Among the works of the flesh listed in Galatians 5:19-21, sandwiched between “hatred” and “jealousy,” is a little word, “contentions.” A little word, but a great sin. A child I know once asked his mother to tell him what an “image” was so that he would never bow down before one. In like manner, it behooves us to define—or rather, to allow the Holy Spirit to define—this “contention” so that we may not fall prey to it, “for we are not ignorant of [Satan’s] devices” (2 Corinthians 2:11).
We should note that the word translated “contentions” (and also “strife” ) in the NKJV is the greek word eris, and the dictionary definition is:
- Strife, quarrel, contention
1.Battle-strife 2.Quarrel, strife, discord; wordy wrangling or disputation 3.Eris, a goddess who excites to war (sister of Ares) 4.Contention, rivalry (Liddell & Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon)
Specifically, we should note that the word has a military origin, indicating a spirit of war or rivalry—even infighting. This much secular input is useful, but we must go to the New Testament to get a true understanding of the meaning and application the Holy Spirit intended.
The defining passages—the passages which really show us the way in which the Holy Spirit used the word—are 1 Corinthians 1:10-15 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-4.
In 1 Corinthians 1:10-15, Paul pleads with the brethren to agree among themselves and avoid division. Why? Because he received a report that there were dissensions (eris) among them. “Now I’m saying this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or, ‘I am of Apollos,’ or, ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ'” (verse 12). The dissension or strife among them was that they were divided along lines of human ties. The Corinthians were assigning significance to the one who baptized them rather than the One into whom they had been baptized! I have observed Christians today doing the same. If you were to ask me, I would tell you who baptized me, but I prefer not to volunteer the information. It isn’t because I am ashamed of him. No, in fact, he said some of the soundest words I have heard mere man utter: “Do not put your trust in men—not even in me. Men will let you down, but Jesus will never let you down.” No, it is because 1 Corinthians 1:17 shows that it doesn’t matter who baptized me—indeed, that it can become a point of contention and human pride. It isn’t the wisdom of God which dictates that we create associations and ties to others who have a name.
In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul chastises the Corinthians for the strife among them. The Scripture further defines strife as a work of the flesh: “Where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal&ldots;?” (verse 3) The Spirit does not contradict Himself; the Scripture says the same in Galatians 5:20. 1 Corinthians 3:21 reads, “Let no one boast in men, for all things are yours.” Christians who boast—who are proud of human ties they have created, who envy others, who are divided against one another, who rally behind “their man”—are walking by the flesh, not the spirit.
Contention, or strife, describes the spirit of rivalry among the members of the Corinth church of Christ. You can hear them now, “I know Cephas’ family,” “Paul stayed with me when he journeyed here,” “Apollos and I went to school together,” “Jesus taught in the street by my house when I was growing up.” They missed the point. They built their esteem and credibility on the wisdom of men, when “…no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ!” (1 Corinthians 3:11)
Let us move to a broader sense of the word and consider (eris)‘s travel companions. God uses lists in the New Testament to teach us that there is no such thing as a single, solitary sin, but rather that sin is a package deal, and that all sins are of equal consequence before God. One is never infected with the spirit of dissension only, having nothing else whatsoever amiss in his life.
Strife appears alongside envy or jealousy almost without exception when it appears in New Testament lists (Romans 1:29 and 13:13; 1 Corinthians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Philippians 1:15; 1 Timothy 6:4). This speaks of rivalry among members of the local church as we have seen in 1 Corinthians, but the Scriptures above show that the point of contention is not merely limited to worldly wisdom. Christians can envy one another because of money, social status, worldly accomplishments, family—the list is practically endless. And the result of this envy is strife—infighting, back-biting, bickering, gossip, suspecting evil. Christians say things they ought not even to think about others. Cliques form in the local church. The brethren “…give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27). And the seeds of faction are sown—it is but a matter of time until we reap.
The Scriptures firmly associate strife and faction. We are told in 1 Timothy 6:3-5 that those who “…do not consent to wholesome words…” are “…obsessed with disputes and arguments over words….” These things, we are told, lead to “…envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wrangling….” We are also told in Titus 3:9-11 that we ought to “…avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions [eris], and striving about the Law….” This command is immediately followed by the command to “…reject a divisive man after a first—even a second—warning.” It has always been the device of the factious to find your weakness and manipulate it to generate strife (compare Korah in Numbers 16, who took advantage of Israel’s envy of the sons of Aaron). Whatever it is that you are willing to argue, however pointless or unprofitable it may be, will become the factious person’s cause to champion.
Do not give the devil a place to stand. Give evil workers no opportunity to take advantage of you. Christian friend, hear the voice of God: “If there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord and one mind” (Philippians 2:1-2).