Sisters in conflict.
I was asked to give a devotional at our church’s women’s fellowship a few weeks ago. As I spent time praying and and thinking about how I could encourage the women in our church, the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3) pressed on my heart. I know how divisive and cancerous these conflicts can become. And I know my own heart and capacity for sin too well.
This devotional is by no means exhaustive, but I wanted to share some kernels I gathered from my time in this study. I’ll start big picture and work my way into the text and down our hearts.
A Little Background
Paul wrote the book of Philippians, the letter to the Philippian church, from prison in Rome. A letter from Paul in prison! That fact alone probably perked their ears and softened their hearts. His tone is joyful, content, passionate.
The letter is punctuated with joyful and longing looks to Christ and Heaven, because he felt the weight of the surpassing worth of Christ in his life, in his soul, in his heart. His heart yearned for Christ. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (1:21-23) But he knew he would be released from prison and continue in ministry for some time more.
He desired to be useful to his Master here on earth, but his heart longed to be with Him.
This theme of focused, unified earthly ministry in light of eternity runs deep through this letter. Everything seems to be weighed in contrast to the hope and glory and joy of Christ and being with Him. And given this hope and glory and joy, he says, let’s be united in Christ, ministering side by side for the sake of the gospel. Nothing else matters.
The Philippian Church
The gospel was preached first to the women in Philippi, among whom was Lydia (Acts 16:11-15). She and her household believed, and the church later met in her home.
And among those in the church were Euodia and Syntyche. Paul referred to these two as women who “labored side by side” with him in the gospel (Phil. 4:3). It was no light thing to labor in the gospel with the Apostle Paul. They likely labored alongside him amidst much persecution and opposition (remember he was in prison?).
They were likely influential women in the life of the church, prominent in the work of ministry there.
Euodia and Syntyche’s Conflict
We don’t know the exact nature of their conflict, because Paul didn’t address the particulars in his letter. It probably wasn’t theological, where one was preaching a false gospel or distorting Scripture, otherwise Paul would have clearly corrected the one in wrong. So, as most scholars and commentators conclude, the conflict was likely personal in nature.
(And really, as women, don’t we know the myriad of conflicts that can arise between us? Even between sisters in Christ who have labored side by side for the gospel?)
Given the ongoing, unresolved conflict, news of which has reached Paul even as he sat in his prison cell, Paul “entreats” them to “agree in the Lord” (4:2). He entreats them to be of the same mind in the Lord.
Easier said than done. How do you ask two women in sharp, divisive conflict to be of the same mind?
By reminding them of Christ. By reminding them that they are to be in agreement in Him. Not earthly compromise or negotiation but heavenly wisdom and harmony.
Euodia and Syntyche’s Lord and Savior humbled Himself as a bondservant and obeyed God even to the point of an unjust death on the Cross (Phil. 2:1-8). Why? Because He had a single mind and heart for the glory and joy of His Father.
And it’s as if Paul is saying, “How about you, Euodia and Syntyche? Remember Jesus Christ your Lord? Can you also posture as a bondservant? Can you also obey God even to the point of what may seem humiliating and unjust? Remember how He laid aside His human agenda for God’s purposes? Can you do the same?”
Paul’s appeal also sits on the shoulder of the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus. Timothy sought the welfare of the church and the interests of Christ rather than his own (2:20-21). Epaphroditus risked his life and nearly died for the work of Christ (2:29-30).
So when he addresses these two sisters in conflict, it’s again like he’s saying, “I’m in prison, Christ gave His life, Timothy put his self-interests to death, and Epaphroditus almost died for the work of Christ … Can you also die to yourselves for the sake of Christ and His work?
“Can you lay aside your rights, interests, and grievances and put on the mind of Christ, the mind of a bondservant completely given for God and His kingdom agenda?
“Rather than sowing discord in the church with your unresolved conflict, can you die to your personal agendas? Can you humble yourselves?
“Remember you are my co-laborers? Remember you love Christ? Remember He is your very life? Remember His example and ours? Can you lay low and be at peace with one another?
“Rather than striving with each other, can you once again strive side by side for what really counts — God’s glory in gospel ministry?”
This was no small matter. Their conflict turned into unconfessed, unrepentant relational sin. Satan had a foothold. Left unchecked, it could slowly tear the church apart. It could hinder the gospel witness and ministry of the church. This wasn’t a petty disagreement anymore. This was becoming demonic.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” (James 4:1-2)
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:13-18)
Paul’s Call for Others To Be Peacemakers
Repentance and reconciliation between Euodia and Syntyche were so important that Paul also called for his “true companion” and Clement and the rest of his “fellow workers” at the church to “help these women” (Phil. 4:3).
Guys, this is so important. Please help these women. Don’t brush this aside as a petty dispute or simple matter between the women. This is so important to work out together.
Gospel ministry includes reconciliation and peacemaking between brothers and sisters in Christ, too. Because how can we say we are in the work of beseeching others to be reconciled to God in Christ when we who are in Christ cannot even be reconciled with each other?
This is important to the unity and effectiveness of the church. This was so important that Paul singled them out in his letter.
And I trust they took Paul’s words to heart, remembering they weren’t enslaved to their sin and passions anymore, and were reconciled by the power of the Spirit working in their lives.
But what about us? What about our sister relationships?
Do we value the unity we have in Christ? Do we value the sisterhood that has been purchased by Christ’s death? Is there a Euodia or Syntyche in our lives? Have we cherished any unconfessed, unrepentant relational sin in our hearts?
We women can be so subtle and sophisticated in our cattiness, rivalry with one another, and expressions of displeasure or disagreement. Comparison, jealousy, rivalry, pride, self-righteousness … we can be so subtle in our expressions of sin, especially for those of us who purport to be part of a church that holds Scripture high. We know the standards of Scripture, so we become even more cunning in our sins against each other.
Ugh, she’s so conceited.
Ugh, she’s so annoying.
Ugh, she’s so flaky.
Ugh, her kids are so crazy, and she doesn’t raise them right like I would.
Ugh, she’s so bossy and opinionated.
Ugh, she prays for show.
Ugh, she’s so passive aggressive.
Ugh, she’s so worldly.
Ugh, she’s not pretty enough to be my friend.
Or ugh, she’s too pretty to be my friend.
Ugh, why does she get to have it all?
Ugh, she’s not the kind of person I click with.
Ugh, she’s so flirtatious.
Ugh, she’s so hard to talk to, to love, to serve, etc.
Ugh, she always wants to be in charge.
Our whispering, complaints, side comments to each other, to our “besties,” to our spouses. Our gossiping, our sizing each other up. Isn’t this earthly, unspiritual, demonic?
And what about Christ? Is living truly Christ? Is dying truly gain? Do we share His mind to consider others above ourselves? Are we among those who seek after their own interests, or do we seek the welfare of the church, the interests of Christ?
Is there genuine love and unity as sisters in Christ? Are we truly for each other, laying down our lives for each other, pursuing true peace and love at all costs, dying to ourselves? Do you seek unity with your sisters? Do you seek to be a peacemaker between other sisters, or do you perpetuate the sins of conceit, pride, and bitterness? Do you cherish your cliques, factions, and small armies that wage war against each other?
Would you destroy gospel witness and work for the sake of your pride? Are your reputation and opinions of more importance than the work of reconciliation that Christ died for?
I pray no, no, no.
These are no small matters.
The unity of the church (for whom Christ died!) is at stake. The effectiveness of gospel ministry is at stake. Lives, souls are at stake. God’s name and reputation are at stake. The health of the church, God’s vehicle for missions and the visible body of Christ to a hell-bound world, is at stake.
As far as it depends on us, and with the help and accountability of other, faithful believers and sisters in the church, let’s fight our flesh and pride (not each other!) that we might be of the same mind.
Dear sister, if this is you — a woman in chronic conflict, cherishing selfish ambition — hear Christ’s appeal through Paul today: I entreat you, agree in the Lord.