The Power of Change or:
What Christian Women Can Learn From the Philippians
It is a strange thought, but very true: the first church, which at times we idealize, was not perfect! In fact, it was so imperfect that the apostles, who were no naturals in writing, started writing letters to the churches as those, once left alone, started missing doctrinal points and struggling to live up to the standards of a godly life.
Frankly, the bigger part of the New Testament would not have been written, were it not for the imperfections of the incipient church! Most letters bear witness to a creative chaos in the churches– if want to use a euphemism – and can be called “letters of apostolic sorrow.”
But many agree – there is one exception and it’s the letter to the Philippians. Generally it is called Paul’s letter of joy. Not only does the word joy stand out as a leading term in that letter, but the apostle is genuinely taken by love for this church and they are similarly taken by love for him. “You whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown” (4,1) he calls them. When Philippians is read in the context of Acts 16 (where Luke describes the beginnings of that church) at least three interesting lessons can be learned for the importance of women’s involvement in the Gospel ministry.
Lydia – and the power of salvation
The church in Philippi started out as a female church. Sure enough, it was a man that appeared in Paul’s vision about the Macedonian cry for help (Acts 16,9), but when the apostolic crew sailed over to the ‘leading city of that district’ all they could find was a bunch of praying women by the river. Paul and his companions were looking for a synagogue, but apparently Philippi had no 10 Jewish men for a synagogue to be established. So they searched by the river to find a prayer group (some translations may give the wrong impression that it is a church building they found, but that is a historical impossibility). When we read the passage back from there (16,6ff) an interesting perspective opens up. A bunch of women, among them a pagan business woman called Lydia, were praying hard enough for God to close all other doors for the Gospel and lead the apostle to a completely new area of ministry. That is how the Gospel conquered Europe.
It is worthwhile now to zoom in on Lydia. Within a moment of the encounter with Christ her whole life direction changed. The few verses Luke devotes to her show her strength and persuasion and her full inner devotion to the faith and its advancement. Her faith has immediately inspired others in her family and she is not satisfied with that: all that she has is now subdued to the ministry of the Gospel and therefore also to the apostles. And she does not consider this a sacrifice – for her it is a privilege.
On many occasions, but particularly in Romans 8 and in Ephesians 1, Paul speaks of the power of the Gospel to transform the dead into the living. So here too those dead in sin are transformed into vibrant individuals that know and do the will of God by faithful and fruitful service. What is demonstrated in Lydia is God’s power, a power which corresponds to the power Christ’s resurrection – Paul will state (Eph 1,20). For us this means that there is no small conversion, not even when it comes to women: if God’s Spirit fills our inner being he wants and is capable of energizing our outer bodies too to do the things of God in service to God and the people.
So lesson no. 1 to be learned from Philippi: God’s power in those of the faith in Christ is great. It is a power which brings about change and which raises up the dead. Let us not quench it. Let the Spirit in us be vibrant, persuasive and explosive. Let us not settle for little things but give our bodies as living sacrifice to God (Rom 12, 1).
Euodia and Syntyche who fought out the Gospel cause
Zoom out from Acts and back to Philippians 4,2 and we are again confronted with Philippian women. Before we fast-forward to their problem, let us first acknowledge the amazing affirmation Paul gives them (4,3). Together they fought out the cause of the Gospel in Philippi. They did not only fight with Paul for the Gospel, but also seem to have won in that battle as the grammar used by Paul and the description of their efficiency described in the letter suggest. We are not told what precisely these women’s part was in that battle. But looking at Romans 12 they could have been any of these things: prophets, or ministers, or teachers, or encouragers, or those showing mercy, or govern, or give freely. But it is sufficiently clear that whatever their gifts, they used them for the advance of the Gospel and they even fought that battle out for their city and vicinity.
So lesson no. 2 from Philippi can read: Fight for the Gospel, and fight it out investing into that battle all of the gifts God has given you.
Euodia and Syntyche who almost ruined it
Now, we have to keep things in perspective. No one situation in the world or the church is ideal in all things. So there is a patch of sorrow in this otherwise joyful letter and it does concern the ministry of women. The two who have fought it out for the Gospel we see now very close to spoiling it all by their strife against each other.
Gifts are fantastic. They make us climb walls with excitement and service. But rarely do we notice that they come in a package with a potential for disaster. There is not one gift that does not have a potentially hazardous flip-side. For instance, in order to be the best, prophets have to be utterly judgmental. Often enough they appear to other people as having a strict black-and-white vision only and a way too sharp and cynical tongue. People with the gift of mercy, on the other hand, are known for a blurred vision of no black or white – just shades of gray. They rarely stand up for the truth. People who serve have an excessive need for affirmation and rarely see the need for reflection. They have little respect for those involved in other ministries, especially those of a more theoretical side. Those with gifts of administration are found to be extremely inflexible. Those who give freely – are tempted by irresponsible giving and prone to spoiling people. If we look only at these few examples it is easy to see where Euodia’s and Sytyche’s strife could have kicked in: If one was a prophets and the other had the gift of mercy they were most likely attacking each other on the issue of truth and sin; If the one was gifted in practical service and the other in administration they were killing each other over issues of procedure and planning, and so on. There is a million possibilities to battle over spiritual things and those that appear such in church. And this is just the gifts! Add to that personality types and experience, culture, schooling and whatever else. Philippians must have been a great church if just those two had unresolved issues!
Unfortunately, there is no cure for this problem, that is, there is no cure if those participating in the strife do not remember the Lord! That is why Paul pleads with them: “Agree with each other in the Lord!” As people with particular personalities and gifts we will, by looking only at ourselves and from ourselves, always end up fighting. It is only when we lift our eyes in faith beyond ourselves and to the Lord and his purposes that we can work together and fight out the gospel cause. The Lord and his task give us the right perspective on who we are and who the other is. For instance, if we fail to remember that church renovation is done in order to enhance our gospel ministry, we will surely start a third world war around the issue of the colour of the carpet in the main hall (personality types tend to have strict favourite colour preferences)! Or we will abuse valuable time on where the first aid kit should hang... The list is endless.
So a lesson no. 3 should be learned from this: when we find ourselves fighting those God has created to be our co-workers in the Gospel, immediately, all the light bulbs should go up. We have to ask ourselves: Is the Gospel cause not much greater than any of my own brilliant ideas? Can I leave it to Christ to be the Lord over this situation even if it turns out far from what I think is ideal?
While we consider others as a disturbance for our self-realisation, in God’s eyes they are there to help us grow and develop in the right direction. Sometimes it may feel like they have taken our position or credits, but in fact, God is just preparing and leading us in a different direction that perfectly fits his purposes and also best fits us. He is in charge.
Philippians brought joy to Paul
It’s a rather rare condition, but occasionally, and in spite of all the inevitable pit-falls, there are churches who will embrace the power of the Holy Spirit given to them and who will fight it out for the Gospel. If women in the churches are dedicated to this – than we will have more churches like the one Paul so much loved. They are a joy to their God, a comfort to their leaders, a constant support for the Gospel ministry, and a vibrant community of peace and joy.
Just imagine: You are one of God’s keys for such a great church. Have you ever considered that the power of joy and resurrection for your church, town or country God has hidden in you?
Ksenija Magda, May 2010