How to be reconciled in four words
By Jim Van Yperen
Two church leaders, Success and Lucky, are in conflict.
We don’t know what their disagreement is about. In fact, we know very little about either person except this: Lucky and Success are followers of Jesus, they are ministering together in the same church, but something has ruptured their relationship and hindered the ministry of the gospel. We don’t know what or how. All we have is their names, and that is unusual. Paul rarely names names, except greeting friends at the end of his letters. Success and Lucky are certainly close to Paul. Indeed, the two leaders have been partners with Paul serving a community he repeatedly refers to as his “joy,” and his “beloved brothers and sisters.” But Paul is not greeting the two leaders, and this is not the end of the letter. Paul is admonishing them by name. Why?
We can surmise that Lucky and Success have been in disagreement for some time, at least long enough for the news to reach the ears of Paul, who is probably in Rome, in prison. Further, the issue between the two women must be important for Paul to mention it in a letter read publicly to the entire congregation.
Thus, we have a perfect scenario to learn how Paul addresses two leaders in conflict. Let’s follow his instruction step by step . . .
Step One: Paul admonishes Lucky and Success to “agree in the Lord.”
Step Two: Well, there is no second step, or third or fourth.
Paul says four words, “agree in the Lord.” To our ears, Paul seems to be dismissing the conflict, like saying, “Get over it!” or “Stop it.” He does not seem to care about what the issue is or who has the better argument. Apparently there has been no investigation, no interviews, no taking sides, no building a case with whispered meetings in the back foyer. Just this, “agree in the Lord.” Hardly the stuff of deep learning, is it? But then, why bring it up at all? But if Paul thinks the matter is important enough to address, then why just four words? Are we missing something?
Perhaps the best way to sort this out is to make it practical. Imagine a conflict in your life—some disagreement that has festered between you and another person you care about, a person who believes in Jesus as you do, maybe even a person whom you minister with. Got an example in your mind? Okay, thinking about that issue, listen to Paul’s advice: “agree in the Lord.” What can those four words teach you?
What does it mean to agree?
Words matter. Understanding comes when interpretation conforms to exact meaning. This is why we so often find ourselves in conflict. We assume what words mean without checking what the speaker intended to say. For example, the first word Paul uses is “agree.” Immediately, we have a problem. We don’t like people telling us what to do, especially people who we did not ask for help and who are don’t know all the reasons why we disagree. So, our first response might be, “Who asked you?” or “Who are you to tell me what to do!” Also, most of us have a problem with authority. We don’t like someone over us correcting us, and we definitely don’t like being called out publicly? Read a letter like this in any church today and you will have at least one person saying, “Quick, find a lawyer. Let’s sue Paul.”
Another typical reaction to being admonished might be that cynical, sarcastic voice shouting in your other ear, “Agree! How can I agree when she is wrong!” In this case, the word “agree” is assumed to have compromise written all over it, a kind of wishy-washy concession that only weak people make. We want power and power comes by spinning the truth in our direction, “proving” how “I am right,” and “She is wrong.” Of course, this is merely self-deception all dressed up in righteous indignation. So we say or think things like, “God is calling me to stand on the truth!” Indeed, we might proof text our position by quoting Scripture, “Just one verse ago, Paul told me to ‘stand firm’ so that’s what I’m doing. I’m standing my ground. I’m standing up for truth. I’m standing on integrity!” Defensive and aggressive people like to get huffy about such things. They are itching for a fight.
But perhaps these responses don’t describe you at all. You are not defensive or aggressive. You are a person who loves and cares about people. So, you will receive Paul‘s words with welcome relief. After all, you don’t want to fight. People get hurt in fights. You want to get along, not make waves. Secretly, of course, you are convinced that you are right and the other is wrong. You just won’t make a big deal about it. We’ll simply :”agree to disagree” while subtly undermining and sabotaging what the other person wants to do. That must be what Paul is saying.
Of course, that is not what Paul is saying and a closer look at the exact meaning of words will help us understand. Paul uses the Greek word phroneo, a difficult word to translate and communicate fully in English. He uses a form of this word ten times in the letter, translated variably as “like-minded,” “agree,” “attitude” or “live in harmony.”
Stephen Fowl, in his commentary on Philippians, translates phroneo as “exercising judgment,” a “comprehensive pattern of judgment that involves thinking, feeling and acting.” For Fowl, phroneo means more than simple agreement or some intellectual assent, it is bigger, including a process for practical and moral reasoning. To agree is this sense is a reasoning process guided by some purpose, goal or vision outside of oneself.
What is this foundational source of reasoning for Paul? Clearly, it is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, when Paul admonishes leaders in conflict to exercise judgment “in the Lord” he is pointing the two leaders (and you and I) back to the way Jesus thought, felt and acted when confronted by the cross. He is pointing back to what he wrote earlier in the letter, “Let this be your pattern of thinking, acting and feeling, which was displayed in Christ Jesus . . .”
Do you see? Paul is not directing the two leaders to hammer out some compromise through negotiated settlement. And he is not simply dismissing the issue. Rather, Paul exhorts leaders in conflict to conform their attitude, feelings and actions in the Lord. Paul is saying, “You are looking at the wrong things!” This is why Paul does not mention or express concern about the specific disagreement. For Paul, the issue is not the real issue. The real issue is conforming and submitting one’s whole being--including our conflicts--to Jesus, Who is Lord.
What does it mean to be in the Lord?
To agree in the Lord means entering into practices of thinking, feeling and acting that go against every human inclination, but are vital for transformation. It means:
- Willfully emptying yourself of thoughts about having a corner on truth, or inside knowledge of God. Have you been formed to think about God and Scripture as a kind truth one masters? It is easy to fall into this kind of thinking. When we do our mind turns prosecutor and defender. Compare this to Jesus who had every claim to divine authority, yet emptied himself of any need to prove who he was. What are you trying to prove?
- Truly feeling the pain, frailty and deceptiveness of selfishness and finite power. What is the deep unmet need or unhealed hurt that is driving you to think the way you do? Is it love? Respect? Success? Attention? Desire is at the root of all conflict. Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. . . Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
- Humbly giving yourself to the other as a servant—even the person who is against you. “In humility consider others better than yourself.” Whose interest do you really have in mind in this conflict? Would the person you disagree with describe you as a humble servant? Why not?
When Paul admonishes two leaders to “agree in the Lord,” he is telling them to practice a comprehensive way of thinking, feeling and acting that Jesus modeled for us when He submitted to the cross. What if you and the person you are in disagreement with both took this path?
And if you are willing be like Jesus, but the other is not? Just do what Jesus did. Forgive.
Do you agree?
1. The two women, of course, are Euodia and Syntyche mentioned in Philippians 4:2. Their names roughly mean Success and Lucky. Their conflict probably has nothing to do with their names, but Success and Lucky are easier to pronounce and keep our minds focused on the lesson rather than gender.
2. See my book, Making Peace for a complete description of these four common conflict styles and how each make the conflict worse.
3. Congratulations! You are probably passive or evasive.
4. Philippians: Two Horizons New Testament Commentary, Stephen Fowl, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Gran Rapids, 2005. Page 28
5. Philippians 2:5
6. James 4:1-2
7. Philippians 2:3a,4
8. Philippians 2:3a,4
9. Luke 23:34