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Lesson 21: Getting Along With One Another (Philippians 4:2-3)

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(Also, Matt. 5:23-24; 18:15-17; Acts 15:36-41; Gal. 6:1)

There’s a story about six men who were stranded on a deserted island. Two were Jewish, two were Catholic, and two were Baptists. The two Jews got together and founded the Temple Immanuel. The two Catholics established the Church of the Holy Name. The two Baptists formed two Baptist churches and got into a squabble over who got to use the name, “First Baptist”!

If you’ve never had the “wonderful” experience of having a conflict with someone in the church or having your feelings hurt by another Christian, either you’re a new believer or you’ve never gotten involved in serving. I can guarantee that if you get involved, you will have a conflict with another Christian, probably sooner than later. I don’t say that to discourage you from getting involved, but rather to help you think realistically and to be prepared for the inevitable.

We all tend to think idealistically that since we’re all Christians, living by the Bible, filled with the Holy Spirit, obeying the command to love one another, that there won’t be any conflicts among us. Such idealism is not realistic, whether in a church or in a Christian family. To quote again the ditty:

To dwell above with the saints we love, O that will be glory;

But to dwell below with the saints we know, that’s a different story!

As we’ve seen, the first church at Philippi was made up of people from diverse backgrounds. There was the mature, probably widowed, business woman from Asia, Lydia, with a Jewish background. There was the career military man, the jailer, with a pagan background. And, probably there was the slave girl from the occult background. It is the glory of the church to be composed of different racial and cultural groups. But that also sets the stage for conflict. Two women in the Philippian church, of whom we know nothing except what is written here, were having a conflict. By looking at what Paul writes here and at a few other verses on the same topic, we can learn how to get along with one another. It’s of vital importance that we do so, not only so that we can be at peace, but for the sake of the gospel.

Christians must work at resolving conflicts so that the church can focus on the work of the gospel.

1. Resolving conflicts is work.

It’s never easy. It’s always easier to avoid it. We all have a tendency to shrink from confrontation. We feel anxious about how the other person will take it. We’re not sure if it will escalate the conflict to try to deal with it. Because of these factors, the most common way people deal with conflict with another church member is to leave and find another church. In New Testament times they didn’t have that option, since there was only one church per city. It would be better if we couldn’t just hop to another church, because we take the easy way out and miss the growth and the testimony that can come through working things out in a biblical manner. But we need to recognize that it is work and commit ourselves to at least attempt to work through the problems before we consider separating.

2. Resolving conflicts is first the job of those involved in the conflict.

Paul repeats the verb with each woman: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to think the same in the Lord” (literal translation). In Matthew 18:15, Jesus says, “If your brother sins [many manuscripts add, “against you”], go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” In Matthew 5:23-24, the situation is reversed in that your brother has something against you. Yet in both situations it is incumbent on you to take the initiative to go to your brother.

Many relational problems in churches would be quickly resolved if we would follow this simple guideline, to take the initiative in going to the other person to try to clear up the problem between us. One common mistake (or, sin!) is for the one who feels wronged to talk to many others about the person who wronged him rather than going directly to the person. It is fine to go to a mature spiritual leader who can be trusted to keep confidences in order to gain their wisdom on how to approach the person who wronged you. But it is not okay to talk to several others! This is gossip or slander and just compounds the problem. When you go or, if you can, before you go, ...

(1) Identify the true problem or source of the conflict. We don’t know what the root problem was between Euodia and Syntyche. Most problems between Christians can be grouped under several heads: A personal wrong (someone sinned against you or did something to offend you); a personality clash (the person just “rubs you the wrong way”); a methodology difference (you don’t agree with how they’re doing something); a doctrinal difference; or, (most commonly) some combination of the above.

I’ve often found that Christians tend to label problems as doctrinal differences because it sounds spiritual and makes me look right: “I’m defending THE TRUTH!” But often the doctrinal difference is just a covering for a personal problem or sin (which doesn’t make me look so good!). Also, it’s possible to hold correct doctrine in an insensitive, proud manner that results in relational conflict. You can be right doctrinally, yet sinning in the way you use your correct view to think you’re better than your brother. Or, you use it to put him down for being wrong rather than gently to correct him and build him up.

We have to be careful not to compromise the truth, but also to be sensitive and gentle in how we try to lead others to the truth (2 Tim. 2:24-26). We need to evaluate the magnitude of the doctrine in question. If it’s essential, so that the other person will be in heresy or will suffer greatly in his walk with the Lord if he doesn’t correct it soon, we need to be more strong than if it is not so serious. Timing is important. Sometimes a person will say something that I know is wrong doctrinally, but either I don’t have a strong enough relationship or I sense it isn’t the right time to offer correction. We must be patient (1 Thess. 5:14).

It’s embarrassing to admit, but quite often some degree of self-love is at the root of my problem with someone else. I don’t mean a lack of self-love (as is erroneously taught, “you must love yourself to love your neighbor”), but rather that I love myself more than I love my neighbor. So I need to humble myself and be open to what God wants to teach me through the conflict situation. Maybe I need to learn more about the Scriptures. I may need to judge myself and grow in humility or sensitivity to others. Quite often, I failed to communicate properly (both in what I said or didn’t say, or how I said it; and in what I heard or didn’t hear), and so I need to grow there. So first, identify the true source of the conflict.

(2) Remind yourself of the goal. “Be of the same mind in the Lord,” is the same phrase Paul used in 2:2, “being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” As we saw there, Paul does not mean that we all are supposed to think exactly the same about every issue. Nor are we supposed to set aside essential truth for the sake of unity. Rather, he means that we must have our minds geared toward Christian love, seeking the highest good for one another; and, that we must be growing to experience what we possess--the mind of Christ, revealed to us in His Word (1 Cor. 2:16).

Note Ephesians 4:3 & 13: There are two types of Christian unity. There is the unity of the Spirit (4:3), created by the Holy Spirit when He baptizes all true believers into the one body of Christ. This is a reality we must be diligent to preserve. Then there is the unity of the faith (4:13), which we are to attain to. We attain unto it as we grow to understand Scripture (in part, through the ministry of preaching, 4:11-12) and to know the Lord Jesus Christ in a deeper way.

Our goal in any relational conflict is not to win or to put the other person in his place. Our goal is to honor Christ by growing in maturity and by helping our brother or sister grow in maturity through the resolution of the conflict in line with biblical truth. So we need to ask prayerfully: What does God want to teach me in this situation? What does He want to teach the other person? What does He want to accomplish in the larger picture of His church in this community? The honor of Christ and the testimony of the gospel should be at the forefront as we seek to resolve any conflict.

(3) Go to the other person in a spirit of gentleness and humility, seeking to restore the relationship. If the other person has sinned, you don’t go to blast him or give him a piece of your mind. You check yourself, making sure that you are spiritual (i.e., in submission to the Holy Spirit, Gal. 6:1) and that your motive is to restore the person, not blow him away. You “look to yourself lest you, too, be tempted.” This means that you recognize that you, too, are a sinner. Deal with any anger or bitterness that you may feel. Spend time in prayer, waiting on God for the right attitude, timing, and place. Think through the proper wording that will be winsome and not communicate arrogance or self-righteousness. Your manner and attitude must be gentle, not abrasive or caustic. Don’t go in an accusing spirit, trying to convince him of how wrong he was. When you go, it’s good to ask questions first, to make sure that you understand the situation.

I heard a brother share how he was supposed to stop and pick up some chairs to bring to an evangelistic Bible study at someone’s home. He had a lot on his mind that day and completely forgot. When he got there and the host found out that he forgot, the host said, “It figures.” He didn’t say anything at the time, but those words really stung him. So later he went to the host and asked, “When I forgot the chairs and you said, ‘It figures,’ what did you mean?” The host explained that it didn’t have anything to do with him, but it was just that it had been one of those days where nothing had gone right. By asking for clarification, it cleared up what could have been a strained relationship.

So the first thing in any conflict is for those involved to get together in a spirit of love, in submission to God, and seek to work it out. If that fails,

3. Resolving conflicts sometimes requires the help of an outside party.

Paul calls on his “true comrade” (“loyal yokefellow,” NIV) to help these women. Commentators make many suggestions as to who this might have been, but the bottom line is, nobody knows. Some think that the man’s name was Syzygus (the Greek for “comrade”). In favor of this view is that a proper name makes more sense in the midst of all these other names. Also, it would be a play on words, much as in Philemon 10, 11, where Paul tells Philemon that his runaway slave, Onesimus (whose name meant “useful”) was formerly useless to him, but now, as a Christian, was useful both to Paul and to Philemon. Here, “Yokefellow,” whose name points to someone who brings two people together, should be true to his name and help these women. The major objection to this view is that this name has not been found in any Greek literature of the time.

Others have suggested that Paul meant Epaphroditus, the bearer of the letter, who did not need to be named (since Paul told him personally to do this), but who is mentioned here so that the church knew he was acting under Paul’s direction. But, whoever it was, we can learn that it often is helpful for an outside party to help resolve a conflict. Not just “yokefellow,” but also Paul was involved in trying to help these women get things worked out. We can learn several things about such a mediator:

(1) The outside party should be a mature, committed Christian. The title, “true comrade,” shows that Paul considered whoever this was as a mature Christian who was committed to the work of the gospel. The same principle is stated in Galatians 6:1, “you who are spiritual,” that is, spiritually mature.

(2) The outside party should be objective. Paul’s objectivity is hinted at in his double use of the verb, “I urge ... I urge.” He doesn’t take sides or imply that one person is right and the other is wrong. The outside party needs to hear both sides before he makes any judgments about who is most at fault. Proverbs 18:17 states, “The first to plead his case seems just, until another comes and examines him.” If there’s clearly a sin or doctrinal error on the part of one side, it’s relatively easy to bring resolution, assuming that the erring party is repentant and teachable.

Speaking from experience, it gets sticky when both sides are saying contradictory things and neither party will admit to lying. When that happens, about all you can do is put the past out of the way and deal with the wrong attitudes and words that you perceive in the present. But you need to be as objective toward both sides as you can be.

(3) The outside party should be open, direct, and truthful. Can you imagine how these two women felt when this letter was read in the assembly? Here they are, known in church history for one thing, the quarrel they had! But Paul didn’t beat around the bush. He named names. In several other places he corrects people by name or directly names his source of information: “Say to Archippus, ‘Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it’” (Col. 4:17). “For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you” (1 Cor. 1:11). (See also 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17; 4:10, 14). Sometimes we are so careful to tiptoe around so as not to offend anyone that we end up being vague and confusing. Paul didn’t drop hints. He was direct, specific, and truthful.

(4) The outside party should be affirming and positive where possible. Paul didn’t scold or berate these women. He affirms them by mentioning how they had shared in his struggle in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and others not named (we know nothing more about Clement). He acknowledges that the names of all these dear people are known to God, written in the book of life, that book in heaven that contains the names of all of God’s elect (see Exod. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Dan. 12:1; Luke 10:20; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27).

Paul affirms these women by referring to them as fellow workers with himself. This does not mean that they had the same ministry role that Paul had. He makes it clear in other Scriptures that women are not allowed to teach or exercise authority over men in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-15; see also, 1 Cor. 11:3-16; 14:34-35). He was gifted as an apostle and preacher of the gospel. These women had other gifts. But each Christian is gifted by God and is vital to the cause of Christ. We should lift up the giftedness and ministry of each person and not make anyone feel despised or belittled, even if they are a part of a conflict. We should affirm each person and express appreciation for their ministry.

Recognizing and affirming differing gifts is a key to conflict resolution, especially in the work of the gospel. I believe that if Paul and Barnabas had stopped long enough to affirm their differing gifts, while they still may have parted, they could have parted more amicably. Paul was gifted as a pioneer missionary, ready to endure hardship and forge into unreached territory. Barnabas was gifted as an encourager, one who picked up hurting or broken people and nurtured them back to health and usefulness in the Lord’s work. Both gifts are needed. Paul was right: It would have been a mistake to take Mark back to the front lines after his failure. Barnabas was also right: Mark deserved another chance. He needed to be restored.

In any conflict resolution, we need to keep in mind that our overall goal isn’t just to have peace. Peace is nice and we all feel better when everyone is getting along. But there’s a greater goal:

4. Resolving conflicts is necessary so that the church can focus on the work of the gospel.

When Paul says that these women have shared his struggle in the gospel, the word he uses means to be on the same team in an athletic contest. Team members have to work together; if they start fighting each other, the other team will make easy work of them. Lord Nelson once came on deck and found two of his officers quarreling. He whirled them about, pointed to the enemy ships, and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, there are your enemies!” We need to remember that the enemy is out there, the prince of darkness, who wants nothing more than to divide God’s people into quarreling factions so that lost people do not hear the good news that Christ the Savior has come. Quarreling church members are not witnessing church members.

Often conflicts come in the context of working together in ministry. Workers with different gifts and personalities have opposing views of how to go about the work. While every effort should be made to resolve the differences and while there should be reconciliation on a personal level, sometimes you end up spending too much time trying to bring about harmony. At that point, as with Paul and Barnabas, it’s better to agree to go your separate ways and get on with the work. But if it comes to that, we must never bad-mouth the other person. Paul was always affirming toward Barnabas and Mark. We need to remember that we’re on the same team with everyone who is proclaiming the gospel. Their name as well as mine is in that book of life, which means that we’ll all be spending eternity together. The enemy is out there. We need to focus on the work of the gospel.

Conclusion

I want us all to ask ourselves two questions: (1) Am I at odds with anyone else in this church? If so, I need to work at getting the problem resolved. The answer isn’t just to pick up and move to another church. It may be hard work, it may require some painful self-confrontation, it may require the help of an outside party. But you need to resolve it. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18). This includes family members!

(2) Am I involved in the work of the gospel? You say, “I’m not gifted in evangelism!” It doesn’t matter. If you know Christ, you’re on the team, and there are no bench warmers on His team. God has gifted you to do something toward the cause of the gospel. Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and all the others who aren’t named were not seminary graduates, with “Reverend” before their names. They were just people in Philippi who had met Jesus as Savior and Lord. That qualified them as team members and fellow workers with Paul in the cause of the gospel. If you know Christ as Savior, you’re on the same team! Get off the bench and into the game!

Discussion Questions

  1. What doctrines are significant enough to divide over? How much doctrinal unity if required to work effectively together?
  2. What is the most difficult aspect about going to someone who has wronged you? Is it always required, or do some problems just work themselves out over time if left alone?
  3. Does the Bible support particular methods, or is one method as good as another as long as it works?
  4. Are denominations sinful divisions? Should we drop all denominational distinctives and meet together as one church?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry