Dealing with disagreement, finding purpose in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

You might want to disagree with me, you might be right, but it seems Paul’s letter to the Philippians deals throughout with the difficult reality of disagreement between gospel partners.   I believe the pastoral purpose is found in its closing chapter.  Paul’s aim is to bring peace between Euodia and Syntyche following their disagreement.  His pastoral approach is to change the heart and focus on gospel priorities.  The more I have read the letter, the more I have come to appreciate Paul’s purpose is to get our hearts right when disagreement arises and to keep gospel partners working together.  I wonder if he learned these lessons after his bust up with Barnabas.

I now read the letter with this question in mind:  How does what Paul is saying here change my heart when I find myself in disagreement with a gospel partner?

Paul names two women in the church who have had a bust up, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2).  Paul’s purpose in writing is to bring peace between those who have disagreed.

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:7)

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:9)

My heart, when I disagree with another Christian, can be filled with self pity, fear, discouragement, a sense of injustice, anger, sadness about the situation, legalism, negative thoughts about the other person and a tendency to dig up the past. I can forget gospel priorities and make these issue about my being heard, understood and treated fairly. Paul addresses all of these heart issues in his letter.

In the immediate context of chapter 4, Paul writes about how to respond in a disagreement: Don’t focus on the issue, rejoice in the Lord; don’t bristle but be gentle; and don’t be anxious, but pray with thanksgiving.  Don’t think negatively about the person you disagree with, but focus on whatever is true, noble, excellent, pure, lovely and praise worthy about the other person.

As I read the rest of the letter, I can’t do anything but join the dots with chapter 4.

As he opens the letter, Paul gives thanks for all the Philippians, including Euodia and Syntyche.  He speaks of how he yearns for them all with the affection of Christ, he prays for love to abound more and more, in knowledge and depth of insight.  Have you ever tried being thankful for someone you have fallen out with, or yearned for them with the love of Christ, or prayed for love to abound?  What happens to your heart as you do?

Paul assures the Philippians that he is confident that God will complete what he started in the church.  Disagreement and division can be so discouraging.  We might think that the church will surely shrink and die.  Remember that God will complete his work through disagreements, as we learn to put into practice what Paul teaches (Phil 4:9).

Paul then speaks of the injustice of his jail sentence, but doesn’t complain, rather, he rejoices that Christ is made known through his sufferings.  It is vital for us to see injustice and suffering in the context of gospel proclamation.  If I am treated with injustice, what does it matter, as long as Christ is made known? The antidote to selfishly seeking my way is to put the proclamation of Christ first.

Paul calls the Philippians to live a life worthy of the gospel; standing together for the gospel and being willing to suffer, as he does.  Paul does not belittle his suffering, he’d rather die, and be with Christ.

In chapter 2, Paul exhorts believers to seek out the encouragement of being united to Christ, their comfort from his love and fellowship in the Spirit, tenderness and compassion.  These are all prerequisites to being of one mind. We are to find the smallest fragment of encouragement, comfort and love between believers because of Christ and the Spirit, to avoid the disagreement becoming all consuming and divisive.

We instinctively put our own needs first, arguing for our own advantage.  But Paul says we should think of others as more significant than ourselves and to consider their needs as well as our own.

Humility is vital.  Humility is the same attitude as Christ, who let go of his status, office and reputation, to become a servant, to be humble before God and obedient to God.

Believers are to shine like stars in this corrupt and depraved generation, by doing everything without complaining or arguing (Phil 2:14).

Paul then gives the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus, who have had it hard in life and ministry but are concerned for the welfare of the Philippians.  No grumbling.  Other person focused.

In chapter three, Paul highlights the danger of legalistic practices. What causes more heat in disagreement than religious legalism?  Paul considers it all rubbish compared to knowing Christ.

And we are to put off the past, it can’t be changed.  Press on toward the goal.  How often do we dig up the past in disagreements?  Churn up old soil.  Pick at old wounds.  We can’t keep living there.  Instead, keep focused on heavenly things, the goal.

And then chapter 4.  With hearts prepared by the first three chapters, Paul addresses the women by name and calls them to agree in the Lord.

This is a brief overview of the purpose of the letter to the Philippians, as I understand it. You might disagree.

I encourage you to read the letter with this question in mind.  How does what Paul is saying here change my heart when I disagree with a gospel partner?

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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