As I’ve been reading through Romans this summer (in preparation for our men’s bible studies this Fall), one of the things that has struck me is Paul’s commitment to having one united church in Rome. Now, of course, physically, the church in Rome would have been made up of various house churches but, spiritually, they are one. So that one could just as easily go to any of these house churches and find welcome in the one body of Christ there.
Paul will not let the Roman church divide into comfortable groups of Jews and Gentiles. Nor will he let them divide down other convenient lines: rich and poor, strong and weak (as defined in Romans), powerful and powerless. Rather he calls them to “love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). And he really spends quite a lot of time and energy ensuring full integration of the church community… time and energy I’m not sure we would spend!
It is perhaps easiest to see what this looks like on an individual level and nowhere do we have a clearer example than the curious case of Euodia and Syntyche found in Philippians 4. Known only for their hard-to-pronounce names and for having the misfortune of being called out by Paul in his letter, we can’t be sure the exact nature of their disagreement.
However, what we can say, is that the disagreement wasn’t over an essential theological issue, because Paul would have addressed such an important issue (as he does in other places). Likewise the disagreement wasn’t over something completely trivial, since it would not have merited mention in a letter to the entire church. And clearly it was spilling over to have an effect on the church as a whole.
It seems, then, that this disagreement lands in that gray middle ground where most of our own disagreements reside – important (at least to us) but not essential (not that important).
If left unresolved, these things will almost certainly spill over into our wider church community with great negative effect.
These days, we might solve such a disagreement by just changing churches to find people who agree with us (at least in this instance). But Paul does not consider this kind of disagreement to require separation, rather he sees the value in both parties, specifically as co-laborers with him for the gospel.
The Philippian church should not lose one (or both) of these faithful Christ followers, nor should their disagreement continue to grow until it tears apart the community. Instead, helped by their community, Euodia and Syntyche must work towards Unity in Christ, which is made possible by the Spirit who is at work in both of them.
It seems clear that this will not be easy for these two. In fact, it will probably be a difficult and painful process. But this is what the gospel calls us to!
In my own life, I have found that a lack of face to face interaction leads to less empathy in my interactions with others. Misunderstandings happen more easily, annoyances and frustrations grow and there becomes no room for the benefit of the doubt.
Facing an extended period with less face to face interaction combined with the fatigue that comes from all our online interactions, we must take Paul’s attitude to heart all the more.
And so may we, empowered by the Spirit, overcome our disagreements and work towards Unity in Christ, difficult and painful though it may be. And may our hard-won unity reflect the heart of Jesus to the world.