Doctrine, Liberty, and Attitude

Paul does not take a side in the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3). This action, or lack of action speaks volumes to me. He doesn’t seem to care that individuals are offended. Instead the health of the whole church is what really matters. Unity is more important than being right. Besides, the feud was not over doctrine. We know this because Paul takes sides on doctrine. Secondly, the feud was not over Christian liberty. Had these women been arguing over serving meat sacrificed to idols at the next church pot luck, Paul would have taken a side (1 Corinthians 8). He would have told the meat eaters that they can enjoy it at home, but don’t throw it in the face of weaker brothers who abstain. It appears these women really had attitude problems. Left unchecked this can become a church wide issue. Unfortunately Christians are experts at sharing their concerns with everyone except the person in question. Apparently everyone knew about the tension, even Paul in Rome. Church members were taking sides, revealing how most churches split because of attitude problems, not doctrinal ones. The argument was literally over nothing, but had the power to take down everything.

Name Dropping

Imagine if your name appeared in the Bible for something important (or unimportant for that matter). How do you resist the urge to name drop yourself. If you were a pastor you’d likely preach that book frequently. Your kids and grandkids would be known as your descendants until they had accomplished something on their own to eclipse your accomplishment (good luck). Now imagine how you’d feel if some well meaning monk in the middle ages saw your proper name in Greek and translated the meaning of it instead of leaving it as a name. Apparently this is what happened to Syzygus. Who is Syzygus? Exactly. The proper name has been dropped. Instead the translation of the name appears as “companion” or “yokefellow” in Philippians 4:3. This puzzling omission is such a humbling lesson. It just reminds me how unimportant we really are (Galatians 6:3). Ministry, church, Scripture, culture, history, and virtually everything else going on right now is not about us. The Bible is about God and his name, and the only book that matters for us when it comes to being mentioned is the Book of Life.

Unity versus Unison

There is a big difference between unity and unison. The dictionary defines unison as simultaneous performance of an action or utterance of speech. It means that everyone is in perfect agreement on what the next note should be, and when to sing it. We need to ask if this what the writers of New Testament have in mind when they talk about unity. I seriously doubt it. Christians in fact perform different actions, utter different speech, enjoy different liberties, where different clothes, have different hair, like different music, belong to different denominations, and so on. By divine design they fuse together to bring dynamic vibrancy to the Body of Christ. We are a unified organism of individual and complementary parts. The infinite creativity of God is put on display in the various species of Christians you run into every day if your circles go wide enough. The simple fact that God has plucked from destruction the elect of every nation, tribe, people and language (Revelation 7:9) demands a speckled congregation. There is glory in assortment. Therefore, we don’t resist conformity to the world in favor of conformity to the opinion of others. Instead unity embraces the complex results of a global gospel.

Transfer of Ownership

Whenever Paul uses the phrase “in the Lord”, he is talking about the Lordship of Christ in the life of a real believer. We were once our own (or thought we were), but now we are bought with a price and owned by God in a special way. In essence we sign over the deed to our life in exchange for everything that will be given to us in Heaven. The consequences include a joyful abdication of pursuing our rights, dues, and opportunity to defend ourselves. This has a direct impact on how we view harmony in the church. Immature people flee conflict by leaving the church. Mature Christians resolve conflict by embracing the Lordship of Christ over the attitudes that caused it. They embrace the truth that the health of the body is more important than their personal issues. With this approach, both parties mutually agree to have the Holy Spirit arbitrate. He produces the right attitude in us. If these are the terms before the dispute is ever worked on, then no relationship will remain fractured. Getting into this frame of mind is easier said than done, but it is possible, and the rewards are beyond calculation.


Asaph is an honest songwriter (see Psalms 50, 73-83). He doesn’t write songs for mass consumption. They aren’t marketable. They fail the radio test. He is the opposite of everything that is popular in our world. His songs are gritty, honest, vulnerable, mildly offensive, brutally convicting, and so close to crossing the line you wonder why God would allow it. He steps to the very threshold of calling into question the wisdom of God without crossing over. The Lord permits this type of song, I think in part, because pilgrims like me relate better to cracked vessels trying to hold water than to museum pieces. We are clay pots (2 Corinthians 4:7), unworthy and undignified. There is something about Asaph I relate to. If we get over ourselves and everything we know, we instinctively echo this poem. It’s nice to know we aren’t crazy for thinking the way we do sometimes. Another songwriter who had this quality was Rich Mullins. I’ve always liked his music. He died 15 years ago when he was just a few years older than me. We lost a modern prophet. My favorite song is a robust and weighty ballad called “Hard to Get“. In it I hear a Psalmist.

Real-time Revelation

Imagine if your pastor preached an entire letter from Paul in the same sermon. Well that is what the early church experienced from time to time when the letters were originally written. A letter would be received and read start to finish for the congregation. No doubt everyone would listen carefully. It was revelation in real-time. The flow of the whole letter was easy to follow. The context was never lost. Weeks didn’t pass between sections like today in churches. This is important to remember in the case of the Philippians. Euodia and Syntyche heard Paul’s command for unity, love, and humility mere seconds before they were confronted. These two women were forced to place their petty differences directly alongside the command for the whole church to be like-minded. That must have been an awkward moment. What about us? With the whole counsel of God at our fingertips today, we live in constant conviction. The better we know the Word, the more often we are slammed up against it by our sin. This is a healthy biblical body check. It fosters real-time grow and feedback. Patterns of sin will abide or abate in proportion to how well we obey what we learn.

Agree to Agree

We are inclined to think agreeing with each other means thinking the same thing. The dictionary defines the word, “to have the same opinion”. This suggests two parties looking at the same facts and arriving at the same conclusion. But this is almost never the case. Christians have a long history intensely disagreeing with each other over numerous issues. In Philippians 4:2 Paul tells two women, and by extension all believers, to agree. So let’s define “agree”. It does not mean think the same thing or else we would all prefer modern architecture, apple products, and outdoor seating. Instead the word means to have the same attitude. In the original, the word translated “agree” is the same word translated “mind” in Philippians 2:2. The original readers understood attitude to be a product of the mind. So even Christians with radically different views can live in perfect harmony if they have an attitude of humility and love. The Scriptures do not teach complete uniformity on anything except the essentials of the Gospel. To have the same mind is to obey Philippians 2:1-4 as illustrated by Christ in Philippians 2:5-8. We agree (same conclusion) to agree (same attitude).

Doctrine, Liberty, and Attitude

Paul doesn’t take sides in the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3). This says a lot about the arguement. To start with the feud was not over doctrine. We know this because Paul had no reservations taking a side when it was theological. He went after those who were teaching another gospel, or distorting the truth in any way. If one of those women was a heretic, Paul would have called her out. Secondly, the feud was not over Christian liberty. Had these women been arguing over serving meat sacrificed to idols at the church potluck, Paul would have said something about it (1 Corinthians 8). In fact he never tells us to have the same preferences, or identical views on Christian liberty. That’s why they are called liberties. We only have to keep from intentionally offending our brother. So what is going here? It appears the women really had attitude problems. This explains the rebuke. Left unchecked the problem spreads. Apparently everyone knew about it, even Paul in Rome. People in the church were taking sides. The argument was literally over nothing of substance, but had the power to take down everything. Most churches split because of attitude problems, not doctrine.

Women of Renown

The thought of going down in history can be appealing, unless of course it’s because you sinned. That is just what happened to Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3). Two prominent women, and the only thing they are remembered for is their argument. Euodia (meaning prosperous) and Syntyche (meaning pleasant acquaintance) are called out to reconcile. Both women were renowned already for good things, but their reputation was tarnished by pointless bickering. The whole church is addressed by the letter, and that whole church was responsible for keeping them accountable. By addressing them individually and directly, Paul shows that he cares more about the health of the whole flock than about the possibility of offending some key women in that flock. He literally them to reconcile. He doesn’t take a side, and likely didn’t know the details or the motives behind the actions. Perhaps Epaphrodites told him about the conflict when he was with Paul in Rome and asked him for advice on how to settle it. The key take away is that Christians cannot stay at odds with each other for any reason. If we truly care about each other we will be intolerant of anything that causes or continues disunity.

My Brother’s Keeper

Christianity is a true brotherhood. I find it interesting that of all the images the Holy Spirit could have inspired; the picture of siblings is used in the Bible. This humble designation is the preferred greeting from Paul and the Apostles. It implicitly suggests a kind of equality. It emphasizes the common source of spiritual life, and the unique bond that comes from that. The old saying “blood is thicker than water” comes to mind. Given the choice a Christian is even to offend an unbeliever if it means maintaining peace in the household of God (1 Corinthians 8). This however does not imply never offending. As a matter of fact, history would paint a picture that shows churchgoers as easily offended. The difference between offending someone with your free use of a liberty, and offending someone with your judicious use of a rebuke is one thing: sin. Being offended is not wrong if your offense comes from being a weaker brother. Being offended is wrong if your offense comes from being corrected. Big difference. The self-purifying nature of the church is like a well-ordered family where siblings keep each other in check so that their father does not have to discipline.