If I asked you to give me a word that describes your impression of the Apostle Paul, I doubt that “flexibility” would be one of those words. We generally tend to see Paul as a driven, committed follower of Christ who overcame all obstacles to proclaim the Gospel. Dedicated, yes. Willing to adapt his message to reach others, yes. We might consider, however, this memorable passage that Paul writes to the church at Corinth:
Paul never wavered from his core understanding of the Gospel, but he was willing to change his presentation methods to reach his audience. This is clearly seen in Acts 17 where he uses (at least) three approaches to share the good news with a pagan culture.
First, after a harrowing visit to Thessalonica, Paul and his team went to Berea and, as was his custom, he spoke in the synagogue. He found there a more accepting group of Jews who were willing to listen, dialogue, and examine the Hebrew Bible—their source of authority—to verify Paul’s claims. Both Jews and Greeks responded positively to the message.
When people from Thessalonica arrived in Berea to make trouble for Paul, he was spirited off to Athens while Silas and Timothy stayed behind to disciple the new believers. Paul found himself alone in Athens, no longer a dominant political center, but still important as a place of intellectual and philosophical debate.
We see a different approach to sharing the Gospel as Paul wandered through the marketplace in Athens. While there, he commented upon and probably asked questions about the various gods whose images adorned the city. He seems to have been engaging the common people in discussion about the popular culture, a culture overcome with a multitude of gods expressing innumerable human needs and concerns.
Finally, Paul was taken to the Areopagus (Mars Hill) to debate the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers there. No longer a seat of government, the Areopagus was both a place and a group of people where philosophical debate occurred. The site had become a place where the intellectuals presented their ideas and defended them. Just to be invited there was an honor!
Paul launched into a long presentation that reflected his Greek education and his knowledge of the culture in which he found himself. He used various quotes from well-known Greek writers to both challenge his listeners and point them toward the Creator God who had provided a Savior for them. Many doubted but several, including at least one member of the Areopagus, accepted his message.
Paul’s experiences recounted in Acts 17 show not only an ability to be flexible but a model for Christians in a postmodern society. Paul used the authority that was appropriate to his audience to introduced the Gospel—scripture, popular culture (or superstition), and philosophy. Did he change his core beliefs? No, but he used those things that were important to the audience to make a connection, creating a bridge to the Gospel.
I believe that our post-modern world is much like the pre-modern world in which Paul preached. When Christians hear about postmodernism, many are moved to attack the concept and belittle it. Paul is an example of how we should respond to the culture in which we find ourselves. Do we curse the darkness or light a candle? Paul did not fear the darkness but brought light. He engaged his culture to fulfill his mission.
Christians today should not be afraid to enter into dialogue with the authority structures of the world, but we must do so with intelligence, humility, and commitment.