Anyone who has ever grieved over church divisions, and the role that individuals play in creating and fostering them, has probably asked the question, “How should I view other believers who serve the Lord differently than I do?” Is it possible—is it biblical—to thank God for churches in which we could not comfortably worship? How can we appreciate churches whose members view our Christianity with suspicion? Are believers from other traditions our competition or our companions?
We are not the first people to ask these questions.
While in prison for preaching the gospel the apostle Paul was confronted with the very same issue. Here is how he described the problem and his response:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry…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. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice (Phil. 1:15-18; NIV).
What is Paul saying to the Philippians and us?
Do Not Rejoice in False Teaching
Paul is not writing about those who preach another gospel. Of false teachers, Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation,” those who preach a gospel of Christ’s works plus ours (Phil. 3:2). “If anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9).
Believers cannot rejoice when sincere Jehovah’s Witnesses preach a version of Christ who is created in time, of a distinct essence from the Father, and who does not “save completely those who come to God through him” (Heb. 7:25). Believers cannot rejoice that Unitarian Universalists say kind and sympathetic things about a Jesus who came not to die under the divine penalty for the sins of God’s children, but to model social activism.
Paul’s opponents were not heretics but merely disagreeing, shortsighted, envious, ambitious, uncharitable, hurtful, Christians. They taught accurately the good news of the kingdom but only as a means to advance their self-centered version of the kingdom.
Rejoice Even When People Preach Christ Insincerely
Believers are free to rejoice in pretentious ministries because God’s work is not linked to the preacher’s motives but to his message. As Calvin comments, “We ought to acknowledge the wonderful goodness of God, who…sometimes accomplishes an admirable work by means of wicked and depraved instruments.”
A number of years ago a pastoral colleague grievously fell into the sin of adultery. He wounded many people and will answer to God for his abuse of the sheep. The divine irony is how this church had grown under his ministry. People had gotten saved. They had become more like Jesus—even while the minister was tragically living a lie. Similarly, several of my colleagues were trained by a professor who was secretly living a double life. There is no excuse for his behavior. But amazingly, his students are better ministers because of what he taught.
Paul could forgive and even rejoice over compromised ministries because God can draw sinners to himself even by means of insincere preachers. Paul longed above all else to see sinners saved and Christ exalted.
Sectarianism, the kind Paul faced in prison, is an attitude that prioritizes our sect over God’s kingdom, often at the expense of the reputation of others. The pretentious preachers Paul mentioned might have loved Jesus but they did not love Paul. They wanted to separate themselves from this disgraced, imprisoned apostle. But partisanship opposes Christ’s prayer for unity within the church (John 17), it spoils our joy in the work of the Spirit beyond the boundaries of our tradition, and it undermines our experience of the communion of the saints. When kids grow up in churches that criticize other expressions of Christianity, eventually they often find that those being criticized were simply bogeymen; this realization can shake their confidence in the church. We should want our kids lovingly steeped in our best understanding of Christianity AND taught to be generous toward those who differ.
Paul is, at the same time, teaching us to rejoice over uncharitable Christians and to avoid their faults.
Orient Your Identity around Christ
We are always tempted to find our identity in our forms, rituals, and positions, and not in Christ. Are we, like Paul, glad every time Christ is truly preached? Or, is the preaching of Christ incidental to our joy? What makes worship services worthwhile? For Paul, it was nothing more or less than that everyone, believers, and unbelievers, would hear from God himself that Jesus has sacrificed his comfort and routine for our salvation. Like Mary, we must prioritize the one thing needful (Luke 10:42), that Christ lived, died, and lives again for sinners.
Orienting our identity around Christ will also help us patiently bear personal offense. Recently I listened to a man talk from his deathbed about all the churches he had left because people had offended him. And he was proud of it! Paul had feelings like ours. He was hurt by the attacks of careless Christians. But in Christ Paul could rejoice over and persevere with those who sought to “add affliction” to his chains.
What might happen if we placed Christ’s honor ahead of our hurt feelings, comfort, and preferences? With Paul, we would experience joy. But we might also see the kingdom come more powerfully than ever.