The long section of warning and specific exhortation was completed in what is our verse one of chapter four. Now follows a concluding series of general exhortations quite typical of the letters of the Apostle Paul, “a long string of loosely related commands.” [Silva, 191] This string begins, however, with an exhortation, even rebuke, that is unusually personal for Paul’s letters.
The fact that Paul felt it necessary to mention these women by name is some indication of how serious Paul took the situation to be in Philippi. The disunity in the church, to which these women obviously were contributing in some significant way, was a problem that had to be dealt with directly.
In our feminist day we have been made more conscious of the fact that church office was restricted to males in apostolic Christianity – ministers, elders and deacons were all men by the express testimony of the Scriptures – but from the beginning and still today there is no denying the influence that women have and will yield in a church. These women had proved their mettle in the work they had done by the apostle’s side in the cause of the gospel in Philippi. Some have suggested that they were deaconesses, an order of women church workers of which first mention may be Paul’s reference to the “list of widows,” in 1 Tim. 5:9 and which, in any case, we know existed in early Christianity. Deaconesses were not women deacons, as if they had that same office described in the New Testament – that is clear – but they were church workers with a definite status and calling. But we can’t even be sure of that, in the case of these two women, as we have no other information about them other than what Paul mentions here.
Verse 3 is replete with uncertainties. For example: who is Paul addressing with his words, “you, loyal yokefellow.” He may have been referring to Epaphroditus, mentioned earlier as the one carrying Paul’s letter back to Philippi, or to some other prominent leader in the Philippian church. Other scholars have suggested Silas or Luke. Clement of Alexandria, in the second century, even suggested that the reference was to Paul’s wife! What that surely indicates is how utterly impossible it is to know to whom Paul refers. Obviously the original hearers of the letter would have known whom Paul meant.
And who is Clement? Perhaps another prominent man in the church whose reputation is such that to mention him is to place the women in favorable company and to indicate once more the regard in which Paul held them. They must get over their quarrel but they remain women deserving of great respect.
In any case, Paul does not leave the women to overcome their dispute by themselves. He enlists others in the church to help them. This is a particularly fine example of the principle Paul expounds at length in 1 Cor. 12 that the church is like a human body, composed of many parts, each of which needs the other and is to serve the other.
In his great prayer, delivered in the upper room in the hearing of his apostles the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus asked his Father that his followers might be brought into complete unity “to let the world know that you sent me…” Real, heart-felt unity is something so difficult to achieve in this world, that to find it regularly among Christians would go a long way to proving the supernatural origin of the Christian life. In fact, Jesus said that the unity of Christians with one another will be like the unity of the Father and the Son in the internal communion of the Triune God. It is a breathtakingly extravagant expectation: that our harmony of heart and mind in the Christian church, our mutual love and regard would be such that unbelievers would be forced to account for it, forced to find an explanation for something so beautiful and otherwise so rare.
But, of course, it is not always so, is it? To our shame and to the discredit of the gospel, it has not always been so and it is not now always so. How many times have you heard an unbeliever, a non-Christian wonder aloud: how is it that those Christians love one another so? How is it that they get along so well and seem to enjoy one another so much and are so kindhearted even to those with whom they have substantial disagreements? How is it that they seem to feel that no matter what circumstances might otherwise divide or separate them, they are, at last, brothers and sisters and belong to the same family and that must always be clear? Would that such questions were always forced upon the consciousness of unbelievers.
But Paul himself had a disagreement with Barnabas – a man so given to kindness and so generous in his spirit that he was known as the “Son of Encouragement” – a disagreement so sharp that, at least for a time, they were unable to work together. Amazing, but true!
Jerome was a great man and a great Christian, but, as one biographer of Augustine bluntly put it, “it was as rare for [Jerome] to keep a friend as [it was] for Augustine to lose one.” And “About the only way Jerome could get lasting friends was posthumously.” [Garry Wills, Augustine, 85] Jerome lived long, long ago and we aren’t as likely to think of him as one of our heroes. But that is not the case with Samuel Rutherford. He is a representative Christian of the Reformed and Presbyterian type. No one spoke of Christian love more beautifully than Rutherford; no one practiced it more faithfully than Rutherford, at least in many cases. But Rutherford too found it difficult to preserve unity, even with some of his dearest friends, in the controversies that wracked the Scottish church near the end of his life. No one nowadays defends his unwillingness to take the Lord’s Supper together with his long time friend and fellow minister Robert Blair during one of those bitter controversies about Scottish politics. And you would be disappointed to hear the opinion that some very good men had of Samuel Rutherford in his day precisely because he was so adamant and unyielding in managing controversy. When Rutherford got sideways with someone it was very difficult for him to maintain Christian peace and unity.
And, of course, it isn’t always men. As here in Philippi, sometimes the women are the Christians who are hard to get along with and who create disunity. I remember reading of Mary Slessor, the celebrated Scottish missionary to West Africa, that her undoubted devotion to Christ and the gospel notwithstanding, she was a difficult woman to get along with, created tensions within the missionary community of which she was a part, and made it difficult for her fellow workers – those who knew her best and observed her life most closely – to love and admire her as much as did the Christian public back home.
And, of course, what has been true of the church’s celebrated men and women has been true countless times among ordinary Christians and Christian ministers like you and me. There are a few in this congregation who can remember the bitter divisions that wracked this church in the middle 1970s and produced a division that eventually devastated the church and left it a pale shadow of its former self. I came to Tacoma a year after that disunity had permanently divided the church and it was obvious to me how deeply divided people had been. Life-long friendships had been disrupted if not destroyed. People were not speaking or were scarcely speaking to people with whom they had shared life in this congregation for years. And, make no mistake, these were Christian people on both sides. No one was claiming that everyone on the other side was a hypocrite or an apostate. And, of course, anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time has seen the same kind of thing happen, often alas more than once. I’ve seen churches divided into warring parties; I’ve seen presbyteries fall into the same bitter division, and once I saw it happen in a General Assembly. And, times without number, I’ve seen individual Christians alienated from other Christians. I sat across the table yesterday from a Presbytery minister who spoke of discovering upon coming to his church antagonisms between members that had lasted for years.
And so it was in Philippi, as it had been in Corinth. Church members looking daggers at one another across the room, awkward encounters between former friends occurring before and after services, whispered conversations between allies about enemies. And now comes Paul saying quite publicly and even naming names: this must stop! You women must reconcile and the rest of you must help them do it.
The Christian church proclaims to the world not only that there is salvation and eternal life to be found in Jesus Christ, but that by following him, one’s life is transformed and one finds a power to live a truly good life of love. Peace, love, and joy – for which all human beings long – we say are found, truly and only and lastingly in Christ. And the world says, “Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed!” They look at a Christian church fractured into uncountable pieces and, naturally enough, ask “Where again is that peace and unity you Christians are supposed to be past masters of?”
To which challenge Christians can respond in only two ways.
- First, we say to the world: to our shame you are absolutely right. There is an evident and obvious failure on our part to practice unity in love. But we confess that failure as a sin. We admit that it is a betrayal of our principles. We know very well how much disunity in the church is the result of our own selfishness and pettiness. We don’t hide the fact. When the church’s harmony is troubled, it is very often, is it usually our fault, a failure to follow the Lord faithfully. The principles of our faith are proved by the open and ready acknowledgement of our culpable failure to live by them, by our embarrassment to have been caught in such a failure, and by our refusal to justify ourselves just as much as they are proved by the happy things that ensue when we are faithful to them.
- But then, Christians also can say: for all our miserable failures on this score, there is nothing in the world like the Christian church for the success it has demonstrated in surmounting obstacles to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. For all its sins, there is more harmony between the races, between the sexes, between socio-economic levels, between the peoples of the world in the church of Jesus Christ than you will find anywhere else. Much more. The Falls Church, Virginia Episcopal Church, a church so old and so prestigious that George Washington once sat on its building committee, for the sake of her biblical convictions and gospel principles just left the American Episcopal Church and placed itself under the jurisdiction of the Anglican archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola. Wealth submitting to poverty, the sophisticated West to the younger church of Africa, white to black. There is a unity and a harmony created by a shared loyalty to Jesus Christ that the world, I daresay, will find difficult to match! The church has too often failed to live up to its calling to live in loving harmony – we admit that and grieve over the fact, we are ashamed of ourselves! – but it has often and with a wonderful impressiveness practiced that harmony in ways that the world does not.
Paul faced the fact of the church’s failure to live in unity on several occasions in his ministry and addresses it here. In some respects he pays a compliment to the Philippian Christians and these two women by addressing the issue so bluntly. It is to the credit of the church that Paul felt free to speak so directly and it speaks to the maturity of these two women that he felt confident that he could address them by name and directly in what is manifestly a rebuke contained in a letter meant to be read to the church. How many unbelievers would heed an open rebuke such as Paul delivers here? How many would swallow their pride and put their disagreement aside to restore their unity? Paul obviously expects them to understand that this disunity must be put right come wind, come weather. He doesn’t take sides; he says the same thing to both women.
That is important to notice because obviously there was some issue that was dividing these women and presumably each woman thought that her viewpoint was correct. Paul does not say, however, “Here is my take on the dispute as Epaphroditus has explained it to me. I agree with Euodia about this and with Syntyche about that.” Obviously, if one of these women were denying the gospel, Paul would have responded differently. But he doesn’t seem to think it very important to settle the issue. That is not what concerns him. His exhortation to these women reads literally “to think the same thing,” but in context that doesn’t mean that they must come to an exact agreement about the particular issue that separates them. It means rather that they must become one in their attitude and one in the direction of their motives, as well as their words and deeds. Paul obviously thinks the unity of the church is more important than whatever had separated these two women from one another.
There are times when there must be division because the truth is at stake. Paul makes that clear elsewhere in his letters. But here that was not the case. Both of these women were Christians, both were dear to Paul on account of their history with him in gospel work, and their unity and loving harmony was more important to him – and should have been more important to them – than any issue that they might then have been arguing about. Remember, Paul once told the Corinthians – who were fighting among themselves and even taking one another to civil court – that they should rather be wronged, even cheated rather than to allow disunity to prevail in the church, and that they should die of embarrassment to see their disunity made visible to the unbelieving world.
But we do disagree with one another. We don’t always see eye to eye. What then is to be done to maintain our unity when, in fact, we disagree about something that is important to one or both of us? Well, the answer to that question is found in Paul’s exhortation to these women that they agree with each other in the Lord. That is, it is their common bond with Jesus Christ that is to override their personal disagreement. It is not a case of one having to convince the other, it is a case rather of both accepting that their relationship to Christ trumps their disharmony. Think of the many ways in which this would be so.
- Christ is the savior of us all, has given every Christian eternal life; we owe everything to him. It is obvious that his will, his interests must take precedence over our own. He wants his followers to love one another and live in harmony with one another. End of discussion.
- We are all sinners saved by grace. Insisting on our position, insisting on our being declared the winner in some dispute, is dishonoring to Christ who loved us and made himself nothing for us when we were utterly undeserving of his love. If Jesus had insisted on everyone knowing that he was in the right, we would all be going to hell. End of discussion.
- Christ is our king and master. He has commanded us not only to love one another but to go so far as to be kind to those who are unkind to us and to bless those who curse us as he was and as he did. End of discussion.
- Christ loves other believers as much as he loves us. If we love him we will love and respect those whom he loves. To love other Christians and to keep unity with them is simply to love Christ. End of discussion.
- Christ has called us to peace and told us that there is blessing for those who make peace among those who are estranged from one another. Making and keeping peace is therefore a priority for us all. End of discussion.
- Christ is our judge and has told us that he will hold us accountable for the lives we live each day and for the quality and character of our relationships. We will have to answer for every failure to maintain unity. What is more, the truth of any matter will eventually be seen by all. End of discussion.
- Christ has taught us that the influence of the gospel in the world will wax and wane according to how attractive Christians make the gospel by the witness of their lives. If Christians cannot get along with one another – with all that they have in common, all their shared commitments – then the gospel has been discredited before the world in a particularly harmful way. End of discussion.
- The blessing of other Christians is suspended upon the harmony of the church. The church cannot act like a body if the hand, the arm, and the shoulder are out of sorts with one another. We don’t get the good of one another – the good we all need – if we don’t live in loving harmony. We harm ourselves and others when we permit disunity among ourselves. End of discussion.
- We are going to heaven and we can find out then and there who was right and who was wrong; what is more, neither of us will care! End of discussion.
But someone says – someone with a nose for truth and conviction – what she said, what she did wasn’t right! I am right about this! Paul doesn’t care. We don’t care. It isn’t about you! It’s never about you. It’s about Christ and his will and his name and his cause in the world. It’s about his church and her life and love and harmony. And pipsqueaks like you arguing for your rights and your positions do not advance that name and that cause and that harmony.
But, perhaps, someone says, “What if those two women were arguing about something important? What if the issue were of material consequence to the welfare of the church?” “What if we were to know precisely what the dispute was about and we all were to agree with Euodia and not with Syntyche?” Well, says Paul, put your minds together and work out an acceptable compromise. That is why I didn’t leave this problem to the women alone to solve. Let the church help them come to an honorable solution. But, it will matter little one way or the other if you don’t preserve your love and unity. The church will not be helped to have done the right thing in the wrong way and to have injected into its life a root of bitterness. Unlove and disunity will prove more deadly to the church and its witness in the world than unwisdom at some point.
One looks back at certain points in church history and the heart aches over what might have been. You are all aware that the Reformation broke up into two large pieces – Reformed and Lutheran – as a result of disputes over the Lord’s Supper and, in particular, arcane debates about the presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. The key figures in that debate – the Reformation’s Euodia and Syntyche – were Martin Luther and John Calvin. When Calvin wrote his Little Treatise on the Lord’s Supper in 1540, with a view to resolving the controversy, Luther is reported to have said to a friend,
“This is certainly a learned and godly man, and I might well have entrusted this controversy to him from the beginning. If my opponents had done the same we should soon have been reconciled.”
But, provoked by others, Luther entered the fray again and quite harshly condemned the Swiss theologians. Nevertheless, Calvin counseled Bucer,
“Consider how great a man Luther is, and what excellent gifts he has; the strength of mind and resolute constancy, the skillfulness, efficiency and theological power he has used in devoting all his energies to overthrowing the reign of Antichrist and to spread far and near the teaching of salvation. I have often said that even if he were to call me a devil I should still regard him as an outstanding servant of God.” [T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 162-163]
But the yoke-fellows and Clements of the day did not help and the antagonism boiled over and the Reformation was divided, as it remains to this day. One cannot help but wonder what might have been had wiser, calmer heads prevailed; had men acted out of as desperate an urge to preserve unity as they did to preserve their understanding of a particularly sophisticated and complicated theological question, a question never even directly addressed in the Bible.
And how many times has the same thing happened, whether on a large scale or small, whether between large groups of Christians or individual Christians? Christians, for one reason or another, got sideways toward one another and the brethren did not insist that they fix the problem and live in loving unity with one another. And the vaunted reputation of the gospel of Christ lies in tatters trampled under the feet of believers running to one side or the other. No, brethren, it must not be!
Surely it is a remarkable thing that in this apostolic manifesto, the letter of Paul to the Philippians, he should descend to deal with a squabble between two otherwise unknown Christian women. Here in this wonderful letter the great apostle to the Gentiles sets out both the way of salvation in Christ and the heavenly calling of the Christian man and woman and he does so in language so memorable that it has left its mark on the world as few documents have. It is one of the great performances of ancient literature or any literature and one of the genuinely magisterial writings of the world. This letter to the Philippians is a greater accomplishment and a greater gift to the human race than all but a very few other human compositions. But before this letter ends its author calls out by name two women who are letting a disagreement between themselves spill out into the church.
We do not expect, for example, of a famous and profoundly influential treatise, such as the Declaration of Independence, that a stately beginning such as “When in the course of human events…” or such memorable and majestic lines as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…” should produce this conclusion: “and we definitely want John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to stop squabbling and get along with one another.” It would seem to us, would it not, a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous. But here we move from as sublime a passage as we may find in the Word of God and certainly in the literature of mere men – the Carmen Christi of chapter 2 – to the ridiculous – two squabbling women in chapter 4.
But, you see, this disharmony and Paul’s dealing with it is not really ridiculous at all. For if our embrace of Jesus Christ does not make us different in just this way – in the way we disagree with people, in the way we love them no matter what, in the way we preserve our unity in the face of temptations to anger and offense – then Christ has not made the difference in us and among us that he said he would. And if we leave matters in generalities and are unwilling to descend to the individual Christian, by name, we are unwilling then to say that gospel principles apply to our very own lives, our ordinary and day to day living. We are saying, are we not, that the gospel is not the wonderful power in real human life we claim it to be. No, Christians must not, will not say that!
Put matters right with any brother or sister with whom you are at odds for any reason. Over coffee or whatever, apologize and pledge your love and loyalty. And if you think it is more than you can manage to do well, ask someone else to help you. If you love Christ and aspire to follow him, you will do this; you will always do this. Look to him and he will help you because it is his will.