Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Philippians: When Church Ladies Collide

I recently spent a Saturday with family, including my grandmother. (She learned that I blog here. Hi Grandma!) I was still struggling with and rewriting the sermon I was going to preach the next day. “Would you like to practice on us?” grandma inquired. “Maybe,” I replied, “I’m not sure it’s quite ready yet.” “What are you preaching on?” she asked. “Philippians,” I answered. “Never mind,” she said, “Don’t practice on us after all. I can’t stand Paul.”

I get where she’s coming from. We’ve talked about this before, and her problem with Paul mostly has to do with his problematic teachings about women. (I’ll write about those someday soon, I promise.) I used to feel the same way, and those words that bother her still bother me. But I’ve changed my mind about Paul, and it’s because of things like these verses from this Sunday’s lectionary passage, also from Philippians:

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:2-3)

I didn’t used to pay attention to passages like this one, passages that speak so clearly and specifically to someone else. They seemed so distant, written to speak to some other place and time. But I am so glad they’re in our Bible. For one thing, they remind us that epistles are “someone else’s mail,” written to particular communities, often about those communities’ particular problems, frequently in response to letters from those communities that we will never get to read.

But more importantly, they record a Paul who speaks not just about women, but to women. Passages written to women leaders in various local churches (there are several of them) make it clear that Paul saw women as compatriots and “co-workers,” leaders of the fledgling church.

I wonder who Euodia and Syntyche were? We’ll never know. Clearly they were having some sort of disagreement that was affecting that church community. What we do know is this: Paul takes their dispute seriously; he urges them to resolve their differences; he affirms them as colleagues, leaders, and Christians. He doesn’t dismiss their argument as frivolous. He doesn’t make snide remarks about “cat fights” or “parking lot matriarchs.” He doesn’t try to use his status to force them into silence or out of leadership. I've seen some churches do worse in the twenty-first century.

Maybe we still have a few things to learn from Paul.

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