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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before October 12, 2014

Philippians 4:1-13

4Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

What I am Learning:

Let’s leave the public debate between Jesus and the Chief Priests for a week and focus on this week’s text from Philippians 4.

This text has typically been interpreted to explain as the reason for the writing of Philippians. The reason: that two women leaders were fighting in the church.

I do not agree with this interpretation!

First it is important to note that Euodia and Syntyche are women. In any part of Mediterranean world women were not usually in leadership. Paul, however, not only speaks of them as leaders in their community, but as “co-workers” in the work of the Gospel.

Second, this work was “public,” that is these women were not “leaders behind the scenes” or as the old sexist phrase goes, “behind every successful man is a woman.” The terms used here to describe their leadership were typically used for athletes competing in public games. Having women as leaders would be highly offensive to most every person and thus the Christian community would be considered deviant and radical.

Third, Paul knows that women’s leadership in the church could be undermined by the sexism of his larger culture and he moves to support their leadership. Paul’s word choice to use words of athletic competition would never have been used of women in the larger culture. Only men competed in athletic games. They competed in the nude. Only men got to watch. But Paul says that Euodia and Syntyche are a part of the same “Gospel relay team” with Paul, working cooperatively with him and others in front of the crowds – that is, in public!

We often assume in the church that these two women were in some kind of conflict and that Paul asks the church, in verse 3, to help them stop fighting.

I think this may be a sexist assumption about these two leaders. At the very least, the way it is talked about becomes sexist when we fail to notice that Paul and Barnabas got into a little spat and could no longer work effectively together. Conflict and competition happen equally easily between men and men, women and women, and women and men.

If in fact that the women were engaged in some conflict with each other, Paul’s answer to this conflict was not to discourage women to be in leadership. It would have been the easy way out for Paul. Instead asks the community to support them in their public leadership.

It is possible that some people within the Philippian Christian community were rejecting  these leaders because they were women or because the of the fallout to the Christian community of having women public leaders. If this is the case, then, Paul is asking these women to move past the pain of that rejection and to be reconciled with those who had formerly rejected them.

Notice in the text that there is only one sentence directed to these women leaders, but several to the larger community to support them in their work of public leadership!

Paul publicly supported the leadership of women not only in church but in the public. These women would need to “have the same mind as Christ” to engage in such work. They would be energetically rejected by most everyone in their culture. Because of their leadership their church would be looked down on and persecuted. Some in their church would respond to this public pressure by blaming the women for “causing trouble.”

Encouraging these strong leaders who happened to be women to “have the same mind as Christ” was not a way to tell these two women to “get along.” To have the same mind as Christ, is to embrace God’s salvation in our intrapersonal, interpersonal, institutional and structural/cultural lives:

  • Intrapersonal: to embrace the belovedness of their human lives instead of rejecting life as a mortal vulnerable human
  • Interpersonal: to strive for mutuality with all people instead of falling into dominating or submitting patterns of relationship
  • Institutional structural: to work for institutional and structural changes in the larger society instead of collaboration with or silence about the status quo
  • being willing to risk life to embrace our full humanity in obedience to God

I think it quite likely that the sexism in the church has led us to interpret this passage as a fight between two women who could not get along. I am sad to say that for years I have assumed this interpretation.

It think it quite likely that these women were engaged in public leadership within and on behalf of the Christian community. This public leadership was raising tensions and causing a lot of conflict between the church and the larger community and inside the church.

If this is the case, then the reason Paul wrote the letter was to encourage the church and these brave women to have the same mind as Christ and remain in public leadership, challenging the structural/cultural sexism of their day. The very fact of their leadership, whatever the issue, was a challenge to the status quo of their day.

Paul writes the letter to encourage the institution of the church stay in the fight by supporting these women instead of reverting to the easy path of a male-only leadership.

Paul writes this letter to support these two women and encourage them in this highly conflictual work.

Paul writes this letter to put his own status as a leader on the line to recognize them as equals with him.

Paul encourages these women to the same kind of public leadership as Jesus Christ. Remember that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name. It is a title for the Jewish Messiah, the public leader who was to be the catalyst for God’s reign on earth. Just by telling them to have the same mind as Christ, is to explode the sexism of the church in Philippi, whose people grew up thinking that women could hardly have a mind at all, let alone the mind of the fully human one, the messiah.

But the church has not only interpreted this passage out of sexism. We have also interpreted this passage in the typical way because have seen Jesus as a personalized Lord and Savior instead of as a public leader challenging the institutional and structural status quo.

In Jesus Christ, God brings salvation to every aspect of our lives

  • Intrapersonal
  • Interpersonal
  • Institutional
  • Structural/cultural

God is bringing healing to you, to us, to our institutions and to the world of economics and culture.

As I repeat often, God’s Way of Mutuality is God’s love, grace, and shalom in everyday life, in every aspect of human relationship: public, private, economic, political, personal and communal, body, mind and environment.

May we seek the same mind as Christ, as Euodia and Syntyche, did, our forebears in faith and public leadership.