15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.Philippians 1:15-17
It’s confusing that Paul would take an attitude of, “It’s all good. People are talking about Jesus! That’s good news. Don’t worry about it!” This is what I’d always understood this passage to mean. Afterall, Paul was writing in a time when Christianity was brand new and people legitimately may not have ever heard of Jesus. So, even an incomplete or twisted gospel might be better than no gospel. Right?
In this post, I hope to address some of the options for what Paul meant. I’m honestly not sure yet which view I believe, but I know which one I don’t.
View 1: “At least Jesus is being proclaimed!”
This is how I’d understood this passage for years. Afterall, one of my good friends in college became a Christian after hearing a Mormon try to evangelize her… and she understood the true gospel through the distorted gospel that was presented to her. So, if God can do that through a Mormon evangelist, then God can still use an evangelist whose theology is heretical.
But this viewpoint simply doesn’t jibe with Paul’s other writings. He frequently calls out churches and evangelists whose gospels are twisted or incomplete. I have a hard time believing that Paul would say, “It’s all good… so long as Jesus is mentioned!” That simply doesn’t seem like an attitude Paul display anywhere else.
Think about this for a second. Paul spend entire letters warning churches about division and false teachers. I suspect we all know people who talk about Jesus and quote from the Bible, but their understanding of the gospel doesn’t quite line up with what Paul seems to teach. Paul has strong words for them elsewhere… it doesn’t make sense for him to say in Philippians 1:15-17 that their disagreements don’t matter.
View 2: Gospel Plagiarists
In the ancient world, rhetoric (the study and practice of public speaking) was a really big deal. Back then, good rhetoricians were like today’s Hollywood celebrities. They would make a living by traveling from city to city giving their speeches in the town square, like musicians who collect donations in their guitar cases. Except, this was a legitimate vocation that people would aspire to hold.
For these people, Christian evangelists provided a fresh subject to memorize and copy. Plagiarizing someone else’s sermon would essentially guarantee an itinerant speaker would have original material to share at the next city where he was visiting… and that would probably lead to better donations.
While I really like this option, it seems to crumble with v.17. The gospel plagiarists would be seeking selfish gain, but not trying to do Paul harm.
View 3: Rival Christian Groups
Consider the rival groups of Christians that seemed to be spreading throughout Macedonia and Greece, referenced in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17. Paul undermines those allegiances by saying, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” This option claims the “Apollos vs Paul” debate was raging in Philippi and the surrounding region, not only in Corinth – a very reasonable and likely scenario.
So, according to this view, those who are preaching the gospel for selfish purposes in order to grow their group’s prominence while causing problems for Paul, who is in prison. This is the most popular interpretation.
View 4: Paul’s Opponents
It only makes sense that the people who are advocating for Pauls ongoing imprisonment to lead to death would be repeating his horrific blasphemies. This means they would be talking a lot about Jesus as the Son of God who has risen from the grave and as the returning king of creation. By telling everyone about Paul’s “heretical” teaching, they would actually be proclaiming the gospel to those who hear. And if that’s the case… then Paul is thankful for their help spreading the good news.
This view seems to reflect v.17’s statement, “The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.” Their intent is not to make money, but to profit by eliminating Paul’s ongoing ministry. By doing him harm, they benefit because he’s out of the picture.
Conclusions & Application
It seems unlikely to me that view 1 is the way to go. This simply doesn’t align with what we know of Paul. Elsewhere he eviscerates the Judaizers for preaching a false gospel and says he wishes they’d castrate themselves (Galatians 1:6-7, 5:12)! I have a hard time believing this man who spent so much time training pastors and correcting their theology would embrace an attitude that says, “Meh… it’s close enough….”
This leaves views 2, 3, and 4. Honestly, I really like view 2, but the above section already highlights why it’s improbable. View 3 is the most well-attested viewpoint and seems to present the fewest problems, though view 4 is also a possibility. Given the relative proximity between Corinth and Philippi, and that Paul directly addresses the “Paul vs. Apollos” division in 1 Cor. 1:12, view 3 seems like it’s the most common interpretation for a good reason.
Pastoral application: If people are repeating your words and using them for selfish purposes, make sure they’re hearing and repeating the gospel. Don’t let yourself get so bogged-down by correcting their motives that you miss out on the reality that they’re unintentionally helping you… because your greatest desire spread the gospel (not your own fame).