Not long ago, I received an unusual text from an Orthodox Jewish friend of mine (we’ll call him Gerry). Gerry and I have been friends for a while, and he knows that I am a leader in the Messianic Jewish movement.
In his text, Gerry shared with me that it was recently discovered that a Christian man had disguised himself as an Orthodox Jew and secretly infiltrated Gerry’s Orthodox Jewish community. This “secret agent” lived and prayed with this community for about a year, with the clear intention of being “on the inside” to gain information and insight that could be used for evangelism aimed at Jewish people.
How do we know the intent of this “spy”? Because the “spy” was later featured in a recorded public presentation that was endorsed and sponsored by a well-known Christian ministry. No need to go searching for the presentation, it was later removed. But not before many in the Jewish community viewed the recorded presentation and responded with anger and a deep sense that they had been deceived and betrayed by this Christian man, and by extension, this particular Christian ministry. I was also told in a personal conversation with another leader in this particular Orthodox community that toward the end of his covert mission, this Christian man began directly evangelizing some younger members of this Orthodox Jewish community.
I’m sure that many of you who read the above account responded like I did when I first heard about this: with disgust. However, as followers of Yeshua who look to the New Testament writings as inspired Scripture, can we really be fully disassociated from such tactics? Don’t the writings and example of Paul advise us to “become like” the groups that we seek to reach and take on their behavior and lifestyles in order to win them to Christ? Getting more specific, doesn’t 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 inspire “chameleon-like” behavior that encourages Messiah-followers to pretend to be what we are not in order to convince others that Jesus is the Messiah? Here’s the text in question:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (ESV)
The prevailing Christian interpretation of this text understands Paul as adapting his “lifestyle” or “behavior” to fit into the context of those whom he was seeking to reach. In other words, when among Jews, Paul would act like a Torah-observant Jew. When among non-Jews, Paul would act like a non-Jew, etc. In this model, Paul would “mimic behavior outwardly in order to appear to share the inner values of the other, and thus to gain access and trust which might not otherwise be granted”.  For centuries, Christian interpreters have defended this evangelistic approach by stating that the “ends justify the means.” But is this acceptable? If this is the right way to understand Paul, doesn’t his evangelistic game plan amount to trickery and deception? If Paul played “dress up” to act like he was an “insider” wherever he was, though not truly sharing that community’s inner values, would not the real life behavior of the Christian “secret agent” at the beginning of this article be justifiable in Paul’s eyes?
Compounding the problems with the prevailing Christian reading of this text is the question of how Paul could actually “become like” (behaviorally speaking) those whom he sought to reach. To the lawless, would he become lawless? When seeking to reach idolaters, would he commit idolatry? In both cases, wouldn’t this require Paul to compromise some of the most basic instructions in his letters, which call for obedience and avoiding idolatry at all costs? Insisting that Paul took on the behavior of his audience would be parallel to supposing that Jesus took on the behavior of his audience, which included prostitutes and corrupt tax collectors. Nobody thinks that Jesus “became like” these folks in the sense that he took on their lifestyle.
I think there is a much better way to interpret 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and the nature of Paul’s adaptability. As communicated by Dr. Mark Nanos, Paul’s evangelistic strategy involved adapting his rhetoric and his argumentative strategy, but not his general behavior when sharing the gospel among different groups. In other words, it is not necessary to read 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 as Paul actually “changing colors” and acting like he was something that he was not based on his context.
Dr. Nanos calls Paul’s method “rhetorical adaptability,” which involves “varying one’s speech to different audiences by reasoning from their premises.” As a former baseball coach, I can relate to something like “rhetorical adaptability.” I have taught baseball hitting skills to all kinds of students-from those with special needs in an elementary setting all the way up to top-tier college ballplayers. With each audience, I had to “adapt my rhetoric” in order to meet them where they were to teach hitting skills. Referring to a more religious or philosophical context, Dr. Nanos says that “rhetorical adaptability involves seeking to relate to an audience’s world-views and premises in order to persuade them to very different conclusions than they had heretofore likely drawn.”
The New Testament records several examples of Paul’s “rhetorical adaptability.” In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul adapted his language to his non-Jewish “knowledgeable” audience in order to lead them to the conclusion that they should avoid eating meat that they know has been sacrificed to idols. There is also the well-known example of how Paul adapted his language to the non-Jewish Greek philosophers at Mars Hill in Acts 17. And then we see how Paul adapted his language for dialog in the synagogues, where he reasoned with his Jewish kinsmen from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2). In each of these cases, there is no reason to think that Paul adapted his (presumably Jewish and Torah-faithful) behavior or lifestyle in order to effectively share the gospel. Rather, he became “like” his audiences in that he argued “from within” their ways of thinking in order to persuade them regarding the gospel.
I’ll conclude with a few summary points that answer my initial questions and provide a few practical applications.
- Paul “became like” his various audiences in the sense that he adapted his rhetoric, not his behavior or lifestyle, in order to relate the gospel to those to whom he was speaking.
- Evangelistic tactics that involve acting as though you are someone that you are not are contrary to the ethics of both Jesus and Paul. Rightly understood, neither one of them exemplified the idea that “the ends justify the means.”
- The prevailing Christian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 presents Paul as engaging in “chameleon-type” behavior. Though widespread, this is an unfortunate and unnecessary way to understand this text and Paul’s evangelistic strategy in general. The prevailing interpretation ultimately provides justification for the deplorable tactics expressed in the real-life example shared at the beginning of this article.
- As followers of Yeshua, we are called to shine his light. However, any efforts at discussing and exemplifying our faith with others should be done with mutual respect and no hidden agendas.
Did Paul encourage and personally practice deception for the sake of the gospel? I don’t think so. I think he strived for the highest levels of integrity in all that he did as an ambassador for Yeshua. Unfortunately, the standard way of reading 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 can lead to underhanded evangelistic tactics. The rhetorical adaptability interpretation set forth by Mark Nanos, in my opinion, is an interpretation of this text and Paul’s evangelistic strategy that presents a Paul whom we can feel much better about affirming.
 All quotations (other than Scripture quotations) are taken from Dr. Mark Nanos article Was Paul a Liar for the Gospel? Review and Expositor, 110, Fall 2013.