Feud and the bitter consequences of rivalry in the church

I have been watching Feud on the BBC iPlayer. It documents the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It focuses on their work together during the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and its aftermath.

There are several themes running through the programme. There is the need for film stars to be the centre of attention; the difficulties for women in film at the time; the reality of ageing in an industry obsessed with youth; and the inherent nature of comparison, rivalry and power games. It ultimately documents two one-time glamourous doyennes of the silver screen whose stars were fading fast and despised the attention granted to the other.

The programme is instructive for how problems can arise within the church. All too often, we are not content to simply serve quietly and faithfully but demand the glory and attention that attends certain forms of service. Comparing ourselves to others can also lead us to make much of ourselves and do others down. There is something perverse in us that feels good when our friends fail – it makes us feel big in comparison – and conversely hates it when they do well. As Morrissey once sang, ‘we hate it when our friends become successful (and, if your Northern, it’s even worse)’. It is so easy to fall into rivalries and play power games. We want people to know we are something – whether by making much of ourselves or making others small.

We are, by nature, proud people. We think too highly of ourselves and we believe others don’t think of us highly enough. We discuss the foibles of others, assuming that nobody would do the same to us. We plot and scheme, all in a bid to make much of ourselves. We either build ourselves up or tear others down all in the desperate hope that it will make us seem big in the eyes of others. We can even convince ourselves that God’s glory is tied up inextricably with our own.

We may not know why Euodia and Syntyche fell out, but we can have a guess at how their feud continued to such a degree that word got back to Paul about it. Gossip not only serves as a vehicle for information others don’t need to know but handily takes the spotlight away from us and focuses on the failings of others instead. We lap it up because nobody is looking at us and, in the process, we feel great because we wouldn’t dream of doing that or behaving like them.

Paul anticipates addressing the problem with that great passage in Philippians 2:1-11. He later, in chapter 4, calls the whole church to help these women reconcile. How can they effect reconciliation? By refusing to join a faction, by not giving an ear to gossip and by pointing people to scripture and asking, ‘what does it say about this?’ All the more, by pointing to Christ; calling those who claim to love Jesus to emulate him by putting aside their preferences and Christian liberty for the sake of others.

The story of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis feud shows us the bitter consequences of selfish ambition and rivalry. It shows how it leads to loneliness and loss of any dignity to which we may have once clung. The gospel, by contrast, points us to the great consequences of serving the glory of God and setting aside our ambition in favour of making Jesus known. It is one of those paradoxes of scripture that those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will find it. Those who forget their own reputation and serve the glory of God will find themselves glorified. Those who would be first shall, in fact, find themselves last.