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.”

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Love this comment. “This is Paul’s admonition to serve one another and accommodate diversity for the sake of the gospel”. Another way of saying similar is to be “Anchored to the Rock, but geared to the times”. One just has to reflect on the diversity of Jesus’ followers – tax collectors, zealots, pharisees, to see how Jesus related to them all but was without compromise to His work and identity. Good article.

  2. Some “diversity” is not ever to be “accommodated”; its SIN and to be viewed as such under all circumstances. God has not changed His mind regarding those sins; even Paul himself listed such practitioners as those who would not enter Heaven. Better to be oneself at all times, in love!

    • Paul is not discussing precise sin here, but rather grey areas. Where he does discuss sinful behavior, he tells his disciples to expel unrepentant sinners and have nothing to do with them. Paul never teaches to accommodate sin, but cultural differences, yes.

  3. ” For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” Yeshua. Matthew 5:20

  4. Absolutely.. something I have taught for over 25 Years.. that there are at Least ‘3’ ..’LAWS’.. Paul is referring to in his letters.. (1) TORAH (2) Oral Torah of Sanhedrin Direction (3) LAW of SIN & DEATH Tragically Rome’s ..’Anti-TORAH’.. ‘Replacement Theology’.. OverShadowed ‘Translation’..Clarification of CONTEXT!

  5. Thank you. Could being “under the law” mean being under the curse of the law? The curse that comes with disobedience which we are free from when we accept forgiveness, & then remain in that freedom through obedience to Torah?

    • It could, but not necessarily. In each context, Paul has its own nuance of how he uses that phrase. Sorry, there is not one uniform way of interpreting that phrase.

  6. “Saul of Tarsus was not a systematic writer. Each letter was meant to stand on its own”. This is a truth. So sick of those theologians and biblical commentators that argue scripture like lawyers, cut and pasting scriptural portions to prove a theological argument. Like “prosperity theology”… what a scam that is. We should exam scriptures like forensic scientists piecing the evidence together and believing the evidence in its historical placement and in the culture of the time.

    • Biblical texts take a lot of abuse. Some malevolent and intentional but most of it is by mere ignorance. My hope is that people who a guilty of the abuse are able to see the mistakes they make, develop a new paradigm and re-read God’s words in a new light. It’s a new day and God is merciful. Growth in God’s grace and truth is our destiny.

  7. Paul “lived” this teaching as we saw him delivering his sermon to those who were without the Law at the Areopagus, in Athens. “But certain men clave unto him, and believed”. Harmony and unity in diversity had to exist among “now” Yeshua believing Jews and Greeks.

  8. ‘Each letter was meant to stand on its own (see my articles on “Not under the Law” in Galatians and Romans).’ Would appreciate links to these articles. Thanks for your comments on the phrase in the context of the letter to the Corinthians.

  9. *** The Word From Turkey, Greece & Israel *** is out— From a Turkish female tour-guide in Western Turkey & Greece–( who keeps a 3-ring binder about Paul’s itinerary) to several history-buff Jews in Israel examining history who can’t study about Gamiliel without charging smack into Paul—accidents?

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