The Importance of Parenthesis

Maybe your primary use of the parenthesis has been to complete smiley faces, or maybe you've always referred to them by their technical term, "those little bracket things". Either way, I need you to understand just how important the parenthesis actually is.

A parenthesis is used to add information into the logical flow of a sentence without disturbing the original structure. They may provide helpful descriptions, editorial comment, or even a funny word picture to fill out the readers experience. Often, a well structured parenthetical comment provides an essential disclaimer to the statement just made, when this happens, pay careful attention to what is being said inside those little 'bracket things'—they make all the difference.

Take for example Paul's oft quoted, "All things to all men" portion of 1 Corinthians 9.

1 Corinthians 9:19–23 (ESV)
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 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. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Here's how the two sentences would read if Paul failed to include his parenthetical disclaimers:

To those under the law I became as one under the law that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law that I might win those outside the law.

Maybe you're thinking, "What's the big deal? Don't be such a grammar geek!"

Well, for starters, let me dispel any misconceived ideas. "I am a grammar geek!" But that's not the issue here. I'm not primarily concerned with the correct use of grammatical mechanisms (though I am impressed I was able to type 'parenthetical' without provoking my autocorrect function).

The importance of this parenthesis is found in how it modifies the sentence to safeguard us against pragmatic licentiousness (ok—autocorrect caught that one!)

Look back at the sentences with the parenthesis removed. It reads like a blank cheque from the bank of 'Do whatever it takes to get results'. I cannot even count the amount of times I've heard these verses referred to (but rarely quoted in their full) to 'justify' a particular stance or behaviour that in any normal sense seems contrary to Biblical norms. And if I'm being honest, I don't want to count the amount of times I've justified my own behaviour (at least in my own mind) using this same argument.

Paul is wanting to safeguard you against some type of mutant missional mindset, where the end justifies the means. "Sleeping around for the gospel" might seem like a bad joke to you, but believe me, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 has been used to justify it.

What Paul is saying (by adding his parenthetical disclaimer) is that the end does not justify the means; how you go about your witness matters. When the gospel truly grips you, you can never escape it. Paul was able to find a way to live among those still bound by the law, still reaching for a righteousness that came according to human merit. As Paul lived out a missional life among these people, he found a way to submit himself to a way of life that flowed with those he sought to liberate with the gospel, while never once losing sight of the fact that '...by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.'

Likewise, Paul was able to work among those ignorant of the law, men who lived with moral abandon and licentious, hedonistic passions. Paul found a way to live within the flow of their culture also. Paul could become like them, without being them. What drove this? Paul never forgot that he did not live apart from the law of Christ. The end did not justify the means.

So, by all means, seek to reach the culture God has sent you into. Identify those groups of people who need to hear the life giving message of the gospel of grace. Strategically consider how your faith community may engage with the world for the sake of Christ. Biker communities, LGBT communities, soccer communities, school communities, each culture a people who need the gospel.

Be all things to all people, so that by all possible means some may be saved (but don't forget the importance of parenthesis).