October 19, 2011

Context Counts: Conflict Resolution in Philippians

Philippians 4:4 is a well-known verse: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." It's brief. It's happy. It is easily recalled. There's even a song about it that we all learned as children. And that's good. It's a worthy exhortation to be committed to memory.

But in Philippians this command to rejoice in the Lord does not come without context. There was a problem in the church in Philippi. There was some element of divisiveness. To what extent, we are not sure. But we can be certain that Paul felt it important enough to publicly call out the two parties at the heart of the disunity: Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3).

Paul's exhortation to rejoice comes on the heels of his call for the Philippians to resolve their differences and maintain the unity of the church, and in many translations it is marked by the beginning of a new paragraph. I wonder whether this is helpful. It gives the impression that Paul is moving on to some other topic. It seems to signal that he is finished with the call to unity and is moving on to more general instructions about rejoicing, gentleness, and gratitude (4:4-7).

But what if that's not what is happening at all? It is worth remembering that the original manuscripts did not contain paragraph breaks. So, in the original text, Paul's instruction to pursue and maintain peace was immediately followed by his command to rejoice. What if the commands to rejoice, be gentle, not worry, pray, and be grateful were really intended as keys to resolving the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche? If that's the case, verse 4 is probably not the best place to begin a new paragraph.

Context matters here. Paul doesn't command unity and then leave the Philippians to figure out how to implement it. If the Philippians were focused on rejoicing in the Lord, they are less likely to be antagonistic towards one another. If they are acting with gentleness, it will counteract the easily enacted harshness that comes with conflict. Recognizing the presence of the Lord should lead them to think twice about their bickering.

So, while the verse with the double command to rejoice is commendable as a memory verse, we would do well to remember it's original context and original application. Rejoicing in the Lord is at the heart of maintaining the unity of the local church.
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2 comments:

ἐκκλησία said...

Very interesting post Matt. Nice observations about Philippians. Your comments about Philippians are somewhat reminiscent of what Paul was addressing in [2 Corinthians].

In the Corinthian case, the division was about Paul himself; questioning his credentials and bickering (at least by some) against Paul [2 Cor 11:1-13] and his credibility. They were critical of the choices Paul made, such as his delay visiting Corinth [2 Cor 1:23] or his decision to forgo visiting Troias (Troy) [2 Cor 2:12]. He was critical of some practices they tolerated.

Quoting you about context, you say "If the Philippians were focused on rejoicing in the Lord, they are less likely to be antagonistic towards one another." which is a good observation. Yet while the Corinthians were apparently rejoicing in the Lord, their problems stemmed from a tolerance of false notions.

They lacked maturity in their faith and so had accepted false doctrine, which included a tolerance for carnality, which lead to division. This is why they were experiencing real issues. Yet because the conflicts within these communities were recorded, and work through publicly (by God fearing Christians), we now have available some of the most beautiful (and practical) scripture available.

In Philippians we have deeply moving christological passages (especially in [Phil 2]) which help illustrate the role grace plays in the spiritual growth of a congregation. We also have examples of how a community of believers are to order their finances.

In 2nd Corinthians, their weakness has presented us clear evidence that God's glory is most evident when He uses us despite our failings. The issues that the Corinthians were facing, and their criticisms of Paul, which prompted him to respond, shows us that God glorifies Himself in our life through faith, in both successes and failings, especially failings.

These letters are both very moving and deeply insightful. Thank God Paul was called to address difficulties! Thank God that you are called to blog! Thank you for blogging, as you do, about the things you do, in the manner that you do, and for engaging others in dialogue.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Thanks very much for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoy the blog. Thanks for being a faithful reader.

Matt