Confronting Conflict with the Gospel #2: Are You Fighting With Your Partners?
I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. Philippians 1:4-5
I hate conflict in the church as much as anyone. But we all know it happens—and sometimes we are in the thick of it, sometimes even the cause of it. Lots of reasons flash through our minds about why we are right. Or why the others are unspiritual and should be rebuked. And because we are determined to win, friendships are broken. Ministries are upended. Division happens. Paul knew this from experience with Barnabas, his mentor and friend. Barnabas had been his entrée into the Antioch church leadership team, as well as his partner in the gospel, sent together with him on a mission journey that would see many come to faith.
Barnabas was the ‘son of encouragement.’ So when his nephew, Mark, somehow failed to hang in there on this first mission trip, Paul wrote him off. Not Barnabas. When they were packing for the second trip, Barnabas mentioned his plans to bring Mark with them again. “Nothing doing!” was Paul’s retort. The argument got so hot that they ended up going on separate mission journeys, Paul with Silas, Barnabas with Mark. It was on that second mission trip that Paul took the gospel to Philippi.
Now Paul is in a Roman prison for the sake of the gospel, guiding them from afar through a letter on how to handle their internal division. Since this is about conflict, you may be wondering why Paul didn’t hammer them as he seemingly did the foolish Galatians? Or why didn’t he call them out like he did the factions in Corinth? Why doesn’t Paul come in with guns blazing, rebukes galore?
I think he had learned something from the Lord since his episode with Barnabas—some conflicts are more the product of stupidity than spirituality. Also, there is bitterness in coming out on top—alone.
Conflicts have levels. They stretch from Level 1 Conflict (in which we see that there is a problem we need to promptly address) and then can continue to reach to a Level 5 Conflict (where people are going out the door vowing to destroy those they leave behind). I’ve observed that a certain segment of the church believe every conflict level should be approached as if it were a nail and they are God’s hammer. Whack! Whack! Whack! I am not sure that they wouldn’t use a hammer even if they had a full array of other tools because whacking people seems so righteous to them. I also see that their fellowships tend to get smaller and smaller as they ‘win’ at their conflicts.
There are so many things for believers to get into conflict over. Fights over personal differences, ideology and preferences. The color of the paint and how much should be budgeted for missions. Or that the same people always seem to be in charge. Or the failure to appreciate the next generation.
The truth is, a lot of what we fight about is rooted in our lack of humility and respect for each other (Philippians 2:3-4). As painful as these disputes may be, they are not about eternal matters. People will be divided because of them, but no one will be lost to Jesus’ kingdom. Paul wasn’t. Barnabas wasn’t. Not even Mark was eternally damned due to his lost courage on that first missionary journey. In fact, later Paul would come to see Mark’s value as a partner for the sake of the gospel differently.
Paul is concerned, yes, but not angry at Euodia and Syntache who are at the center of the conflict. Understand that Paul’s light-handedness in dealing with their conflict does not mean the conflict is not real. It just has not reached Level 5— so divisive that their relationship could not be restored.
The gospel was not being corrupted by them as it was among the Galatian churches. Factions had not formed around them, bringing confusion over the gospel as it had in Corinth. They were not even practicing the kind of public sin that Paul had to call out in 1 Corinthians 5. No, they with the rest of the Philippian believers were people who partnered with Paul to get the gospel out to others. The church both sent support to make sure he could devote his energies to proclamation (Philippians 4:14-16) and worked hard at proclaiming it themselves (Philippians 4:3).
In fact, it is the gospel that Paul leans into in order to address the conflict. He will tell them to stand in unity for the sake of the gospel in chapter 1; reference it in chapter 2 in order to challenge them to imitate Jesus’ humility; and teach them to have no confidence in the flesh but to desire a righteousness by faith that comes from knowing Christ in chapter 3. I’ll talk about Paul’s use of the gospel more as I continue to explore his approach to conflict resolution in Philippians.