Friday, 2 November 2012

Conflict resolution

PHILIPPIANS 4:2-3

I'd like to speak this evening about conflict resolution!

Here we have two women who have fallen out with each other.

It is tragic.
Both are believers. Their names are in the book of life. They have far more in common than they have that is different. We'll see this a little later on.
Both are women who have worked together - and together with Paul. They have, we are told, 'contended for the gospel'. That implies that it has not been easy; it has cost them. They have struggled, they have fought for the gospel: they have battled to proclaim the message of the good news about Jesus Christ.

And now they have fallen out.

Paul, who is writing this letter, is not perfect. 


He knows what it is like to fall out with fellow believers, with people with whom he has worked.

He had argued with Barnabas about Mark. Paul doesn't want Mark to come with them on a missionary journey because Mark has already let them down once. But Barnabas is prepared to give Mark a second chance. And as a result Paul and Barnabas part ways (Acts 16:35ff)

And Paul falls out with Peter. Peter refuses to eat with Gentiles, and Paul challenges him (Galatians 2). 
So Paul knows the pain that comes when people are in conflict; he knows the anxiety and stress, the sleepless nights; and he knows how it is when people start to take sides; and he knows how the work of the gospel is set back when people who should be brothers and sisters find that they are, instead, enemies.

But if Paul knows what it is like to fall out with fellow believers, he also knows what it is like for those disputes to be resolved. And his relationship with Barnabas is resolved (Colossians 4:10), and Peter - towards the end of his life - confirms that Paul's writings are complicated, but that they are also sacred and authoritative. 

And because he knows what it is like to fall out with others, and because he knows what it is to be reconciled, Paul here urges these two women, Euodia and Syntyche to 'be of the same mind in the Lord'.

We don't know what this particular dispute is about.

It might have been over a person or an issue or a different approach to doing things. It might be that here were two people who would not naturally like each other, and that natural mistrust had been allowed to grow and fester. One of the great marks of a real church is that it is not made up of people who naturally like each other.
Or it could have been one of those myriad reasons why people fall out with each other: money, jealousy, love, pride, unforgiveness, resentment, a feeling that the other has taken us for granted or not shown us the respect we deserve.

Whatever, Paul has heard about this dispute, he realises the damage that it is causing, and he is not prepared to leave it at that.

1. He urges Euodia and Syntyche 'to be of the same mind'.

It is exactly the same phrase that he uses earlier when he appeals to the Philippian Christians 'to be like-minded' (Philippians 2:2), to have in them the same 'attitude of mind' that Christ Jesus had.
And in Philippians 2, Paul reminds the Christians in this city of Philippi that they are united in Christ, that they have received comfort in their troubles from the love of God, that they share the Holy Spirit who begins to give to them the same longing and desire for God, and that the Holy Spirit is starting to change them and to soften them and give them the gift of compassion.
But in Philippians 2, he also challenges them not to be controlled by selfish ambition or vain conceit. He urges them to consider others as more important than themselves, and to look to the interests of others rather than their own interests.

There is much wisdom here. 

When we do look to the interests of others, we often help ourselves. The other day I was in the car driving down a very narrow road with cars parked on both sides. A car came in the opposite direction. We met in the middle and looked at each other. For me, the nearest place to back was at the end of the street from where I had just come. For the other driver, it was two cars away. But she was obviously not going to move, and I bottled first. So I reversed. It took a bit of time, perhaps slightly longer than it might have done (I needed to make a point) - and at the end of the road, I have to say in my defence unintentionally, I blocked the way that she intended to go, so it took us even  longer. But I did think as I drove again down the street, it really would have been much much quicker if both of us had considered the other persons interests and not only our own - because then the whole operation would have been over in a much shorter time.

But in Philippians 2 Paul is not just urging us to consider the interests of others as well as ourselves. He urges us to have nothing less than the mind of Christ Jesus. And Jesus Christ was prepared to be crucified in order that we might become sons and daughters of God.

And here in Philippians 4, he urges Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind - the mind that is in Jesus Christ. He is not necessarily asking them to agree. He is not even asking them to like each other. Christians don't need to agree on everything - we will disagree on politics, pacifism, sexuality, how to interpret the bible, gender roles, climate change. You name it; we'll disagree on it. 


But it doesn't matter, because Paul is asking them to remember what they have in common in Jesus. They've both been shown immense love by God. They have both received forgiveness beyond imagination. They've both received the Spirit. They are both part of one body, the Church. They are both being changed into the likeness of Jesus. 
And they are to stop thinking of their reputation and their status. They are to stop thinking of what is in their own interest - and they are to start thinking how they can best grow the other, and how they can best advance the work of the gospel.

And so I do urge you, if you have fallen out with a fellow believer, remember what you have in common with them; think of how - not your but - their interests can best be served, and how the interests of the gospel can best be served. 


Paul is in prison when he writes this letter. It is interesting that at the beginning of the letter he talks of those who preach Jesus Christ out of envy, intending to make his position in prison even worse. But he does not call down curses on them. He doesn't ask his followers to do them in, or even to go into the streets and oppose them. He doesn't even try to plot against them. Instead he trusts his case to God, and he delights that because of this, even if it is for the wrong reason, the message about Jesus Christ is proclaimed.

So if you have fallen out with someone who is a believer; if you profoundly disagree with them; if you don't like them - even though it is hard, do remember that it is not impossible to be reconciled. Because you are, through the Spirit, in Christ - and through the Spirit you can begin to see them as Christ sees them. 

And if you have fallen our with an unbeliever, may I urge you - even more so - to have the mind of Christ. Think of their interests, their real interest: which is that they might come to know Christ. And whatever you do, even if they have hurt you very badly, let God be the judge, follow Jesus and consider them as being of more value than yourself. What am I in comparison with you? I am a dead dog - albeit a forgiven and beloved dead dog!

Augustine wrote that the reason we love our enemy, that we pray for those who persecute us, is that they might become our friend and our brother in Christ.

2. Paul appeals to his 'yoke-fellow' or 'true-companion' to help these women have the same mind in The Lord.

We don't know who this 'true-companion is', but he is asked to be a peacemaker. 


And there are times when we see people in dispute that we are called to step in and be reconcilers. 

It is not necessarily about taking sides. Paul here doesn't take sides. But it is about reminding both how much they have received from Christ, about the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus, about the astonishing love of God and about what God calls us to be.

Division paralyses the Church. 

Don't allow bitterness or resentment or hurt pride to eat you up. 

On one occasion Jesus told his disciples that if they were on the way to the temple to offer their sacrifice (this was before he had died), they realised that their brother or sister had something against them, they were to first go to their brother or sister and be reconciled, and then make their offering.  
And when Jesus teaches the Lord's prayer, he says - and it is very dramatic - that if we are not prepared to forgive our brother or sister, God is not prepared to forgive us. 

This is really really important. That is why Paul is writing and asking his 'true-companion' to help these women sort it out. 


In one of the churches where I served as minister there were two women who were both remarkable in their work for the gospel. They both ran different but quite outstanding ministries; and they were both very very similar. That was part of the problem. The first was jealous of the second and the second tried to lord it over the first. They were at each other's throats - and as a result the work that they did was suffering, and as a minister I had to spend endless hours trying to get them to agree. In the end I gave up and simply separated the two ministries - with the result that they were able to get on with their work apart from the other. In one sense it was a great triumph - the ministries flourished; in another sense we simply swept the issues under the carpet - and they did come out again, in a much bigger way, thankfully after I left the church! 

That experience has made me very cautious about trying to get people to agree 'in the Lord' when they themselves are not prepared to be reconciled. But it has also made me acutely aware of how destructive it is when people are in conflict. 

In the end, if you are in dispute with someone, other people can help, but it is down to you. You can choose to let it go, or you can choose to hold on to the hurt, to keep the wound open and allow it to go septic and cancerous. 

With Paul I would plead with you, if you are in dispute with someone, 'to be of the same mind in the Lord'. 

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