Is Paul’s approach to conflict an example or not? (From Conflict Management and the Apostle Paul.) The following post, which kicks off a series on Paul and conflict comes from a book I was privileged to write with my DMin cohort at Northern Seminary.
Here’s how this project worked: Lauren Visser and Greg Mamula co-wrote a study of conflict management theory in modern thinking. (The chapter is a model of description and will be of value to any pastor or staff thinking about how to manage conflict.)
Then each student, working with another, wrote chapters on various conflict episodes in Paul’s mission experience. Students were not asked to whitewash Paul but they were asked to do their best to evaluate or compare Paul to the opening chapter by Lauren and Greg. I believe more writing makes for better teaching, preaching, and communicating in a church. I also believe writing about tough issues like this sharpens our minds with one another and also gives us angles on Paul that we might not otherwise have.
There is no reason we have to think did conflict perfectly; we don’t idolize Paul. Yet, he opens doors to valuable discussions, and our seminar on this topic was one of the highlights of my academic career of teaching.
I wrote the introduction and it follows:
Buried into the back of your copy of Paul’s letter to the church of the Roman colony, Philippi, is an apostolic urging that may well be the precise reason Paul wrote this short (in Pauline standards) letter. Two women, Euodia and Syntyche, are urged “to be of the same mind in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2; NRSV). Lynn Cohick, in her commentary on Philippians, observes that some argue that the situation in Philippians 4:1-3 about Euodia and Syntyche is minor, unimportant, or incidental.” She’s right, and one could create a long list of scholars who agree. But Lynn turns the corner noting that “most recent commentators hold that Paul’s concern for unity between these [two female leaders and] believers is central to the letter.”
The story repeats itself. Bible read by males, Bible read for males, women in the Bible ignored or silenced or unnoticed. In a letter about unity shaped by the word “same” (1:27; 2:2; 3:15; 4:2), in a letter justly famous for the Christ hymn (2:6-11) but which is provoked into appearance in this letter to teach Christoformity and sacrifice for others in order to maintain unity (2:1-5), and in a letter where fellowship (1:5; 2:1; 3:10), the first real mention of anyone in particular is these two women. What are they told? To have the “same mind” (3:2). I am of the view, with many others, that the division between Euodia and Syntyche both shapes the problems at Philippi and represents the problem. The problem is division and the need is unity.
Granting that non-controversial conclusion, I want to approach this from another angle, one I have not seen or heard. How do you think Euodia and Syntyche responded to Paul’s putting them on the spot? To Paul’s degrading of their status in the community by calling them out in this letter, which would have been performed publicly for all in the congregation and house churches to hear?
So let’s imagine what they might have said in their defense, and we’ll get to what he said that they surely needed to be of the same mind about below. It would not have been a stretch of imagination for the Christians of Philippi to know, first, about some of the Apostles Behaving Badly. I’m speaking here of the public outburst of Paul against Peter and Peter’s rather obvious failure to live up to the gospel that includes gentiles. The story is told from Paul’s angle in Galatians 2:11-14. Details aside – was Peter eating pork? Were the Jewish believers demanding circumcision? – the incident itself is enough to tell the story of apostles. “One mind, Paul?,” Euodia and Syntyche ask.
It takes no imagination to know that what festered between Paul and the Corinthians was anything but unity, fellowship and one mind. One communication after another – 1 Corinthians, the severe letter, 2 Corinthians, which may be more than one letter, one trip after another – Paul, Timothy and Titus each trying to work things out. Any reading with sensitivity can see that 2 Corinthians 10-13 is Paul’s response to accusations made against him by the Corinthians. They couldn’t be entirely wrong, could they? “One mind, Paul?”
These three examples could at least have flashed through the mental screens of Euodia and Syntyche when they, sitting in the house church – one of theirs? – heard their names and heard as well Paul’s urging of them to be of “the same mind.” Did they even hear Paul continue with “help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (4:3)? And who is this “companion”? Perhaps Epaphroditus, perhaps Luke, perhaps Timothy. Whoever it is, he is being urged to work with Euodia and Syntyche to come to agreement. There are many things we don’t know – including what the point of their dispute was. What we do know is that they were fractured and they were contributing to fracturing in the Philippian house churches.
If they continued to listen, however, they heard Paul affirm them publicly, and that was noteworthy and valuable in a world driven by status and public honor. If they listened they heard him tell the whole church that they have been companions with Paul in gospel work – which means evangelism and teaching and discipling and suffering. If they listened they heard him label them with his most noble term: “co-workers.” If they listened they heard they were to be classed with the leader Clement. Most noticeable, they heard him say they – in spite of their tension – were names listed in the “book of life.” This is Paul’s way of saying they are on God’s side all the way.
Whatever they heard they knew that the tension at work between them, however, was at work in Paul’s own life and mission. Paul could surely point to fractured relationships now healed – which is the case with Barnabas (1 Cor. 9:6), Peter (9:5; 15:5) and John Mark (Col. 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:9, 11), and it is noticeable that Peter is now getting along with John Mark too (1 Pet. 5:13). I am not suggesting directly that Paul could respond to their flashing mental screens with his stories of fractured relationships now made healthy again, but we could.
What I am saying is that Paul is not perfect; only Jesus gets that place in our minds and hearts. What I am saying is that Paul is not a perfect pastor and his approach to conflict is not always consistent with Jesus’ or even with his own gospel of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-21). What I am saying is that in the book that follows we will take conflict management theory at its best, which for pastors at least is Christian principles put to use in management theories, and examine the apostle Paul. He comes out pretty well, but not unscathed.
What I am saying is that Paul is like us and he needs to grow just as we do.
 Lynn H. Cohick, Philippians, Story of God Bible Commentary 11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 208.