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From the May, 2007 issue of Touchstone


Two Ladies at Odds by Patrick Henry Reardon

Two Ladies at Odds

What prompted St. Paul to write the Epistle to the Philippians? The most obvious motive, I suppose, was his desire to thank that congregation for its recent gift (Phil. 4:10,18). One of their number, Epaphroditus, who had been visiting Paul, had just recovered from a recent illness and was on the point of returning to Philippi. To Paul, this seemed an excellent opportunity to write the Philippians a letter for Epaphroditus to carry along with him (2:25–30).

Yet, as we read through this epistle, we sense that perhaps not everything was fine at Philippi. Although there appear to have been no doctrinal problems there, something urges us to think that there were difficulties of another sort. We suspect that an underlying problem at Philippi, if there was a problem, had to do with what we may call “conflicting personalities.”

This would explain the emphasis on respect, humility, and mutual forbearance in this epistle. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit,” Paul writes, “but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (2:2–4). This explanation would account for Paul’s lengthy citation from an early Christian hymn about self-emptying in 2:5–10.

The question is answered for us, finally, in the final chapter, where Paul writes, “I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord” (4:2). Ah, at last. These were the “conflicting personalities” of the Philippian church. This is what Paul had been getting at all along.

Three things, I suggest, may be noted of this exhortation to Euodia and Syntyche.

First, even though the conflict between these two ladies apparently provided an impulse that prompted Paul to write this epistle, it is a fact that he left the matter aside until this closing chapter. Had Paul begun Philippians along the lines of Galatians (“I marvel that you are turning away so soon . . . O foolish Galatians”), the first chapter might have started, “Okay, Euodia and Syntyche, let’s get one thing straight. There will be no more of this useless bickering. Do we understand one another?”

Had Paul taken his cue from John the Baptist, Philippians might have started, “Euodia and Syntyche, you brood of vipers, who has showed you how to flee from the wrath to come?” Had he followed the model of Jude, Paul might have begun, “Euodia and Syntyche, there are spots in your love feasts, you are late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots.” Or, if Paul had been reading about Elijah at the time, poor Euodia and Syntyche would likely have heard, “You two! How long shall you falter between two opinions?” There are a great many ways in which Paul could have approached this problem.

As it was, however, Paul first laid the groundwork for his exhortation by asserting more general and universally applicable principles about humility, obedience, and mutual service, as we have seen. That is to say, Paul did not approach the particular question directly until he had established the basis on which it could be addressed and settled.

Second, it may have been the case that Paul was reluctant to name these two women in public. His explicit exhortation to them, after all, would be terribly embarrassing. Paul’s words would leave the ladies no cover, no room for equivocation or retreat, and perhaps Paul felt reluctant to take such measures. I have never met a pastor who enjoyed singling people out by a public reprimand, and it would not surprise me to learn that Paul would have preferred to avoid it.

Is this the reason why he seems to have had such a hard time bringing this epistle to a close? Paul seems ready to finish abut halfway through (“Finally, my brethren”—3:1), but goes on to add two whole chapters, not mentioning Euodia and Syntyche until he had nearly run out of other things to say.

Third, when Paul finally does name Euodia and Syntyche in the fourth chapter, he makes clear, by example, a useful pastoral rule—namely, that public sins, such as give scandal to a congregation, are not private matters of the sort covered by Matthew 18:15–20. On the contrary, public sins are subject to public censure and may require public repentance. In the end, Paul decides to call Euodia and Syntyche to public account. They are reprimanded even as they offended—in the sight of the Church. Indeed, the Church has been reading about it for nearly two thousand years!

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“Two Ladies at Odds” first appeared in the May 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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