Philippians 4:1-9

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on October 15, 2017.

In church life, we often shy away from naming names. Our general practice is to discuss church problems in vague sometimes passive-aggressive terms and hope that the offending parties recognize themselves in the critique. However, there are times when we must name names for the good of the church body, to motivate change and promote unity and peace. In the lectionary passage for this week, Paul decides it is time to name names.

Paul very rarely mentions individuals in his letters unless he is using them as examples and/or including them in his travel plans (as we see in the case of Timothy and Epaphroditus in this letter). Yet here, in 4:2-3, Paul directly addresses the situation of two women, Euodia and Syntyche with an exhortative plea. We can conclude several things from this rarity: first, the problem that Paul refers to must have the potential to affect the entire church at Philippi; second, the problem will soon become destructive for the church, probably because it undermines what he has focused on in this letter—unity in the body; and third, the women he mentions must be important in the Philippian community of believers.

Considering these conclusions, the most likely background to this passage is that Euodia and Syntyche are leaders in the church having a quarrel that is threatening the peace and unity of the entire church at Philippi. Internal and external details support this view. Internal to the letter is the detail that Paul has already singled out the leaders of the church; the beginning of Philippians includes the unique address in 1:1, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons…” (emphasis mine). In no other Pauline epistle do we see this type of address and it likely points to the fact that Paul wants the leaders in the church to take special notice of his message because he will address them later. He also describes Euodia and Syntyche as his co-workers, who struggled beside him in the work of the Gospel (4:3).

The external cultural circumstances also support such a reconstruction. In Greco-Roman letter writing, it was considered bad practice to address women by their names in the body of a letter. The fact that Paul ignores this convention and mentions these women by name signals that they are prominent figures in the church and in Philippi. Also, historical evidence indicates that women in Macedonia often held leadership positions in Greek religious life. It would not be a stretch to see women leaders in the Philippian church, which had a significant Greek population, especially considering the role women played in the founding of the Philippian church (see Acts 16).

Accepting the view that Euodia and Syntyche were key leaders in the church helps us understand the significance of Paul’s plea in 4:2-3. Here, Paul is gentle with his co-laborers—he does not command them in the imperative but instead counsels them individually toward unity (“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche”). However, he also underscores just how vital harmonious leadership can be to the health of a church body–he repeats his universal exhortation from 2:2 to “be of the same mind,” so that the women realize that any disagreement they have trickles down, threatening the unity of the entire church at Philippi.

After addressing the discord between Euodia and Syntech in 4:2-3, Paul repeats his command from 3:1 to rejoice in the Lord. The exhortations that follow further the theme of unity that has dominated the letter. He has instructed the leaders how to attain unity, and now he gives sage advice to all the believers about how to maintain unity in the body. Rejoice with an eye toward what God is doing, he says, whether your situation is difficult or easy. Practice gentleness in your interactions with others, and it will be contagious. Pray with an attitude of thanksgiving instead of being anxious, for whoever recognizes the blessings in life will not be mired down with the smaller worries. Peace in your hearts and minds, he writes, will result when your focus is on gratitude and joy rather than struggles and strife. His final advice, then, recounts the qualities that should characterize believers—truth, honor, justice, virtue, excellence, and optimism. He urges the Philippians to see those qualities in his actions and attitudes so that they can emulate him as he imitates Christ. Unity and peace are within their grasp if they can do what they have seen in him.

Contemporary church leaders can learn a deep and abiding lesson from this short passage. Dissention among church leaders will eventually affect the ministries of the church and set a bad example for members of the church. So many of our quarrels and disagreements could be solved quickly and quietly if we take the advice that Paul has been driving home throughout the letter—be like Christ in his humility and sacrifice. That is the key to unity among members and unity in the body. The situation of Euodia and Syntyche illustrates what can happen if we look to our own interests and not to the interest of others (see 2:4) but it is never too late to achieve the “same mind” and the “same love” if we rejoice, be thankful, pray towards peace, and imitate the life of Christ and his servant Paul.

 

 

Jennifer Garcia Bashaw, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of New Testament and Christian Ministry
Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC
bashaw@campbell.edu

 

 

 

Tags: Unity, Leaders, Disagreements, Humility, Peace, Euodia, Syntyche, Women in Church Leadership

 

 

 

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