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The works of the flesh are evident, which are..."
Selfish Ambitions
(Strife, Factions)
James P. Needham

"Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21, New King James).

The works of the flesh in this passage can be categorized as follows:

  1. Sins of fleshly lust: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, and lasciviousness.

  2. Sins of irreligion: Idolatry, witchcraft, seditions (divisions, Marshall), heresies (sects. Marshall).

  3. Sins of personal disposition: variance, emulations, wrath, strife, Envyings, murders, (not found here in the better manuscripts and later versions. JPN), drunkenness, revellings and such like.

This article will discuss a sin of personal disposition, namely, strife (Greek, erithia).


    VINE: "eretheia denotes 'ambition, self-seeking, rivalry,' self-will being an underlying idea in the word; hence it denotes 'party-making.' It is derived, not from eris, 'strife,' but from erithos, 'a hirling'; hence the meaning of 'seeking to win followers,' 'factions,' so rendered in the RV of 2 Cor. 12:20, KJV 'strifes'; not improbably the meaning here is rivalries, or base ambitions (all the other words in the list express abstract ideas rather than factions), Gal. 5:20 (ditto); Phil. 1:17 (RV,KJV, v. 16 'contention'); 2:3 (KJV, 'strife'); Jas. 3:14,16, (ditto); in Rom 2:8 it is translated as an adjective, 'factious' (KJV 'contentious'), the order 'strife, jealousy, wrath, faction,' is the same in 2 Cor. 12:20 and Gal. 5:20. 'Faction' is the fruit of jealousy.

The word is derived from a day laborer who works for his pay, that is in his own self-interest. Aristotle used it to describe "those who procure office by illegal manipulation." The civic oath of the Italians used the word as follows, "I will not on any pretext bring a charge of failure to keep civic law against any citizen for personal reasons" (eritheia, Jpn.). "The crucial point of the oath, defines such charges as unobjective and self-seeking." "Eritheia is thus the attitude of self-seekers, harlots, etc. i.e. those who demeaning themselves and their cause, are busy and active in their own interests, seeking their own gain or advantage." "It is best to understand eritheia as 'base self-seeking' or simply as "baseness", the nature of those who cannot lift their gaze to higher things." (Information in this paragraph gleaned from Kittel's Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words in its discussion of 'eritheia').

The words and expressions used by these authorities to define this word are: "Ambition," "self-seeking," "rivalry," "self-will," "party-making," "seeking to win followers," "factions," "strifes," "base ambitions," "contention," "factious," "contentious," "baseness." All these concepts in some way are contained in any discussion of strife (eritheia). They all are manifested in the instances of its use in the New Testament.

Moulton and Milligan say, "The meaning of 'selfish' rather than 'factious' ambition perhaps suits best all the NT occurrences of eritheia."

The word occurs 6 times in the Greek New Testament and is variously translated in different versions: NKJV, "selfish ambitions, "KJV, "strife," ASV, "factions," Marshall, "rivalries."

The term eritheia must be distinguished from eris which is an expression of or the result of enmity. While the words overlap, one guilty of eris might not be a party maker, but one who is given to constant contentiousness and is sort of like Esau, "And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren" (Genesis 16:12). He always has a contentious issue, and is always at odds with others. He is a fuss maker.

Uses of 'eritheia" in the New Testament

Studying the instances of the use of eritheia (strife) in the 6 times it occurs in the Greek New Testament will demonstrate why it is called a work of the flesh. We will now look at its use in these six passages.

A. These passages reveal that strife (selfish ambition) has many shady companions, or sleazy relatives.

  1. Strife is not an orphan: (2 Corinthians 12:20), "For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates (arguments, fusses), envyings, wraths, strifes (epitheiai, rivalries, Marshall), backbitings, whisperings (gossip, rumor mongering), swellings (conceits), tumults (noise)." The word keeps some pretty bad company!

    Strife's siblings are also seen in 1 Corinthians: The Corinthian church was a strife-ridden church. The first letter has 16 chapters, and just about that many problems. They had factions gathered around the preacher who baptized them (1 Corinthians 1:12). They were at one another's throats in the pagan courts in efforts to defraud each other (self-interest). They had contentions about who had the best spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14) (rivalries). They had differences over the eating of meats sacrificed to idols (pressing of personal opinions) (1 Corinthians 8). They were fussing about many things; they were envying one another; their tempers were getting out of hand (wraths), they were backbiting, (like copperhead snakes), and carrying on whispering campaigns (gossip), they were conceited (swellings, puffed up), "my party is better than yours," and they had tumults (noisy "disturbances," Marshall). I can just see them now, red-faced wagging their fingers under each others noses and talking loudly; maybe even taking over the Bible class with their arguments. I can see it with my mind's eye because I have experienced it in my work as a preacher for over 50 years.

    (James 3:16), "For where envying and strife (selfish ambition) is, there is confusion and every evil work."

    To confirm further that strife has many siblings, James says it is accompanied by "confusion and every evil work." That is to say that a person who lives with strife in his heart will stop at nothing to reach his self-willed ambitions, and to outdo his opposition. This is confirmed by 2 Corinthians 12:20, discussed above. We are often astounded at the things brethren do to each other because of strife (rivalry and selfish ambition). We often are treated worse by our own brethren than by people of the world, even some who make no profession of being a Christian.

    Paul writes of some who "preach Christ of contention (erithos, selfish ambition), not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds..." These preachers were so hostile toward Paul that they thought the more they preached Christ, the more severe would be the heathen's persecution of him; they desired to "add affliction to my [his] bonds" (Phil 1:16). There was likely a rivalry with Paul, seeking to cut him down thinking this would make them taller. An anti-Paul party or faction is not unlikely.

  2. This passage reveals the consequences of strife:

    (James 3:14) "But if ye have bitter envying and strife (selfish ambition) in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth."

    James says that strife (selfish ambition, rivalry) in one's heart and life is lying against the truth. This because one who claims to be devoted to Christ, but really is devoted to his own self-interest is a hypocrite, and a liar against the truth. This speaks to the consequences of strife (selfish ambition, rivalries). What is to be total commitment to Christ, is but an exploitation of the church in a total commitment to self-interest. Such is the worst kind of hypocrisy.

  3. This passage presents the cure and preventive of strife:

    (Philippians 2:3-4), "Let nothing be done through strife (eritheian, rivalry, Marshall), or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others." Paul admonishes the Philippians to avoid strife (selfish ambition and rivalry) in their decision making. They should shun vainglory (self-glory), and esteem others better than themselves. They should "look not upon their own things, but upon the things of others." This avoids selfish ambition, and focuses attention on Christ and His work in the world which should completely consume us.

B. Present-day applications of the principles:

All have witnessed congregations that constantly are disturbed because of rivalries, selfish ambition, and party makers. It sometimes is the rich vs. the poor, or the educated vs. the uneducated, one ethnic group vs. another. With many the apostles' question of "who is the greatest in the kingdom" has never been settled. They are constantly seeking to rise to the top in power and prestige over the "dead bodies" of those who got in their way. To them the kingdom is not a place to serve the Lord, but a place to fulfill their selfish ambition to be the boss. Diotrophes was such a person. John says, "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not." (3 John 9). Inspiration says Christ is to have preeminence in all things (cf. Colossians 1:18). That leaves us out. Jesus said, "And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant " (Matthew 20:27).

In the first century there were those who preached circumcision who didn't keep the law. They were just using it to build up the circumcision party so they could glory in the nature and size of it (Gal 6:13). Paul said, "They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them" (Galatians 4:17). The Amplified version renders this verse this way: "The men [the judaizing teachers] are zealously trying to dazzle you-paying court to you, making much of you; but their purpose is not honorable or worthy or for any good. What they want to do is to isolate you [from those who oppose them], so that they may win you over to their side and get you to court their favor." Or, perhaps they excluded from their party those who didn't buy their bill of goods and used this to affect themselves, that is, make them feel exclusionary and superior. They were exploiters and manipulators of others to further their own selfish ambition to build up a clique. They didn't really care about their brethren, only what their brethren could do for them. To the Ephesian elders Paul said, "Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30). These would be self-interest party makers with them, not Christ, at the center.

C. Modern day examples of this work of the flesh:

Modern-day examples of strife (eritheia, selfish ambition) are many. Some brethren are so power hungry, and so determined to "run things," that they imitate the principles of the previous paragraph. This person may or may not be an elder. They make haste to create a close relationship with every new preacher. They take him out to eat in fancy restaurants; they want him to visit their office on a regular basis (even daily) for coffee; they may even shower him with gifts. The unthinking preacher often times gets caught in the trap before discovering what is happening, so he becomes a puppet for a party. The plan is to make him beholden to his benefactor so he will feel somewhat obligated to help him execute his personal agenda in the congregation. If the preacher is naive enough to fall for this (which some preachers are), he is caught in a trap. The brother can now use him in his manipulating of the congregation. When this brother cannot prevent a decision from being made in the business meeting, he will politic with the preacher outside the business meeting to prevent it from being done. The preacher is being exploited to carry out the base ambition of a brother or a clique.

The preacher who does not have sufficient experience or fortitude to avoid such alliances will find it impossible to break them without moving. If he seeks to break such an alliance, those who have so used him will become his hateful enemies and will make his life miserable and his work ineffective. They will criticize him for the very things for which they once praised him to the sky. They will nit pick just about everything he says or does. The sad thing about such a situation is the fact that often the majority of the congregation doesn't even know what is going on, and those who do, don't know what to do about it. Efforts to deal with it, and break the cycle, in many cases, will result in division. Some will support the problem makers (the party), and some will oppose them. There will be those who stick their heads in the sand and act as though there is no problem. There will be some who have no idea what is going on. There will be all-night business meetings filled with charges and counter charges. There will be childish behavior and intemperate outbursts. The assemblies will become charged with tension. Destructive criticism will abound. There will be backbiting, bitterness and nit picking.

There are 2 or 3 ways to change the situation described. (1) Those with selfish ambition could humbly repent of their base ambitions and decide to serve the Lord rather than self. This is essential to being a disciple: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." (Mat. 16:24) (2) The preacher could move. This doesn't settle the problem, but it removes the preacher from an unhealthy situation. However, the scenario described herein will simply be repeated over and over unless the congregation happens to get a wise preacher who knows how this system works, and avoids it. But even then, he will not be popular with those whose agenda is to rule or ruin, but whose agenda is stymied by a preacher who refuses to cooperate. (3) Division. Often the situation described herein winds up in division. Brethren learn the plot and plan, grow weary of it, and refuse to tolerate it longer. So, they move out and start another congregation where they will be free of this ugly situation until someone decides to use the new congregation in the same way and for the same purposes.

It is a sad fact that the situation described herein can be found in many congregations. One wonders why a congregation can't get along in peace and tranquility with everyone being equal to everyone else (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:25); with nobody trying to pursue a personal agenda to gain sufficient power to run the congregation as if he owns it. There are many cases in which Christians cannot say with David, "I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD" (Psalm 122:1), but rather worship is a time to dread because the atmosphere is charged with tension and stress, due to an obvious party spirit that prevails.

Strange indeed it is that the Bible prescribes unity, but we often practice division; It teaches brotherly love and we often practice brotherly hate; it demands truth but we often practice falsehood; the Bible places Christ preeminent in all things (Colossians 1:18), but some brother want to be the center of attention; it says we should have the same care one for another, but we often have parties, clicks and politics; we are to have elders that rule well, but we often have elders that rule from hell. I knew a congregation that had three elders. They were trying to agree on a preacher. Two of them wanted to hire preacher "A", but the third elder held out for preacher "B." A contest went on for weeks within the eldership. Finally the third elder gave in, saying, "I was willing to hire preacher 'A' all the time, I just wanted to see how far you all would go"-- base rivalry). The Bible commands us to "follow after things that make for peace" (Romans 14:19), but we often follow after things that make for war.


I do not write this article with great pleasure because it brings back memories of sad experiences in my own work as a gospel preacher over a period of some 53 years. These are situations that try men's souls. I hate the fact that this piece is largely negative, but any discussion of the works of the flesh must be so because the works of the flesh present the negative side of human behavior. The positive and pleasant side of human possibilities follows Paul's catalog of negative qualities in the fruits of the Spirit which will be discussed in a future issue (next month, SC).