I have a question concerning the following passage:  “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”- Phil. 1:15-18       As i understand what Paul said, there were people at that time who preached Christ out of envy & rivalry which is out of selfish ambition, not sincerity & supposing that through it they can stir up trouble for Paul.  There were also some who preached out of goodwill: who did it out of love.  My question concerns how Paul responded to this situation.  Does this passages tell us that it is okay that we preach Christ even if it is out of envy, selfish ambition, without sincerity or having false motives, as long as Christ is preached?   Does Paul contradict himself when he says in the same book that we should “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Phil. 2:3)?


Obviously, it is not “OK” to preach out of bad motives. Anyone who got that interpretation from these two passages would clearly have bad motives! Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask how these two passages are consistent. To some extent, this is a matter of semantics which is being played with here. A good rule of Bible interpretation is that you interpret a less clear passage in light of a clear passage. I would say the “clear” passage in this case is Phil 2:3, while the more difficult passage is Philippians 1:15-18. The simple and obvious teaching is that we should do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (Phil 2:3) Therefore, any interpretation of another passage which says it is “OK” to do something out of selfish ambition or vain conceit would clearly be an incorrect interpretation.

This leaves us to ask what Paul is talking about in Philippians 1:15-18. He is speaking in relative terms. To put it into a rather gross simplification, there are three possibilities.

1. To have bad, selfish motives and to not preach the gospel.

2. To have bad, selfish motives and to preach the gospel.

3. To have good spiritual motives and to preach the gospel.

The fourth logical possibility is a contradiction: The fourth combination: having good, spiritual motives, but not preaching the gospel is a contradiction in terms. This is not one of the possibilities.

What Paul is saying is that, although alternative #3 is clearly vastly to be preferred, he supposes, that if push comes to shove, alternative #2 is better than alternative #1. Paul is obviously not justifying doing actions out of a bad motive, but he is saying that if people getting saved (a greater good) happens, despite the person preaching having selfish motives (a bad, but a lesser bad) then perhaps it is better that a person is saved, even if the one preaching is in sin. There is a light note of sarcasm in what Paul is saying in Philippians 1:15-18. His statement is a rebuke to those who have been out there converting people but who are doing so partially out of self-promotion.

So, it is not okay to preach out of selfish ambition, but it is better to preach, even if there is an element of selfishness in our motivation (and who does not have some self-serving spirit in him or herself?) than to remain silent and see people go to hell.

John Oakes

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