Building Unity in the Body of Christ, by Ted Johnston
Let me tell you about two people who worked side-by-side in the church. But something happened. They fell into a trap—a disagreement arose between them. Perhaps it began as a small argument, but it mushroomed into a rift that not only affected them but began to hurt the entire congregation.
You may know of similar circumstances. The people I’m referring to, however, lived almost 2,000 years ago. Their story is told by the apostle Paul in Philippians. He doesn’t provide much detail, but we get the picture if we read carefully: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other” (Philippians 4:2).
Here in the midst of his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul exhorts Euodia (yoo-OH-dih-uh) and Syntyche (SIN-tih-kee), to end their disagreement. This short exhortation packs a powerful lesson for us today—a lesson about addressing division and producing unity in the church.
Euodia and Syntyche
Contention had arisen between these women, and it concerned Paul enough to address it in this public letter. Why? Paul knew that contention between members spreads. If unchecked, it leads to a lack of unity in the congregation. Paul was concerned. He wrote the book of Philippians, in part, to address the subject of church unity.
Paul describes Euodia and Syntyche as “women who contended at my side in the cause of the gospel” (4:3). From this we infer that they were leaders, making the contention between them all the more harmful. Paul addresses both women. Both needed to change, as is the case in most disagreements.
Paul tells them that the solution to the problem is to “agree with each other”—but not just any kind of agreement, rather “in the Lord” (4:2). They are to solve their disagreement, not their own way, but in and through Christ.
Paul not only urges the women to seek reconciliation between themselves, he also enlists the help of others: “I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women” (4:3). We don’t know who the “loyal yokefellow” was—it may have been Luke, or perhaps Epaphroditus. In any case, Paul calls on others to reach out to Euodia and Syntyche and help them reconcile.
If you had the opportunity to help two believers settle a dispute, how would you go about it? Paul gives us some valuable advice: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Philippians 2:1-2).
Encouragement toward unity is available in four ways. Paul gives four tools for building unity.
1. The encouragement of Christ’s example
Paul begins by pointing to the “encouragement in Christ” (New Revised Standard Version). He is apparently focusing on the example of Christ himself. Jesus models for us an attitude that produces reconciliation.
2. The incentive of God’s love
Paul describes the second tool as “any comfort from his love.” “Comfort” can be translated “incentive” with the added element of tenderness. God tenderly gives us the incentive to display the love he showers on us. As believers love each other with the love of God, divisions begin to cease and unity unfolds.
Paul echoes the same thought in Colossians 3:14, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (NRSV). Love is the glue that binds us together.
3. The unifying indwelling of the Holy Spirit
Next Paul mentions “fellowship with the Spirit.” This refers to the work and presence of the Holy Spirit in us. God dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit enables us to live in unity with each other. Paul exhorted the Ephesians “to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
God’s people are a diverse group. We come from varied backgrounds, races and economic and educational levels. We have different tastes, preferences and needs. How can such a diverse group have unity? By God’s Spirit that binds us together.
4. The unifying qualities of tenderness and compassion
Tenderness and compassion involve the way we treat one another. We have received tenderness and compassion from God—and that should inspire us to treat others the same way. When believers are tenderhearted with each other, progress can often be made toward unity.
Paul goes on: “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:2-4).
Paul says 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.
Having made this plea for unity, Paul returns to the first tool, the encouragement of Christ’s example. In Philippians 2:5-8 he exhorts us to be Christlike in the way we treat one another: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (2:5).
What was Christ’s attitude? One of willingness to give up personal privilege in order to serve others: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (2:6-7).
Christ is God, and he set aside many of the privileges of being God to become human. As God in the flesh, he humbled himself to the point of the excruciating pain of crucifixion (2:8). Christ set aside his own interests for the sake of others. So should we.
Unity in the church is vital to the success of the mission God has called us to. That is why Paul says: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one person for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).
We must stand firm in unity to advance the work of the gospel. As individual members, we advance this work by creating unity, and we set it back when we cause division.
Paul commends Euodia and Syntyche for their past labors, but warns them of the danger of hindering the work of God by destroying the unity of the congregation. It takes work to reverse this dangerous trend. It takes “standing firm” and “contending as one person.” It takes effort and positive action.
The rest of the story?
Reading the few words in Philippians about Euodia and Syntyche leaves us hungry for more detail. Did they resolve their disagreement? To do so they would have needed to see unity as more important than what separated them. They would have had to swallow human pride and take positive steps to reconcile. How? By following Christ’s example of humility and selflessness. By allowing Christ to live that same selfless life in them through the indwelling Spirit.
We have some indirect historical evidence that, perhaps, they did 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 Polycarp’s reply was preserved.
Polycarp commends the congregation in Philippi, writing that they “have followed the example of true love and have helped on their way, as opportunity offered, those who were bound in chains.” Then he adds, “I rejoice also that your firmly rooted faith, renowned since early days, endures to the present and produces fruit for our Lord Jesus Christ.”
These words could only be spoken about a congregation that had developed and maintained godly unity. Can we conclude that Euodia and Syntyche resolved their differences? The answer is lost in history, but perhaps Polycarp’s letter gives us some indirect reassurance that they did.
I wonder what will be written about our congregations years down the line? Will they bear the fruit of unity? They will, if we follow Paul’s admonition and put to use these four tools that build unity. If we work together, the fruit of unity will grow and remain for many years to come.