In a recent article entitled, “Intellectual Fogginess and the Fear of Man,” I reflected at length on Paul’s statement in Galatians 1:10 where he declared to the Galatian churches that he was not guilty of seeking the approval of man.
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.Galatians 1:10
When it came to how he conducted his ministry, Paul was, according to this statement in Galatians, committed to pleasing only Christ and not pandering to the whims and opposing opinions of man. A problem arises, however, when you turn to 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 where Paul seems to directly contradict his statement in Galatians.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.1 Corinthians 10:31-33
In Galatians, Paul says that he is not seeking to please man. In his letter to the Corinthians, he says that he tries to please everyone in everything he does. How can both statements be true?
If you don’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, your solution to this textual conundrum is fairly simple: all you have to do is suggest that Paul did contradict himself—he wasn’t perfect, after all—and move on with your life. But if you are committed to the conviction that Scripture, due to its divine origin, cannot contradict itself, you don’t have such carefree recourse. Rather, you must expend some effort to dig into the text in order to develop a solution. This work will not go unrewarded, however. When we face challenging texts head-on and pursue reasonable solutions, we are blessed with fresh insight and deepened appreciation of Scripture’s unity.
How to Approach Biblical Difficulties
The first step in seeking a solution to these kinds of difficulties in Scripture is to let the problem stand forth in all its complexity. In this case, the problem is especially troubling due to its starkness. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul strongly asserts his commitment to pleasing Christ alone and not man. In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle not only uses the same word for “please” as he did in Galatians, he universalizes his desire: he wants to “please everyone in everything” he does. If the comparison of these two verses isn’t initially a little troubling, you may not be reading the Bible carefully enough. On the face of it, this is a challenging set of passages, and we must be willing to say so.
The next step in seeking a solution to the textual problem is to examine the context of each passage. This step will help us determine if Paul is using the word “please” differently in either text. This step is vital because we cannot assume that Paul uses words the same way in every setting. Language doesn’t typically work that way, anyway. Even in English I can talk to my wife one day about the state we live in (California) and the next day converse with my friend about the recent state of the union address, and only later that week ask my son to state the reason he wants a new bicycle. In each case, I’ve used the same word three different ways. We must ask if Paul is using the word “please” differently in either passage.
Two Different Settings
In Galatians, Paul’s concern is over the content of the gospel. He had just admonished the Galatians for their failure to recognize the false teachers in their midst who had diluted the gospel with man-made additions (Gal 1:5). In response, Paul labors in the first two chapters of his letter to establish the fact that the gospel he originally preached to them was the true gospel that had come directly from Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-2:14). It did not matter who preached a gospel contrary to that original gospel: that person was worthy of the strongest rebuke (Gal 1:8-9). Paul wasn’t even partial to other apostles when they started compromising on the grace of God: he would confront false teachers and Peter if the gospel was at stake (Gal 2:11-14).
In Corinthians, however, Paul’s concern is different. Starting in 1 Corinthians 8, he is addressing how to handle believers and unbelievers who had varying convictions on matters of conscience. In the immediate context, the issue was the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. For many new believers who had recently come out of an idolatrous background, eating meat sold in the marketplace that had previously been used in pagan sacrificial rituals would have been scandalous to their tender, recently regenerated consciences. Paul, however, knew that the meat itself was created by God, inherently good, and not spiritually infected by such pagan religious rituals, so he was free to eat it.
Nevertheless, if he was in a situation where a fellow brother’s conscience would be harmed by Paul’s partaking of meat sacrificed to idols, the apostle, out of love, would refrain from eating that meat. To forge ahead with his meat-eating freedom would (1) harm the tender conscience of his brother; and (2) offer a poor testimony to the unbeliever who would see one Christian disregarding the concerns of another for the mere sake of food.
A Valuable Spiritual Lesson
Paul’s exhortation, then, is for Christians to do all to the glory of God, including how they ate and drank (1 Cor 10:31). Glorifying God in this context means setting aside one’s freedoms (even in cases of eating and drinking) in order to serve another person for their spiritual benefit. Paul then exhorts his readers, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” Paul’s pleasing of others in this case was his willingness to yield on issues of conscience if doing so was spiritually beneficial for others. He was ready to forsake anything that might give unnecessary offense to someone so that they would not be hindered from believing the truth.
That’s why Paul could say that his desire to please others was not for his “own advantage.” He wasn’t after the personal gain he would enjoy from people’s approval or praise; he was seeking their salvation. In Galatia, however, Paul wouldn’t try to appease the false teachers by tampering with the gospel. If he had just agreed with them, he would have avoided a lot of trouble and persecution. But this would have been to please others for his own advantage; namely, to escape the difficulties that attend a faithful ministry. When it came to the content of the gospel, Paul pleased only Christ. When it came to personal preferences, Paul sought to please others.
Rather than posing an irremediable contradiction for Bible readers, these two passages actually teach us a valuable lesson. If we are going to cultivate a fruitful and effective ministry, we need to be able to discern when it is time to please others and when it’s time to not please others. If we try to please others by softening the gospel, we will fall under the condemnation of Galatians 1:8-9. But if we try to remain firm on issues of Christian freedom, we may end up placing unnecessary stumbling blocks before others. We must remain steadfast with the content of the gospel and flexible with our Christian freedoms. In other words, we need to learn, by God’s grace, how to please people and not please people for the glory of God.