Need for Unity

May 18th, 2012 | By | Category: Special Features (click on Article name)

Euodias and Syntyche

Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved. I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.—Philippians 4:1-4

Being members of the fallen human race, we all find ourselves, sooner or later, in an interpersonal conflict. Even among the spirit-begotten members of the church, there is intermittent conflict. Because this is a fact of life, we do well to consider how we can resolve these conflicts when they come into our lives.

Just such a conflict arose in the early church, alluded to by Paul. The reference in the book of Philippians is to two sisters named Euodias (yoo-OH-dih-uhs) and Syntyche (SIN-tih-kee). Euodias means “a pleasant scent”; Syntyche means “fortunate.” Who were these two sisters in Christ? Unfortunately there is nothing else in Scripture to describe them and any guesswork is purely conjecture. What Paul tells us is that contention had arisen between these two women and it concerned Paul enough to address it in this public letter. Why?

Paul knew that contention is contagious. In an ecclesia (congregation), contention between members can spread. If unchecked, it leads to disunity in the church. Paul was concerned enough about this to make it part of the inspired record. For Paul, church unity was a seriously important subject.

These two sisters certainly had an admirable side, for Paul describes them as “women who contended at my side in the cause of the gospel” (verse 3). This suggests they were prominent in the church doing Christian work. Their very prominence may be one reason why Paul endeavored to deal publicly with the conflict.

Paul does not take sides—he addresses both women in the epistle. Both needed to do something about their behavior, which had been disruptive enough to reach the distant traveling apostle. What counsel does Paul give? He tells them to “agree with each other,” but not just any kind of agreement, rather agreement “in the Lord” (verse 2).

Here we have the first feature of conflict resolution. If we are able to agree “in the Lord,” then we are able to agree! When we bring the Lord into anything, it tends to clarify. It will not permit us to be deceptive or selfish, for we cannot hide our motives from the Lord. Bringing the Lord into the matter will amplify the power of the holy Spirit. When two brethren who are in conflict are both agreeable to permit the Lord and the holy Spirit to influence the outcome, then they are already partly agreed.

Paul goes on in his public counsel to request the assistance of a third party. In verse 3 he writes “I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women.” We don’t know who the “loyal yokefellow” was. It may have been Epaphroditus or Luke or even Silas, who had been there with Paul (Acts 16:19). It is even possible that “Yokefellow” is a proper name of a brother in the ecclesia—in the Greek “Synzygus.” In that case, what Paul wrote might be rendered, “Who are truly, as thy name means, a yoke-fellow.” Pastor Russell put Paul’s request this way: “Brother Yokefellow should fulfill toward them the true meaning of his name, by helping them over their difficulties; helping them to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace in the Lord” (Reprints, p. 3128).

The issue between Euodias and Syntyche is a good starting point on the subject of resolving conflict: “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind”—Philippians 2:1,2.

In these verses are Paul’s instructions on how to build unity in the body of Christ. He started with a series of “if” questions that are actually four tools to build unity and resolve conflict.

1. Christ’s Example

Paul began by pointing to the “encouragement in Christ” because he wanted us to focus on the example that Jesus set for us. He exhorted us to be Christ-like in the way we treat one another: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). This is exactly what Paul recommended to Euodias and Syntyche. It is a model for resolving conflict.

What was Christ’s disposition? It was one of willingness to give up every personal privilege to do the will of God and serve others: “Who, though being in God’s form, yet did not meditate a usurpation to be like God, but divested himself, taking a bondman’s form, having been made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6,7, Emphatic Diaglott).

We cannot imagine what power and position Jesus had in his pre-human condition, but we know it was glorious (John 17:5). He gave up all of it to come to earth to die on behalf of the human race. He set aside his own interests for the interests of others. That is exactly the attitude we should have. When we consider Jesus’ selfless example, can any personal interest in a conflict with a brother or sister in Christ be worth keeping?

The apostle Paul himself was a wonderful example of sacrificing for others. “He did not always choose to exercise his liberties in Christ if he found better opportunities for usefulness by simply neglecting to claim or use liberty. Principles may never be abandoned for any consideration; but liberties and personal rights may be ignored in the interest of others, frequently and to divine pleasing; the apostle was ready to go any length in defense of principle, and could not be budged an inch (Galatians 2:5,11); but in the sacrifice of his earthly rights and privileges and liberties for the sake of Christ and his church, the apostle evidently came next to our Lord Jesus, and is a noble example to all the church.”

2. The Incentive of God’s Love

Paul described the second tool as “any persuasive power in love.” Love is not merely an emotional response in a relationship, it is a strong motivating power in our lives. Consider Jesus: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). If we have the right consecrated values in our lives, then we are willing and indeed will want to lay down our lives for the brethren.

“Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16, ASV). Does it make sense to want to lay down one’s life for another and then, at the same time, feed a conflict with that person? Of course not! As we come to more and more “perceive … the love of God,” our desire to do everything we can for our brethren grows. As God showers His love and blessing on us, we will want to do the same for our brethren. As we come to love each other with the love of God, conflicts and divisions will fade and unity build: “And besides all these things, put on love; it is the bond of the completeness” (Colossians 3:14, Emphatic Diaglott). Love is the glue that binds us together.

3. The Unifying Indwelling of the Holy Spirit

Next Paul mentioned “communion with the spirit.” The literal translation is “fellowship of spirit.” He appeared to be referring to both the power of God and the spirit or disposition that should exist among members of Christ’s body. In both cases it is a unifying spirit that promotes peace and combats conflict. Paul exhorted the Ephesians “to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

This is a challenging exhortation. The Lord’s people are a mixed group with many differences in the flesh. They differ in upbringing, ethnic background, economic situation, education, age, and gender. They have different tastes, preferences, personal, and social needs. How can such a diverse group have unity? Only by the spirit of God and the love that binds them together.

4. The Unifying Qualities of Tenderness and Pity

Tenderness and pity should oil the way we treat one another. We have received these qualities from God along with great compassion. Such treatment from our heavenly Father should inspire us to treat others the same way. Cold-heartedness will instigate conflict and division. However, when brethren are tenderhearted with each other, it will melt differences and soften conflict: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Paul continued his admonition: “Complete my joy, that you may think the same thing, having the same love, united  in soul, minding the one thing; doing nothing from party-spirit, or vainglory; but in humility esteeming others as excelling yourselves; not each one regarding his own interests, but each one also those of others” (Philippians. 2:2-4, Emphatic Diaglott). Paul admonished us to get rid of the rivalries and the selfishness that separate us. We are brothers and sisters, of one body; therefore, let every member feel and labor for the welfare of all.

These principles are strong and marvelous, and few of the consecrated would not embrace them. However, conflict with each other causes a change in perspective. We develop strong negative feelings toward others, either about what they said or what they did. We may be convinced that “they” are wrong and need correcting. We may even drift to judging their motives. With such a spirit of conflict within, it becomes more and more difficult to resolve differences. We lose consecrated perspective and become ensnared in a downward spiral: “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle” (Proverbs 18:19).

Recovering from Contentiousness

If members of the body see this attitude starting to develop in another, they ought to follow Paul’s example and offer help. Sometimes a fresh viewpoint from another brother or sister can help correct a wrong course. All have blind spots and only another can help reduce them. However, tact is required. We must avoid getting into a frame of mind that believes we can resolve all issues between brethren. Paul in one place told us to mind our own business (1 Thessalonians. 4:11). It is only appropriate to interfere when something is truly our business. When unity in the church is involved, it is every member’s business.

The first tool Paul gave us is to remember there is unity in Christ. Can we see the one with whom we have a conflict as a fellow member of the body of Christ, beloved by Jesus? We absolutely need to see each other that way all the time. We can ask ourselves, “Would Jesus approve of my thinking toward this one? Would Jesus approve of what I said to them or about them? Did Jesus die for him too?” These questions will bring us back to the unity we must have in Christ.

Suppose our attempts to resolve a conflict are rebuffed? What if a brother or sister seems to have no interest in discussing it? Then we can rest our efforts, secure in the thought that we have made the effort and now may confidently leave it in the hands of the Lord. Because feelings in conflicts are strong, sometimes we must just let time and the holy Spirit work. The efforts we make, while rebuffed at first, may work on the mind and heart. It is not unusual for someone to come back after they have thought about things for a while. Even if that does not happen, we must leave it in the Lord’s hands and exercise tender-heartedness and pity.

Whatever happens, we ought to apply the words of the apostle: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you, that you are standing  firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27, NAS).

Unity in the church is vital to the health of the church. Any conflict among members of the body will inhibit the great work Jesus has given us to do during the Gospel age. We must stand firm in unity to advance the work of the gospel. Paul commended Euodias and Syntyche for their past labors in the gospel, but he also warns them of the danger of hindering the work of God by destroying the unity of the church. Once unity is dismantled, it is not easy to get it back. It requires standing firm in love and contending together. Positive action and firm effort are the necessary antidotes.

What Happened?

Reading the brief testimony in Philippians about Euodias and Syntyche leaves us hungry for more detail. Did they resolve their conflict? To do so they would have needed a change of perspective to see unity as more important than the issues that divided them. They would have had to swallow their human pride and taken positive spiritual steps to reconcile. How? By following Christ’s example of selflessness and humility. Perhaps we have some historical evidence that they were able to reconcile.

Early in the second century, the church in Philippi wrote to the church leader Polycarp. They asked about another minister who was arrested and taken to Rome. We don’t have their letter, but we do have Polycarp’s reply to it.  He commended the church in Philippi, writing that they “have followed the pattern of true love and have helped on their way, as opportunity was given unto you, those who were bound in chains.” Then he added, “I rejoice also that your firmly rooted faith, which was famous in past years, still flourishes and bears fruit unto our Lord Jesus Christ.”{FOOTNOTE: The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, translated by Kirsopp Lake (1912), Loeb Classical Library. }

These words could be spoken only about a congregation that had, somehow, developed and maintained godly unity. Can we conclude, therefore, that Euodias and Syntyche resolved their differences? The answer is lost in history, but perhaps Polycarp’s letter gives us some indirect reassurance that they did.

Some think that Syntyche was a man and Euodias was his wife. While this is possible, the vast majority of commentators take both these names as female. In addition, the reference in verse 3 to “those women” seems to apply strongly to the two mentioned in the previous verse. The lessons to be learned about getting along in the spirit of Christ apply well in either case.

The full history of the church will be revealed in the Millennium. What will be said about you or your ecclesia? Will the story display the fruit of unity? It will if each member follows Paul’s admonition and puts to use the four tools that build unity. By working together, the fruit of unity will grow and remain until the church is brought up to glory.


David Stein

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