Some certainly preach Christ with jealous and competitive motives, but others preach with good motives. They are motivated by love, because they know that I’m put here to give a defense of the gospel; the others preach Christ because of their selfish ambition. They are insincere, hoping to cause me more pain while I’m in prison.
What do I think about this? Just this: since Christ is proclaimed in every possible way, whether from dishonest or true motives, I’m glad and I’ll continue to be glad.
I may have read Philippians before college, but my first memory of it is from a college bible study in my dorm. Searching for clear lines of faithful living – X is right, Y is wrong – with the kind of Christians who often drew those lines, I stumbled upon this passage from Philippians chapter 1 about some who preach Christ out of selfish ambition. And while Paul certainly could be a salty guy – it’s not like he, John the Baptist, or even Jesus shied away from harsh language at times – I was shocked by Paul’s generous response to the motives of others. “Since Christ is proclaimed in every possible way, whether from dishonest or true motives, I’m glad and I’ll continue to be glad.”
So much of Christian faith has been (simplistically) described in black and white terms. X is right, Y is wrong. “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” (Psalm 51). The search for a pure heart can become an endless search that drives Christians mad. How pure is pure enough? Are we ever really pure? Luther himself felt he could never confess enough of his sins or confess earnestly enough to merit God’s gift of forgiveness. It drove him to a crisis of faith.
Black-and-white, yes/no is not the color palette of faith
As this verse (among others in our Scriptures) makes clear, our experience and expression of faith runs along a continuum, and we rarely find ourselves clearly at one end or the other. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” the man cries to Jesus (Mark 9:24) displaying for us the ability to believe and not believe at the same time.
And so when Paul approaches the selfishly-motivated preachers of the Gospel with generosity rather than with condemnation, my eyes are opened. My eyes are opened to a call to gracious living that is not quick to condemn. My eyes are opened to my own selfish ambitions which certainly play into how I embody my calling as a pastor and a preacher of the Good News. My eyes are opened to another way of engaging a world that can seem so twisted by selfish ambition.
Martin Luther’s own teaching on the eighth commandment bids us to “come to [our neighbor’s] defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light” (see Martin Luther’s Small Catechism). This is a teaching that cautions against quick condemnations and black/white judgments, and instead leads us to seek understanding of the other. Luther’s guidance certainly aligns with Paul’s generosity of spirit some 1500 years earlier.
Still, it’s not “anything goes.”
Selfish preachers can and do distort the Gospel for their own purposes. And their distortions can do real harm. Paul’s non-condemnation of the selfish preachers, and Luther’s call to interpret our neighbor’s actions in the best possible light, are not de facto prohibitions on judgment (and either is Matthew 7:1). Their teachings demonstrate that the impulse of faith is not judgment but generosity, not condemnation but grace. Indeed, seeking generosity and grace for one (who suffers unjustly) often requires judgment and condemnation for another (who acts unjustly toward their neighbor).