In order to encourage the Christians of Galatia Paul presented the contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, exhorting them to inculcate the fruit of the Spirit while avoiding the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24). Paul defines the works of the flesh as the following in Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul began the works of the flesh with many of the challenges of all mankind, but those which were particularly acute for pagan Greeks: sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, and sorcery. He then began discussing a lengthy list of sins in relationships with enmities, describing a disposition which often leads to difficulties in relationships. Paul then identified another behavior which causes fracturing in relationships: strife.
The word translated as “strife” is the Greek word eris, defined by Thayer as “contention, strife, wrangling.” The Greeks reckoned Eris as a goddess; in myth her most famous escapade was the golden apple to be given to the fairest of the goddesses: the contention surrounding the prize would lead to enmity among the goddesses and all the devastation of the Trojan War.
In the New Testament Paul often associates eris, strife, with jealousy or envy (Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 3:3, Philippians 1:15, 1 Timothy 6:3-4); where jealousy and envy exist, opportunities to manifest strife will follow. Eris can also be defined as “contentions,” as took place in the church in Corinth according to 1 Corinthians 1:11. The term may also be found referring to the strife of the Gentiles in their depravity (Romans 1:29), concerning the Corinthians again in 2 Corinthians 12:20, and referring to the result of discussion of various Jewish traditions in Titus 3:9. We may see from these passages and those quoted above that “strife” is a characteristic that is of a carnal, or earthly, mind, not of soberness, and a mark of one who teaches falsely or preaches Christ from impure motives.
In English “strife” is defined by Webster as:
1. Exertion or contention for superiority; contest of emulation, either by intellectual or physical efforts.
2. Contention in anger or enmity; contest; struggle for victory; quarrel or war.
3. Opposition; contrariety; contrast.
From both the English and Greek definitions we perceive a strong association between strife, enmity, contentiousness, even anger: Paul is not attempting to list out precisely disassociated attitudes or behaviors, but a constellation of terms centering on recognizably sinful attitudes and behaviors. Many of the terms are very synonymous and related to one another: strife rarely exists without some kind of catalyst like enmity, jealousy, envy, or anger; strife and contentions prove essentially similar in practice. For our purposes we will consider strife primarily as a contest of disputation by intellectual or physical means in order to display superiority.
Strife is very much a work of the flesh as “the ways of the world.” The world is saturated with people who engender strife as a means of getting ahead in the workplace, in society/culture, and/or in politics. The world celebrates contests designed to display superiority: sporting events like the Olympics or professional sport teams compete in order to demonstrate which country, city, or group of people is the best in the world. Such displays of competition are more healthy than war or violence, and need not engender strife, and yet we can think of numerous occasions on which people have taken such things “too seriously” and have harmed other people on account of sports affiliations. In the world humans are always looking for opportunities to display or demonstrate how they and their group are superior to other groups; it helps to justify why they have benefited (or should benefit) and others have failed (or should fail).
Yet this is not how we have learned Christ; indeed, Jesus explicitly repudiated this attitude in Matthew 20:25-28. The rulers of the Gentiles lord their power over the vanquished; thus it has been, and in the world, thus it will ever be. But it must not be so among the people of God: those who would be the “greatest” must be those who serve. Such is why Jesus Himself washed the feet of His disciples: He served them in lowliness and humility, even as their Lord and Master, so they would understand they ought to serve one another as well (John 13:1-11).
Yet even “serving” can too easily be made into a contest; Christianity has been plagued with the “holier than thou” attitude for as long as it has existed. Diotrephes loved preeminence, and it led him to cast out anyone he perceived to be a threat to his power: he was jealous, and his behavior was manifest as strife (3 John 1:9-10). People can find any reason at all to baptize and sanctify their quest to display their superiority through contest: “standing firm for the truth,” “fighting error,” “being the watchman,” “challenging tradition,” and many other postures can all too easily become ways to attempt to demonstrate how “we” have become better than “they.”
For good reason, therefore, Paul identified the worldliness, or carnality, of the strife engendered in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:3, 2 Corinthians 3:1, 2 Corinthians 11:1-33. Factions attempted to display how they were “right” and the others were “wrong”; “superapostles” came in and attempted to suggest they were more holy and closer to Jesus than Paul. It was not really about the message of Jesus at that point; it was about being “in the right” and thus in a superior posture than the others.
While we must always strive to live as workmen without shame, rightly handling the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), our goal ought not be to display how right we are and thus in a superior posture over others. Such a disposition is really conceited and arrogant, and really a mark for a false teacher, as Paul explained above in 1 Timothy 6:3-4. Our standing before God in Christ is not based on being right but on the basis of our trust in Jesus and what God accomplished through Him (Ephesians 2:1-10). No one will be saved because they were right and had a superior understanding; salvation comes for those who humbly trusted in Christ, not in themselves, and sought to understand ever more what God accomplished in Jesus to glorify Him (Ephesians 1:1-3:21). Members of the Lord’s church would be well-served to discern when it is no longer about exhorting one another in the truth but to display why “we” are better than “they,” and avoid such a catalyst for strife.
Until the Lord returns there will be some among the Lord’s people who engender strife on account of their insecurities and need to be seen as “better than” others. Such people will not cease until they have learned to repent and accept our equality in the sight of God or they have destroyed relationships and churches through their constant strife and contentions. Many congregations of the Lord’s people have been captured by people who enjoy contentiousness and strife; they create toxic environments which attract those who are like minded and repel Christians seeking to maintain humility and love. We must expect strife in the world, but it ought not to be so among us. Strife is always carnal; Jesus did not die to justify “sanctified strife,” but on the cross killed the hostility that would engender strife (Ephesians 2:16-18). The Lord’s purposes are thus never honored by strife; we should avoid it at all costs, put the impulses toward strife to death, and serve and love one another in humility before God in Christ, doing all things not to preen in “holy superiority,” but that God would be glorified in us in all things!
Ethan R. Longhenry