Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian man is a free lord over all things and subject to nobody. A Christian man is a ministering servant in all things and subject to everybody.”1 It seems that great men have always had a sense of true servanthood. I don’t believe that great men ever wanted to be great; they wanted to be like Christ and were thrust into positions of spiritual leadership. The very desire to be great by today’s definition, too often contradicts the Lord’s admonition to be servant of all, which is the true greatness of the Christian faith.
One of the most used and abused passages in the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 9:22, I am become all things to all men that I might by all means save some. This is one of those seemingly pragmatic verses that allows us to do whatever was already in our mind to do. The justification, of course, would be that someone might get saved because of the way we did whatever it is we wanted to do. The wording of the verse allows it all.
We should have read verse 19 before we got to verse 22. For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. What does this “freedom” that Paul speaks of allow him to do and why does making himself a “servant” give him more ability to win people to Christ? Does this coincide with the usual pragmatic understanding of verse 22? These are questions of debate and difference today. Sometimes we have a sort of “censorship by success” attitude; that is, only if your understanding of these verses has brought you “success” do you have a right to speak about their meaning! Of course, this is the pragmatism I am objecting to here.
How Are We Free?
There are few things that bind a person more than money and popularity. In 1787 a convention was convened for the purpose of forming the constitution for the new states. Benjamin Franklin was opposed to paying governmental representatives for obvious reasons. In an address titled “The Dangers of a Salaried Bureaucracy,” Franklin spoke these words:
Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have, in many minds, the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall, at the same time, be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.2
The Apostle Paul was overtly concerned with these vices and made conscious effort to avoid the loss of effectiveness that would result by failure in these areas.
1. Free from financial bonds. Money, of course, is not evil of itself but rather the love of money. Paul says in verse 11, If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? It is right to pay the ministers of the gospel who have brought spiritual blessings to us. But Paul goes on to say, Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ (vs 12). To some (no doubt false apostles) the receiving of payment for spiritual service would cause one to be “greedy for money” and thereby disqualify him for the ministry. But for Paul this was not a danger. Rather he wanted to be “free” from the assumption (by him or them) that the preacher is indebted beyond the gospel truth itself to those who pay him. He must be free from such expectations.
R.A. Torrey recalled his days working with D.L. Moody and wrote of the large amount of money that came to their evangelistic organization. He said of Moody, “Millions of dollars passed into Mr. Moody’s hands, but they passed through; they did not stick to his fingers.”3 Maclaren once wrote, “But this is always true—that the people who do not make worldly good their first object are the people who can be most safely trusted with it, and who get most enjoyment out of it.”4 What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.
2. Free from human bonds. In the same way that we may place ourselves under obligation to payment, we may place ourselves under obligation to applause. It is a temptation in our day to do what it takes for people to reward us with their presence and their approval. But in such a case we have placed ourselves in bondage to them as really as if they paid us to perform to their expectations.
Dag Hammarskjold once commented,
Around a man who has been pushed into the limelight, a legend begins to grow as it does around a dead man. But a dead man is in no danger of yielding to the temptation to nourish his legend, or accept its picture as reality. I pity the man who falls in love with his image as it is drawn by public opinion during the honeymoon of publicity.5
In one of the most telling verses describing the false apostles, Paul again took great pains to avoid the pitfall of bondage to human applause, For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Cor 10:12). For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth. (18). Freedom from such comparisons was a prerequisite for Paul’s approval before God!
How Are We Servants?
When the Apostle says that I have made myself servant to all, that I might gain the more (1 Cor 9:19), he is taking us beyond the earthly motivations to a higher one. Once Paul was free of the lower motivations of riches and status, he had access to the Christ-like motivation of servant (agape) love. This chiasm will be further elaborated in chapter 13 where love envieth not; vaunteth not itself; is not puffed up (13:4).
Agape love is an all-giving love. To take back payment (in any form) for its use, would no longer be service, but wages. But this giving of oneself completely and unselfishly is to align oneself with Christ and His followers, whether John the Baptist in his prison or the Apostle Paul in his. This is where the power comes from for witnessing and this is why Paul knew he would gain the more by entering into such service. He says, And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you (23).
1. Servants that love the Lord. The first commandment is to love the Lord our God which naturally will be followed by service to Him. We cannot truly love Him and love the things of the world. To be in the gospel ministry for wages or applause is to settle for a powerless ministry. L.S. Chafer wrote,
Spirituality is not fained by service: it is unto service. When one is truly spiritual, all effort is diverted from self struggle to real service. Spirituality is a work of God for His child: service is a work of the child for his God, which can be accomplished only in the power of the indwelling Spirit.6
Paul wrote to Timothy, as a young man susceptible to earthly motivations, Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs (pragmateiais, literally “pragmatisms”) of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier (2 Tim 2:3-4). It is the Lord we are striving to please, not humans who are blinded by their own nature.
2. Servants that love the souls of men. The second commandment is to love those who do not (at least for the moment) love us. One of the hardest lessons for us to learn in parenting is that often we must do the hard thing with our children whether they understand or not. There is no more servile work on earth than for the faithful parent of an ungrateful child! Paul loved his own people to the point of wishing he could be cursed if it would bring them to salvation (of course he knew that only Christ could do that). But his only return on that love was constant persecution and hatred for reminding them that they were sinners. That is true servanthood!
In a chapter titled “The Insane Necessity,” G.K. Chesterton pointed out that for someone to follow us because we make them is not really following. But for someone to follow us even though we cannot make them, is the essence of true service. He wrote, “Submission to a weak man is discipline. Submission to a strong man is only servility.”7 We cannot make someone come to Christ, but the best way to persuade him to do so is to show our own submission to Christ in front of him. That is both to love the Lord supremely and to love our neighbor as ourselves!
And So . . .
What does it mean to be free from all men and to be servant of all? It means to be free from any motivation higher than true service. Self aggrandizement only weakens our gospel witness. Jesus said to Paul, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. To which Paul responded, Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor 12:9).
Thomas a Kempis, centuries ago, wrote the Lord’s response to his prayer as,
And yet, what great matter is it, if thou, who art but dust and nothing, subject thyself to a man for God’s sake, when I, the Almighty and the Most High, who created all things out of nothing, humbly subjected myself to man for thy sake.”8
Now that would define all things to all men!Notes: 1. Quoted by R.C.H. Lenski, First Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1963) 374. 2. Benjamin Franklin, “The Dangers of a Salaried Bureaucracy” Orations from Homer to McKinley, Mayo Hazeltine, ed. (New York: Collier, 1902) 1850. 3. R.A. Torrey, Why God Used D.L. Moody (Murfreesboro: Sword of the Lord Publishers, nd) 20. 4. Alexander Maclaren, Exposition of First Kings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959) 159. 5. Quoted by Chuck Swindoll, The Grace Awakening (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996) 243. 6. L.S. Chafer, He That Is Spiritual (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972) 55. 7. G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994) 77. 8. Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984) 157.