Sometimes things aren’t as they seem. Starved Rock State Park is less than an hour from where we live. Its sandstone bluffs and grand view of the Illinois River has drawn folks for years. While many take the path to the top of the rocky bluff, some choose to walk beside the river. The Illinois River is like a series of lakes. Many folks spend time swimming, fishing, and playing up and down its course. But not at Starved Rock. Next to the state park there is a flood-control dam. All along the shoreline are signs warning folks of the dangerous undertow caused by the dam. The surface of the water may look calm, peaceful, and inviting but there is danger underneath.
The next few verses in our Walk Through Philippians almost seem like a side comment. Paul has concluded his main teaching and is beginning to add a few personal remarks and quick reminders. I’ve read these personal notes of Paul many times without much thought. But now I wonder if it wasn’t the undercurrent that steered Paul’s letter. Paul wrote, “Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement. And I ask you, my true partner, to help these two women, for they worked hard with me in telling others the Good News. They worked along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are written in the Book of Life..” (Philippians 4:2–3, NLT) Keep in mind that this letter was read publically to the whole church, I wonder what Euodia and Syntyche felt when they heard their names.
We don’t know how Paul learned of the disagreement between these two women. It is possible that “my true partner”, called “yokefellow” in other translations, could have included that bit of news in the letters Epaphroditus carried. Maybe one or both of the women wrote to Paul. Or perhaps Epaphroditus brought the disagreement up during his conversations with Paul.
Neither do we know much about the women themselves. They both shared Paul’s labor of telling others about the Good News of Christ. Both of them are counted as being in the “Book of Life.” And Paul addresses each one in the same way. The NASB put it this way, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche…” (Philippians 4:2a, NASB95) Paul didn’t take sides but addressed each them equally.
Paul’s appeal takes us back to earlier in the letter. Paul wrote, “make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” (Philippians 2:2, NASB95) Paul’s appeal to “settle your disagreement” (NLT) or the “live in harmony” (NASB) or to “agree in the Lord” (ESV), are same words found in Philippians 2:2 – be of the same mind. Paul is urging them to find unity and peace because of their mutual love for Jesus. While joy punctuates Paul’s letter his primary appeal is to grow in humility and unity. Paul taught about those points, showed several examples, and encouraged his readers to follow Jesus’ example. It almost feels like Paul was addressing the disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche the whole time.
It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t leave Euodia and Syntyche to navigate these waters on their own. He instead enlists the aid of “my true partner.” While not stated, it is possible that Paul is addressing the local pastor or elder. The last thing many pastors want to do is wade between two disgruntled factions. By highlighting their “partnership,” Paul is giving an important reminder that he is standing with the local pastor in this.
Sometimes fractures in personal relationships heal on their own. “Love covers a multitude of sins.” The hurts are real, but love maintains a way to express forgiveness. But there are times when the fractures are so deep that they need help to heal. Just like when bone is broken there is pain involved as it is reset. There is a time of discomfort as the bone is immobilized in a cast that may require some downtime. But if the bone is not reset, if there is no cast the bone will still heal but be permanently misshapen and impaired. Evidently, the fracture between Euodia and Syntyche required help and perhaps a time of immobility to allow things to heal properly.
In a practical sense, we can think of relationship fractures as campfires. A log will not stay burning by itself, it takes the combined heat of two or more logs to keep the fire going. With that thought in mind, there are several ways to remove the heat and put out the fire. Sometimes it’s good to let things burn out, the heat brings things to the surface things need to be dealt with. Sometimes it’s good to simply separate the logs, they’ll smolder for a bit, but the fire will eventually go out. Sometimes it’s good to pour water on the fire which is what Paul is doing for Euodia and Syntyche. The one thing we should avoid is adding fuel to the fire by taking sides as tempting as that might be.
It’s almost as if we should rewind Paul’s letter at this point. Replay his words and apply them directly to the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche. Consider that your homework, reread Philippians putting yourself in the place of one of these women. How did they hear what Paul was saying? How often did their minds go to their fractured unity? Did they nod in agreement when Paul discusses humility while thinking that it was what the other one needed? What did they feel like when their disunity was gracefully spotlighted by Paul? Looking back this way makes it easy to see the undercurrent Paul was addressing. These few verses are not a local side issue that is of little importance to us. Their disagreement created an undertow so strong that Paul felt he needed to address it. But notice how he addressed it, with humility, a call to unity, a reminder of what was really important, with grace, and with gentleness. He didn’t denigrate Euodia and Syntyche but elevated their labors with him.