1 Corinthians 9:22
Great Texts of the Bible

I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.—1 Corinthians 9:22.

No one, perhaps, of St. Paul’s sayings describes the general effect of his life and character with such terseness, or so vividly, as this. Not that the Apostle can be thought of as deliberately framing an epigram which might afterwards do duty in a biography. He is on his defence, as against the charge, widely circulated by his Corinthian opponents, that he was really a selfish person who was making a good thing out of the Gospel; he is showing that, if he chose to stand upon the letter of his rights, he might have claimed more, and done less, than he did. Had silence been possible, we may be sure that he would gladly have said nothing about himself; but since there is this hostile criticism in the way of his usefulness, and he is forced to speak, he boldly asserts the rights which he had waived, and the loftiness of the motives which governed him. In so varied and complex a life as his, there was of course much that could not be compressed into any single saying; but nowhere else does he so nearly bring himself before us as a whole, or trace with so delicate yet powerful a hand the leading feature of his great career, as in the words, “I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.”

“All things to all men.” St. Paul is always in the face of a listening crowd. Every word, therefore, hits! He uses speech like a rapier, ready and rapid, which is quivering with personal characterization and the heat of the moment. He is aware of every objection that friend or foe can be framing, and he forestalls them, and he retorts. It turns this way and that. It has sharp recoils, and rushes to seize an advantage, and hastens to press a point that tells, and daring, venturous strokes that beat back a possible counter-stroke, and then brimming bursts of sympathy that overmaster by their very suddenness. And then, again, not only debate is in his power, but also the townsman’s delicate skill, what is called by the townsman’s own name—his urbanity. We have only to recall the exquisite letter to Philemon on his runaway slave. Here is the gentleman, in the finest sense of the word, felt speaking; here are the polished tone, the veiled irony, the irresistible reserve, the quiet humour, the social grace, that all tell of one who, without risking his self-respect or his sincerity, yet by sheer force of trained social sympathy can throw himself into another’s mind, can understand and allow for his prejudices, and see with his eyes, and so win him to do what he desires.1 [Note: H. Scott Holland.]


The Adaptability of St. Paul

“I am become all things to all men.”

1. The great gift which St. Paul had received of God—next in order of importance after that of God’s grace and truth—was the power of making himself at home with all classes, races, and degrees of men. A practical capacity like this cannot be learned like an art or a trick; it must be rooted in and spring from those affections and sympathies which are at the base of human character. Nor, although this gift was undoubtedly developed and shaped by grace, can we suppose it to have had no place in the character of St. Paul until he became a servant of Christ. Nature must have contributed to it at least somewhat of the raw material. As a Jew, we may be sure, Saul of Tarsus—apart from the limits which Rabbinical narrowness would have assigned to his sympathies—could already have said, with the heathen poet, that, being a man, he deemed nothing human strange. His broad and genial humanity must have belonged to the original outfit of his nature: for in him, the sympathies of our race lived with extraordinary freshness and power.

2. The Apostle himself has traced this versatile sympathy in three of its fields of operation.

(1) “To the Jews I became as a Jew.”—In the Apostle’s eyes the Jews were the race which had come nearest to God, and had most decisively rejected Him. And yet how tender and affectionate he is in his dealings with his poor countrymen, or with Christians who shared, less excusably, their hereditary prejudices! It might almost seem at times as if he had turned his back upon the Cross, so careful is he not to wound the sensitiveness of the adherents of the old religion. Recognizing circumcision as a national mark of distinction, while utterly denying its necessity to salvation, he circumcised Timothy, who had a right to it by his mother’s side. Owing allegiance as a Jew to the Mosaic Ritual, so long as God suffered it to exist, he took legal vows, and was scrupulous in paying them. In arguing against Judaizers he allegorized the story of Hagar and Sarai, dealing with the Old Testament precisely after the manner of the Jewish Rabbis. And even when he is compelled, by virtue of his Apostolic commission, and by the imperious truth which fills and rules him, to utter the stern and awful sentence, that by their infatuated rejection of the true Messiah, who was the crown and promise of their history, they had rejected their God, how does he soften his message by all the resources of sympathy and affection!

(2) “To them that are without law, as without law.”—St. Paul, the Apostle of revealed truth, the preacher of that One God who is known to and approached by man only through our Lord Jesus Christ, how does he make himself at home with the men and thoughts of the heathen world! Read his Epistles, and see how he can sympathize with the happy conqueror in the Greek games “who receiveth the prize,” or with the old Latin idea of the city or state, imagined as a political transcript of the human body. How does he study each detail of the dress and accoutrements of the soldier who watches him as he writes to the Ephesians! How interested he is in the details of the administration of the empire when addressing the Romans! How tenderly does he survey the heathen world at Athens, as “feeling after God” as though on its way to “find him”!

(3) “To the weak I became weak.”—There were “weak” Christians, as the Apostle gently calls them, who clung to observances, or who entertained scruples which were at variance with the import, freedom, generosity of the Gospel. And of that Gospel, in its unstinted liberty and grace, St. Paul was the jealous and passionate champion. He, if any man, might have been expected to pour contempt upon a worthless scruple—to brand, with the sternest note of disapprobation, the forms, whether of life or of thought, which, however unintentionally, did dishonour to the work of the Redeemer. We know how he could express himself upon occasions when great principles were at stake, as when he told the Galatians sharply that if they were circumcised Christ would profit them nothing. But, as a rule, how tender he is, how full of consideration and charity, how tolerant, how hopeful! The prejudice against the meat exposed for sale in the Corinthian market was a weakly superstition; but for himself he would rather eat no flesh whatever while the world lasted than offend the conscience of a weak brother. The private observance of days, Jewish or other, at Rome, was no part of the Church’s rule, and might easily engender Jewish errors; but the Apostle insists that those who kept these days did so to the Lord, and should be respected in the observance. The strong, he says, with a touch of quiet irony, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please themselves. And—to the scandal of some, no doubt, at the time, but for the instruction of the Church of all ages—what he preached he practised.

There was another aspect of the anxiety of this matter regarding the Bible to which Dr. Rainy was peculiarly sensitive. He had the keenest sense of the shock which the new view occasioned in many simple believing minds to whom the plenary inspiration of every word of Scripture had been an unquestioned assumption. And he had further an even stern feeling that those were blameworthy who by any regardlessness of utterance unnecessarily wounded the faith of such. It may be admitted that both Professor Dods and Professor Bruce were men who made what the ecclesiastical mind calls “unguarded statements.” Dr. Dods—one of the most absolutely truthful men who ever breathed, and a man incapable of choosing a word for any other reason than that it seemed the true one—spoke about the “errors” and “immoralities” in the Scripture narrative. Dr. Bruce, who had a Carlylean strain in his rugged nature, showed at times a brusquerie in dealing even with the most sacred themes which was not, but which was easily taken to be, irreverence and which jarred even on those who did not misunderstand it. Principal Rainy, along with all his tolerance on the general question, was extraordinarily sensitive to the hurting of tender consciences. I remember his once saying to me of some utterances of one of the professors just named. “He does not realize the sheer pain words like these cause to many of our most believing people”; and, as he said it, there crossed his own face a look of “sheer pain” such as assuredly he would never have shown for any suffering inflicted on himself. Here surely is real breadth. So many men who pride themselves on their theological liberality are but one-sided in their sympathy. Here was a man who, on the one hand, resolutely supported the scholar’s liberty to criticize with the frankest freedom the structure of the sacred narrative, but who, on the other, really saw and shared the pain such criticism caused in the mind of some simple and perhaps ignorant pious woman who, like Cowper’s lace-worker, “just knows, and knows no more, her Bible true.”1 [Note: P. C. Simpson, The Lift of Principal Rainy, ii. 117.]

3. St. Paul’s life has ever been an enigma to those who have failed to appreciate this ruling principle of his conduct. To his contemporaries he seemed altogether inconsistent and unintelligible. The Jewish converts were at a loss to understand how one who had conceded so much to Judaism in the case of Timothy should refuse everything to Judaism in the case of the Galatians. The Gentile converts could not reconcile the utterances of a teacher who in the same breath declared that an idol was nothing in the world, and denounced the feasters in an idol’s temple as having fellowship with devils. The party of tradition reviled him, because he broke loose from the time-honoured usages of his race and country. The friends of liberty suspected him, because he denounced in no sparing terms the practical licence which they grafted on his doctrine. And to modern critics also his conduct has appeared not less perplexing. The Paul of the Acts, they say, is a different person from the Paul of St. Paul’s Epistles. They cannot identify the facile pupil of James, who to win over those many thousands of his fellow-countrymen lent himself to a complicity in Nazirite vows, with the stern master of Peter, who declared that those seeking justification through the Law had fallen from grace. The one character is to them irreconcilable with the other. Irreconcilable, yes, to those who do not appreciate the infinite power of love in concession, in adaptation, in expedient, in varying sympathy with the wants and the weaknesses and the prejudices and the ignorances of men, while holding firmly and maintaining boldly the great central truths of God. There is a concession which springs from cowardice, and there is a facility which is born of indifference. There is an adaptation which is the slave of self-interest, and there is a versatility which is leagued with fraud. Not such was the Apostle’s principle of action. His was the elasticity of a keen, absorbing, dominating love, which concentrates its entire energies for the time on the one object before it, which watches every moment, seizes every opportunity, fastens on every rising emotion, and ingratiates itself with every transient thought, that it may force an entrance for the truth which shall save a soul from self and sin, and gain it for God.

The root of all that was peculiar in Mr. Robertson’s character and correspondence lay in the intense sensitiveness which pervaded his whole nature. His senses, his passions, his imagination, his conscience, his spirit, were so delicately wrought, that they thrilled and vibrated to the slightest touch. His great power of sympathy arose out of this sensitiveness. My misfortune or happiness (he says) is power of sympathy. I can feel with the Brahmin, the Pantheist, the Stoic, the Platonist, the Transcendentalist, perhaps the Epicurean. At least, I feel the side of Utilitarianism which seems like truth, though I have more antipathy to it than anything else. I can suffer with the Tractarian, tenderly shrinking from the gulf blackening before him, as a frightened child runs back to its mother from the dark, afraid to be alone in the fearful loneliness; and I can also agonize with the infidels, recoiling from the cowardice and false rest of superstition. Many men can feel each of these separately, and they are happy. They go on straight forward, like a one-eyed horse, seeing all clear on one side. But I feel them all at once, and so far I am allseitig, ein ganzer Mann. But I am not such in this sense, that I can harmonize them all; I can only feel them. For this greatness there must be an all-feeling heart, together with an all-seeing eye.1 [Note: Life and Letters of the Rev. F. W. Robertson, 154.]


The Uses of Adaptability

The attitude of St. Paul in the first age is the precedent for Christian workers in all ages. We too, like the Apostle, must in a certain sense strive to be all things to all men. Effectual Christian service is a difficult and delicate art. No amount of zeal will save us from blundering and failure, unless along with our zeal we possess some of the insight which comes from sympathy with the people we try to help. There are few gifts more necessary, and less common, among Christian workers than this gift of imaginative sympathy, which can enter by intuition into other men’s feelings and appreciate their condition and understand instinctively how to deal with their case. Such a gift is too precious to be common. It depends partly on moral endowment and inheritance. But a sensitive nature may be coarsened and blunted by selfishness, as it may be cultivated by faithful obedience. Thoughtful love grows wise by constant watching, and strong by patient self-denial. Only the heart at leisure from itself has skill to sympathize. How few of us attain to the height of George Fox’s wonderful petition: “I have prayed to be baptized into a sense of all conditions, that I might be able to know the needs and feel the sorrows of all.”

There are seven octaves on an ordinary piano. And most of us can hear every musical note which a piano sounds. But there are both higher and lower octaves which certain instruments reach, and which many human ears cannot take in. Some can hear the higher notes, but not the lower, and with others it is the reverse. We all differ in the same way with regard to the things which impress us, catch hold of our imagination, appeal to the best and worst in us, and bring out our evil and our good. There are sermons preached in every sanctuary which move some to tears, stir them to impassioned devotion, and lift them up to the very gates of heaven. Yet when those very sermons have been preached others will declare that the preacher has been quite out of form, and that his words were wearying and unprofitable. And it by no means follows that they are not good and earnest Christian men. It only means that the preacher has been touching chords which are not found in them.1 [Note: J. G. Greenhough, The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, 157.]

1. Behind all efficient personal Christian service, there must lie this principle of adaptation. St. Paul became Jew, Greek, Roman, and accursed in order to save men. He put himself into the place of the one he sought to help, and from that new standpoint point learned the secret path of access to his soul. No one can understand another who is unable to leave himself behind and look upon the world as the other person does; and this requires the sympathetic nature. It is the method of the loving heart. To him who really loves, the inner chambers of the other life are opened that he may dwell therein a welcome guest. The magic of a fellow-feeling has not been equalled as a means whereby the full life of a Christian is admitted to the starving life of him who knows only the flesh.

Sanctified ingenuity is a gift to be prized highly, both for its value and for its rarity.1 [Note: H. W. Horwill.]

Mrs. Stelling was not a loving, tender-hearted woman: she was a woman whose skirt sat well, who adjusted her waist and patted her curls with a pre-occupied air when she inquired after your welfare. These things, doubtless, represent a great social power, but it is not the power of love.2 [Note: George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss.]

You mistook me in thinking I did not sympathize. A few years ago, when I felt less, you would have been more satisfied, when the eyes showed moisture, the voice emotion, and when I had a gentler manner and a more ready show of responding to what was expected. Now, a certain amount of iron has gone into my blood; and a sardonic sentence often conceals the fact that I wince to the very quick from something that has gone home.

Oh, many a shaft at random sent

Finds mark the archer little meant!

I no longer wear my heart upon my sleeve, “for daws to peck at.” But there is not a conversation, there is not a book I read, there is not a visit I pay, that does not cut deep traces in the “Calais” of my heart.3 [Note: Life and Letters of the Rev. F. W. Robertson, 455.]

(1) At the very outset, it is essential that there should be respect for other people’s views. Men do not think alike in this world. They cannot. Many may be inclined to regard the results which we have reached through patience and toil and tribulation, not only with opposition, but resentment; while we in turn may look upon them with contempt because they have not yet caught up with our vision. How poor and mean and petty must they be whose horizon is bounded and circumscribed! Of course the truth is one and clear,—easily discerned—and we have it. Nothing but stupidity or obstinacy could prevent anybody from beholding it as well as we. Thus does some heartless and incompetent teacher belabour a backward boy (whose backwardness is due perhaps to defective vision or imperfect hearing or defect in some of the other faculties of perception) because he cannot keep pace with those to whom God has given every needful endowment. When we give way to our natural impulses we are impatient and intolerant. It is this spirit that has poured the gall of bitterness without measure into social and domestic life, filled neighbourhoods with discord, sown the seeds of strife among the nations of mankind and not infrequently deluged the earth with blood.

Without sympathy in the high sense of intellectual penetration, kindness may be only folly, and intended aid, oppression.1 [Note: Ruskin, A Knight’s Faith (Works, xxxi. 386).]

(2) There must be respect for other men’s convictions. These are things to which men come, often by painful effort, and always with solemnity. Few men are willing to abandon them without a struggle. They may be false, but they are precious. Not infrequently they are interwoven with the holiest traditions. For the sake of them, their holders are frequently willing and eager to wear the martyr’s crown. The fact that we may know or think we know other men’s convictions to be false, does not alter the obligation to treat them with respect. For when we reflect we must perceive that there is some real reason for every deep-seated conviction. And not until there is a mutual approach, not until there is a disposition manifest to acknowledge that there is some sanity in an opponent’s view, do the conditions exist for a real advance. One lesson which the experience of human conflict has clearly taught is that before there can be liberty for new thought there must be deference and courtesy paid to the older belief.

There is an incident in point in the life of the Rev. John Murker of Banff. A new church had been built, but not without strong opposition from some of the older members. Murker himself tells what occurred:—

At last the day arrived when we had to bid farewell to the old time-honoured building. The services were of a character suitable to the occasion. In the morning my text was—“If thy presence go not with us, carry us not up hence”; in the evening—“Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward,” trying to blend in my discourses tender reverence for the past with a consciousness of duty for the present. At the close of the evening service, I felt in no mood to stand in the vestry with the deacons, as was my custom, but hurried home seeking retirement and privacy for my thoughts. I had not been more than an hour seated in my study when an uncontrollable desire seized me to go back and look at the old place once more, before it was turned to secular use, as was to be the case on Monday morning. It was a clear, frosty night, and I slipped down to the chapel as quietly as possible, so as not to attract observation. My difficulty was how to get in. I did not like to go to the beadle for the key; but, to my astonishment, as I was passing, I found the key in the lock, and, without stopping to inquire how this was, or thinking any more about it, stepped in. I was soon disturbed in my musings by the suppressed sounds of a voice familiar to my ear; I listened attentively, and turning round to one of the square seats near the pulpit, I dimly saw the figure of one of my senior members whom I deeply respected, but who had grieved me somewhat by his lukewarmness with respect to the building of the new chapel. There he was kneeling beside the seat on which he had sat when a laddie, and he was so much absorbed in his prayer as not to hear my footsteps. Afraid to move lest I should disturb him, I stood still and could not but listen to the broken sentences that reached my ear as his voice rose above a whisper and swelled into audible tones. The following bits of his fervent supplication ejaculated forth as the tears came streaming down his cheeks. I distinctly heard:—“For forty years this place has been a Bethel to me; here I was born again.… But if we maun leave this house may Thy presence gang wi’ us … forgive my obstinateness, mak’ the cause even mair prosperous in the new chapel.… Come doon, O Lord, come doon in Thy power.… Bless oor young pastor.… Lift upon him and us a’ the licht o’ Thy coontenance, and mak’ the little ane a thousand.”

I could stand no longer the spectator of such a scene; my presence was, I felt, an almost sacrilegious intrusion; as quietly as possible I went away. But that prayer, or the fragments of it I got, had lifted a load from my mind. Next day I met the worthy old man and gave him a warmer shake of the hand than he had got from me for a long time, he not knowing the secret of it, nor ever will in this world. All coldness and alienation of feeling had been melted in the fervour of that prayer which reached my ear and touched my heart. His position I now understood, and I did not think any the less of him for his lingering regard for the old, with which he had now to part.1 [Note: J. Stark, John Murker, 192.]

(3) Nor is this true only of beliefs. It applies in like manner to prejudice. Nothing in this world is quite so stubborn as prejudice. Nothing is so hard to overcome. Nothing so persists after every reason for its existence has passed away. Some prejudices are the peculiarities of the race, as if they were ingrained in the very nature of their possessors; some are characteristic of nations; some are local in their boundary, confined to community or time; and some are purely individual, growing out of environment, or tradition, or training. But however encountered they are relentless. Woe to the man who ruthlessly runs up against them. Prejudice is a universal trait of mankind, and it behoves us, when we encounter it in others, not to try to neutralize or overcome it by a counter prejudice, but rather to stand in awe before it and pay obeisance to one of the common weaknesses of our poor humanity. This is the one and only solvent. Pride of opinion, the force of individual will, the virulence of hatred are all alike powerless before it. When we come to recognize that prejudice has some ground for existence in the order of the world and in the nature of man we begin the process by which it is ultimately to be undermined and uprooted. Respect a prejudice and you destroy its power for harm. It is like extracting the fangs of a venomous serpent. No matter how vindictive his feeling or his actions, his power for evil is gone. So though the animosity which prejudice has aroused may long remain, its poison has vanished as soon as those who might otherwise be its victims meet it with serenity and patience.

To minds strongly marked by the positive and negative qualities that create severity—strength of will, conscious rectitude of purpose, narrowness of imagination and intellect, great power of self-control, and a disposition to exert control over others—prejudices come as the natural food of tendencies which can get no sustenance out of that complex, fragmentary, doubt-provoking knowledge which we call truth. Let a prejudice be bequeathed, carried in the air, adopted by hearsay, caught in through the eye—however it may come, these minds will give it a habitation: it is something to assert strongly and bravely, something to fill up the void of spontaneous ideas, something to impose on others with the authority of conscious right: it is at once a staff and a baton. Every prejudice that will answer these purposes is self-evident.1 [Note: George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss.]

(4) Even human conventions may be deferred to. These, to be sure, lie on the surface of human life and seem not to be related in any vital way either to the established social order or to the progressive movements of the world. Yet they do have great power. There are no inherent reasons why there should be such a marked difference in the styles of dress between men and women. Yet the most persistent efforts, covering years and even generations, by those who bring forth the powerful argument of convenience and health have made but slight difference in changing the time-honoured practice. So with many of our habits and customs; they are superficial but they are commanding. The custom of uncovering the head in a church or other place of public assembly, the habit of saying “good morning,” or “good evening,” of wishing good health and prosperity to even the most casual acquaintance, are the invariable marks of good breeding, and good breeding is a fundamental requisite of the gentleman or the gentlewoman. No one can make any headway in an influential career who neglects this quality. St. Paul was a gentleman when he said, “I think myself happy, king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee,” and that gentlemanliness secured for him a respectful hearing.

Darwin’s way of looking at himself as an ignoramus in matters of art, was strengthened by the absence of pretence, which was part of his character. With regard to questions of taste, as well as to more serious things, he always had the courage of his opinions. I remember, however, an instance that sounds like a contradiction to this: when he was looking at the Turners in Mr. Buskin’s bedroom, he did not confess, as he did afterwards, that he could make out absolutely nothing of what Mr. Ruskin saw in them. But this little pretence was not for his own sake, but for the sake of courtesy to his host. He was pleased and amused when subsequently Mr. Ruskin brought him some photographs of pictures (I think Vandyke portraits), and courteously seemed to value my father’s opinion about them.1 [Note: The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, i. 125.]

2. At the root of all efficient evangelization there must lie this same principle of adaptation. We are fishers of men, and the fisherman uses the bait that is most likely to catch the fish, not the bait that best suits his own palate.

An illustration of this truth is afforded by the different characters of Gregory the Great and the missionary St. Augustine. Both were earnest, both enthusiastic, both ready to spend and to be spent, if only they might preach Christ crucified to the rude barbarians of Anglo-Saxon England. But St. Augustine from first to last was hampered by a want of elasticity, a narrowness, intellectual rather than moral, which led him to identify Christianity with that form of it with which, in his convent life at Rome, he had been familiar. St. Gregory, with that wisdom which a knowledge of many men and many minds had given, a delicate sense of the difference between essential and accidental, above all with a conviction of the necessity of “adaptation” in the preaching of Christianity, stands out as a model of wide and liberal-minded earnestness. When the collision with the old British Church came, St. Augustine with the same want of flexibility, not unmixed perhaps with a sense of his own importance as Metropolitan of England, was ready to contend to the last about the wording of a Liturgy, or the form of a tonsure, or the style of chronology. In vain St. Gregory’s wise warning that he should adapt himself to national customs as far as possible, and “not value things because of places, but places for the good things they contained.” With all his earnestness and missionary zeal, St. Augustine’s want of versatility in the delivery of his message narrowed down his success to a small portion of the east of England, leaving the rest to be evangelized by the remnants of that very British Church with which he would not work.2 [Note: A. L. Moore, The Message of the Gospel, 34.]

Surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him, which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion. Our subtlest analysis of schools and sects must miss the essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in all forms of human thought and work the life-and-death struggles of separate human beings.3 [Note: George Eliot, Janet’s Repentance.]

(1) We hear much of intellectual difficulties. How many of us attempt to qualify ourselves even to understand them far less to answer them? Again and again grievous harm is done to those for whom, as for us, Christ died, by the way in which those who have never themselves experienced difficulties of belief put such things aside as the work of the devil, or as a wilful carping at revealed truth. To fail to throw ourselves into the different mental and moral states of our people will be to fail to deliver our message aright.

I, too, have passed through that self-same place

Where you and the Dragon are face to face.

I neither vanquished nor slew him quite,

But he fled away with the morning light

Alas! so deadly the mortal fray,

You cannot hearken the words I say.

And I, who remember the combat sore,

Weep. I have passed that way before.1 [Note: Margaret Blaikie, Songs by the Way, 46.]

(2) We hear much of scientific progress. The true Christian worker will meet the latest acquisitions of science, not with opposition, not with coldness, not with misgiving, but with a hearty welcome—the more hearty in proportion as his faith is the stronger—confident that in the end Divine truth can only gain by enlarging the bounds of human knowledge.

Of all that elder race, he [Dean Church] was the one who most intimately followed on with the new movements and the fresh temper. He was absolutely in touch with the younger men. No brick walls blocked them out, or brought them into abrupt arrest. He did not encounter them with a challenge of suspicion, or hold them off at arm’s length. He felt what was going forward; he believed in its worth; he took it seriously. Eight to his very last years, he caught the spirit that was abroad, and was sensitive to its necessary differences from earlier types. Thus the younger men could come to him with their vague and crude aspirations, unafraid and unchilled. They were sure of sympathetic consideration—of a judgment that viewed their case from inside. They felt that he saw with their eyes; and, with that assurance, they could freely yield to his authority, which it was a delight to recognize.1 [Note: Life and Letters of Dean Church, 227.]

(3) Do we live at a time when æsthetic culture is making rapid strides? We will not let it drift into a position of antagonism to Christian worship, but will rather enlist it in the service of God, careful only not to make a mistress of a handmaid, and watchful always lest artistic feeling should step into the place of devotion, or music usurp the throne of prayer.

If we are to become all things to all men that we may by all means save some, we are to become cultured to the cultured, refined to the refined. But we often work on a principle diametrically opposite to that of the Apostle. As a rule, much more pains is taken to adapt the Gospel to the uneducated than to the educated, and a severe unchristian shibboleth is set up as a test which serves only as a barrier. It is difficult to see why it should be right to respect the tastes of one class and wrong to respect the tastes of another.2 [Note: H. W. Horwill.]

(4) There is urgent need for adaptation in the methods of our work among children. How many people who give Sunday-school addresses ever try to become children while they are speaking? How many make the least effort to drop all their philosophy and look at things with the simple directness of a child? How many remember that children become bored by a long and dull speech? How many think of saying a word about the peculiar difficulties of school life, the moral problems that arise even in the earliest years out of every day’s work and play?

The angel of the Lord—i.e. God in self-manifestation—said to Abraham, “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). This is one of the many instances in which God is represented as speaking in a human fashion, as if He were not omniscient. When the cry of Sodom came up to heaven, the Lord said, “I will go down and see … and I will know.” To Abraham He said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous men, I will spare it.” The Infinite voluntarily approximates the ways and thoughts of finite beings. He is above all limitations, and to Him nothing is ever unknown. “I am God,” He said, “and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning.” But if He were to speak to men in terms of His foreknowledge absolute, they would “find no end, in wandering mazes lost.” The All-wise in His intercourse with men is represented as like a human father conversing with his children. He speaks very simply, that He may be understood. Every teacher knows that he must sympathize with his pupils’ ignorance, else they will never understand his knowledge. He must condescend to their condition, place himself alongside of them, study their limitations, take into account their inexperience. He has to bridge over the gulf that separates his mind from theirs. Unless he can express his ideas, not in his own language, but in theirs, their ears might as well be closed, and all his wisdom will be lost upon them. That is the principle on which the Divine Teacher of the human race acted in His revelation. He made His meaning intelligible by translating His great thoughts into simple forms of speech. He spake to men in the language of earth, that they might learn the laws of Heaven.1 [Note: J. Strachan, Hebrew Ideals, i. 171.]

(5) This principle must guide us in our attempts to reach those among the working classes who at present are never seen inside a place of worship. If elaborate sermons repel them, elaborate sermons must go. If pew-rents keep them away, pew-rents must go. We must learn their habits of thought, their opinions, even their prejudices, and use this knowledge for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom.

A certain shoemaker, radical and infidel, was among the number of those under Irving’s special care; a home-workman of course, always present, silent, with his back turned upon the visitors, and refusing any communication except a sullen humph of implied criticism, while his trembling wife made her deprecating curtsy in the foreground. The way in which this intractable individual was finally won over is attributed by some tellers of the story to a sudden happy inspiration on Irving’s part; but, by others, to plot and intention. Approaching the bench one day, the visitor took up a piece of patent leather, then a recent invention, and remarked upon it in somewhat skilled terms. The shoemaker went on with redoubled industry at his work; but at last, roused and exasperated by the speech and pretence of knowledge, demanded, in great contempt, but without raising his eyes, “What do ye ken about leather?” This was just the opportunity his assailant wanted; for Irving, though a minister and a scholar, was a tanner’s son, and could discourse learnedly upon that material. Gradually interested and mollified, the cobbler slackened work, and listened while his visitor described some process of making shoes by machinery, which he had carefully got up for the purpose. At last the shoemaker so far forgot his caution as to suspend his work altogether, and lift his eyes to the great figure stooping over his bench. The conversation went on with increased vigour after this, till finally the recusant threw down his arms:—“Od, you’re a decent kind O’ fellow!—do you preach?” said the vanquished, curious to know more of his victor. The advantage was discreetly, but not too hotly pursued; and on the following Sunday the rebel made a defiant, shy appearance at church. Next day Irving encountered him in the savoury Gallowgate, and hailed him as a friend. Walking beside him in natural talk, the tall probationer laid his hand upon the shirtsleeve of the shrunken sedentary workman, and marched by his side along the well-frequented street. By the time they had reached the end of their mutual way not a spark of resistance was left in the shoemaker. His children henceforward went to school; his deprecating wife went to the kirk in peace. He himself acquired that suit of Sunday “blacks” so dear to the heart of the poor Scotchman, and became a churchgoer and respectable member of society; while his acknowledgment of his conqueror was conveyed with characteristic reticence, and concealment of all deeper feeling, in the self-excusing pretence—“He’s a sensible man, yon; he kens about leather!”1 [Note: Mrs. Oliphant, The Life of Edward Irving, i. 110.]

3. This principle of adaptation is the basis of all effective missionary work. It is not so long ago that the idea which people attached to missionary work was that Christian people went out to speak to heathen people; and they grouped under the phrase “heathen” all sorts of races, nationalities and religions. In point of fact we coloured the world, or the map of the world, in various colours, and the great bulk of it was coloured black. But the black covered various races, various nationalities, various creeds and differences, and it is one of the mistakes of those indefatigable and earnest men, that they did not learn to discriminate between the religious differences and the racial differences, between one nationality, race and creed, and another.

(1) It is at this point that we shall find the clue to the slow progress which the Christian religion has too often made among alien races in spite of the sturdiest missionary effort. The advocates of Christianity have not always possessed the tolerance of their great Master. They have said, “This is the only way. Walk in this way or go to destruction.” They have declared, “Here is the supreme and absolute truth. Believe it or perish in the darkness and misery of unbelief.” The pagan peoples to whom they have gone with their patent panacea for the ills of life have made reply, “Our own sages have shown us another way, and we have found that a safer way to walk in. They have given us a different doctrine. They were good men and true, and we have not found their teachings repugnant to reason.”

Do not think you will ever get harm by striving to enter into the faith of others, and to sympathize, in imagination, with the guiding principles of their lives. So only can you justly love them, or pity them, or praise.1 [Note: Ruskin, The Ethics of the Dust (Works, xviii. 356).]

On the Day of Pentecost part of the charm was that every man heard the Gospel in his own language, and that is why our missionaries have to learn foreign languages, that they may preach the Gospel to men in the tongue to which they were born. But if they are to be of much use they must learn far more than the language of the people; they must learn their manners and customs, their history, their beliefs, their ideals, even their prejudices. Let no young missionary going forth doubt that there are elements of Divine truth in the faith and the practice of the heathen. And these are not to be despised or neglected, but are to be used as stepping-stones by which to lead them to something higher and better. I have always been profoundly moved by what an Indian woman said when she first heard the Gospel of Grace proclaimed—“That is what I have been expecting to hear all my life.”2 [Note: Professor J. Stalker.]

I once heard a distinguished missionary, who had spent his whole life among Indians upon the frontier, tell the story of a chieftain, who, just as he was about to go upon the war-path against the whites, lost a little child to whom he was devotedly attached. He sat down in his tepee a day and a night beside the body of the babe, gloomy and terrible. Then the white man came with a little coffin and placed it on the ground before him. The Indian sat an hour or more in silence. Then he rose and, after placing the babe in the coffin, washed away the paint and laid aside the feathers, which were the symbols of war, and dismissed his followers in peace.3 [Note: E. H. Capen.]

Those who heard Döllinger speak from the pulpit or in the lecture-room, from his seat in the chamber or in the Council, of course carried away with them the impression of a man of letters and distinction; but to see him out of doors, in the freedom of God’s beautiful creations, was to learn his disposition and feel his geniality. There he was gladdened by tree and meadow, air and water, sunshine and the songs of birds. The air might be both raw and damp, but he always found something to praise in it, so that I was involuntarily reminded of a legend told me by Döllinger himself. “In one of the streets of Galilee there lay rotting the body of a dead dog. All who saw it exclaimed, ‘How unsightly! How horrible! What a stench!’ But Christ, who passed that way, said gently, ‘Yet he has beautiful teeth.’ ”1 [Note: L. von Kobell, Conversations of Dr. Döllinger, 18.]

(2) It is said that those who try to plant Western corn in India have found that it was absolutely necessary before that Western corn could yield an adequate harvest that it should be naturalized by some years of sowing in Indian soil. Is not that a parable that the want of the East is the rising up of the Eastern to speak Christianity to the Eastern people, and that it is needful that our religious teaching should, as it were, be naturalized in the soil as it was naturalized in every soil in the history of the past, in order that it might gain power of full expression to the hearts of those who need it?

Mozoomdar and his fellow-disciples of the Brahmo-Samaj claim that they can understand and interpret the teachings of Jesus far more accurately than is possible with the occidental mind. Jesus was an Oriental and they are Orientals. They, therefore, can see the truth which He taught as it stood in His own mind. They have comprehended as we do not the problems which confronted Him. To them the doctrines which He proclaimed in gorgeous imagery and poetic parables are not distorted by our western literalism. To them the work of our Lord and Master is revealed. Surely there is some force in this claim. But whether it is just or not, it must be clear that the point of view is of the utmost importance. If we are going to China, or Japan, or India, or the islands of the sea for the purpose of inducing them to take on our civilization and adopt our cult, we must first of all be able to see our own message as they see it, and we must moreover have a sympathetic knowledge of the doctrines and beliefs which we are seeking to overthrow and supplant.2 [Note: E. H. Capen, The College and The Higher Life, 206.]

(3) Nor should we stop here. We should enter into the new life ourselves. If we are among Orientals, we must become Orientals. If we are with people who speak a different language, we must learn their language. If their dress is different from ours, we must conform to their style. This is the way to reach the heart of things.

I know that some will condemn me as holding a doctrine of expediency; but I have no fear of condemnation from men of liberal minds and large hearts, whose condemnation I should be sorry to have, while the others would, more than likely, condemn me for any possible view that ventured to differ a hair’s-breadth from their own. You know the old saw, “My doxy is orthodoxy, any other doxy is heterodoxy.” Many a life has been lost in this country for learning no more than our alphabet: should more lives go merely for declining to learn the Arabic alphabet? Few, very few, will go further; few went further before, when it was strongly in vogue, and no Christianity to counteract it. Do we not ever see that, in the case of the real Mussulmans who come here, the most unpromising feature about them is their obstinacy and bigotry, which will not allow them even to look at our Gospel! I believe we shall gain a great point when Christianity ceases to be called the white man’s religion. The foolish phrase, “Kusoma Kizungu,” creates needless suspicion. I am ever battling with it among our own people, and trying to get them to use “Soma Luganda” instead. When will they learn that Christianity is cosmopolitan and not Anglican? But there is so much in our ways and methods that strengthens the idea of foreign rule—English men, English church, English formularies, English Bishop! Nor can the evil be readily rectified, until we are become more prepared to look on Africa as our home, or, if you like, till we become more truly identified with Africa than heretofore. Here, too, I fear, I shall be construed wrongly. But I allude only to mental affinity.1 [Note: Mackay of Uganda, 361.]


The Limits of Adaptability

In our times these words, “Becoming all things to all men,” have acquired an unmusical sound. Those who have professedly acted on this principle have sometimes been viewed askance, partly with suspicion, and not always without reason. There has been the absence, apparently, of fixed principles; an indifference not only to dogmas, but also to truth; a liberality running to seed in mere licence; and a charity so broad as to border on defection and impurity. They have protested too much. Under the pretence of putting on the mantle of the Apostle, they have but used his robe as a convenient cloak to hide a self-seeking which he would have been the first in fiery words to condemn. For there is a cant of philosophy as well as of orthodoxy, and a kind of freedom which is spurious as well as one which is heaven-born and Divine.

1. Let us be sure that we have the right aim. St. Paul had only one aim—“that I may by all means save some.” Some become all things to all men that they may by all means destroy some. Satan himself can become an angel of light if it suits his purpose. There are others who become all things to all men to avoid trouble and persecution. They can be very religious in a prayer-meeting where none but Christians are present, but when they get out into worldly society they so adapt themselves to the fancies of their associates that there is no mark by which they can be recognized as Christians. That is as far removed as possible from the spirit of St. Paul. Dare we, without hypocrisy, quote this declaration of his as the watchword of our own lives? Are we jealous about tradition and usage rather than about saving men? Are we tenacious of our comforts and luxuries when by sacrificing them we might rescue our brother for whom Christ died? Are we standing upon our dignity, unwilling to adopt some method that we think to be beneath us, while we are surrounded by multitudes who perish? Do we think indeed that it is possible for us to save our own souls while we are indifferent to the salvation of others?

While St. Paul’s heart is on fire his reason is cool; after all this expenditure of feeling and effort he looks for very partial results. “That I may save some.” Not “all”—that were too much to hope. But whether in the Jewish synagogue or on Mars’ Hill in Athens; whether among scholars or the unlettered; whether amidst friends or foes; whether he stands face to face with multitudes or is pleading with a single soul; he keeps one purpose steadily before him; he is what he is, he does what he does, that some at least may know the power of that faithful saying which is ever worthy of all acceptation, that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”1 [Note: H. P. Liddon, Clerical Life and Work, 318.]

Some people are quite intolerable to one by the way in which they insist that sympathy means looking at things as they do, without any feeling of real conviction. Now, to me, sympathy means understanding other people, and acting in accordance with one’s perception, though neither one’s feelings nor one’s reason may approve of their condition. An abandonment of one’s personality to another makes sympathy a quite useless gift. Yet that is the sort of sympathy which people most demand. They come in a defiant way and say, “You shall feel with me: you shall tell me that my feelings are the best, the noblest, the richest.” I am afraid that I never look for more than a modified approval of my own doings. In proportion as a man is really worth consulting, he will show his appreciation of my difficulties, but will suggest, without expressing, a more excellent way in the future.2 [Note: Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, i. 271.]

2. Let us be sure that we have the right motive. Mere human sympathy, however strong, wears itself out; it is at least half physical in its nature, and its energy shares the vicissitudes and decay of our bodily frame. One motive only—the love of God—really lasts; and of the love of God, the love of man, whom God has loved so well as to create and to redeem him, is in reality the consequence and the attestation.

What we have to be on our guard against is not the versatility itself, but a wrong motive, or the absence of a good one to direct it. This is well illustrated by the different forms which versatility took in the history of the Greeks. In the age of Pericles it was the great Hellenic virtue, on the excellence of which the Greek prided himself. “It was a happy and graceful flexibility.” Freedom from prejudice, freedom from stiffness, openness of mind, amiability of manners, clearness and propriety of language—all these seem to have had their part in that which enabled the Athenian, without loss of earnestness or “relaxation of moral force,” to become all things to all men. In the age of Aristotle this versatility is still a grace, but a subordinate grace, of character. It is now little more than an elegant accomplishment, which the Athenian gentleman, enveloped in a sense of dignity and self-importance, cultivates only that he may avoid the unpleasant extremes of buffoonery and boorishness. Four hundred years later the same word appears in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, and lo, it is coupled with filthiness and foolish talking; it is the “jesting” which is not convenient. Wherein then does the flexibility of St. Paul differ from the frivolity and fickleness of the Ionians of Asia Minor? Simply and solely in the motive which actuated him. It was when Greece lost its reality, its earnestness, when its moral fibre became relaxed, that this grace of character became hateful and contemptible.1 [Note: A. L. Moore, The Message of the Gospel, 31.]

3. The principle of adaptation when applied to Christian work gives no sanction to the satanic doctrine that the end justifies the means. St. Paul wore different characters only so long as he could wear them consistently with his Christianity. There must be no infidelity to conscience, no compromise with wrong, no overcoming evil with evil, though we might think that we could save souls thereby. The motives of the Jesuits and Inquisitors were often of the purest, but they defiled themselves by the use of means that were nothing short of diabolical. The conversion of a sinner from the error of his ways will not hide any sins that may be committed in the process. Nothing is justifiable in Christian work which is not justifiable elsewhere. There must be no sharp practice. Christ drives the traffickers out of the Temple, though the Temple may make a profit from their gains.

Some days before, the missionary had used the same device (industrie) for baptizing a little boy six or seven years old. His father, who was very sick, had several times refused to receive baptism; and when asked if he would not be glad to have his son baptized, he had answered, No. “At least,” said Father Pijart, “you will not object to my giving him a little sugar.” “No; but you must not baptize him.” The missionary gave it to him once; then again; and at the third spoonful, before he had put the sugar into the water, he let a drop of it fall on the child, at the same time pronouncing the sacramental words. A little girl, who was looking at him, cried out, “Father, he is baptizing him!” The child’s father was much disturbed; but the missionary said to him, “Did you not see that I was giving him sugar?” The child died soon after; but God showed His grace to the father, who is now in perfect health.2 [Note: Le Mercier, Relation des Hurons (quoted in Parkman, The Jesuits in North America, i. 186).]

4. In work among the lowest classes, while we may conform to their wishes, we must be sure that we ourselves fall into no sin, such as the sin of irreverence, which is sometimes committed by those who try to attract them. In work among people of higher social position, while we may be anxious that our mode of worship and our style of preaching shall in no way shock a refined taste, we must beware lest we gloss over or tone down any truths that are likely to be unwelcome. It may sometimes be our duty to declare truths that are utterly opposed to the most inveterate convictions of those to whom we speak. We must not be unfaithful to our own consciences for fear of offending the sensibilities of anybody. Even St. Paul, the model of tact and adaptation, did not hesitate to reason before the licentious governor Felix of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come.

On one occasion (writes a gentleman who knew Robertson well at Cheltenham) he had been asked to preach at a church where the congregation was chiefly composed of those whom Pope describes as passing from “a youth of frolics” to “an old age of cards.” I accompanied him, and listened curiously for his text. It was this, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” The sermon was most impressive and eloquent, and bold in its denunciation. Returning home, he asked me if I thought he was right in preaching it. I answered that it was very truthful; but, considering the character of the clergyman whose pulpit he occupied by courtesy, and the character of the congregation, not a discreet sermon. It might have been as truthful without apparently setting both minister and people at defiance. “You are quite right, quite right,” he answered; “but the truth was this: I took two sermons with me into the pulpit, uncertain which to preach; but, just as I had fixed upon the other, something seemed to say to me, ‘Robertson, you are a craven, you dare not speak here what you believe’; and I immediately pulled out the sermon that you heard, and preached it as you heard it.”1 [Note: S. A. Brooke, Life and Letters of the Rev. F. W. Robertson, 71.]

5. We must never sacrifice convictions to expediency. St. Paul’s sympathy even with his opponents, and his great tenderness for the bigoted, the scrupulous, the superstitious, are the more remarkable in a man of such deep, strong, definite convictions. Assuredly he never accepted the hateful maxim that to understand everything is to condone everything. No one held more tenaciously to the sacredness of principle and the certainty of truth. Yet he would go almost any length, short of compromising principle, if by any means he might win over his antagonists. In particular he was ready to waive his own personal rights and to sacrifice his individual liberties in all matters that did not involve evil, on the chance that by so doing he might influence some soul for good. General Gordon wrote: “Daily I am more convinced that the non-assertion of one’s rights is a great gain, though only to be acquired by a closer union with Christ.”

Of Bishop Moberly, Keble says, “There is nobody, I feel sure, nobody on earth, who can exactly take the part which he did, with his sweet and noble and, as I always thought, royal ways: not giving up an inch of principle, yet known to be the friend of every one and making all friends to one another.”1 [Note: C. A. E. Moberly, Dulce Domum, 165.]

Ideal tolerance necessarily is of extreme rarity because it virtually implies an amicable meeting of apparent contradictories—Belief, and sympathy with Unbelief. Superstition and infallibility may tolerate—“just endure”—Jews, Turks, and Infidels. Indifferentism suffers with good-humoured contemptuousness a babel of Creeds. The genuinely tolerant, whatever the origin of his faith, has made it his personal possession, has converted himself to it.2 [Note: W. Stebbing, Three Essays, 10.]

6. But we may sacrifice almost everything else. Yield in a thousand little things that the great things may be urged. Nothing on earth is so winning, so subduing, as the spectacle of a man who forgets all his self-importance for the sake of doing good to others. The real triumphs of the Gospel involve the humility and self-suppression and self-effacement of its preachers. And the Gospel of Love can prevail only as it is preached lovingly, with endless tenderness and tolerance and patience and long-suffering. In one of Cowper’s letters to John Newton we read: “No man was ever scolded out of his sins,” or, let us add, persecuted out of his prejudices and errors and superstitions.

A sermon was preached before the Irish House of Commons in 1725 by Edward Synge on the anniversary of the rebellion. The preacher was prebendary of St. Patrick and son of that Archbishop Synge who for many years exercised a great influence over all Irish policy, and it was published by order of the House. Taking for his text the words “Compel them to enter in,” which had been so often employed in justification of persecution, and adopting substantially the reasoning of Locke and of Hoadly, Synge proceeded to examine with considerable ability the duty of a Protestant Legislature in dealing with a Roman Catholic population. Coercion, he maintained, which is directed simply against religious teaching as such, is always illegitimate and useless. Its only good end could be to release men from error, but this involves a change of judgment, which cannot be effected by external force. “All persons, therefore, in a society, whose principles in religion have no tendency to hurt the public, have a right to toleration.”1 [Note: W. E. H. Lecky, A History of Ireland, i. 304.]



Banks (L. A.), Hidden Wells of Comfort, 79.

Bramston (J. T.), Fratribus, 34.

Capen (E. H.), The College and the Higher Life, 195.

Clarke (J. E.), Common-Life Sermons, 159.

Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 13.

Doney (C. G.), The Throne-Room of the Soul, 89.

Goulburn (E. M.), Occasional Sermons, ii. 139.

Greenhough (J. G.), The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, 156.

Horwill (H. W.), The Old Gospel in the New Era, 15.

Irons (J. C.), Memorial of a Faithful Ministry, 208.

Jenkins (E. E.), Life and Christ, 167.

Keble (J.), Sermons for Saints’ Days, 100.

Liddon (H. P.), Clerical Life and Work, 311.

Liddon (H. P.), Sermons on Special Occasions, 26.

Lightfoot (J. B.), Sermons on Special Occasions, 55.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: 1 and 2 Corinthians, 142.

Metcalf (R.), The Abiding Memory, 29.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xx. (1874) No. 1170; xxv. (1879) No. 1507.

Young (D. T.), The Enthusiasm of God, 13.

Christian World Pulpit, xvii. 138 (Beecher); xviii. 60 (Charlton); li. 65 (Holland), 280 (Stalker), 308 (Thomas); lxxv. 353 (Carpenter).

Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., i. 165 (Goulburn).

Homiletic Review, xlv. 323 (Gregg).

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

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