There are many times in Scripture where Paul specifically seems to give conflicting advice. One that always gets me:
- 1 Corinthians 9:22 – “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.”
- In Acts 21:17-26, Paul goes and joins the four men in their purification rites, so people can see his still observes the old Jewish customs, even though he doesn’t think they’re necessary. This is kind of all the same strain.
- Romans 12:2 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
If I’m allowed to re-ask the question, I’d put it this way: Is Paul a ministry hypocrite who tells one group one thing and then another group another thing? Let’s look at these individually and then tie them together…
The Gospel for Gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:22)
Paul insists the gospel does not require Gentiles (all people who are not Jewish) to convert to Judaism in order to become disciples of Christ. Instead, Gentiles can confess Christ and repent of their sin without conversion to Judaism (which would require them to submit themselves to Jewish Law). In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 Paul is explaining how the gospel applies to all people, and he therefore lives in a way to model what that looks like. To the Jews, he lives in a way to show them what a gospel-loving Jew looks like; and to the Gentiles he lives in a way to show them what a gospel-loving Gentile looks like.
Jewish Faithfulness (Acts 21:17-26)
When Paul reaches Jerusalem after his missionary journey, he brings four fellow Christians into the Temple to keep a vow they had made. We don’t know details about the vow or who these four believers are who are under the vow. What we do know is this: Paul wanted to make it clear that he was not anti-Law and that he affirmed its goodness for Jewish Christians. As Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:8, “The Law is good if one uses it properly.” The Law, however, cannot save from sin or justify anyone who keeps it… but this does not make it worthless and unimportant. Instead, we see Paul publicly demonstrating the importance of Temple sacrifice, ritual purification, and keeping one’s vow to the Lord.
Counter-Cultural Christianity (Romans 12:2)
This passage (cited above in the initial question) reminds the Christian to be conformed to the gospel, not to culture. Our minds should be shaped according to the Word of God, not popular opinion and common practice. This doesn’t mean culture is bad or evil or to be avoided (which is impossible anyway). Since no culture is perfect, there are unquestioned assumptions in all of us that need to be challenged and corrected if we are to live in conformity to the gospel rather than in conformity to our native culture. This is why Paul is able to affirm different aspects of Gentile culture while also living in accordance to the Law himself.
The Multicultural Gospel (tying it together)
Because no culture is inherently a “godly culture,” the gospel is a multicultural gospel. It transcends beig Jewish or Greek or Mexican or American, etc. Christians should be more shaped by the gospel than they are by allegiance to their ethnicity. Irish Christians and Coptic Christians and Thai Christians have freedom to worship Christ in ways that are culturally appropriate so long as they are shaped by the gospel and are in conformity with the Word of God.
Regarding the initial question, “Is Paul a Ministry Hypocrite,” scholar Ajith Fernando gives a helpful answer in his commentary on Acts 21.
“Is Paul being inconsistent here? We must remember that Paul himself took a vow a few years before (18:18), so we know that he was convinced about the value of vows for Christians. But what about his opposition to works of the law in the letters? This was opposition to the belief that such works were necessary for salvation. He himself was not opposed to the law per se. We must not forget what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:20: “To the [Acts, p. 554] Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” His actions in Jerusalem are consistent with the approach expressed in this verse.”
Ajith Fernando, Acts, NIVAC; ed. Terry C. Muck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 553-554.
Paul’s example in Acts 21:17-26 ends up being a demonstration of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and Romans 12:2 in action. Because the gospel is multicultural, he can preach it to Gentiles without the shackles of the Law even while he applies it to fellow Jews who are worshipping in the Temple.
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