Rejoice when Reviled
Our bible study has recently been studying Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. There are a number of great passages in the epistle. There are also many great themes. But two particular themes stand out as most emphatically important to Paul: joy and unity. Throughout the epistle, Paul ties the two themes together. In fact, unity in the church at Philippi is one of the principal fountainheads for the joy Paul communicates.
However, Paul’s exuberance is seen in one peculiar place early in the letter—the pretentious and afflicting preaching of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. In Philippians 1:12-18, Paul lays out a group of individuals who “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition” :
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will rejoice.
This passage is perplexing because the category of “brother in Christ” who preaches “to afflict” seems a contradiction in terms. However, I think there are Biblical categories that can help us explain this intriguing passage of Scripture. But before that I want to lay down at the start a fundamental assertion that Paul had no doctrinal disagreements on principal matters with these individuals.
In Philippians, Paul calls certain people “opponents“ (1:28), “crooked and twisted generation” (2:15), “dogs” and “evildoers” (3:2), and even “enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18). When Paul feels the conviction to condemn with his words, he does not hold back. So in the above text when Paul speaks of incorrect motives we must acknowledge the lacking condemnation of their doctrine. In fact, Paul clearly states “Christ is proclaimed.” Thus these individuals are not heretics in the doctrinal sense (like the Judaizers in Galatians or Philippians 3). They belong to a rare class of brethren with sufficiently accurate doctrine but impure motive. The question becomes, in what relationship does this impure motive place them?
The first category available is one of excommunicated members. The second is something closer to estranged brothers and sisters. Starting with the first and concluding with the later, I would like to show why I believe Paul is referring to something closer to the later.
The first category that often comes to mind when we read Paul’s words in Philippians 1 is “false brethren.” There seems to be no way that someone who afflicts their brother in chains could be anything less than a self-proclaiming Christian. Passages like Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 use this type of language:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. — Matthew 18:15-17
4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. — 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, 11
Of these two passages, Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians comes closer. Paul distinguishes in the passage that they are to not to associate with “so-called brother” (NASB) while clarifying that this did not apply to those outside the body. However, I do not think this passage encapsulates the specific sin of motive that is occurring in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
In Philippians, Paul explicitly links the individuals preaching out of self-interest as those “brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment” (Php 1:14). Paul does not distinguish between the brethren who preach for right reasons and the “so-called” brethren who preach for wrong reasons. The doctrine of these preachers is pure. Instead in Philippians 3, Paul addresses a class of individuals who have given themselves over to their appetites and more likely represent the class of people in 1 Corinthians 5:
18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
It seems inconsistent to equate the individuals of Philippians 1 teaching out of selfish ambition with the “enemies” who have replaced God with “their belly.” The later group glories in the shame that they have taken from the church for refusing to repent of their sinful desires. If anything, the former group of selfish individuals in Philippians 1 are those Paul describes in Philippians 2 as not “be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (2:20-21). Paul’s main criticism is their obvious bent inwards upon themselves. And once again Paul does not describe these individuals as false brethren, just individuals who cannot be trusted to accomplish the work Paul desires to perform. So what other category might these people fall into?
Estranged Brothers and Sisters
Since it seems clear that Paul is not addressing people who deserve excommunication, there is an apparent lack of categorical buckets to put these individual into. However, in 2 Thessalonians, Paul appears to have a unique category for people who “disobey” some of his secondary teachings:
14 If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. — 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15
Unlike 1 Corinthians where Paul says to hand the immoral man to Satan and refers to “so-called brethren,” Paul explicitly says these should be “admonished as a brother.” Unlike Philippians 3 where Pauls refers to “enemies of the cross of Christ” these individuals are not to be considered enemies. This is perhaps the case for just this unique instruction which refers to the social code contained specifically in 2 Thessalonians 3. Here, at least, Paul seems to grant a distinction for the person who “does not obey” these instructions that is less severe than the ostracized individual in 1 Corinthians who is saturated in sin.
Further, I would suggest that Paul even seems to have a similar—albeit even less severe—distinction regarding his teaching in Philippians 3:
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
In Philippians 3, Paul alludes to a base knowledge of truth that is sufficient to avoid conflict. If there are some who disagree with Paul, he leaves it with God to impress upon them the truth. This category of “wrongness” in behavior or thinking is uniquely lower than the excommunicated category. And I believe that the selfish preachers of Philippians 1 fall somewhere between this category and the one seen in 2 Thessalonians 3.
What Does This Teach Us?
Even explaining these potential categories, we are left with the question of what Paul’s unique historical circumstance could mean for us in this day and age? Let’s start with the simplest answer—Paul rejoiced in the proclamation of the gospel from the lips of self-centered people. It is very easy for us to presume that a self-centered preacher or ambitious preacher is solely a problem and issue for the church. But that is to read too much into the secret workings of God.
A selfish preacher is equally as weak to deliver the gospel as a selfless one. And they are equally in need of correction. But in the meantime, there is reason to rejoice “that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed.”
Second, and more importantly, we are instructed to rejoice in the preaching of those who “preach Christ from envy and rivalry.” If their principal doctrine is sounds, we are to rejoice even if they are “thinking to afflict” us! There is nothing more antithetical to our nature than to adopt this principle.
Paul does not give us an example of commending them. Paul does not praise them for being doctrinally correct. Paul merely rejoices in God that Christ is glorified and preached even in pretense. Paul does not give us a presentation on how to respond to these people directly. He does not give us guidance on association or relationship. And so I suggest that the distinct categories of 2 Thessalonians 3 and Philippians 3 be adopted in application here.
Individuals preaching a pure gospel with false reasons, whether for selfish ambition or as part of an attack upon us, should be be disassociated with unto their shame. Not because they are enemies, but precisely because they are our brethren. We are to leave them to God in their lack of maturity as they serve Christ for it brings disunity to the church to highlight their immaturity beyond an initial rebuke.