Sisters at War: Learning From Euodia and Syntyche

Shai Linne
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In Philippians 4:2–3, we have a situation where two women in the church at Philippi are engaged in some kind of disagreement. In the midst of his letter to the church as a whole, the apostle Paul addresses these women directly:

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

What can we as the church learn about ethnic unity from this passage? A few observations about the situation:

1. It was serious.

We don’t know the specifics, but whatever the situation was, it was serious. And we know this because the women are mentioned by name: Euodia and Syntyche. This is one of the few times in his letters that Paul actually names names when addressing a conflict. Whatever was going on between these two women, it had made its way all the way from Philippi to Rome, where Paul was in jail. Their conflict was known in the church. And that makes sense. When two people openly disagree with each other, that kind of news tends to spread very quickly.

“Being a Christian doesn’t exempt you from the conflict that comes from sin. Being in ministry doesn’t exempt you either.”

We also know that it was serious because Paul requests help from a mediator in verse 3. “Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women.” The words translated “true companion” indicate that Paul is addressing a specific person because the “you” in verse 3 is singular. You know the problem is serious when the two people involved can’t resolve it themselves, and they need the help of an outside party to work through their differences.

2. Being Christians did not prevent them from having conflict.

It’s clear that these women are Christians. We see that their names are “in the book of life” at the end of verse 3. And Paul tells them to agree “in the Lord” in verse 1. So these are believers we’re talking about. They believe the same gospel. They serve the same Lord. They worship the same God. And yet they still have conflict. Knowing this should keep us from automatically excluding believers that disagree with us from the faith. This is especially dangerous when it comes to politics and voting. Historically in America, and generally speaking, Black Christians and White Christians have voted differently in presidential elections. There’s a temptation to think, “How can they be Christians if they vote for _____?” In fact, some Christian leaders have gone so far as to publicly say things like, “If you’re a true Christian, you’ll vote for _____.”

The problem with this is that whatever political party or candidate you endorse, you’re going to be saying that an entire community of believers who vote differently isn’t actually saved. Not only is this kind of thinking reductionistic and uncharitable, it’s a distortion of the gospel of justification by faith alone. True Christianity is not determined by whether or not a person votes Democrat or Republican. It’s determined by whether or not a person has placed their trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross, period. If we’ve learned anything from Jesus with the Pharisees, Paul with the Judaizers, and the Reformers with Rome, it’s that we must not add to the gospel in this way. Euodia and Syntyche had a sharp disagreement. Presumably, one was right and the other was wrong. Or perhaps they were both wrong. But one or both of them being wrong did not exclude them from the kingdom of God.

3. Doing ministry together did not prevent them from having conflict.

We may be tempted to think, “If they’re having trouble agreeing, these must have been immature Christians. Surely they were babes in Christ.” That doesn’t seem to be the case. These women were actually prominent in the church. Paul said that they “labored side by side with me in the gospel” (v. 3). (As an aside, I love how Paul affirms these women. He doesn’t minimize their work. He doesn’t place himself above them. In fact, affirming them would have been very countercultural in that society.) These women were in ministry with the apostle Paul! Can you imagine the conversation in heaven? Everyone is sitting in a circle reminiscing about life on the old earth. “What kind of ministry did you do in the old world?” “I did campus ministry.” “I did some street evangelism”. “I did Christian hip-hop.” “Sister Euo? How about you?” “Oh, not much, I just labored side by side with the apostle Paul.” Euodia and Syntyche were working with the apostle day in and day out. They received his teaching, observed his example, and participated in his ministry. And yet, it’s not all roses. These sisters were beefing with each other!

Why is that? The short answer is because of sin. Being a Christian doesn’t exempt you from the conflict that comes from sin. Being in ministry doesn’t exempt you either. In fact, the closer the relationship, the more likely you’ll see conflict. Anyone who has ever been married, grew up with siblings, or had a roommate can testify to that.

I know this happened two thousand years ago, but it’s just as true now as it was then. Don’t let the Greek names fool you. If Paul had been writing this today, he could have just as easily said Michelle and Tiffany, or Patrice and Kellie, or Diane and Keisha—agree in the Lord!

It’s really interesting what Paul doesn’t say to them. He doesn’t say, “Hey, Euodia, why did you do that to Syntyche?” Or “Syntyche, why did you say that to Euodia?” He doesn’t refer to the actual issue at all. He simply addresses them both, begging them to agree. That phrase translated “agree in the Lord” uses the same words found in Philippians 2:2, “being of the same mind,” as well as in Philippians 2:5, “Have this mind among yourselves,” followed by Paul presenting the gospel in verses 6–11. What we’re seeing in Philippians 4:2–3 is really just Philippians 2:1–5 fleshed out in a particular situation in the church.

Paul is going after the hearts of these women. I guarantee you that no matter what the issue was between them, if they both had the mindset of affection and sympathy, being of the same mind, and in humility counting the other as more significant than themselves, the issue would have been resolved immediately. If you look at the letter in this light, you get the sense that this is what Paul has been building up to all along. He speaks generally in Philippians 2:1–5 and specifically here. He is exhorting these sisters toward a heart posture that demonstrates a cross-centered perspective. Put another way, Paul is telling these women to apply the gospel!

Therefore, wherever you may land in the current debate over “race,” I have an exhortation for you. My exhortation is what I believe God was saying to Euodia and Syntyche. It’s what I believe He was saying to Jew and Gentile.

For Further Reading:

The New Reformation

by Shai Linne

In the sixteenth century, the church faced a doctrinal crisis. Today, the crisis is race. We all know that racial unity is important. But...

book cover for The New Reformation