How you deal with conflict has really stepped to the fore on the world stage this week. The whole North Korea, US conflict, with threat and counter threat. Watching it unfold has been like watching one of those fence wire strainers, ratcheting up the tension, and if it’s not handled properly and the tension keeps mounting at some stage things are going to break. Neither side seem capable of stepping away from their sabre rattling postures, when the rattle we hear is not swords in scabbards but nuclear missiles in silos it’s frightening. We can see the potential destruction that unresolved conflicts between entrenched positions can inflict.
Mahatma Ghandi said that “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but being able to cope with it”.
Ronald Regan went a step further and said “ Peace is not the absence of conflict, but being able to deal with it by peaceful means”.
The Church is not immune to conflict, sadly we are a very human institution and have been full of all kinds of conflict, over all kinds of issues at all kinds of levels. The challenge is how do we resolve those. Our witness to Jesus Christ in the world around us is that we can resolve those conflicts in a Christlike manner. It is part of the hope we bring to our hurting world. In the passage, we had read out today, Paul deals with a conflict between two people in the church at Philippi, two church leaders whose conflict is having an adverse effect on church unity and joy and its ability to witness to Christ and it gives us some helpful insights on conflict resolution: The hope for peace in being Christlike in the midst of a catfight.
This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, a letter he has written to thank them for support and financial assistance while he is in prison. A letter where he takes the opportunity to encourage his readers to stand firm in their faith, in the face of opposition from without and trouble within. For Paul this standing firm is not teeth gritted, white knuckle hanging on for dear life rather it is knowing the fullness of Joy, a word he uses sixteen times in this epistle, in Jesus Christ. encouragement not just for his readers then and there but also for us here and now.
The passage we are looking at today starts with Paul rounding off the section he had started way back in chapter 1 v 27 when he had told the church to stand firm together for the gospel. Then moved on talk of the importance of Christian unity for that joy and having the mind of Christ as the attitude to achieve that unity: Putting the other persons needs above our own. He finishes with the same language to address his readers as he started. Calling them brothers and sisters, the basis of their unity is that they are family through the life and death of Jesus Christ. He calls them beloved; in the NIV it’s translated “you whom I love and long for”, that theological basis for unity also has a practical person outworking in his brotherly love for them. There is a future element as well, that he sees them as his Joy and crown, that they are the proof of the gospel’s effectiveness through him. Because of those things he extols them to stand firm in the Lord.
This section starts with a therefore, which connects it back to what has gone before but also signals a change in the letter. In all Paul’s letters there is a therefore, where he moves from theology to ethics. From belief to behaviour. From the principles of the faith to the practise of faith. From proclamation of the gospel to practically living it out. Paul applies all he has said in this letter so far to a very specific situation. A conflict between two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche.
We don’t know what the conflict between these two women is, it could be theological as Paul had talked of the false teaching of the Judaisers, maybe one of them was starting to be prone to this ‘Christ Plus” teaching. Way back at the beginning of his letter he had talked of people having different reasons and motives for sharing the gospel, they may have had a conflict over how the gospel was to be done in Philippi. It could have been personal we don’t know. I wondered if it may have something to do with their names which eman "success" and "lucky" in English, one maybe a very organised deteremined process person, the other a more intuitive, go with the flow, pull it all together at the last minute person... But it was effecting the Church, because these women were in leadership roles. Paul addresses them as co-workers who had contended at his side for the gospel, along with a person named Clement who we only meet in passing here. We know that they have suffered for the gospel because Paul tells us their names are written in the book of life, which in scripture is used to talk of people who have faced persecution.
Before we look at conflict resolution it is important to look at Euodia and Syntyche, because they are part of what Gordon Fee calls the “mute” evidence of women in leadership in the New Testament. It’s important that we hear their story.
Firstly, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Women in leadership in the church at Philippi, Macedonia was one of the places in the ancient world where women were accepted into the public realm, they owned property and contributed to public life and the economy. Statues in Macedonia have been found honouring women for their contribution. The Church at Philippi started with Lydia, a women of great means who was a saler of purple cloth. There was no Synagogue in Philippi, which means that there were not many jewish men in the city, so Paul goes and finds a place of prayer down by the river and Lydia a gentile god fearer is there and she is leading that group. Lydia becomes a believer and leader in the Church, at least its patron, as a rich woman she would have had a house where a large group could gather and meet. The next story of Paul’s time in Philippi recorded in acts is where Paul delivers a women who is being exploited for money as a fortune teller. The church at Philippi tarts as a women’s story.
We don’t know Eoudia and Syntyche’s story but we do know they were involved in evangelism with Paul. Sadly with the church becoming more and more an institution it becomes male dominated and their stories got lost. In fact early translations of Paul’s letter from the Greek actually put a masculine ending on these Greek names. The translators were not comfortable with women in leadership roles in the church. It’s the same as in Romans 16 where many women are mentioned and for centuries Junia which is a women’s name and who is said to be an apostle had her name changed to have a masculine ending. It is a great blight on the Church that they moved away from this acceptance of women in leadership, that they came to reflect the culture around them rather than the gospel and the example of people like Paul and the Church at Philippi. It is only recently that we have begun to change, it’s a continuing blemish that there is still a long way to go.
Paul didn’t have these issues, yes there are texts that need to be wrestled with like Timothy 2:11-15 which has been used to deny Women the ability to teach and lead in Church, but from Philippians and Romans and Acts we see Paul valued and loved his women co-workers. In the passage we are looking at today it seems the church leadership was a balance of men and women. The way he deals with the conflict that they are having reflects the high regard he has for them. He does not put them down for their conflict, suggest it’s because they are women, in fact we know from Acts that Paul himself had had a conflict with his co-worker and his mentor Barnabas over the suitability of John Mark to go with them on the missionary trip that lead to Paul going to Philippi, we have evidence that while he was in prison that conflict was resolved as in 2 Timothy 2, he asks Timothy to bring John Mark with him when he comes as he is useful to me. We know from Ephesians 2 that Paul had had a conflict with Peter as well that had threatened the Christian witness and had to be resolved. Paul knows from painful personal experience about the impact that conflict can have on the witness of the Gospel.
That leads us back to conflict resolution.
The first thing to note is that Paul’s motivation for the resolution for this conflict is his love for those involved and his commitment to a higher common good. We saw it in the way he addresses the church at the start of this passage. These two things are the basis for conflict resolution, having a common higher good and a commitment to the good of those involved.
Paul deals with the problem in a timely manner, it’s not left to get worse and worse. The breakdown of their relationship hasn’t got to the point where Paul has had to speak to the church about factions as he had to the church in Corinth or where they have taken each other before civil courts like had happened in Corinth. Paul’s teaching in chapter 2 on grumbling and arguing may have been a reference to the effect this conflict was starting to have and that it was bubbling away under the surface.
To the Church at Ephesus Paul had given the command not to let the sun go down on their anger, but to seek to be reconciled. Athletes will talk about muscle memory, that by continually repeating actions that the body then does them automatically, by reflex. The heart is a muscle as well and if we keep turning away from someone we are in conflict it will that action can become instinctive. In Exodus it talks of pharaoh hardening his heart, over and over again refusing to let the people of Israel go. Then finally it says God hardened his heart. That hardening of heart leads to greater and greater disaster for pharaoh and his people. We need to deal with conflict in a timely manner.
Paul does not take sides or associate blame in this conflict. He treats each women the same. He address the two women individually and identically. I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche. There is an impartiality which hopefully enables them to hear what he has to say. In conflict resolution that impartiality is important. Much of the talk before the super rugby final last week between the crusaders and the Kings was that the ref was going to be South African rather than a neutral referee. Was he going to be fair. I don’t want to start a conflict here, but TVNZ announced this week that Mike Hosking is going to adjudicate the leaders debates on TV in the run up to the election and there has been an outcry that he is biased, his political views are well known. When dealing with conflicts maintaining impartiality, and love and respect for each party is important.
Paul’s plea to them is that they might have the mind of Christ. He had articulated what he meant by that, that Christ while being equal with God, did not deem it something to be held onto, but emptied himself and took on the nature of a human being, became a servant, obedient even unto death, death on a cross. In conflict resolution Paul is not giving them an answer rather he is pleading with them to adopt an attitude or pasture where by the issue can be resolved and the relationship mended. In a marriage, even a good marriage, there is that uncomfortable silence after an argument, which ironically seems just so loud, and no-body is prepared to start the healing process. “I’m right! I’m not going to say sorry, I’ve done nothing wrong…” where it needs someone to go first for the sake of the relationship. Not to always simply give in but start the process of talking again and getting it sorted. I love the illustration from the marriage course of sitting together on the couch and getting the issue out on the table in front of you, not between you.
The other thing that Paul does in this situation is he asks a person, whom we simply know as the true companion, to help these women be reconciled. When we are conflict it’s hard to see the way forward and it is often in those situations that we need a third party to facilitate a way forward. It is easy to want to come in with an answer and a solution, but that probably has more to do with our personality rather than what is needed. The picture from scripture that fits here is what Jesus calls the Holy Spirit… the councillor, the advocate, the friend with training who comes alongside. We need people who are willing to train in mediation and reconciliation. The blessed peacemakers of the beatitudes. The ultimate example of a mediator for us is Jesus Christ… who reconciled us with God.
One of the most frustrating things about biblical scholarship is we only get a glimpse into the life of the early Church, we are left wondering about the outcome of this conflict, just as we are unaware of the substance of this conflict or the name of the person who is asked to help out. But that leaves the story open for our story. We can find ourselves in this story. Alongside Euodia and Syntyche in conflict with relationships tearing or broken, we can hear Pauls Plea to adopt the mind of Christ. But all of us can hear Paul’s plea to be a true companion, to be the Holy Spirit’s agent to come alongside and help, to be a peacemaker. Our witness is not to be perfect but to stand firm in our faith, which does not mean an absence of conflict but that we cope with it, not just in a peaceful way but a Christlike way. A witness that can then speak to the wider issues of this world.