And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will:
The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel.
What then? not withstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached;and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. (Phil. 1:14-18)
We are too prone to assume the early church was characterized by purer faith and life than even the best examples of modern Christianity. This is to misread the New Testament and to underestimate the power of sin on the saints of all centuries. It is important to understand that the Bible is unique among holy books in that it reveals multiple flaws in even its greatest men of faith. We must not look for heroes in the Bible. The hero was a role created by Greek religion that looked for men who could rise above their mortality by doing great deeds. Greek heroes were gods in the making. Scripture shows us sinners. Many were sinners saved by grace, yet they remained sinners.
The great men of Scripture were not in the heroic tradition, but were those who were obedient to God, faithful when faith seemed humanly inadequate. Some of the most memorable stories of Scripture are of those who rose, by God's grace, above various limitations and did mighty things. Some, like David, repented from their own sin, lived with its consequences, and dedicated themselves to greater faithfulness and service. Some, like Moses and Paul, had physical limitations. Some were faced with unbelievable situations not of their own making; Noah, Gideon, and Joseph all faced such situations with action based on their faith in God. Some, like Jacob and Esther, faced the limitations of their birth with trust in God. Many, like the disciples prior to Christ's resurrection, were limited by their lack of understanding of their role in serving God. The great men of Scripture were not heroes who rose to super-human levels by their own initiative; they were men and women whose faith and faithfulness relied on God with Whom all things are possible.
If we are honest with ourselves, we see ourselves as sinners — sinners saved by grace, but nevertheless sinners. We are never surprised to see sin in ourselves; we should not be surprised to see sin in others. As this was true in Biblical times, it is true in the church today and, Paul says in Philippians 1:14-18, was even true amongst those ministers who preached the true gospel. Some of them, Paul says, had less than pure motives and even preferred that the apostle remain in prison!
Pure and Impure Motives
Paul contrasted two groups of ministers. Some preached Christ in "good will," "sincerely," and "of love" with an understanding that Paul, who had been imprisoned for about five years, was "set for the defense of the gospel." Others, however, preached Christ "of envy and strife," "of contention, not sincerely," and in "pretense." Their motive was "to add affliction to my [Paul's] bonds."
Paul's reference to the very impure motives of the latter group of ministers should not be taken to assume these were heretics or false prophets. Paul in no way condemned what they were preaching; he equates the two messages as both preaching Christ. Only the motives and character of the two groups of ministers were different. One group of ministers was glad the apostle was out of the way and would even have preferred more "affliction" be placed on him. Perhaps they saw themselves as the better preachers, the more savvy ambassadors of Christ to the Roman audience. Perhaps they saw Paul's problems as being of his own making and their own skills as the reason they had steered clear of legal problems. Paul's point here is, in fact, to remind the supportive church at Philippi that his imprisonment, rather than being a discouraging setback, was in fact furthering the gospel (1:12). He gave two examples (vv. 13-14). First was the notoriety of his case, which was "famous" in the emperor's palace. The second was that Christ was being boldly preached, even if by some with impure motives.
One group of ministers wanted to see more grief come to Paul; another group recognized that he was positioned to defend the gospel itself and that this was of great value to the kingdom of God. A somewhat comparable example of recent years is the great number of Christian and home school trials of parents, churches, and pastors during the 1970s and 1980s. Many thought them embarrassing spectacles and piously condemned the Christians involved as distracting the church from "the pure gospel." Others saw them as standing firm for a legal, moral, and religious principle. In retrospect we now easily can see that those who stood firm and those who supported them greatly furthered religious liberty and the cause of Christian education. Paul's point was to help the Philippians to see his imprisonment in the same way (vv. 12-14).
Unfortunately, even amongst those who preached the true gospel there were noble and ignoble motives. Some put the cause of Christ first and some were motivated by a desire to compete with Paul for prominence. Some who preached the true gospel exemplified Christian character and some did not. They were all orthodox, for Paul says he rejoiced at their preaching, but they were also men of strife and contention, and in this context they preached the gospel.
Some men preached without any selfish motives, without a view to promote themselves or to be preeminent. They preached with a love for Jesus Christ and His gospel. As regards Paul, they knew he served God's purpose even in prison. They sought to support him by preaching in places and times he could not.
It is not too hard to find some very disagreeable ministers who compete with others for preeminence. Arrogance is probably no more common amongst clergy than elsewhere, and perhaps less so, but it is always more offensive for its inappropriateness. If this situation existed in Paul's day, it should not surprise us that it exists in ours.
The Pure Gospel in Impure Hands
Paul's conclusion is that he can nevertheless rejoice because, when all was said and done, Christ was being preached. In some cases it was in "truth" and in some it was with "pretense," but Christ was preached and God's Word will not return unto Him void. All the saints militant (alive) are sinners. The sins of men like Moses, David, or Peter do not reveal them to be hypocrites; they reveal them to be sinners dependent on God's grace. Their sin does not reveal failure of God's work in men; it reveals their failure in doing God's work. Sin causes us all to fail God and man at times. There are no heroes in God's service, only those whose faithfulness causes them to be used, in God's pleasure, and by the power of His Spirit, for His service.