Works of the Flesh: Enmities
The Apostle Paul desired for the Galatian Christians to glorify God in all they did. To this end he set forth for them the kinds of behaviors which incur condemnation and the character attributes which come from the Spirit (Galatians 5:17-24). He spoke of the “works of the flesh” which lead to condemnation in Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul began the list with works of the flesh pervasive in the ancient Greco-Roman world: sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, and sorcery. These were enmeshed in the pagan cultures from which the Gentile Christians had converted, and remained continual temptations for them and even for those who had believed in Christ from Israel.
Paul then turned to works of the flesh which profoundly affect relationships, beginning with “enmities.” The word translated “enmities” in our Bibles is echthra in the original Greek, defined by Thayer’s as “enmity, a cause of enmity.” Webster’s defines enmity as:
The quality of being an enemy; the opposite of friendship; ill will; hatred; unfriendly dispositions; malevolence. It expresses more than aversion and less than malice, and differs from displeasure in denoting a fixed or rooted hatred, whereas displeasure is more transient.
In the New Testament “enmity” described relationships marked by some level of hostility. In Luke 23:12 we are told that Pilate and Herod had been at enmity before “reconciling” through a shared condemnation of Jesus. Paul would describe the mind of the flesh as in enmity against God, not subject to God’s law, nor could it be (Romans 8:6-7); James spoke more succinctly: friendship with the world is enmity toward God (James 4:4). Paul also perceived enmity between God and man through the law of commandments which had condemned mankind; Jesus killed the enmity, or hostility, by dying on the cross (Ephesians 2:13-16).
All of the other “works of the flesh” can be fully avoided, at least in prospect; no matter what we feel, say, or do, however, we will experience enmity. To live according to God’s purposes in Jesus will lead to enmity with the world and its ways; likewise, to live according to the ways of the world is to live in enmity with God (James 4:4, 1 John 2:15-17). Jesus promised us that we would have tribulation in the world, even though we have peace toward God in Him (John 16:33). The enmity of the world might reach such a depth that a Christian’s enemies may even be members of his own household (Matthew 10:34-36)!
If we cannot avoid or escape enmity, how can Paul consider “enmities” as a work of the flesh in Galatians 5:20? We obtain a clue from Romans 12:17-18:
Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men.
God has abundantly warned us in Christ how seeking His purposes will lead to enmity in the world; nevertheless, the source of the enmity must be from the world, and not the Christian. Christians should never nurture hostility, ill will, or hatred toward any human being. Christians are called to treat each other with tender affection and love (Romans 12:10); it is in displaying love toward one another that we display that we belong to the Lord Jesus (John 13:34-35), and we cannot say we love God unless we love one another (1 John 4:7-21). Furthermore, it is not enough to just love one another: we must love our neighbor as ourselves, and prove to be neighbors to all with whom we might interact (Matthew 22:35-40, Luke 10:25-37); we must not forget to show love and care for strangers and those not like us (Hebrews 13:2). A Christian who loves each and every person will never have feelings of enmity toward any one.
We live in a time and age often characterized by pettiness and nastiness. “Cancel culture” has become prevalent; Internet flame wars prove pervasive. The media heavily invests in polarization and sensationalism; people rarely disagree charitably anymore, but tend to view their opponents as having the most base of motives and representing a threat to society and all that is right, good, and decent. Enmity abounds in political, social, and cultural discourse, and it proves very difficult to resist.
Sadly, the Lord’s people have not proven immune from enmities. Disagreements regarding doctrinal matters which could be handled with charity in a spirit of brotherhood have often become personal, ugly, and have set Christians against one another. In such circumstances, no matter how “right” either side might be doctrinally, their attitudes often turn “wrong,” and God’s purposes of relational unity are thwarted (John 17:20-23, Romans 14:10-18). Unfortunately it does not even require a doctrinal disagreement: Christians can often rub each other the wrong way, or disagree about methods, cultural attitudes, or some trivial matter, and end up displaying hostility toward one another. Few things prove sadder than seeing a congregation of the Lord’s people riven by factions all due to personality conflicts and similar hostilities.
As Christians we must strive to love everyone and be at peace inasmuch as we are able; there is thus no room for enmity in the heart of the Christian. In Jesus Christians have been reconciled to God, not only for their own salvation, but also to jointly participate with fellow Christians as the Lord’s Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 2:1-22); God’s whole purpose in Christ is redemption and reconciliation, to kill the hostility and enmity which exists among people in the world (Ephesians 2:11-18, 3:9-12). We cannot glorify God if we resurrect the enmity He has sought to kill in Jesus!
Yes, those who would live godly in Christ Jesus will endure enmity and hostility in the world. Yes, we are liable to obtain enemies and opponents by living faithfully in Jesus and standing firm in His purposes; these enemies will certainly come from the world, many will profess Christ, and some even may come from among the Lord’s people. Yet whatever enmity may exist must not come from ill will or hatred in our hearts; we must be peaceable and loving toward all, desiring for all to know the truth, repent, and find salvation in Jesus (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Enmity is the way of the Evil One, alienating people from God and one another in mutual hostility. Redemption and reconciliation are the ways of our God who has paid the ultimate price so that we might find peace in Him. May we turn away from enmities, seek the good in Christ for all with whom we come into contact, and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry