Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Were Euodia and Syntyche squabbling? Or, has Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:2 activated the sexist bias within the guild of New Testament scholars?

October 12, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9

Were Euodia and Syntyche squabbling? Or, has Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:2 activated the sexist bias within the guild of New Testament scholars?

It is, I think, the latter. Scholars wrongly assume that because Paul asked the two women to agree they must have been disagreeing. This is partially an honest mistake based on unfamiliarity with the way Greco-Roman moral exhortation worked. People in antiquity were often encouraged to do what they were already doing; this was the polite way of moral direction. We see an example of this in Philippians 2:2 where Paul exhorts the whole community to “imagine the world in the same way” (a better translation is “to agree”). Since most scholars detect no conflict within the church at Philippi, something suspicious is going on when the same phrase spoken to two women suddenly becomes a sure sign they are arguing. Blatant sexism shows itself when commentators bolster their claim about Euodia and Syntyche by stating or implying that women in general, when left on their own, spat.

Let’s try a different approach to 4:2-3. Assume that Euodia and Syntyche are missionaries on an equal footing with Paul. Then these verses might be read as a miniature letter of recommendation by Paul to the church at Philippi on behalf of Euodia and Syntyche, something like his writing for Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. The help that he wishes the church will give to them has nothing to do with settling an argument. Rather, it is a matter of financial support. Is there evidence for this reconstruction?

Paul’s nickname for the church in 4:3, “genuine yokefellow,” is more than an endearing touch. The yoke in ancient literature was an important symbol of cooperative effort. Friends were yokefellows, as were married couples. In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul warns the community against accepting the leadership of Christian missionaries whom Paul disapproves; the church is not to be “misyoked.”

A brief detour into early Christian sociology helps explain the significance of the yoke. In the earliest days of the Christian movement, there was a tension between two groups of believers. One took seriously Jesus’ demand to be rid of possessions and follow him. These were the missionaries who travelled from city to city preaching the Kingdom of God while relying upon owners of houses for food, lodging, and other travel needs. Their authority came from a radical commitment to poverty and their freedom to travel from severed family ties, or the refusal to enter into marriage in the first place. Paul was this kind of Christian. The other group was composed of urban dwellers, some of whom owned houses and property, engaged in everyday business, and maintained families. Converted to the movement by the wandering missionaries, these urban dwellers could come in for criticism for their easier way of life and engagement with the world. The missionaries, on the other hand, were often accused of free-loading and religious huckstering.

The yoke became a symbol of reduced tension and cooperation between the two groups. The two are yoked together when the urban dwellers support the missionaries who in turn travel to spread the gospel. Paul has entered into this kind of relationship with the Philippians and reminds them of it when he addresses them as “genuine yokefellow.” He then folds Euodia and Syntyche into his own apostolic status; they are worthy of the same financial support he has received. He highlights their status as leaders in three ways.

First, he associates them with Clement, himself, and the rest of his co-workers−and to be clear, co-workers are not subordinates.

Second, he says that the two women have been “co-athletes” with him in the gospel. Unfortunately, the athletic imagery in 4:3 has disappeared from most translations since the time of the Latin Vulgate, which inexplicably used laborare to translate Paul’s sunathlein. We should think of Euodia and Syntyche running in the stadium with Paul, not working by his side. Though this is astounding. Why?

Athletics in ancient Greece was for males only. Only males competed. Only males watched. Naked they ran. And after a disquieting episode at Olympia in which a mother dressed up as a man and snuck into the stadium to watch her two sons compete, naked they watched. By calling Euodia and Syntyche his co-athletes, Paul does three things at once. He draws attention to their gender. He makes space for his readers to object “but it is the wrong gender for public leadership!” And, finally, he insists on their participation in the games.

Recall last week’s discussion of liminality. Beginning with Philippians 3:4, Paul narrates his own transition from one world to the next. Like a bride waiting for the wedding so that she might be united with the groom, Paul exists between two social worlds. One of the structures that Paul leaves behind is gender. He is the bride in this story, after all. In this in-between state, Paul cannot possibly base his confidence for public ministry on the status his gender grants him; rather, his confidence resides in hope of sharing all that belongs to the groom, Christ. This seems to be the meaning of Philippians 3:3. Note also how he claims to have exited the status-granting institutions of Judaism. Paul implies that these institutions were based on circumcision (3:5), an accent mark on the male body.

Might it be that Paul wrote Philippians 3:1-4:1 as an introduction to his request for the church at Philippi to assist Euodia and Syntyche in their ministry? This makes sense, because here Paul lays out reasons why he has confidence for ministry. And it is not his gender. In fact, Paul raises the stakes and slips in confessional phrases in 3:8 (“Christ Jesus my Lord”), 3:20 (“the Lord Jesus Christ”), and 4:1 (“stand in the Lord”). He implies that the Lordship of Jesus is at stake in the church’s support of Euodia’s and Syntyche’s ministry. To deny them status would be the same as denying their sharing all things with Christ. Since Christ’s lordship is his sharing all that he is and all that he has with humans (see Philippians 2:6-11), the church must affirm their ministry. To do otherwise, to base leadership on the structures that have traditionally organized human experience, gender included, is to proclaim that Jesus is less than Lord.