Works of the Flesh: Rivalries

Let us now discuss the work of the flesh called “rivalries” (or, as in the ASV, “factions,” other versions “disputes” or “quarrels”) in Galatians 5:19-20:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties…

The word translated in this passage variously as “factions,” “rivalries,” “disputes,” etc., is the Greek word eritheia, defined by Thayer as:

1) electioneering or intriguing for office
1a) apparently, in the NT a courting distinction, a desire to put one’s self forward, a partisan and fractious spirit which does not disdain low arts
1b) partisanship, fractiousness

This word is very similar to the word defined as “strife” earlier in this passage (for more see our discussion of Works of the Flesh: Strife). If we were to make a distinction between the two words, we would see that a “rivalry” is introduced for personal gain, while “strife” does not necessitate personal gain. Regardless, we see the term eritheia used to denote “factions,” “selfish ambitions,” otherwise known as rivalries, in Philippians 2:3, James 3:14, 16, and Philippians 1:17:

Doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself.

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth…For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. (NASB)

[Those who out of strife and envy] proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. (NASB)

I have quoted the NASB often in these verses as opposed to the standard use of the ASV to highlight the distinction between “strife” and “rivalries,” notably, that “rivalries” has more to do with the idea of “selfish ambition,” a desire to come into conflict with others so that in the end you may be elevated. This understanding is made clearer when we examine Webster’s definition for “rivalry:”

Competition; a strife or effort to obtain an object which another is pursuing; as rivalry in love; or an endeavor to equal or surpass another in some excellence; emulation; as rivalry for superiority at the bar or in the senate.

When we now think of the definition of this term expressed in both Greek and English– the desire for some form of elevation that others also desire– we can see how disturbing this frame of mind can be within the church. We can see this perhaps more clearly with the example of Diotrephes in 3 John 1:9-10:

I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.

We can see in this passage that Diotrephes desires to be “first among them;” thus, we can say that he has a rivalry with those around him. This desire compels him to “not accept what [the apostle and others] say” and that he “accus[es the apostle and others] with wicked words,” and even goes so far as to “not receive the brethren…and he forbides those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.” In his attempt to gain preeminence within the church with whom he assembled, Diotrephes forsook the men of God, forsook the brethren that would come to his church, and even went to far as to remove his own brethren from the church who would receive outsiders. In his desire for preeminence he even seems willing to remove all others from the church, as long as he ended up being preeminent. One can easily imagine the conclusion of this type of matter: a “Church of Diotrephes” with but one member. We may see from this example the ruin that is caused by rivalry.

We have seen, then, that rivalry is an attitude that ought not be named amongst saints. How, then, can we avoid entering situations that would include rivalry? We may learn some from a parable of Jesus in Luke 14:8-11:

“When thou art bidden of any man to a marriage feast, sit not down in the chief seat; lest haply a more honorable man than thou be bidden of him, and he that bade thee and him shall come and say to thee, ‘Give this man place’; and then thou shalt begin with shame to take the lowest place.
But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest place; that when he that hath bidden thee cometh, he may say to thee, ‘Friend, go up higher’: then shalt thou have glory in the presence of all that sit at meat with thee.
For everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

Jesus explains to us the proper way that one may gain honor: not by desiring preeminence, but always acting in a humble manner, willing to take the seat of least respect and be asked to move up in respect. Jesus further elaborates on this idea with a different parable in Luke 17:7-10:

“But who is there of you, having a servant plowing or keeping sheep, that will say unto him, when he is come in from the field, ‘Come straightway and sit down to meat’; and will not rather say unto him, ‘Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?’
Doth he thank the servant because he did the things that were commanded? Even so ye also, when ye shall have done all the things that are commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which it was our duty to do.'”

This verse teaches the Christian well that although he is called to obey God in a multitude of ways and to assist not only his brethren but also everyone in the world in any capacity he can, these deeds are not to be done for elevation in the eyes of others, but because the Christian is a lowly servant, doing only those things that he ought to have done. Christianity is not to be a “show” religion, nor is its tenets and practices to be performed merely to be seen by others as “strong in the church” in an attempt to gain preeminence, but is to be a religion of people recognizing that they are redeemed with a price and desire only to glorify their Father in Heaven and His Son Jesus Christ. If we imbibe this attitude of humility, never desiring preeminence, it will be difficult for us to be entangled in rivalries.

To conclude, I would like to quote more of the passage in Philippians 2, having quoted verse 3 above. This passage very clearly demonstrates the impropriety of rivalries and points to the example of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. Let this passage, Philippians 2:1-13, be a constant reminder to us to follow the pattern of our Lord Jesus Christ, constantly living in humility, regarding others more precious than ourselves.

If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others. Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross. Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto Him the name which is above every name; that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for His good pleasure.


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