Paul risked his life to found the first European church in Philippi (Acts 16:12-40). Later, he wrote the church a letter from prison (Philippians 1:13) preserved in the New Testament as Philippians. The Philippian church served as a source of constant joy for Paul (Philippians 1:4). Even so, in Philippians’ fourth and final chapter, contention between two women, Euodia and Syntyche, concerned Paul enough for him to address it publicly (Philippians 4:2). Even in the best of churches there can be (and usually is) dissension.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. (Philippians 4:2, NASB)This marks the only time Euodia and Syntyche appear in the Bible and their history is as vague as the nature of their argument. They and their squabble were prominent enough to reach Paul and affect the church’s cohesion.
Modern parishioners have a reasonable expectation that they will not be named for their sins from the pulpit. Jesus too advises handling conflict first privately, then with “one or two others”, and finally to take the matter before the community as a last resort (Matthew 18:15-20). By the time Paul intercedes, the feud has already escalated as evidenced by his mere knowledge of it. The dispute is no longer private making Paul’s public petition justified.
What do you think Euodia and Syntyche argued over? What church divisions have you seen? What is the pettiest church dispute you have ever witnessed or heard of?
Paul does not take sides in the dispute as his concern is harmony. Paul typically stressed unity (I Corinthians 1:10, 12:25; Ephesians 4:3,13). Ironically (and tragically), most major schisms in the church have disseminated from Paul’s writings.
Unity is critical to Christian identity. Jesus urges us to make peace with our fellow Christians even before going to the altar (Matthew 5:23-24). He also said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35, NASB).” The early church was so noted for their love that Tertullian (160-220) observed pagans identifying Christians by commenting, “See how they love one another” (Apology 39.6) . Could the same be said today?
Paul enlists help in arbitrating the dispute (Philippians 4:3) as unity takes the entire church working together. Paul also advises the women to agree “in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2). If we cannot agree for our own sakes, we ought to cooperate for God’s.
We cannot be certain that Paul’s intercession was effective but there is hope. Writing in the second century, Polycarp (69-155) writes the same Philippian church, “I rejoice also that your firmly rooted faith, renowned since early days, endures to the present and produces fruit for our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Polycarp to the Philippians 1:2). At the very least, the church and its reputation survived the conflict.
Who do you need to make peace with?
“The kingdom of God rises and falls on what happens between Euodia and Syntyche; on how well or poorly we are able to embody, in our everyday, ordinary little lives, the love of Christ.” - Will Willimon(b. 1946)1
1Marianne Niesen (2009, February 22), “Euodia and Syntyche.” Sermon presented at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Helena, MT.