Scripture: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (NRSV)
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 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 I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Thank you, Lucas. And thanks once again to all the children who sang and read in today’s service.
What Lucas read for us is a very difficult portion of scripture. It is one of these chapters that preachers would probably rather avoid than deal with. It is one of the tricky cases in which the Word of God seems to be contrary to what we believe and understand about God. Paul is sharing his personal experience with us and his statement is akin to what sports players often refer to as “stepping up their game.” But stepping up to being a slave seems more like a step down and backwards. Being a slave for Christ. It’s definitely a hard one.
When I was in early high school, my best friend began attending a small Baptist church. Denny, my friend, was dating the minister’s daughter, so he never missed church. Denny told me that the good Pastor had invited both of us, along with some elders, to his house for lunch after services one Sunday. I was so honored. As the women prepared the meal in the kitchen, the men sat in living room as the pastor held court. He talked a bit about God and a bit about his other job. Then we all talked about things we did and liked. I probably said something about playing guitar and rock and roll. When it came to the minister, he simply said, “I love two things – I love to go fox hunting and I love to hate N.” And he used the N-word. I blanched and became fearful. In our house, the N-word was not used, Ever, At all. Parents had black friends. Dad through is athletics and mom in general. I never returned to that pastor’s church.
Decades later, in South Africa, I found myself again at lunch in a pastor’s home sitting around a braai fire, watching four types of meat cooking on a grill. We were ministering in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State, the literal center of the apartheid government because it is the nation’s judicial center.
Our host was a wonderful minister and friend. On a previous trip our teaching team had led some teaching seminars in his church and preached. My companion and host, Deon, asked the pastor why no blacks were coming to the seminars. One of the conditions for our programs was that the local black leaders were to be invited to come at no charge.
The Pastor became noticeably agitated and spoke to Deon in Afrikaans in a tone that made it clear he was angry. Deon responded with less anger but more emphatically than usual. After some moments of silence, the pastor answered that he did not like Kaffirs (their racist version of our N-word) and could not imagine that they would want to come to learn, nor be capable of receiving. “They are not like us.” He insisted, “They don’t understand these things. A Kaffir is very primitive and has a child’s understanding of God. It would not be good to bring them into my church.”
The N-word and K-word. Both spoken by Men of God who, to my reckoning, had one major character flaw. They were racist. When they used these words, I always recoiled.
Sometimes I teach college on the side at Indiana Wesleyan University through their extension campus in Independence. I teach a number of classes, and one of my favorites is called the Psychology of Personal Growth and Insight. It is a very practical, almost clever, class which is designed to help the learner define and understand him or herself through psychological inventories and tools. It is also intended to help each student explore some of their blind and hurt sides, as well as to affirm who they are as people.
My classes are mostly made up of African Americans. Sometimes classes are entirely African Americans. This is because Indiana Wesleyan has invested heavily to make a college degree a reality for the black community.
In one lesson I do a little introduction using disrespectful titles for ethnic groups. I will begin by saying that I’d like to learn their ethnic backgrounds. So, I’ll ask, “Are there any dagos here tonight? How about whops, spear chuckers, towel heads, japs, slat eyes, or gooks.” I actually have quite a list to which I refer. Then I drop the big one. And I say to the class that I am going to use the N-word. And then I ask if any in the class are N-, and I use the word.
Can you imagine the response – the reaction – the chill that enters the room – the uncomfortable feelings. Play out the scenario in your mind and feel what that would be like for you. And then imagine what it much sound like to an African American.
I let the word hang in the air, and then I ask the class which, as I said, is almost always entirely or mostly black, why that word, that single 6 letter, tiny word, carried so much emotion, pain, humiliation and anger.
And we talk about it. And the blacks in the room, often with great emotion, link that horrible word back to slavery, oppression or systematic and institutional racism. As one African American student told me, “My family has no link to slavery. We immigrated later. But we still experience daily the cultural dislike and distrust simply because we are black.”
And while this may seem cavalier or insensitive on my part, I have never led that lesson when I was not thanked by whites, Latinos/Latinas, and blacks for creating an environment in which they can actually talk about why that tiny word is so reprehensible. The word, in the collective hearts and consciousness of the African American community, brings shame, hatred and oppression. In talking about it students find the validation needed to control that word, and to not let that word control them. Incidentally, as part of the lesson I ask the black students if they have ever been called that word. And to a person, in the dozen or so times that I have taught that lesson, the answer has been yes from every single African American.
And now, Paul is telling the people of God in Christ that he wants to be a slave for Christ. He says that he makes himself a slave to all. Not servant, not helper not nice guy – but he makes himself a slave that he might win others to a life of faith in God. To be sure, the Greek word Paul uses has no wiggle room for servant or helper. The Greek word is doulos, and literally means one who is enslaved.
Imagine the reaction in his world? The Children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for 430 years before their Exodus into the Promised Land. Their later captivity and enslavement by the Babylonians lasted 70 years. It is not hard to connect the same realities of oppression, poverty and racial disregard the Jews experienced with blacks in our country. The word slave always comes with history. And it is not just a word. It is a bondage that involves a relationship between slave and master.
Seemingly, Paul is inviting the Hebrew people to again enter slavery. And not only them, his message is to the church in Corinth, a church that was founded by Paul in about AD 49 or 50. It was famous for being a mixed church predominately attended by Gentiles, but with plenty of Jews. It was also remarkably mixed in gender recognition in that women were active in the church – not something that could be always assumed in the early Christian church. And to all these cultures, Paul is suggesting that being enslaved to God is worthy of consideration.
In the opening of his letter, James called himself slave of God. It is often translated as servant, but again the word is doulos in the Greek. He agrees with Paul. In becoming a slave to all, the precious news of Christ’s love is shared.
I hope that right about now you are struggling with this portion of scripture as I struggle with it. The idea that we totally give up our identity and be a slave to all people is frankly a bit beyond my comprehension of what it means to be a Christian. Is the implication that we forego any of our personal identity in order to be the kind of Christian that both Paul and James are referring to in these verses?
Sometimes the word slave, the doulos, is translated as bondservant. Bottomline, a bondservant is a slave, but the word is perhaps less harsh. In Roman times, the term bondservant began to be interpreted as a somewhat weaker version of slave. Word meanings evolve. A bondservant could refer to someone who voluntarily served others. But in reality, it usually referred to one who was held in a permanent position of servitude. Under Roman law, a bondservant was considered the owner’s personal property. Slaves essentially had no rights and could even be killed with impunity by their owners. So once again, a slave was property.
The Hebrew there is a word, ‘ebed which means “bondservant.” It holds a similar connotation as slave, but under Jewish Law there was the possibility for indentured servant, or slave, to become a bondservant. In Exodus 21 it say “If the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life” (Exodus 21:5-6).
During the time of Jesus and the first-century church, as much as one third of the Roman population were slaves, and another third had been slaves earlier in life. Convicted criminals became bondservants of the state and usually died working in the mines or on ships.
Historical records reveal that it was not unusual for Jews to own slaves during the New Testament period. In fact, because slavery was a familiar part of the culture, Jesus sometimes referred to slaves and owners in His parables, such as the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. Also, Jesus taught that the greatest in God’s kingdom would have to become “the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
Such a concept was unthinkable to a Roman citizen. Paul, by virtue of where he was born, was a Jew who was also a Roman citizen. A Roman prided himself in his freedom and would never identify himself as a slave. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world and Paul affiliated with that dominion of God that was to come, as spoken in the Lord’s Prayer. He was a free Roman citizen who let his life identity be absorbed in service to God.
So where does all of this put us? How are we to process these various calls and references to become a slave to Jesus? Well, by my reckoning it is all about our spiritual relationship and identity. Paul’s statement is followed by the reasons for his personal slavery to God. It is for the sake of others. In verse 19 Paul states, “I have made myself a slave to all” and what follows are numerous reasons why he does so. Later, in verse 22 he expands saying, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
I think scripture suggests, through the testimonies of not only Paul and James, but of Timothy, Jude and others, that believers, even believers today, should consider ourselves as bondservants or slaves of Christ. Jesus is our Savior, and our allegiance is due to Him alone. As bondservants, we renounce other masters and give ourselves totally to Christ.
This is a scary thing, but not an action without blessings. Paul tells us in Romans 6:22, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
The benefits and blessings are found in our relationship. Our relationship with God who created us and loves us unconditionally. Our relationship with Jesus who gave himself for us that we might be forgiven of our sins and find new life. Our relationship with the Holy Spirit, giving us intuition, guidance and the ability to discern right from wrong. All of these blessings are symbolized and celebrated at the table set before us. The table of Communion – a place to acknowledge our union once again with God through Christ.
Only God can turn such an oppressive concept like slavery into something so wonderful. As you consider what I have shared today, I hope you, too, will be attracted to a closer, deeper relationship with God.