Our pastoral staff typically chooses golfing as a group activity. We all generally enjoy the endeavor, but a few of them—the ones who own their own clubs—actually do care about how they perform on the course. You can only imagine how, a few years ago, they gawked at me when I showed up to our 18-hole golf outing wearing a pair of crocks. It was obvious which one of us didn’t care about the birdies. Even a sport like golf—yes, I called it a sport to not to offend anyone!—requires a particular kind of footwear and attire. Needless to say, I quit after the 9th or 10th hole and was content to drive the golf cart while watching the rest of the guys do their thing.
As someone who loves to engage in a variety of sports (no, golf isn’t one of them), I can assure you that I don’t wear crocks when I’m rallying on the tennis court, running hills, swimming laps, snowboarding down black diamonds, catching waves with a body board, or cycling the mountain trails. For while I’m fashion-blind, I’m fairly particular when it comes to athletic wear. In our bedroom, my side of the closet has far more athletic wear than it does business-casual attire. Such might be the reason that people often give me second looks when I tell them that I work as a pastor at a church and a principal at a school. For every sport, there is a proper attire: to either succeed in a sport competitively or truly enjoy it recreationally, you must be willing to put on that attire—no matter how silly you may initially look.
For all sports we must dress for the sport, and to all men we must become all things. To successfully win the souls of Jews, to them we must become Jews. To successfully win the souls of Greeks, to them we must become Greeks. To Filipinos, Filipinos. To Japanese, Japanese. To Poles, Polish. To Nigerians, Nigerian. In order to successfully win the souls of men of every cultural demographic, we must know how to become all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22).
To be clear, we must never alter the message of the gospel or the content of the Word to please human ears (Gal 1:10; 2 Tim 4:1-2). But while there is no room for alteration when it comes to the content of the message (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2), we must learn to adapt to the culture of the people amongst whom we minister. In the same way that double-layer pants are great for snowboarding and terrible for surfing, certain non-moral practices that are appropriate to one cultural demographic may be offensive to another. Effectively functioning as salt and light in a dark world involves the integration of both being determined to know nothing except Christ crucified (1 Cor 2:2) and becoming all things to all men (1 Cor 9:23). If a man isn’t willing to do this, then the Bible says that he risks disqualifying himself from being a minister of the gospel to all men and thus closes himself off to the breadth of the Great Commission.
And to know how to do this, a man needs more than a job description in the same way that a good athlete needs more than a rulebook. To truly have an impact for the sake of the gospel, a man needs to do more than “what he’s told to do” or what he’s “required to do.” A written job description is, for the most part, skeletal. It provides structure, but not shape. Every minister knows—even within the confines of his job description—that there is a substantially large degree of freedom as to how he ought to live and spend his time. He has the freedom, in other words, to shape his ministry according to his volition.
I know this both as someone who’s been under ministerial authority and also as someone who has trained other pastors. There comes a point where, so long as he’s within his written duties, you can no longer tell a man what he needs to be doing with his ministry. He has freedom, and that freedom must be respected. How he chooses to make himself a slave to all, as Paul describes himself in verse 19, cannot be explicitly instructed to him by a superior, lest the latter tamper with a freedom that he should never tamper with. I cannot, in a job description or mentoring relationship, tell a man how he ought to make himself a slave to his people. But Christ demands that he do it (Mark 10:43-45).
How can this happen? It is the internal desire to see people saved that compels us to be all things to all people. Paul himself says that he made himself a slave to all “so that I may win more.” It is this very ambition that shaped how Paul exercised and abstained from certain liberties depending on who he was ministering to—Jews or Greeks, strong or weak. Such shape of a man’s ministry—how he becomes all things to all men—cannot be accurately delineated by any written job description. But it will be produced when a man genuinely loves the people to whom he ministers and when his ambition for their salvation far outweighs his ambition for personal fulfillment.
Without such love for mankind (Titus 3:4), the minister will be at a loss as to what kind of shape his ministry ought to have. With such love, he will by his own initiative become all things to all men in order that many might be saved through his ministry.