Sisters at War - The Clarification of Context
Updated: Feb 19, 2019
In my previous blog post, I spoke about the perils of proof texts and the importance of context. So this time around, I thought I would give a fuller example of the difference a close examination of the context can make.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, there is a reference to two warring sisters in Christ. There is no subtle nudge in their direction; they are specifically called out and named. Euodia and Syntyche (pronounced “Sin-TUHK-ay”) have a place in eternal Scripture due to their squabble.
I used to consider this verse, like so many others do, almost as an aside - personal issues for the Philippian church to wrap up the letter after the main theological discussion. Yet the rebuke is followed by some rich and renowned verses.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.
The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me - practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
These verses are so often taken alone, out of their context, and why not? Do they not shine magnificently enough on their own? As a result, they become proof texts for a broad range of occasions. Feeling down or grumbling? Read verse 4! Worrying about something? Verses 6 and 7 are your medicine! Is somebody at your church watching what you consider to be an inappropriate TV show? Simply throw verse 8 at the sinner!
I am not suggesting that, in isolation, verse 4 is of no value nor inaccurate. Who would dare argue that we should not rejoice in the Lord always? However, I do not think that these are the staccatoed succession of stand-alone statements that they might appear to be at first glance, nor do I think that Euodia and Syntyche are merely mentioned in passing.
The Clues are in the Context
If we go back to chapter 2 we find the central premise of the book. In the space of three verses he talks of “thinking” three times (though the verb “think” is typically translated with the noun “mind”). Firstly, he tells them to “complete his joy” by being of the “same mind” in 2:2, and, again in the same verse, being of “one mind”. They are to be thinking the same way. What way is that? Verses 3 and 4 clarify:
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” 
So this threefold repetition of “thinking” emphasises the importance for the entire congregation to engage in thinking in this astounding, radical way. A life of practical humility begins in the mind. Verse 5 clarifies that this is the thinking they are all supposed to all have, saying “have this mind among yourselves” and they are then told that such thinking is theirs “in Christ Jesus” - their status as Christians makes this their duty and the indwelling Holy Spirit makes it attainable for them.
What this humble thinking looks like practically is then seen in the most perfect of examples - Christ Jesus Himself, “who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
This glorious hymn of Christ begins with His willing humiliation, putting aside His majesty, His divine right as God, to become a man and ultimately to die a sinner’s death on the cross. This is our model. If He did this and we are His followers then we must follow this same path - to put aside our comforts, desires and rights in obedience to God and the service of others, even at great cost.
Then comes the glorious conclusion: “Therefore, God has highly exalted Him and bestowed upon Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The “therefore” is crucial. It is because of His humility that the Father has exalted the Son; it is because of his obedience that every knee will bow before Him. Jesus didn’t simply humble Himself in some mindless way, rather His emptying of Himself involved entrusting Himself to His loving Father. As a result His humiliation led to exaltation. And that is the way we are supposed to think. This is the “same mind” we are to have; the “one mind” we are to share. His way is our way.
Then at the end of chapter 3 Paul speaks of those thinking in an opposite way to the thinking of chapter 2. They seek their own satisfaction - “their god is their belly”. They don’t choose humility - “they glory in their shame”. So they won’t be exalted - “their end is destruction”. Why? Because they have their “minds set on earthly things”. They are thinking wrongly. They are seeking to satisfy themselves here and now in this life forgetting that their “citizenship is in Heaven” and that Christ will one day glorify them.
So What’s Really Happening in Philippians 4?
Now what does all this have to do with chapter 4? Well, when we get past Paul’s concluding statement in 4:1, we find these warring sisters in Christ and Paul urges them “to agree in the Lord” - literally, “to think the same thing in the Lord”. It is no coincidence that he repeats the importance of thinking the same way.
Now we know what this way of thinking looks like - it is the willingness to humble oneself entrusting ourselves to God just as Christ did in His humiliation. Paul is not telling them simply to agree with one another on a point of contention - the solution to their fight is found by them thinking like Christ did and being willing to lose out, suffer harm, be taken advantage of and be humiliated just as He was, thinking more of each other than themselves, and trusting God with the outcome.
It seems to me that this is no mere passing reference to these ladies, but the very thing Paul has been building up to. Perhaps their fight has so disrupted the church that it was the primary reason to write the letter. After all, it was to be read out loud to the whole church - this conflict was clearly no secret. The women had been co-workers in the gospel with Paul and now needed the “true companion” to come alongside them and help them to change their way of thinking. All of this is enlightening enough in and of itself, but let’s see how much clearer those famous following verses we began with become in light of this context.
It is in the midst of conflict, with a focus on earthly things, that the call comes to rejoice in the Lord - to rejoice in what He has done and with the empowerment He provides by His Spirit. There should be no determination to focus on one’s own rights and well being, but rather a reasonableness that is evident to all. God is at hand and He can be trusted so rather than fighting for their cause, anxious of the consequences of being the wounded party, they should cast their cares on their heavenly Father. As they trust Him they will experience God’s peace that surpasses understanding and that will guard their minds - that peace will enable them to continue thinking the right way. The church’s thinking  (these sisters included)  should be on those things that are true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable and worthy of praise. I see this not referring in context to what we read or watch, but rather focusing on the right way to live even when we lose out here and now as a consequence. Perhaps it is even an exhortation for them to see in each other that which is commendable and worthy of praise rather than embracing the all consuming negativity that so often accompanies conflict. Do you see how these verses come alive in a whole new way in their context? Seeing their connection to these women brings a whole new light to them.
This Changes Everything!
So, you see, Paul did not briefly brush aside some minor conflict in passing, embarrassing them publically in the process, telling them to simply come to some form of agreement. Rather he uses the example of Christ to model for them, and for us, a specific way of thinking - putting others before us, being willing to “lose” and suffer, all the while trusting God to make all things right. And He will, in this life or the next.
Oh, that we would live this way, church! How this would transform our congregations, our homes and our marriages?
Pastor Anthony's sermons teaching through the book of Philippians can be found here.
Philippians 4:3 (ESV)
Philippians 4:4-9 (ESV)
Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)
Philippians 2:6-8 (ESV)
Philippians 2:9-11 (ESV)
Philippians 3:19 (ESV)
Philippians 3:20 (ESV)
Philippians 4:3 (ESV)
Philippians 4:5 (ESV)
Philippians 4:6 (ESV)
Philippians 4:7 (ESV)
Actually a different word used here - “consider” - but the conceptual link is still there.
Given the context, I really do think translations should have “brothers and sisters”- the greek encompasses both genders.
Philippians 4:8 (ESV)