Sermon Ideas For 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 Part 1
From its beginnings, Christianity has been an evangelical movement, understanding itself divinely charged, like Islam of a later date, with proclaiming a most urgent message from God to every soul on earth. While numerous signs of this evangelicalism
are evident in the four canonical gospels, all of them inspired by its imperative, its earliest and most outspoken advocate was Paul.
An ethically tutored conscience in modern times may shudder to hear Paul tell of the extremes to which he is driven on behalf of a gospel he feels compelled to preach. He declares he has "become all things to all men" in order to save some "by all means." A sensitive reader will ask whether ends ever justify all means. Furthermore, if the preacher's claim to authenticity entails an ability to adapt to any and all ethical environments, has he or she not become a kind of moral acrobat, or perhaps a chameleon, whose flexibility may be admirable but whose integrity is in some doubt?
Bristling with such ethical problems, the Corinthians passage nevertheless raises a topic of utmost importance to modern theol- ogy: The relativity of all ethical and cultural systems contrasted with the universality of the gospel. It is not simply that the gospel requires translation into many languages, or that its ethical principles (codes of sexual morality, for example) must be adapted to specific societies. The question is how the universality of the gospel is to be understood when the gospel can no longer be identified with the trappings of a particular culture. If the gospel is neither Hebraic nor Hellenistic, as Paul maintains—if it is not European nor African nor American nor Asian—if it is not black nor white nor red nor yellow—if it is neither male nor female--then what is it? What aspect of the gospel is universal, and in what terms can this universality be expressed?
Christological debates today mainly revolve about this issue, as do controversies concerning the ordination of women and homosexuals. In christology three major positions have emerged: 1) exclusivism (holding that the work of Christ, thus the gospel and its promised salvation, cannot be found outside the Christian church); 2) inclusivism (maintaining that salvation is indeed found in religions outside Christianity, and even in secular settings, as the genuine, although "hidden," work of Christ); and 3) pluralism (declaring that there are many pathways to God, of whom Christ is but one). In the latter case, the universality of the gospel ceases to be equated with the name and person of Jesus Christ and is linked instead with the universality of God's work of salvation and redemption.1
Advocacy of the ordination of women or of homosexuals, like christological inclusivism and pluralism, requires a de- absolutizing of the Bible, in order honestly to confront cultural, ethical, and historical relativity. The Bible is, as it were, turned against itself by showing that since not all its parts are in harmony with each other, some of its messages have to be treated as more historically conditioned than others. The high ethical values of love of God, love of neighbor, liberation of the oppressed, and freedom from the letter of the law are
given precedence over biblical condemnations of non-believers, of homosexuality, and of the equality of women with men.
For Paul, in the passage at hand, the absolute necessity to preach the gospel relativizes everything else. Moreover, he understands the gospel as a message of deliverance from the absoluteness of any moral law, beginning with that of the Torah. This conjunction of an absolute necessity with a message of total deliverance leads him to that paradox of bondage and freedom for which he is famous (see especially Rom 6:16-19; 1 Cor 7:21-24; Gal 5:13). The motif was further developed by Martin Luther in his tract on The Bondage of the Will.
The Pauline language about slavery and freedom deserves most careful analysis and very guarded application. One has to remem-
ber that no matter the resounding claim in Gal 3:28 that in Christ Jesus "there is no longer slave or free" (cf. Col 3:11), the Pauline and pseudo-Pauline corpus does not challenge the social institution of slavery (see 1 Cor 7:21-22; Eph 6:5; Col 3:22, 4:1; Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18). A famous, in some quarters infamous, allegory in Gal 4:22-31 uses the enslaved condition of the Egyptian (African) Hagar, in contrast to the freedom of the Semitic woman Sarah, to disparage all those who have not been re- born in Christ.
No doubt part of the reason for the Pauline acceptance of the institution of slavery was the eschatological thought that the present age and all its evils were soon to be ended by the return of Christ. The very different social, ethical, and theological expectations entertained by thoughtful Christians today expose the danger in metaphorical rather than literal uses of language about freedom and slavery. Although chattel slavery has been out-lawed everywhere in the world, forms of bondage that are its virtual equivalent continue in widespread practice. Any language that suggests there is a positive value in bondage, even of a spiritual kind, risks condoning forms of social exploitation that contradict the Christian gospel of love and liberation.
Tom F. Driver Sheffield, MA
1. See Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984).