Believers often find themselves at a loss in their efforts to reach out to a sinful world. Our unchanging exemplar for evangelism has always been Jesus; a man so truthful yet so gracious enough to hang out with sinners and attract accusations from the sages of his time. He commands that we hate sin and have no part in it – John 15:10, yet love sinners enough to be about His business of redeeming them to Himself – Mt 28:19 – 20. But this is never easy; to interact closely with a sinful world as Jesus did yet remain sinless like Him.
I doubt the Gospel would have ever gotten any realer and attractive for the likes of Zacchaeus or Matthew had Jesus never eaten and drank with tax collectors – Mt 9:11. I doubt also if the Gospel will ever become real to certain cliques of society if we don’t adopt the model of Jesus. We are the ones to move closer to the sinners rather than wait for them to come closer to us. It seems, from the scriptures, that it is possible to keep the authenticity of the Gospel while adapting it to varying cultural forms.
Paul, writer of a third of the New Testament, seems to have mastered this art. In his first epistle to the Corinthian church, he tells them how he became all things to all men. “To the Jews I became like a Jew, …to those under the law I became like one under the law, …to those not having the law I became like one not having the law, …to the weak I became weak, …” he says – 1 Corinthians 9:19 – 23. This model by Paul must be what made him an outstanding evangelist and a remarkably successful church planter.
It is not unusual then to see us today attempt to apply the same in our obedience to the command to reach out to the lost world around us. But are we always successful? Imagine your church going out for a mission to a community that practices sorcery, would you also join in sorcery in the hope to better communicate the Gospel? You wouldn’t. Just the same way you wouldn’t become a prostitute because you are called to them. But how about being called to a community of Rastafaris; would you keep locks too? Would you smoke pot with them if that felt like the best shot you had at becoming like them so to reach them?
Believers pushing certain limits to evangelize is a common thing today. The test gets harder when the clique we are to reach is close to us. Reaching out to a colleague at the office or a friend from a dance class feels more complex than preaching to a Samburu in the wild. We never know whether to join in their music that doesn’t sound any harmful or not. Is it okay to catch up at a bar because that’s their preferred spot in town? If we come across as too much of an outlier to their normal way of life, we fear we might repulse them away and lose them all together.
So we often feel a little of Paul’s model wouldn’t be harmful. That it’s okay to go to their social events and down a few bottles like they do, so long as you don’t get drunk. That it’s okay to dress like they dress and dance to their music. Our intentions are good after all; we simply want to reach out. But many a times we are beguiled this way to our demise. Rather than transforming we conform, and rather than gaining the world to Christ it gains us to itself. Soon we don’t go to church or read the Bible like they don’t!
In 1 Cor 9:23 Paul gives a reason we often overlook for becoming all things to all men; “I do all these for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” In our every attempt to adapt cultural forms to communicate the Gospel in relevant ways, our motive should always be one and clear; doing it for the sake of the Gospel. Does it mean then that those who fall back to sinful ways have a different motive other than communicating the Gospel? To better understand this, we must first appreciate what Paul means when he says he does what he does for the sake of the Gospel.
The Gospel of Christ is good news of salvation to a world plunged in evil. While you would think it is a welcome tiding, it is actually not. It faces opposition from Satan, his demons and even from the fallen man himself. The cost to receive it was too high no man could pay, and the cost to take it to the lost is also high; few men by the grace of God ever willingly bear it. Anything done for the sake of this Gospel will be costly; becoming all things to all men included.
Becoming something you are not is a difficult, and sometimes painful process. It disrupts your normal way of life and the flesh/ self, which thrives in comfort would rather you do not go through with it. It is something selfless and sacrificial. But too often, this privileged godly way of living is abused by people who under the guise of a loving attempt to reach out to sinners indulge themselves in sin instead. Downing the few bottles is never really a selfless and unsettling act of love for the sinner they wouldn’t reach any other way, but rather an act of indulgence done to please the flesh.
The test to anything done for the sake of the Gospel is denial of self. Our Gospel Industry (I hate that we call it that) is littered with indulgent artists who excuse sin as a way to reach out to the young generation. The goal is to become like sinners (taking on a few harmless cultural expressions), not become a sinner like them! If a preacher took on lavish living in the name of being called to the affluent of the city, and yet it didn’t feel any sacrificial or discomforting, then his honesty is to be questioned.
In our interactions with unbelievers, we will come across situations commonly referred to as ‘grey areas’. These are situations the Bible doesn’t quite seem to give clear cut responses on how to handle them. How do we, for example, respond to the problem of alcoholism if a believer used portions of scripture like 1 Tim 5:23 to justify taking wine? How do we respond to concerns raised about certain types of dressing some section of the society may be okay with and another may not? These will vary depending on culture and context. Even still, God’s Word remains as our only authority and has to always be our guide. I’ll share just two guidelines I’ve drawn from it and found really helpful.
1. Begin and end at Love
In 1 Cor 8, Paul addresses an issue of some believers feeling it was okay to eat meat offered to idols and others opposing the practice. His advice to the ones with a freed conscience was that for the sake of the weaker brothers, they should refrain. Everything might be permissible, but not everything is beneficial – 1 Cor 10:23. Our goal should always be the gain of God’s Kingdom, which is ultimately both ours and of the other person even if it did cost us some self-denial. If I knew a particular type of dressing would stumble someone, God requires that I refrain from it.
2. Does the conscience agree?
To the weaker one, doing anything that would go against your conscience, even if acceptable to others, would be sinning – 1 Cor 10:28-29. Sometimes it will be the Holy Spirit speaking to your conscience because His walk with each of us is personal and He knows what He can allow and not allow us to be exposed to individually. Sometimes it is informed by culture and upbringing. Missionaries from the west, for example, don’t mind a bottle of beer or a glass of wine. But if I tried one myself, coming from a background where anything to do with alcohol only bodes evil, I would struggle with guilt for a long time.
Seek transformation and God’s glory
If our interactions with unbelievers are with the aim of taking the Gospel to them, then there has to be a fruit of righteousness. There has to be transformed lives. If all we did was adopt cultural forms relevant to them and had no believers from among them to show for it, then we had better reevaluate our intentions. Paul became all things to all men so that by all possible means he would save some – 1 Cor 9:22; adisciple turned to following Jesus was always the end goal.
Today we loosen the principles of the Gospel in the name of drawing people to Christ. We try to find middle grounds to sound politically correct. We fear offending sinners, so we will rather refer to homosexuality as a sexual orientation and not as sin. That’s not loving at all! We shouldn’t present the world with a weak Jesus who is willing to bow to their demands but with the real Jesus; the powerful God, full of truth and infinitely holy, yet so gracious enough to invite sinners into His salvation.
I love how Pastor David Platt puts it; “we must be the ones who will love homosexuals more than homosexuals love homosexuality!” Such ferocious kind of love cannot be without unrelenting truth. Casting Crowns in their song Love you with the Truth say it perfectly; ‘when we love, we earn the right to speak the truth/ When we speak the truth, we show the world we truly love …’
A friend recently asked me with all innocence if there’s any harm in a believer smoking pot. She does, and sees no problem with it because it only makes her feel good. She doesn’t lose it and act stupid, plus she claims it’s her way of spending time with her longtime friends and hopefully someday they choose to follow Christ too. My response is simple; if from the smoking she can point a gradual conviction of sin and an increasing thirst for God in her friends, then she should keep on. If during the smoking she can feel the presence of the Holy Spirit and wouldn’t even mind pulling out her Bible and reading from it without feeling out of place, she should continue.
The Bible doesn’t directly say we shouldn’t smoke marijuana, but it does say we should always conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1.:27). That’s her little act of indulgence, what’s yours?