Leo Tolstoy, who wrote the great classic War and Peace, once complained about people who are always talking about the good old days. He said they were foolish because in terms of all the important things of life—human aspirations, human feelings and failures, human nature—the good old days were no different from our own. Tolstoy was a humanist, of course, and he was thinking of human values. But the statement applies to Christianity too. Every now and then we hear someone talking about the early church as though it had been perfect. Wouldn't it be wonderful, they say, if the church today could be as it was in the early centuries? Whole denominations are founded upon the idea that the prime duty of contemporary Christians is to be as much like those who lived in the age of the apostles as possible. But this is a false idealization; it is an attempt to make the early church into something it never was. It is an attempt to escape the problems of our day by looking back to something that exists only in the Christian imagination.
There is hardly a problem in the church today that did not exist in some form in the church of the first Christian century. The apostle Paul acknowledged the church in Corinth to be a true church in every respect. In the first verses of 1 Corinthians Paul says the Christians at Corinth are "sanctified in Christ Jesus" (v. 2); they are recipients of "grace" (v. 4); they are "enriched in every way" (v. 5); the testimony of Christ is "confirmed" in them (v. 6); they do not lack any spiritual "gift" (v. 7).
Yet this church was filled with problems. There were divisions. Some people said they were of Paul's party, others of Peter's, still others of Apollos's. The pious ones said they were of Christ. We turn to chapter 3 and find that they were immature, unable to digest the deep things of the faith. One of the Christians was living in fornication with his stepmother. Some were going to the pagan temples. Others were drunk when they came to the communion service. They had all the problems that we have in our churches today and perhaps even more besides.
There were also problems at Rome. Even though some of the members of the praetorian guard had been converted, and those who were already Christians were encouraged to bear witness for Christ, there was also a darker side to the situation. Paul writes that some Christians preached the gospel out of partisanship, hoping to make life more miserable for him. This is what he says: "It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry... not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains" (vv. 15, 17). Think of it! Some preached Christ to add affliction to Paul's bonds. Such were the good old days in the Christian church at Rome.
If we are to receive the full impact of Paul's experiences in Rome, we must recognize that it was Christians who were trying to get Paul into trouble by their preaching. Some commentators have found this truth difficult to accept and have sought to dodge it by arguing that the ones who preached Christ out of strife and envy were either nonbelievers or Judaizers, the kind of teachers that had tried to undermine Paul's work in Galatia. But this interpretation is impossible. Of the Christians in Rome, Paul said, "But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice" (v. 18). But of the Judaizers in Galatia, Paul had written, "Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ." He added, "If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal. 1:7-9). It will not do to call the troublemakers unbelievers. These people were Christians. They were not anti-Christ. They were anti-Paul, but they were anti-Paul with a vengeance.
The verses that we are studying tell us that these Christians preached Christ out of unworthy motives—jealousy, strife, and partisanship.
Jealousy refers to their jealousy of Paul. Beyond any doubt Paul's mind was the greatest of the early Christian church. No one came near to matching his grasp of the gospel until St. Augustine restated it for his age over four hundred years later. Then too Paul had a long string of triumphs to his credit. He had taken the gospel to what is now Turkey. He was the first missionary to Greece. He had waged battles against the legalizers in the church and had won them, both in Jerusalem and on the mission field. The Roman Christians were jealous of his success.
Moreover, their outlook was characterized by strife. They were pugnacious Christians, the kind who loved a good battle and were not particularly worried if they shot down their own soldiers while attacking the enemy. In fact, they even preferred shooting at Christians. This attitude led them into opposing camps, and their primary efforts were directed toward promoting the interests of their own party rather than the interests of the entire church of Christ.
This was deplorable. The church was divided by jealousy, strife, and partisanship. But what does Paul say? Strangely enough, he points to the fact that even in the midst of such conditions Jesus Christ was preached and the gospel was spread, and in that, he says, he rejoices.
It is not difficult to find contemporary examples of the problems that troubled the early congregations in Rome. In the first place, the church today is torn by jealousy. There is jealousy within churches and there is jealousy of nationally known evangelical leaders. There are also examples of strife. There are men whose whole approach to Christian work is pugnacious and who cannot believe that they are doing God's work unless they are fighting someone over it, especially other Christians.
Examples of partisanship are seen every day in denominations that will not cooperate with other denominations for the spread of the gospel and the advancement of common goals. About the only thing that most evangelicals can get together for is an evangelistic crusade, and even then there are some who will not lend support. With the church as divided as this, none of us dare sing the third verse of "Onward Christian Soldiers" without a heartfelt prayer for forgiveness. We sing:
We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
But we are divided. And if we are honest, we must admit that all the envy, strife, and partisanship that was present in the church at Rome is present in our churches also.
What should our attitude be toward those who are responsible for it? It is easy to speak up against it. It is easy to dismiss all those who are unpleasant in their preaching of the gospel. But if Paul's example is to count for anything, it must teach us to rejoice if Christ is proclaimed, even by those who do it out of less than worthy motives and who seem to dishonor the gospel in their methods. You should say, "The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice" (Phil. 1:18).
None of this is meant to imply that envy and strife and partisanship will not yield bitter fruit to the one who sows them. They are not of the Spirit, and God will not bless them. In fact, they will often hurt the witness of the church and other Christians.
Let me illustrate this from Paul's day. Did you know that Paul very likely lost his life as the result of the trouble caused by the troublemaking Christians at Rome? The information that exists from the early church age about the death of Paul and the things that led up to it points to this conclusion: envy led some Christians to denounce Paul and, as a result of their denunciation, Paul and perhaps others also were presumably executed under Nero.
The first strand of evidence for this view lies in the New Testament itself. We have already seen that Paul was not very well received in Rome. For a while he was forgotten. When Onesiphorus arrived in Rome no one seemed able to tell him where Paul was, and it was only after considerable searching that this faithful Christian found him (2 Tim. 1:16-17). Then Paul began to make converts through the praetorian guard. His views spread through Rome. Those who thought they were leaders of the Roman congregation became jealous and preached against him. Paul alludes to this situation in Philippians and in the second letter to Timothy.
The second strand of evidence is from Roman historians who knew of unrest within the Christian-Jewish community under the emperor Claudius and later under Nero. Suetonius, a Roman historian who wrote the lives of the Caesars, tells us that "since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus," Claudius expelled them from Rome. The word Chrestus means Christ. Hence, it seems that Suetonius was actually alluding to friction in Rome brought about by those who preached Christ's name; apparently he thought that Christ was the ringleader. The New Testament also knows of this expulsion of Christians and Jews, for it speaks of the edict of Claudius under which Aquila and Priscilla left Rome (Acts 18:2).
The third strand of evidence comes from a letter written about a.d. 90 to the believers at Corinth from a Roman Christian named Clement. In chapters three through six Clement warns the Corinthians about the bad effects of jealousy which, he says, has always resulted in suffering and death among God's people. This was true in Old Testament times, according to Clement, and he includes seven examples to prove it. Among them are Cain's jealousy of Abel, Esau's jealousy of Jacob, the friction between Joseph and his brothers, and similar examples of envy from the lives of Moses, David, and Saul. Clement also gives seven examples from what were to him more recent times. Among these he speaks of Paul. He says, "By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance... and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers... he departed from the world and went to heaven" (1 Clement 5). The point is that jealousy among Christians in some way caused Paul's execution.
Some of these statements may only be tradition and may be unreliable. Suetonius and Clement are not infallible, and they may be wrong. But the lines of evidence seem to present a remarkably consistent picture. They suggest that after Paul had written Philippians the strife and jealousy already present in the church at Rome degenerated into open attacks on him. These may have led some of the Christians to denounce Paul to the authorities. In this case Christ's statement that his disciples would betray one another (Matt. 24:10) would have an early and literal fulfillment. What is certain is that Clement believed Paul perished as a result of the jealousy and strife that existed among the Roman Christians.
Envy and strife caused trouble in those days. So do they cause trouble today, not necessarily in death, but in the declining impact of the gospel of Christ on our society and on the world. Never in the history of the world have the opportunities been greater for the proclamation of the gospel. Yet never has the believing church been more irrelevant or more divided.
Paul gives the solution to this situation in the next chapter. First, he says that we are to develop a low opinion of ourselves. This is often hard to do, but it should be easy. We are merely to see ourselves as God sees us, and this will happen as we study his Word. Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse often illustrated this process by the story of a man walking along the street at night toward a streetlight. It has been raining, and he has just been splashed with mud by a passing car. He thinks he will be able to brush it off, but as he gets closer to the light he begins to see that it is much worse than he imagined, and when he finally stands underneath the light he realizes that he will simply have to go home and change his clothes. In the same way, as we draw near to Christ by reading the Scriptures, Christ's light will fall on us and we will begin to see ourselves as he sees us. When we do, we will look to him for cleansing.
Second, we are to have a better opinion of others, especially those who are troublemakers. Paul says, "Consider others better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3). This will come about as God makes us sensitive to the work of his Holy Spirit within other believers. It will not mean that we shall consider another Christian honest if he is not. But we shall see that he is more honest as a Christian than he was before becoming one. And we will look into our own hearts for those areas where God wishes to be at work in us.
Third, Paul says that we are to possess the mind of Christ. He challenges the Philippians, "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5). We develop this mind through fellowship with him as he works in us, gradually molding us into his own image.
I know that someone is going to object, "Oh, but that is hard. First you say that we are to rejoice when people preach the gospel, even if they do it in a nasty way and try to hurt other Christians. You say that we are to think highly of them for the sake of God's work within them. Then you say that we are not to be like that ourselves. That is unreasonable. Are we to go against all that is most natural within us?" Yes, you are. That is God's way, and God will give you the strength to do it. You are to see his hand at work in the lives of other Christians, even those who are obnoxious to you, and you are to think highly of God's work in them. Moreover, you are to work with them, as far as possible. For in this way the gospel is spread, believers are strengthened, and Jesus Christ is honored.