Paul’s teachings about the Law are frequently misunderstood. When he writes about “not being under the Law” his precise meaning can change based on the context of his teaching. In 1 Corinthians, he writes, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law” (9:20-21). Traditional interpretations of these verses paint Paul as flexible in Torah-observance: living a Jewish life among Jews, but otherwise living as a Gentile. However, a closer look at this passage shows that being a “Jew” and being “under the Law” may not necessarily mark identical lifestyles.
It may be that the apostle speaks of different levels of Jewish adherence in 1 Cor 9:20-21, and that “under the Law” describes of the strictest Jewish practice. The various sects of Judaism in Paul’s day (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.) show that there was more than one view of Torah observance in the first century CE. In our passage, Paul speaks of his posture toward others for the sake evangelism. First, he states, “I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor 9:19), and then illustrates, “to a Jew I became as a Jew… to those who are without law, as without Law.” This is Paul’s admonition to serve one another and accommodate diversity for the sake of the gospel.
In this practice, Paul follows his Messiah, who ate with tax-collectors and sinners (Lk 7:36, Matt 9:10), but did not endorse their actions. After Paul tells the Corinthians to offer such accommodations to both believers in Jesus and non-believers, he concludes, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Modern readers tend to harmonize Paul’s letters into a cohesive system, but Saul of Tarsus was not a systematic writer. Each letter was meant to stand on its own (see my articles on “Not under the Law” in Galatians and Romans). In this particular passage, “under the Law” indicates a particularly rigorous Jewish lifestyle which Paul was willing to accommodate as much as those “without the law.”