It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 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. (Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 1, verses 15-18a)
It is possible to preach Jesus Christ from wrong motives!
Are you shocked? Are you all too down with this? Did Jesus see this coming? It is a pathetic lot Jesus has entrusted the gospel to. We are fully capable of taking the most loving person who ever lived, the one who modeled for us what it means to act out of completely unselfish motives, and preach him to fulfill a selfish agenda. Why did Jesus think this was a good idea?
Paul, of course, has just told his readers in the previous words of his letter that the gospel is an unstoppable force and that its advance is the most important venture we could ever undertake. It is the venture to which he has committed his life. It is the thing he lives for. We should all be unified behind this truly good news that Jesus has made known to us. You see, though this good news is unstoppable, there is one thing that can threaten to make it wear clunky boots that slow down its progress…our disunity.
Paul is adding more knowledge and insight to the love of the Philippians (see verse 9). In love for Paul some have yielded to the proposition that his imprisonment has threatened the gospel and sent him a monetary gift to cover his needs. But at the same time they have demanded that everyone in their church feel the same. They have undoubtedly accused those not so disposed as uncaring. Those who are not so excited about sending Paul money have accused those who are thus excited with not caring about the needs at home. Each group has a personal agenda that is in conflict with the primary requirement of the advance of the gospel, that is, that we should all be united behind this message.
Paul is indirectly arguing this when he points out that where he is some are preaching Christ out of envy and rivalry. There are some seeing Paul in prison and having some effective witness with the guards and deciding that they need to outdo him or at least make sure they preach their version of the gospel in contrast with his. Now to be sure, they are not teaching a false gospel or Paul would not be rejoicing (check out Galatians 1). But can you imagine someone thinking they could preach the gospel better than Paul? Can you imagine someone wanting to increase Paul’s suffering by doing so?
This is the depth of the foolishness we believers can stoop to. This is what Paul wants his readers to understand as the same depth they are sinking to, though they believe their motives to be much purer. We do the same thing. We make secondary things primary. We make secondary things the gospel instead of the gospel.
We’re doing this when we insist that the issue of whether the world was created in six 24-hour days be part of the gospel. We do this when we make the issue of homosexuality the core of our gospel. We do this when we refuse to share the podium with those who believe in a different mode of baptism than we use. We do this with others who share the true gospel when we criticize them for using a booklet or conversely for trying to build a relationship first. We do this when we fight each other over any number of relatively petty issues that are not primary to the gospel. We have failed to see what is best and chosen over and over to make what is good the most important thing.
We need to learn how to argue for our perspectives on secondary issues without alienating ourselves from those who agree with us on primary issues. The world needs to see our unity in Christ and our commitment to this most life changing of truths, the gospel. Every other religion on earth teaches that we must be good in order to earn a spot in God’s graces. Christianity teaches that we must see ourselves as so wicked and so far from being good that we need Jesus to be good for us and take our penalty for wickedness on himself. Every other religion says we must do works to be rescued. Christianity says we must be rescued in order to do works. This is what Christians must rally around and we must rally around each other in that we alone embrace this truth.
Are you able to rejoice as Paul did in those who preach the gospel differently than you do? Not a different gospel (do you know how to determine that?), but a different way of preaching it. That, interestingly, is the test of whether we know the true gospel or not.