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Ruthless American Elections and Scripture

"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." (Philippians 2:3 ESV)

Politics are a ruthless enterprise. And here we go again. Let’s look back at the American presidential election of 1800. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were friends who ran against each other. It became one of the most vicious elections of all time. 

Mud-flinging went on left-and-right. Thomas Jefferson accused Adams of being a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” 

Adams’s campaign fired back and said Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” 

Jefferson got the last word, though. He hired someone to lie about Adams, saying he wanted to attack France. It proved effective. Many Americans believed it and Jefferson won the election. Adams was so upset that he refused to show up at Jefferson’s inauguration. The two friends didn’t talk for 12 years.

Despite the falling out, the two men eventually desired to renew their friendship. In 1812, Adams wrote to Jefferson and wished him a happy new year. Jefferson responded, recalling memories of their friendship. They remained pen pals for 14 years and exchanged 158 letters. 

In a twist of irony, the friends and former rivals died on the same day: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which they both helped write. The two men went through it all together, including the bitter pains of division caused by self-ambition. Too bad they couldn’t avoid it.

In Philippians 2:3, God’s Word warns us about divisions that come from our own selfish ambitions and instructs us to avoid them. Here, Paul was writing to the Philippian church where there was rivalry going on among some of the believers (Philippians 1:15-18). Paul was giving practical advice about how to end these rivalries. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition ...”

The Greek word for “selfish ambition” is eritheia. It means “strife,” “contentiousness,” and “rivalry.” Aristotle used eritheia in his work, Politics, to describe candidates getting into office using unethical means. It means to use any method necessary to one-up someone.

Paul is telling us that this doesn’t ensue only in politics. It happens in the church. Believers compete at each other’s expense in order to achieve positions of leadership, celebrity, and prominence. They were to stop at once.

There’s simply no room for rivalry in the church because it causes strife and division. Christ’s Body must not be divided (1 Corinthians 1:10, 13). Instead of campaigning for ourselves, we are to serve one another the way Christ served us.

Have you ever done something out of selfish ambition that cost one of your brothers or sisters in Christ? While it’s likely you haven’t run a public smear campaign, maybe you have smeared someone’s name so that you could benefit from it. Whatever it is that you are after, it’s not worth competing if you have to divide God’s people to get it. 

If you’ve been competing with others, why not try a new approach to promotion? Instead of putting people down, why not serve them? The outcome will be a win-win for both parties.

This beats having to deal with the misery that comes from running a crooked campaign. 

Prayer: Dear Lord, it is my desire to love others the way you do. May nothing I undertake be out of selfish-ambition. Rather, help me to serve others with humility. 

Historical information: Sarah Pruitt, “Jefferson & Adams: Founding Frenemies.” History.com  (accessed July 21, 2019) and Kerwin Swint, “Adams vs. Jefferson: The Birth of Negative Campaigning in the U.S.” (accessed July 21, 2019).

Copyright © 2020 Rev. Chris Palmer, used with permission. Rev. Palmer's most recent book is Greek Word Study: 90 Ancient Words That Unlock Scripture

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