Preaching with Bad Motives

[The following is an extract from Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly. On Good Friday, I believe it’s a good idea to think of what it means to love one another as Jesus loved us. That sort of thinking about others is the foundation of Christian unity. — HN]

The Ironies of Evangelism (1:15-18a)

Paul rejoices despite his imprisonment and the ill will that some of his fellow Christians have toward him. Sadly, Christianity has been plagued throughout its history by unbending orthodoxy, leading to ostracism of fellow Christians. Paul notes that some “proclaim the gospel from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.” While we do not know the identity of Paul’s opponents, it appears that they are using his imprisonment as an opportunity to undermine his apostolic standing, including his vision of God’s unlimited and unmerited grace, embracing Jew and Gentile alike. Paul believes even their critiques will further the gospel, perhaps because some people, even among Caesar’s imperial guard, will come to believe on account of Paul’s critics’ message. As the public relations adage goes, “some press is better than no press at all!” God works through the imperfection of God’s messengers, Paul believes, to bring healing and inspiration. Perhaps, Paul remembers his own faith journey and where it’s led. If God can use Paul the persecutor to be evangelist to the Gentiles, anyone can become an agent of God’s grace.

Once again, Paul trusts God to be providentially working through a variety of Christian messages. While Paul would surely fault his opponents for their lack of ecumenical hospitality, he still recognizes that their message may advance the gospel message by bringing people to an experience of the Risen Christ. Now, I must admit this is a tall order. While most of us recognize that unity does not mean uniformity, there are times when we find it difficult to affirm God’s presence in those groups whose beliefs, worship style, ethics, or experiences differ from our own. Could it be that Paul is advocating a “big tent Christianity,” large enough to embrace progressives, moderates, evangelicals, Pentecostals, and conservatives? Could it be that Paul, for whom theology is very important, nevertheless, places experiencing Christ above doctrinal differences?

In this spirit, I have personally chosen to reframe my theological and political language. Instead of using the terms “opponents” or “opposing” points of view, I use the term “contrasting” points of view or contrasting positions as a way of affirming the many-faceted nature of revelation as well as the relativity of every position in light of the wideness of God’s mercy and the immensity of the universe. Further, in using the word “contrast,” I affirm that I can grow in my understanding of the fullness of Christianity by embracing the best of differing points of view. (pp. 25-26)

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