When I attended Bible college in the 1970s, most of my teachers were former pastors. That meant much of their teaching was based on their seminary notes, illustrated by their own pastoral experience. One teacher in particular enjoyed puns based on proper names. Once he referred to two characters in Philippians 4:2, Euodia and Syntyche, as “Odious” and “Stinky” because their fighting and gossiping was a threat to their church.
He was reading the biblical text with blinders on. Much as physical blinders on a horse limit their range of vision, so metaphorical blinders can limit our ability to see what the text in its fullness. We can be blinded by our preconceptions and biases, by what we expect the text must say, so that we fail to see what the text truly says.
My teacher had in common with most of the rest of the faculty, following the spirit of the age, the perspective that leadership, teaching, and preaching were for men. And the Bible was interpreted to teach that women tended to be “busybodies who talk nonsense” (1 Tim 5:13); they were “gullible” (2 Tim 3:6); and “should remain silent in the churches” (1 Cor 14:34). He had almost certainly been in church situations where “emotional” women had raised issues through gossiping and fighting. So it was no surprise that he would assume that Paul was rebuking silly busybodies “Odious and Stinky” for causing problems similar to those in his pastoral experience. And he is not alone—just search the web for “Syntyche AND Stinky” and see how many sermons pop up.
But taking the blinders off and reading Philippians as a whole, with Acts 16:11–40 as background, we see Euodia and Syntyche in a different light. Paul’s (and Timothy’s) letter is addressed “To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (Phil 1:1). Here only Paul addresses a letter to groups of church leadership, perhaps because they would be singled out by name later in the letter. For as Paul encourages all to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” to humble oneself to serve (Phil 2:5–8), so he repeats the phrase in 4:2 as he inidividually pleads with Euodia and Syntyche “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” He goes on say that “these women … have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers” (4:3), meaning that Euodia and Syntche were his equals in fighting for and working for the cause of the gospels in Philippi, just like his male co-workers Clement, Timothy (2:22), and Epaphroditus (2:25).
Euodia and Syntyche were certainly prominent in the church at Philippi, probably “overseers” or “deacons” who led house churches that met in their homes, possibly even among the unnamed women who, with Lydia, Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke, founded this “first church of Europe” in Acts 16:11–15, 40. The fight of these women, whether with each other or with Paul, had a profound enough effect on the life and future of the church at Philippi that Paul needed to single them out and connect them with other Philippian leaders to find resolution according to the mind of Christ.
So with the blinders off, far from being fodder for “the name game” or 1950s stereotypes of suburban housewives, Euodia and Syntyche come into clear focus as significant Christian leaders whose personal lives affected many other lives around them. I hope the happy ending of their story was that they emerged from self-focus to community-focus as they took their blinders off. And I hope that we all remember to avoid anything that can blind us to the truth of the biblical text, so that we are changed by the Scriptures rather than changing the Scriptures to suit our desires.