In discussions on freedom and rights it is all too common to find misinterpretations of the Bible, especially as they relate to the topic of slavery. Passages on slavery have been horribly misappropriated, abused and weaponized by white Christians to oppress people of color, both in our country and around the world. We should use the word slavery sparingly and with caution.
So I’m cautiously approaching Corinthians 9:19, where Paul says, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” This verse is the linchpin to Paul’s discussion in verses 19–23 as he talks about Christians becoming all things to all people. But let me be very clear up front about what this passage does not mean and will never mean: Paul is not telling disadvantaged peoples that they should enslave themselves to the ruling elite. This verse is not telling Black and Brown people to accommodate to white people by hiding who they are. Paul does not use this verse to justify the silencing and erasure of historically disempowered peoples either. Before any discussion about 1 Corinthians 9:19, we need to be clear about what Paul is not saying. With that in mind, let’s break the verse down, piece by piece, and see if we can understand what he is saying.
First, notice the word free. Paul begins 1 Corinthians 9:19 with a dramatic emphasis on his freedom, and that’s impor- tant. Paul is free. He is free from people and their ideas. In fact, when Paul says he is free from people, he likely had a few different meanings in mind. Paul was free from the ultra-conservative Jews who demanded that he disentangle himself from Gentiles. He was free from the pressure to follow the mold of traveling “evangelists” who sought legitimacy based on their rhetoric and the revenue received from their audiences. Paul is also free from following what certain dogmatic elitists are telling him he must do. Paul’s discussion of freedom in 1 Corinthians 9:19 is similar to 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 where he exhorts the Corinthians not to become “slaves of human beings.” The point in both of these passages is that he will never be enslaved to the ideas of other people.
Conformity was as much of an issue in the first century as it is today. The intellectual elite in Corinth had certain ideas about how everyone should behave. Not only did they set the standard for normative behavior and practices, they also expected people to cater to their personal expressions…These leaders want Paul to speak like they do, thereby reflecting their status and cultural identity, and Paul refuses to have any part of this. He will not appease the wealthy and the powerful. That is his freedom and his right.
So when Paul says that he is “free and belong[s] to no one,” he is saying that, in Christ, he is free from the systems and institutions of this world. Our allegiance is to King Jesus, and we follow his command and guidance. No one else. God gives those who belong to him this right—a God-given right to exercise cultural freedom—and I believe this right has immediate application for us today. In like fashion, a person of color should never be enslaved by the codes of a white person. A Black man should never be forced to give up his rights to fit into a white space. A Brown woman has the right to be herself, and she should never have to feel like she has to hide her identity or change her speech just so that her ideas will be heard. Paul is making it very clear that becoming all things to all people is never about disempowerment.
Paul makes one caveat though. There is one person we should serve: the Lord.
And how do we serve the Lord? By sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. This is what Paul is referring to when he says, “I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” In other words, Paul is willing to give up certain freedoms or rights for the sake of winning people for Christ. If ever there was a time he would consider altering a part of his identity, behavior, or speech, it would be within the context of evangelism. Here Paul is being strategic, recognizing that when the gospel is at stake, connecting with people of other cultures may come at a personal cost. This is a cost he’s willing to bear, so long as it is part of his service to God and not because he has been forced to cater to the whims or preferences of specific individuals.
This is the crux of Paul’s argument. If he sacrifices some of his rights, it’s not to experience disempowerment but for another purpose. He temporarily gives up certain freedoms in order to “win” people. The word win here is unique. In fact, 1 Corinthians 9:19 is the only place where Paul uses the verb win in this way. The only other occurrence of the word in his writings is in Philippians 3:8 where he writes of gaining Christ. It’s a word used primarily in the context of conversion. Someone is won for Christ from darkness or from the world. The Greek word for “win” means “to gain or acquire by investment,” and this definition provides us a useful lens for understanding why Paul enslaves himself to achieve this kind of acquisition. This is not slavery by our modern understand- ing, in which a slave is not free to do as he wishes. Rather, Paul’s choice to make himself a slave is deliberate, something he chooses by his own free will as an investment toward the salvation of others…
So what do these two terms, free and slave, mean as we think about engaging in cross-cultural relationships today? Let’s start with the first term, free. Each one of you is free. You are free in Christ. You were created purposefully as a cultural being, and part of reflecting the glory and image of God is to express your cultural values in word, action, and dress. This is the freedom that God gives us. We are free to be all that we were made to be, and I pray you find this truth both empowering and liberating.
We were not created to be enslaved to other people— physically, culturally or ideologically. We were not created to change our workplace appearance merely to conform to a particular standard. We were not created to hide our foods or our mother tongue simply because other people tell us these things make them uncomfortable. We were not created to change our bodies, our beauty standards or our communal values simply because they are not valued in majority US soci- ety. Embrace the way God has created you as a cultural being, and embrace it proudly.
It also means that the question we should be asking ourselves is not, “What do I need to change about myself to fit in?” but rather, “When can I adapt my words, behavior, or dress for the sake of the gospel?”