William Still (October 7, 1821–July 14, 1902) was a prominent abolitionist and civil rights activist who coined the term “underground railroad.” As one of the chief “conductors” in Pennsylvania, he helped thousands of people of African decent achieve freedom and get settled away from enslavement to other humans. Throughout his life, Still fought not only to abolish slavery but also to provide civil rights to former slaves in northern territories. Still’s work with freedom seekers is documented in his monumental book, The Underground Rail Road (published in 1872). Upon hearing of this not-so-familiar yet sigificant historical figure, it reminded me of a major work of Christians, especially preachers. Paul wrote:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; 21to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; 22to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.1 Cor. 9:19-23
Christians Are Free
When Paul declared, “I am free from all men” (1 Cor. 9:19a), he was affirming that he no longer lived a life where he sought to please men at the expense of doing what was right according to God’s will (cf. Gal. 1:10-12). Paul was free in at least these three ways: (1) free as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28-29); (2) free from financial support from the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 9:15-18); and (3) free from the consequences of sin (Rom. 6:17-18). However, important to this context, a fourth way is also apparent. Paul was free from man-made requirements of salvation. “Religion” is full of such requirements, but they are not binding. Paul wrote about this in more detail:
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—21“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” 22which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.Col. 2:20-23
The string of commands, “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” is not talking about smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco. Rather, it is referring to false religious practices of denial that people thought made them more spiritual. Some were teaching the more a person denied himself, the more spiritual he would be. There is a sense in which this is true as it relates to worldly lusts (cf. Mt. 16:24; Titus 2:12-13; 1 Jn. 2:15-17). However, for a person to continually deny appetites that God has placed in humans (such as hunger and thirst), thinking that this will make him more pleasing to God, is false! In the name of such views, monks in Mediaeval times would literally pluck out their eyes and cut off their fingers, hands, and other body parts or lie naked in a swamp to let insects bite them, thinking this made them holier! The ESV translators rendered the term “false humility” (NKJ) as “asceticism” (Col. 2:23), which refers to the religious practice of severely denying oneself physical things, thinking it will automatically make him more spiritual. This was part of the heresy affecting the Colossians when Paul wrote (Col. 2:8, 18). Christians are not bound by man-made requirements (Col. 2:13-17)!
Christians Are Slaves
Although Paul was “free from all men,” he still declared, “I have made myself a servant to all” (1 Cor. 9:19b). The phrase, “I have made [myself] … servant” is from a single Greek word (douloo, δουλόω) that means to enslave. There were, of course, different kinds of slavery in the first century Greco-Roman world. The slavery about which Paul spoke of himself was completely voluntary, like that of a “bond servant” (Rom. 1:1, NKJ). Paul wrote that every person is a slave of one master or another:
Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? 17But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. 18And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.Rom. 6:16-18
The only way to become a slave of righteousness is to “obey from the heart” a form of doctrine (Rom. 6:17-18), which must include baptism (Rom. 6:3-4). When people obey the Gospel and become Christians, they are crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:17-18; Gal. 2:20). As Paul said he became a “servant of all,” Christians today must also serve their neighbors (Mt. 22:36-40). Again, this is to be a completely voluntary submission (cf. “I am debtor,” Rom. 1:14). In so serving his neighbor, Paul did not compromise truth by “becoming all things to all men” (Gal. 1:10). Christians can adapt the cultural customs of others as long as those customs do not violate God’s law. For example, if a culture does not eat certain meat because they deem it “unclean,” a Christian working among them, even though he knows better, should not eat that meat, at least until some teaching is done to show that God allows Christians to eat any meat that is “received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 3:4). Like Christ, we must come to serve, not to be served (Mt. 20:28).
Christians Win Souls
“That I might win the more” is the reason Paul gave as to why he was free from man-made religion and free to submit himself as a servant to others (1 Cor. 9:19c). The word “win [gain, KJV]” (from kerdaino, κερδαίνω) means to gain, profit; win over (Phil. 3:8; 1 Pet. 3:1). When Paul interacted with people, he did so with a view of winning them to Christ. This is perhaps best summarized:
I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. 15So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. 16For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.(Rom. 1:14-16)
We can “become” like other people and serve them without sinning. Jesus did (cf. Phil. 2:5-11)!
Paul went on to write how he would forgo his “rights,” adapting himself to the customs of his hearers, so that he might win them to Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Paul certainly did not compromise the Gospel by becoming “all things to all men.” In matters of indifference, Paul forsook his rights so as not to arouse unnecessary prejudices that would close the minds of some to the Gospel.
Jesus is our great example. He said:
[W]hoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. 44And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. Mk. 10:43-45
William Still and his “underground railroad” did a great work by freeing physical slaves of physical masters. We, however, have a greater opportunity to do an even greater work: freeing people from the bondage of sin and death by bringing them to Jesus! Are you a slave of Jesus, freed from sin and the shackles of man-made religion, seeking to liberate souls in bondage to the same?
Image Attribution: Nick-philly, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons