The Apostle Paul’s Paradox of Pleasing People
Was the apostle Paul being double-minded when he wrote, “Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved (1 Cor 10:32–33).” Did Paul not write this, too, “For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. 5 For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is witness — (1 Thess 2:3–5).”
So, Paul tried to please all men in all things, and yet he spoke, not as pleasing men. Why did he write one thing to the Corinthians, and apparently, the opposite thing to the Thessalonians? Should we try to please all men, or not? This is a particularly important issue for those in a preaching or teaching ministry. Let us observe a few things.
Context is very important. What does Corinth have to do with Thessalonica? The Corinthian church was struggling with issues of Christian liberty in an idolatrous pagan culture. They had asked Paul how to remedy the conundrum of holiness and liberty. Holiness can lead to legalism, and liberty can lead to antinomianism. Therefore, there must a better way. Weaker brothers, meaning immature Christians, can often tend toward legalism. They are unsure of the boundaries of grace. To be conservative about Christian living, they set up a “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” grid in their minds.
The context supports Paul’s idea for mature believers to accommodate immature believers so not to offend them. Paul was confident the immature legalists would eventually learn to live more freely in their newfound grace, even as they navigated their way through the immorality and idolatry. Corinth also had its fair share of licentious behavior, too (1 Cor 5:1). Every generation of Christians has its own issues. What is essential is to grow in grace and knowledge and pursue holiness by grace. At the same time, gently keeping the bond of peace is crucial to avoid problematic factions (1 Cor 1:12).
Children must learn not to beat each other up on the playground, as a means of conflict resolution. It will not go well for them as adults if they do not learn this lesson as children. Giving offense to Greeks, Jews, or Romans had no value in itself. Paul encouraged the church in Rome, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men (Rom 12:18).” What if the culture resists our ministry?
The situation at Thessalonica was a bit different. Paul and Silas had met with much opposition (1 Thess 2:2). Here, Paul could not be a man pleaser (1 Thess 2:4). Paul refused to use flattering speech in his preaching ministry (1 Thess 2:5), which is what ersatz preachers do, who are greedy for monetary gain (Ezek 34). In addition, Paul would not allow the Thessalonians to make him a rock star (1 Thess 2:6).
The approach Paul used with the Thessalonians was one of a gentle father raising up his children in the way they should go (1 Thess 2:11). He exhorted, encouraged, and implored them to walk in a worthy manner (1 Thess 2:11).
The Thessalonian Christians had met with much resistance from their neighbors, in the same way the Judean Christians had been dealt with by the Jews (1 Thess 2:14–15). Paul and his companions in ministry were no strangers to those who would prevent them from preaching the Gospel to the Jews and Gentiles. Paul would never withhold the soul saving Gospel of Jesus Christ from people, in order to appease the naysayers.
So, we learn how Paul would do just about anything to accommodate people, but he refused to accommodate unbelieving pagans or Jews who tried to hinder his ministry. Here is how we prove Paul was not being double-minded in the paradox of pleasing people.
Slaves of Christ, especially ministers of the Word, cannot be man pleasers (Eph 6:6). Compromising our Christian doctrine or practice to win approval with the world will always backfire on the church. Acquiescence to the abortionist, the capitalist, the communist, the homosexual, the feminist, the Muslim, the media, etc., is a failure for the church. Every agenda the world can produce to procure peace with the church will cause the church to become a man-pleasing organization. We are not at liberty to barter the truth of God’s Word. Our ambition is to please God, not man (2 Cor 5:9). The church or the minister who capitulates to the whim of wicked will experience ichabod.
Being obedient to God does not give a Christian the liberty to be a bad citizen. Paul wrote, “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord (Col 3:22).” Christians must not be fraudulent with God, but they must also not be fraudulent with other people. If we claim to be with God, we must represent Him well.
Ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20) are first of all, children of God (1 Jn 3:1, 10). Our allegiance is to our heavenly Father, and our reigning Brother. With the knowledge of the truth, inspired by the indwelling Spirit of truth (Jn 16:13; Rom 8:9, 11), we bear witness of Christ Jesus, our Lord (Acts 1:8). Faithful to our calling to be saints (Rom 1:7), we must please God with obedience to Christ’s commands, and in this God can even make our enemies to be at peace with us (Prv 16:7).
Liberalism has taken up the mantle of, “God is only love.” The inclusive nature of “love” defined this way, demands Christians accept people, as they are, and without expectation of any future change by way of repentance or sanctification. This, of course, is an unacceptable configuration of God and of love. It is also an unreasonable practice.
Fundamentalism is notorious for turning the law of love into a love of rules. Holiness is not a seven-step self-help program. We must avoid the prim and proper picture of what a true Christian looks like by external observation. Western business suits and ties look silly in the jungles of Africa.
Christianity has a heart to become all things to all people so that some might be saved, but salvation must come by way of the truth. How else can one be saved? This is the reason those who live and minister in the paradox of pleasing people begin with God and not man.
Presenting the truth can be a gracious and loving endeavor, but concurrently a daunting task. We immediately offend people when we present the total depravity of man. Who wants to hear he is not a good person? Most do not appreciate the exclusivity of Jesus Christ being the one and only way of salvation, either. This highlights the importance of a Christian preacher’s way of communicating the truth. If we do not tell sinners the truth, we obviously do not love them (Liberalism). If we tell sinners the truth, but we neglect to convey it in a loving manner, we have likewise failed (Fundamentalism).
True preachers of the Gospel were once enemies of God (2 Cor 5:18). We were children of wrath just as others (Eph 2:3). It pleased God to send a messenger (how beautiful are his feet!) to preach a message. In God’s providence, He made sure we were brought to a place of hearing the Word of truth that became the Word of faith sown in our hearts (Rom 10:13–17; Jas 1:21).
The receipt of the treasure of heaven was no small feat. It took a miracle of God. A needy soul received a gracious gift from God. The poor in spirit have heard the Good News. The messenger spoke life into the soul of another. What a privileged participation! The ambassador assures the asylum seeker of his welcome into the country of free grace. The asylum seeker receives her citizenship, having been properly trained in the ways of her new and better country.
If Christians present the kingdom of God as the kingdom of heaven, then we must be winsome. Charles H. Spurgeon once said, “When we have to do a severe thing, let us choose the tenderest manner.” In a 2014 court ruling in England, Virginia Wasteney was charged with “bullying” a fellow Muslim employee for inviting her to church and giving her a Christian book. Wasteney was found guilty and punished. Wasteney’s appeal was thrown out by Judge Jennifer Eady QC in April 2016. Sharing the love of Christ has been judged to be illegal in England. Of course, Judge Jennifer and the English court system must soon give an account to a Higher Court. My point is that even the tenderest gestures can be rejected by the unregenerate. Christians can even be punished for promoting peace.
The consequences of damnation are severe. Truth is our ally in all we do to fulfill the work of the evangelist. There is just no reason for us to win souls in any other way than speaking the truth in love to them. People need the truth to be saved, and God’s motive in saving them is love. There is time to stand firm against men, “But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20 for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19–20.’”
The god of this world, Satan (2 Cor 4:4), rules his kingdom with lies (Jn 8:44), in order to keep people in confusion. Only truth will set people free from slavery to sin and death (Jn 8:32; Rom 6:6). If people are in the dark, we need to shine the light. If people are living a lie, then we must give them truth. There is no love in the midst of darkness and lies. This is what makes truth and love so powerful together. Truth and love are the way of life. Love never fails, and it always edifies (1 Cor 13). Faith and hope will someday fade away into obsolescence. Love remains, and for this reason it is greater.
Heavenly Zion is a city of love because God, who is love, is there. Zion is a city of light because Christ, who is the Light of life is there. New Jerusalem is a city of truth because the Spirit of truth calls it home. The world laughs at the citizens of heaven on earth because we speak of things we have not seen. Our faith is a joke to those who are unable to believe without seeing. How blessed are we who have not yet seen what we preach, and yet, we believe!
Ours is a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19). It is a stewardship entrusted to the faithful. It is as if God is making His appeal to people to be reconciled to Him through our message. How will they believe our report unless we love the Word of God we speak to them? The Gospel is not an offer, as much as it is a heralding of glad tidings. Glad tiding must shed light. Glad tidings must be true. Glad tidings must be uttered with great joy from a heart filled with great love. See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon His children?
For this reason, we love the brethren, pleasing them in every possible way. Because some of our elect brethren remain lost in the sea of humanity, today, we will not please those who would deny us the privilege of finding them. God so loved the world that He sent His Son to overcome the darkness, the lies, the slavery, and the hate. We proclaim Him. This is not pleasing to the world, but it is pleasing to those who will never perish, and who have everlasting life. In this, we have pleased God, who is pleased to give us His kingdom, and what could be more pleasing than that?
Spokane Valley, Washington
March 24, 2021