“…idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies…”
People who have “selfish ambitions” use intrigue to accomplish their means. They want to put themselves forward above everything else. In doing this, they foster a partisan and fractious spirit with others. Aristotle used this word in referring to the self-seeking pursuit of political office by the manipulation of unfair means.
Paul used “selfish ambitions” for resentment based on jealousy. Paul’s antagonists viewed him as a rival. They tried to exercise one-upmanship with Paul. They wanted to be seen as better and bigger than Paul. They were in the ministry to aggrandize themselves. Of the seven occurrences of this word, Paul uses it three times for conflict within the church (2 Corinthians 12:20; Philippians 1:16; Philippians 2:3).
“Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice” (Philippians 1:15-18).
The sin of “selfish ambition” is the sin of personal ambition pursued at the cost of others.
We live in a self-oriented society. Everyone wants to put himself or herself forward. People desire distinction, even if it means manipulating others. They cannot bear the thought of being the same as someone else. They want people to rally around them at any cost.
“Selfish ambition” is the sin of schism for selfish purposes. People who commit this sin will organize factions by bringing in friends to back them up with an idea. People naturally take the position of their friends. This is group antagonism. Instead of two people standing in antagonism with each other, now you have two groups in antagonism to each other.
This is another perversion of righteous indignation. As some politicians care for nothing but their own career, some Christians will do anything to advance their careers, regardless of whether it may hurt others and shred their own integrity.
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Some people are in ministry for what they can get out of it. They do not stop at causing division in a church if it advances their interests. This is ambition at the cost of church unity. The rivalry is more important to them than the cause of Christ. Some people serve on boards to make a name. They serve for power. Jesus rarely blesses a ministry of manipulation.
As M. R. DeHaan, the founder of the Radio Bible Class, said, “You can explode a whole case of dynamite on top of a rock without doing much more damage than making a nose, but bore a hole into the heart of the rock and insert only one stick of dynamite, and you can blow that rock to ‘smithereens.’” Sin within the church causes far more damage than sin against the church.