Right from wrong

Ponder this: is it possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason? Surely, we’ve experienced the opposite: we’ve done the wrong thing for the right reason. We wanted to be helpful, for example, but somehow botched the job and did more harm than good. But can good things come out of bad motivations?

The apostle Paul seems to think so.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we often have mixed motives for what we do. We may want to do something good for someone else, but also want some recognition for doing so. Perhaps I help pay the rent for a brother or sister who’s about to be evicted from their apartment. Obviously, that’s good for them. But I also want something out of the deal: profuse thanks, words of admiration from others, hits and likes on social media. Without question, that selfish motivation contaminates the moral value of the act. And yet, the person who would otherwise be out on the street rightly feels grateful and blessed.

We need a healthy dose of realism: people sometimes do the right thing from wrong or mixed motives. But the purposes of God can still be accomplished through deeply broken people. It’s true of our favorite characters in the biblical story. It’s true of us. And apparently, it was true of some of the Christians in Rome during the days of the apostle Paul.

Paul was in chains for Christ, under house arrest in Rome. Concerned, the Philippians sent Epaphroditus to him with a gift, and waited to hear how Paul was doing. In their own minds, they may have imagined Paul suffering as he had in Philippi, imprisoned in a dark, dank cell with his feet in stocks. But his physical situation was probably much better than that. He was, after all, able to receive visitors and gifts, and to write letters. And he was to be treated as a Roman citizen, at least for the time being.

Of course, even if Paul wasn’t languishing, it’s not as if he enjoyed being in chains. Rather, he was able to rejoice because his imprisonment had resulted in more people sharing and hearing the gospel. He could do that even though he knew some people were evangelizing out of mixed motives:

Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice. (Phil 1:15-18a, NRSVUE)

The positive side of the ledger is clear enough. Some of the Roman Christians loved Jesus and Paul, understood why the apostle was in chains, and picked up the evangelistic slack in his stead. But others did it out of the “false motives” of “envy and rivalry” and “selfish ambition,” hoping to hurt Paul in the process. And the context suggests that they, too, were Roman Christians. What was going on?

It’s impossible to know for certain. Surely, these rivals had to be preaching the gospel accurately, or Paul would not have rejoiced. That also suggests that they were not “Judaizers,” who insisted that Gentile converts to follow Jewish ways. A quick reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians shows how strongly Paul considered their teaching to be antithetical to the true gospel.

No, these were Christians who for some reason were envious of Paul. Piecing together the history, we can speculate. In his letter to the Romans, Paul dealt with the ethnic tensions between Jews and Gentiles in the church. Previously, the Jews had been expelled from Rome for a time by the emperor Claudius; by the time of the letter, they had returned to find a church that had become Gentile in their absence, fueling some mutual disdain. Paul may well have earned himself some detractors by the way he addressed the situation. Remember: unlike the church in Philippi, Paul did not plant the church in Rome. Some of the believers there may have considered him a meddlesome outsider.

Imagine, then, their wounded pride when Paul grabs the headlines in the case of Rome v. Christianity. As we saw in the previous post, Paul had likely become something of a figurehead representing the cause of Christ in Rome, despite the fact that a Christian church already existed there well before his imprisonment. Were some jealous of the media attention he was getting? With Paul in custody, some of the Roman Christians may have upped the ante on evangelism to put Paul in his place, as if to say, “We don’t need you.” They simply didn’t know Paul well enough to know that their evangelistic efforts would actually cheer him up.

Oops.

Can we imagine that people still preach the gospel for the wrong reasons? I’m sorry to say that I can imagine that all too well. But what Paul says here may help bring some comfort to those who have been the victims of spiritual abuse and church hurt. We’ll explore that together in the next post.

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