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When Christians Quarrel

by Rev. Robert E. Haynes, PhD
Director of Education and Leadership
World Methodist Evangelism

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel…” Philippians 4:1-3

Paul writes these words to the young Philippian church. We know from Acts 16 that Paul had a profound experience in Philippi after sharing the Gospel there. He went there in obedience to a message in a vision from the Lord. A community leader named Lydia, a Philippian jailer, and others responded favorably to Paul’s invitation to follow Jesus and were baptized. As was Paul’s pattern, he established a church there before moving on to spread the Good News in other cities.

However, the letter to the Philippians shows us that it did not take long for the church to run into conflict. Euodia and Syntyche are at odds with one another for reasons that are not entirely clear to us. It may have been something as trite as the modern-day disagreements in some churches, like arguing over the color of the paint. However, it was enough to cause problems in the new church and to get back to Paul who was sitting in prison waiting for the Roman guards to bring him before Caesar.

Paul’s solution to the disagreement is simple and profound: he reminds them that they were, at one time, focused together on the cause of the gospel. Today’s church, just like the church in Paul’s time, is not immune from disagreement about matters both large and small. As I have said in this space before, theology matters. There are significant issues that the church should address with sound biblical, theological work that leads to right thinking and right practice. We should work hard to lovingly seek a scriptural holiness of life and practice. However, the matter Paul addresses here must not have been too significant since he does not directly address the principles of the matter. Nonetheless, such quarrels can be a device of the Enemy to distract from the Gospel of Jesus Christ and can hurt our witness for Christ to the world. The world outside the church is looking around asking, “Why would I want to be a part of that sort of fighting?” Yet, the number of people who are interested in learning about a relationship with God is not decreasing but increasing. How, then, can the church bear witness to messages of hope and joy amidst internal conflict? We can begin by adjusting our focus. Let me offer a story as an example.

A woman came to her pastor complaining and informing him that she was never coming back to church. She said too many people were dressing inappropriately, others were spending too much time playing on their phones, and the kids were too noisy. She was fed up.

The pastor calmly reached into a nearby cabinet and took out a small waterglass. He gave her the glass and said, “Fill this glass all the way to the top. Very carefully carry it around the block without spilling a single drop and come back here.” She was puzzled by the request but followed it anyway.

When she returned, she proudly set the glass on the desk. “I did it without spilling a drop, just like you asked. I focused on it with all my attention and energy and accomplished it!”

“Great!” the pastor replied. “Now, how many people on the sidewalk were making too much noise with their kids, playing on their phones, and weren’t dressed properly?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I was focused on the job you gave me to do.”

“So, it is with the church,” the pastor said. “When we place our attention on the things Christ asked us to do, we will not be distracted by the small things that would get in the way.”

Just like the New Testament church, the modern-day church is not immune from quarrels. However, we do well to remember that we are to live peaceably with others: “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18) Jesus described his ministry as “living water” to meet the deep needs of a thirsty world. He also invited us to participate in the great privilege of carrying that message to others. (Can you picture yourself carrying that water glass?) When we focus on the cause of the gospel above all else, we will bear a faithful witness to the Church and the World that rises above the distractions of potential quarrels.