Tucked away in Philippians 4 we find Paul entreating two women in the Philippian church to set aside their differences.
I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you also, true yokefellow [PLS “yokefellow” or “coworker” is how Paul addresses the person tasked with reading this letter aloud and explaining the contents to the house churches of Philippi], help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Phil 4.2-3)
From the context, from what Paul says earlier in the letter about conflict IN the Philippian church, we can clearly reconstruct what has happened.
Euodia and Syntyche are mature, respected Christian women.
They worked side by side with Paul in establishing the church at Philippi.
Because of their maturity and history in ministry, they have great influence in that church.
And now they are not getting along. Because of their leadership and the respect people in the church have for them, the rift between them is threatening the church.
(Go back and read 2.1-5 and 2.14-18, holding in your mind that Paul is writing these instructions against the background of this kind of conflict between influential leaders in the church.)
American evangelicals are currently wrapped up in a nasty debate over the role of women in the church.
Some argue (e.g., see Owen Stachan’s twitter feed over the past month) for male dominance and female submission in the churches, beyond even how wives relate to husbands.
They universalize the principle of gender hierarchy. They argue that women are always and in every setting to be submissive to male leadership (ALL male leadership), and to never question that authority or to have authority in the church that conceivably puts them over a male over the age of 14 (or whatever).
And they claim that their views are based on a faithful reading of Paul.
Based on the passage above, I have a question for those who argue that women have no place in church leadership, including those who say women should always and in every situation be subject to men.
What is the problem in the church in Philippi? Is it that they have female leaders in the church? Or is it that the female leaders they have aren’t acting toward each other in the way they should act toward each other? It’s clearly the second.
If the problem is that they have female leaders in the church, in contradiction to Paul’s supposed view of gender hierarchy, then why doesn’t Paul drop a version of 1 Tim 2.12 on them? “Euodia and Syntyche, sit down and shut up. Let the men lead.”
If Paul believed that women shouldn’t lead in the church, he would have made that point here.
But he doesn’t. Because he didn’t.
(To dig deeper into the story of Euodia and Syntyche, check out Marg Mowczko’s excellent short essay. She and I read the passage a little differently, but she provides a great deal of helpful background and a few extra options to consider.)