Magazine article The Christian Century

The Freedom of Slavery

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Freedom of Slavery

Article excerpt

AT THE CONCLUSION of a Wednesday evening meeting, a pastor stares into space with the fatigued vacancy of one who has already put in 40 hours since Monday morning. An elder, ever the voice of moderation and reason, gently admonishes, "Remember, you can't be all things to all people." Another sagely chimes in, "You have to understand that you can't please everyone." Surely they must be right, we would agree. How surprising it is, then, to read 1 Corinthians and discover that Paul did, indeed, try to please everyone.

"I have become all things to all people," Paul proudly declares, with not the slightest trace of irony. Lest we think that we have misunderstood or that this was a slip of the pen, he reiterates his strategy: "I try to please everyone in everything I do." If we do not dismiss Paul's words as pompous crackpottery, we may be aware of a certain sliding sensation as we contemplate dissolving in the warm liquid of everyone else's expectations.

Paul speaks as if inconstancy and inconsistency were the most praise-worthy of virtues: "To the Jews I became as a Jew .... To those under the law I became as one under the law .... To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak." One cannot help thinking about Woody Allen's movie about Leonard Zelig. Filmed in documentary style, Zelig purportedly recounts the life and times of a "chameleon man" who was so completely compliant that even his physical appearance changed to accommodate his companions. Thrust between a pair of Orthodox rabbis, Zelig immediately sprouts a beard and side curls. In a Chinese laundry his features become Asian. Faced with a bevy of psychiatrists, he speaks fluent psychobabble. As "witnesses" are summoned to offer their reminiscences of Zelig, the protagonist's name undergoes a slight change. The witnesses drop the hard "tz" pronunciation for a soft "s": selig--that is, "blessed."

The Apostle Paul would indeed count it so. When, in earlier verses of the ninth chapter, Paul establishes his freedom and authority, it is only so that he may surrender both for the higher purpose of becoming a slave. Although the immediate context has to do with the question of whether Christians ma), eat "food sacrificed to idols," so disarming is Paul's gesture of making himself a slave to all that it cannot be limited to a single issue or contained within a particular moment. Paul's renunciation is so complete that Duke University's Dale Martin titles his book on the apostle Slavery as Salvation.

Paul's renunciation of freedom for the sake of others' well-being not only cuts across the grain of our society, it slices painfully into our understanding of the gospel itself. …

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