begin with the here and now. There is but one proper control for hermeneutics, and that can only be found in the original intent of the biblical text. This is the plain meaning that one should be seeking. It is the objective point of control. In the absence of this control, a text can be made to mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. Hermeneutics without this control is purely subjective and anything goes. Who can say that someone's interpretation is correct, while another's is wrong?

What's the big deal? So what if an occasional verse is subjectively interpreted now and then. How big an issue can this be? The Mormon doctrine of baptizing for the dead is founded on a misinterpretation of a single verse — 1 Corinthians 15:29. The strange worship practices of the snakehandlers is based on an improper interpretation of just one verse - Mark 16:18. The heretical teachings of the prosperity evangelists were born in a flawed understanding of 3 John 2. In each of these cases, errors resulted from hermeneutics that were not controlled by good exegesis. The folks who came up with the flawed doctrines approached the Scriptures from the here and now, reading into the sacred texts meanings that were not originally in them.

Is God telling us, in the words of His Apostle Paul, that Christians are under both the Law and Grace? And that we must make ourselves equal to unbelievers in order to win them? In order to answer these questions, we must carefully examine the texts, using good exegesis, so that we might know what God's message to the original recipients really was. Usually, we will discover that a clear principle has been articulated, and this principle will usually transcend the particular situation. Once that principle has been identified, it is important that it not be considered timeless and universal, to be applied at random to any and all kinds of situations. A clear principle that applied to a particular situation in biblical times can, in these days, only be legitimately applied today to authentically comparable situations.

Now, let's work our way through verses 19 through 23:

For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.--1 Corinthians 9:19

In this verse, the Apostle tells us that he had, by choice, abandoned his right to be supported and, as a consequence, had to earn a living on his own. He had made this decision in order to eliminate a possible source of offense and to win more souls for Christ.

And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;--1 Corinthians 9:20

Here, Paul is not saying that he (or any other Christian) is under both the Law and Grace. He is speaking of how, within the limits of God's Word and his own Christian conscience, he would be as culturally and socially Jewish as was necessary when witnessing to Jews. We see this concern for Israel in many places, e.g., Romans 9:3, 10:1 and 11:14. Paul was not bound to the ceremonies and traditions of Judaism. All constraints of the Law had been removed, but he was still constrained by love for his Jewish brethren.

To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ) that I might gain them that are without law.--1 Corinthians 9:21

In this verse, Paul is not advocating the violation of God's moral law. As he explained, he is not talking about being lawless toward God, but complying with the law of Christ. One can find references to this in James 1:25 and 2:8,12. The Apostle is not talking about being under both Law and Grace, but conforming to the Law and the Prophets as he explained in this passage:

To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.-- 1 Corinthians 9:22

Paul understood that all people are not able to understand things at the same level. Paul was an educated man, yet here he tells how he adjusted his teaching to make the Gospel clear to those with limited ability to comprehend. Perhaps he had done this at times among the Corinthians themselves, as is suggested by his words in verses 2:1-5.

In writing that he was all things to all men, he is explaining that, within the limitations of God's Word, he would not offend Jews, Gentiles or those weak in understanding. I do not believe he would have changed Scripture or in any way compromised truth, but I am convinced he was willing to teach and conduct himself in ways that might lead to salvation.

What motivated the Apostle to go to such lengths in his ministry? He tells us himself in the last verse in this passage:

And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.--1 Corinthians 9:23

Having dealt with the first concern, I hope, let us now turn to the second issue raised by my correspondent:

Also, my understanding of all the verses is that we are to make ourselves equal to unbelievers in order to win them, which is confusing to me in light of the command not to become unequally yoked:

2Cr 6:14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

How do we make ourselves equal with non-believers without compromising the command and ourselves? To me, Paul can be very confusing sometimes.

Believe me, Paul can be difficult for anyone. Good exegesis is especially important when studying Pauline documents. In the case of this verse from the Apostle's second letter to the church at Corinth, I hope you now see that there is no need for confusion. In that Paul had not advocated making ourselves theological equals with nonbelievers, there is no conflict between 1st Corinthians 9:21 and this verse from his second letter to that church. Since there is no conflict, I believe this response is finished.

I do hope I have shown why good exegesis is a necessary component of Bible study and provided at least a minimal idea of how to go about it.

Thank you for the opportunity.

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