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Context Counts: Conflict Resolution in Philippians

Philippians 4:4 is a well-known verse: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” It’s brief. It’s happy. It is easily recalled. There’s even a song about it that we all learned as children. And that’s good. It’s a worthy exhortation to be committed to memory.

But in Philippians this command to rejoice in the Lord does not come without context. There was a problem in the church in Philippi. There was some element of divisiveness. To what extent, we are not sure. But we can be certain that Paul felt it important enough to publicly call out the two parties at the heart of the disunity: Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3).

Paul’s exhortation to rejoice comes on the heels of his call for the Philippians to resolve their differences and maintain the unity of the church, and in many translations it is marked by the beginning of a new paragraph. I wonder whether this is helpful. It gives the impression that Paul is moving on to some other topic. It seems to signal that he is finished with the call to unity and is moving on to more general instructions about rejoicing, gentleness, and gratitude (4:4-7).

But what if that’s not what is happening at all? It is worth remembering that the original manuscripts did not contain paragraph breaks. So, in the original text, Paul’s instruction to pursue and maintain peace was immediately followed by his command to rejoice. What if the commands to rejoice, be gentle, not worry, pray, and be grateful were really intended as keys to resolving the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche? If that’s the case, verse 4 is probably not the best place to begin a new paragraph.

Context matters here. Paul doesn’t command unity and then leave the Philippians to figure out how to implement it. If the Philippians were focused on rejoicing in the Lord, they are less likely to be antagonistic towards one another. If they are acting with gentleness, it will counteract the easily enacted harshness that comes with conflict. Recognizing the presence of the Lord should lead them to think twice about their bickering.

So, while the verse with the double command to rejoice is commendable as a memory verse, we would do well to remember it’s original context and original application. Rejoicing in the Lord is at the heart of maintaining the unity of the local church. _____ Image: Ambro/

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