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Confronting Conflict with the Gospel #14: What is Conflict You Cannot Duck?

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— Philippians 3:2-3

It was the elephant in the room. And Paul was not going to duck it.

Here he is giving pastoral counsel to the Philippi congregation to stand firm in one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel—counseling its leaders to guide Euodia and Syntyche to end the feud going on between them. Seeking to calm the troubled waters. Then he is suddenly urging them to be on their guard against people he describes in the most brazen way. Quite a leap between verse 1 and 2—from “Rejoice in the Lord” to “Look out for the dogs, evildoers and mutilators.”

But as he concludes his instruction, Paul urges this church to expend their energy on confronting the right enemy within the church. Conflict is necessary against people who push a perverted version of the gospel onto other believers.

Paul is well acquainted with the background of this conflict. As soon as Jesus’ church went from being exclusively Jewish to including the Gentiles, opinion making on Jesus’ behalf began. How can we be sure these Gentiles are really Christians? What does Jesus require of them to belong? Even though James, Peter and others, including Paul and Barnabas, called a convention on this matter, recorded in Acts 15, the issue continued to rage. Some Jewish Christians went around the Roman world to proclaim a version of the gospel that said Jesus wasn’t enough. They were saying that if you really wanted salvation—to be made righteous in the sight of God—you had to add something to the gospel. For them it was circumcision and obedience to the Torah law.

Paul speaks as an insider when it came to opposing their false version of the gospel. He intimates in the following verses that, “I am a circumcised man, but it has not brought me special standing with God. It did not make me righteous in any way.” He fought their message tooth and nail because eternity was at stake for anyone who was sucked into this ‘no gospel at all.” No one can, by their personal effort to keep the law, achieve anything that is better than what Jesus already finished on the cross.

As one of my friends used to say, there are some things you need to be ready to go to the wall for (that is, be willing to die for). Paul is essentially saying the same thing in this passage. Out of those few things, we should go to the wall for the gospel. We have to oppose anyone who—as if they know more than Jesus—adds anything to it. Not many matters should ever rise to a Level 5 conflict, but when it comes to the gospel, there is no room to compromise. Look out for these people.

So much personal conflict in churches is not about this, but about disagreements that need to bring us to the table so we can talk with each other and be reconciled.

Do not make members of your church family the enemy over eternally petty issues. We need to be willing to seek to understand our brother’s or sister’s point of view. Consider the recent controversy when “Go home” was John MacArthur’s response to Beth Moore’s ministry. He said, “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.” Not much room for dialogue in that statement!

Yet Moore is not perverting the gospel. Nor is MacArthur. I am certain everyone reading this would not agree with each other, some siding with the Beth Moore’s of this world and others with John MacArthur. I suspect Paul would let this fall into the “But what does it matter?” statement he made in Philippians 1:18. “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

Paul is not sidestepping that he engages in conflict. That is not his main point in mentioning his opponents in this passage. But it serves as a reminder to his readers and us to choose our battles wisely Save your ammunition for those who use the gospel to exploit and abuse believers. This includes, unfortunately:

  • Those who use the gospel to get rich on the backs of other believers.
  • Those who use the gospel to entice believers into illicit sexual relationships.
  • Those who use the gospel to get power over believers so they can control them for their own ego’s sake.
  • Those who add to the gospel false teachings and extra rules that rob the gospel of its truth, and believers of their freedom.

Rejoicing in the Lord is safe, but some of those who masquerade as teachers of the gospel can be deceptively dangerous. Look out for them.


-Steve Smith