Works of the Flesh: Rivalries
In exhorting the Galatian Christians to live according to the Spirit and crucify the flesh and its passions, Paul provides helpful lists of feelings, behaviors, and character traits described as the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17-24). Paul considered the following to be the “works of the flesh” 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.
Many of the first “works of the flesh” centered on challenges and temptations which would prove especially acute for Christians who had recently come out of the Greco-Roman pagan milieu: sexual temptations like sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness; idolatry; and sorcery. Paul has now turned to discuss “works of the flesh” which prove especially pernicious in relationships: enmities, strife, jealousy and wrath. He continued in the same theme with rivalries, or factions. The word translated in Galatians 5:20 variously as “factions,” “rivalries,” “disputes,” “quarrels,” etc., is the Greek word eritheia, defined by Thayer as:
1) electioneering or intriguing for office
1a) apparently, in the NT a courting distinction, a desire to put one’s self forward, a partisan and fractious spirit which does not disdain low arts
1b) partisanship, fractiousness
Eritheia is very similar to eris, “strife.” As we have seen previously, strife represents contention or dispute in order to demonstrate superiority. Rivalries involve contentions and disputes as well, yet are engineered in opposition with others in order to obtain personal gain, as can be seen in Webster’s dictionary definition of “rivalry”:
Competition; a strife or effort to obtain an object which another is pursuing; as rivalry in love; or an endeavor to equal or surpass another in some excellence; emulation; as rivalry for superiority at the bar or in the senate.
To this end many versions, especially the New American Standard Bible (NASB), will often translate eritheia as “selfish ambition” or “selfishness.”
Paul wished for the Philippian Christians to do nothing through such rivalry or selfish ambition, but to count others better than themselves in humility in Philippians 2:13. Paul remarked that many had preached Christ in strife and envy based in selfish ambition, not in pure motives, thinking it would cause him distress in his imprisonment; yet he rejoiced that Christ was proclaimed (Philippians 1:17). James warned Christians against having selfish ambition, or factions, in their hearts: this was demonic, worldly, unspiritual wisdom from below, and confusion and evil deeds would spring from them (James 3:14-17).
James did well to describe rivalries as part of “worldly wisdom,” for in the world, it is just assumed that rivalry will get a person where he or she wants to go. We live in a “dog eat dog” world; many view the world as a zero sum game, and so in order to gain you must cause others to lose. Many have no compunction in stepping over others in order to gain prominence and wealth in the modern corporate environment. Yet it is in the realm of politics today in which the fruit of rivalries and factionalism is most evident: many seem to have little taste for actual governance, but work diligently to maintain power and deny power to their opponents. Many stay in power or obtain power not because people really believe they are best suited for the job or will maintain the best policies, but because they successfully convinced enough people that their opponent would be far worse, perhaps even an existential threat to their way of life. In such an environment collaboration and/or compromise are rendered impossible, even defiling. Actual governance suffers; all that remains is the blood sport of winners and losers.
The Bible records many instances of rivalries among people. Cain viewed his brother Abel with jealousy and killed him (Genesis 4:1-13). Sarai felt Hagar became a rival when the latter bore Ishmael to Abraham (Genesis 16:1-16). Esau and Jacob contended from the womb (Genesis 25:19-34, 27:1-46). Even though Rachel was more highly favored by Jacob than her sister Leah, she felt as if in rivalry against her, manifest in the names she gave to Zilpah’s children and even the name of her firstborn Joseph (“multiply,” as in, may God add to me another son; Genesis 29:31-30:24). The story of Israel in its land featured constant rivalries between various competing nation-states. In the New Testament, the disciples maintained rivalries among themselves, all vying for prominence in the Kingdom they imagined Jesus would establish (cf. Matthew 20:20-28).
We should come to expect rivalries and selfish ambition in the world. But it must not be so among saints, and especially not within the church. We can ascertain the dangers and damage rivalries and selfish ambition can do in a local congregation from the example of Diotrephes in 3 John 1:9-10. The elder John chastised Diotrephes as loving to be first among the brethren, and would not accept instruction or rebuke from John and his associates, slandering them maliciously. Beyond this, Diotrephes would not welcome brethren from John, and expelled from the church those who desired to welcome them. In his attempt to gain preeminence within the church with whom he assembled, Diotrephes forsook the men of God, forsook the brethren that would come to his church, and even went to far as to remove his own brethren from the church who would receive outsiders. In his desire for preeminence he even seems willing to remove all others from the church in order to maintain influence and power. One might easily imagine the conclusion of the matter: a “Church of Diotrephes” with Diotrephes, perhaps his family, and any left allied with him. Little glory can be left for God in Christ; Diotrephes, in his insecurity and ambitions, absorbs it all.
It is unlikely that Diotrephes was the first of his kind in the church; without a doubt he has not been the last. The spirit of rivalry and selfish ambition has plagued churches ever since. It can be found in the member, deacon, or even elder who has very little power and standing in the world, but can gain standing in the church, and wields that power and influence to buttress his sense of self and dominates those under his charge. It can be found in the preacher with a chip on his shoulder who feels like he has something to prove and thus “takes on” various opponents, real or perceived. It can be found in the self-proclaimed “brotherhood watchman” who attempts to police the preaching and writings of others for indications they are drifting and seek to call them out and shame them, and all to gain greater influence, power, and standing in the church. Such difficulties are not limited to men; women can also use their positions of influence to engender rivalries through selfish ambition in order to see things done the way they desire for them to be done, or to hinder any kind of endeavor which would make them uncomfortable.
Rivalries and selfish ambition dominate the world; eat or get eaten is enshrined in the wisdom of this world. Yet we have not learned Christ in this way; we must expose this “wisdom” for its worldliness and the expression of demonic influence it is. As Christians we do better to follow the way of Jesus the Christ, who humbled Himself greatly and did all things in love for the benefit and best interest of others (Philippians 2:1-11). May we embody the Lord Jesus in all things and gain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry