Overcoming Conflict

Overcoming Conflict

At the University of Washington, where I went to school, the student newspaper always had these ads for participating in psychology experiments.  I just recently read about one of these by a fellow named John Gottman.  He would invite young newly married couples into his laboratory and film them in a 15-minute conversation while measuring several things like heart rate, temperature and how often they “jiggled” in their chair. They were instructed to discuss any topic from their marriage that had become a point of contention.  It could be something as simple as their dog.

They’ve collected and analyzed these tapes over years so that they know which couples are still married and which are not.  Can you believe that if this psychologist watches a husband and wife talk for fifteen minutes, he can predict with ninety percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later?  In fact, they’ve showed the same tapes to hundreds of other people like marital therapists, pastoral counselors, people recently divorced, people who’ve been happily married for years and their group success rate is 53.8 percent.  You might as well flip a coin.

Professor Gottman has an elaborate scoring system involving twenty emotions calculated with the vital signs.  Nevertheless, he’s gotten so good at analyzing couples that he can be in a restaurant and eavesdrop on a conversation one table over and get a pretty good sense on whether they should get some marriage counseling.  The key is looking for patterns that every marriage has, a sort of marital DNA, that surfaces in any kind of meaningful interaction.  Gottman has been doing it for years and it has become somewhat of a sixth sense for him.  The trick is you don’t need to pay attention to everything that happens.  He says that he’s become selective on four key factors.  Interestingly enough, he calls them the Four Horsemen.  They are defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt.  Defensiveness is the “yea, but” syndrome that justifies everything.  Stonewalling is delaying or refusing to answer questions or participate in a discussion.  Criticism involves "attacking someone's personality or character---rather than a specific behavior---usually with blame."  These three are serious but Gottman considers contempt to be the single most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.

Gottman says, “You would think that criticism would be the worst, because criticism is a global condemnation of a person’s character.  Yet contempt is qualitatively different from criticisim.  With criticism I might say to my wife, “You never listen, you are really selfish and insensitive.”  Well, she’s going to respond defensively to that.  That’s not very good for our problem solving and interaction.  But if I speak from a superior plane, that’s far more damaging, and contempt is any statement made from a higher level.  A lot of the time it’s an insult.  It’s trying to put that person on a lower plane than you.  It’s hierarchical.”[1]

At this point, you might be alarmed by thinking you’ve stonewalled, or been defensiveness, critical or even contemptuous.  Well, you might be concerned but they are part of every marriage.  Gottman continues by saying,

“People are in one of two states in a relationship.  The first is what I call positive sentiment override, where positive emotion overrides irritability.  It’s like a buffer.  Their spouse will do something bad, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s just in a crummy mood.’ Or they can be in negative sensory override, so that even a relatively neutral thing that a partner says gets perceived as negative.  In the negative sentiment override state, people draw lasting conclusions about each other.  If their spouse does something positive, it’s a selfish person doing a positive thing.  It’s really hard to change those states, and those states determine whether when one party tries to repair things, the other party sees that as repair or hostile manipulation.”[2]

The key here is to recognize our own sensory override.  Is it positive or negative?  Should we let our past negative senses override something positive that a person is doing?  Because when we let negative emotions take hold it’s a downward spiral that’s almost impossible to get out of.

Now that’s all very interesting but does it have anything to do with the Bible?  Yes, it does.  I often smile when I read some psychologist's study that he’s been doing for twenty years only to realize that it’s all ready in the Bible.  I find it to be true that any honest psychological test results only verify the good counsel of the word of God.

We are going to spend this morning looking at how two of these “Horsemen” were tearing at the fabric of the Philippian ecclesia.  They are contemp and criticism.  These are the two most important ones that if left unchecked will destroy any relationship.  They must be counteracted with humility and contentment.  Finally, we’ll consider Paul’s call for them to be “moderate” and how that means so much more to a Greek then can be translated for an Englishman.

The reason Paul wrote to the Philippians

The epistle to the Philippians is an interesting letter in that it has no overtly doctrinal problems.  Not like the Galatians or Corinthians.  It is a very positive letter.  In fact, anyone who’s even done a cursory study of the epistle will notice how often it uses the word “joy” or “rejoice”.  It gives the writing buoyancy you don’t find in the others.

Yet there is something wrong.  It doesn’t really come out until chapter 4:2-3 where Paul says,

"I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. {3} And I entreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life."

Who were these women?  We don’t know.  What was their problem?  We don’t know.  Was it that important?  I think it was. 

Now this almost might seem like a footnote in Paul’s letter but there are several links which show that it is the major concern of the epistle.  Take note here of these phrases, “stand fast in the Lord” (v. 1), “be of the same mind” (v. 2) and “labored with me in the gospel” (v. 3).  You find these phrases way back in 1:27,

"Only let your conversation (conduct) be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together (contending side by side, NET) for the faith of the gospel;"

That word “striving” is the same word translated “laboring” in Phil. 4:3.  It has the idea to wrestle, struggle or suffer.  That is exactly what these women had done with Paul for the sake of the gospel.

We know the Philippians ecclesia probably best of all due to the account in the Acts.  The first thing Paul did was go down to the river where prayer was made and he converted a group of women, one of whom was Lydia.  Others were the damsel healed of a spirit of divination and the Philippian jailor.  Among this group were Euodia and Syntyche who must have been prominent sisters from very early on in the Philippian ecclesia.  We don’t know what they disagreed upon.  I don’t think it was doctrinal.  It was no mere spat though as Paul calls in a mediator, someone he trusts, a true yokefellow, to help these women.  Surely, their contention must have disintegrated into criticism and contempt that was permeating the whole ecclesia.

The interesting thing to note here is that Paul does not take sides.  Not that he wouldn’t do that in certain circumstances but he chooses not to do that here.  So there are times when we don’t have to say someone is right and someone is wrong.  The important thing here was to head off the two Horsemen of contempt and criticism at the pass before it got any worse.

Contempt and Criticism

The problem or potential of contempt among them is evident by Paul’s plea with them in chapter 2:1-4,

"If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, {2} Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. {3} Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. {4} Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others."

Remember that contempt is an intensely negative emotion regarding a person or group of people as inferior, base, or worthless—it is similar to scorn.  Obviously, the “lowliness of mind” that Paul exhorts is the opposite character.  It is one that esteems others better than themselves.  Brethren and sisters, I know you will agree that there can be no place for contempt in our marriages, in our ecclesia or in our community.  It’s an easy trap to fall into though which left unchecked will cause that negative sensory override and destroy our relationships.

Criticism was the other thing Paul knew that they needed to eliminate.  It is brought out in 2:14,

"Do all things without murmurings and disputings:"

I can see it as a vicious cycle.  A comment is made by Euodia.  Syntyche does not agree and takes it personally.  The argument becomes more heated.  Contempt arises.  Others get drawn in, choosing sides.  When decisions are made which impact the others negatively there are murmurings and more arguing.  Criticism is rampant.

The echoes here are obviously back to the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness.  When did they grumble, dispute and criticize?  When things didn’t go their way.  When their interests weren’t put as top priority?  They grumbled against Aaron.  The criticized Moses.  They murmured against the Lord.  It was their bitterness that ate away at them like acid.

Some things never change.  In thinking about it, I would say the antithesis of criticism, for the Israelites, the Philippians and us is contentment.  Letting go and letting God work in your life (v. 13).  It is the ability to go to God in prayer and find that peace which passes all understanding (4:7).

Too much criticism without resolution leads to grudges.  It is said that the worst thing we can do in a marriage or any relationship is to dig up a long past event that should be forgotton.  It is evidence that we haven’t forgiven.  It is wrong to let the criticisms and complaints hang on and effect our judgment.  That is not what love does.  Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:5 that love,

"Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;"

It’s that last phrase, “thinketh no evil”, that is interesting.  Love is positive sensory overload.  In other translations it says, “it keeps no record of wrongs” (NIV), “does not count up wrongdoing” (ESV, footnote), or “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (NASB).  You can’t be said to truly have love if you harbor grudges.  So put them away.  Collect postage stamps or baseball cards, if you wish, but don’t collect your criticisms and record them in your grudge book to be referenced later when you wish to get back at that person.  It is these things that get us into that negative sensory overload. 


As the NASB says in 1 Cor. 13:5, love “does not take into account a wrong suffered.”  This must have been the problem in Philippi.  I say this because of what he says in Philippians 4:5.  After pleading with the sisters to be of the same mind in the Lord and instructing those to help these women he says,

"Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand."

What do you think that means?  Other translations have,

  • RSV  “Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand.”
  • ESV “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;”
  • NIV “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”
  • NASB “Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.”

There is quite a variety in translation.  William Barclay says the reason for this is that the Greek word behind it is one of the most untranslatable of all Greek words.[3]  He also says,

“Long before the NT used it, this word had a great record in Greek ethical writing.  Trench sums up the meaning that is behind it when he says that it expresses that ‘moderation which recognizes the impossibility that cleaves to formal law’.  He says that it is the word which recognizes that there are occasions when a ‘legal’ right can become a ‘moral’ wrong.  Aristotle says that epieikeia is that which is just and sometimes that which is better than justice (Eht. Nic. V. 10.6).  He says that epieikeia is that which corrects the law when the law is deficient because of its generality.  He compares the man who is epieikes with the man who is akribodikaios.  The man who is akribodikaios is the man who stands up for the last tittle of his legal rights; but the man who is epieikes knows that there are times when a thing may be legally completely justified and yet morally completely wrong.  The man who is epieikes knows when to relax the law under the compulsion of a force that is higher and greater than law.  He knows the time when to stand on his rights would unquestionably be legal, and would just as unquestionably be completely unchristian.

The basic and fundamental thing about epieikeia is that it goes back to God.  If God stood on his rights, if God applied to us nothing but the rigid standards of law, where would we be?  God is the supreme example of one who is epieikes and who deals with others with epieikeia.”[4][i]

Was it this sort of attitude that plagued Euodia and Syntyche?  Did they have no moderation?  Were they ones who believed they had every right to do what they did not realizing the damage they caused the whole ecclesia?  Maybe our word “gentleness” is the closest we can come to in English.  We can see now why it is hard to translate, but it is not hard to see the utter need for us to develop this very quality of God himself.  For the Lord is near.

We can take this last phrase two ways.  Firstly, that the Lord is near in that he walks among the lamp stands or, secondly, that he is near in returning and therefore to judge.  They needing reminding of both as do we.  In fact there is an emphasis here on “in the Lord” in verse 1, 2 and 4.

“Paul bids Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord.  There can be no unity unless it is in Christ.  In ordinary human affairs it repeatedly happens that the most diverse people are held together because they all give allegiance to a great leader.  Their loyalty to each other depends entirely on their loyalty to him.  Take the leader away, and the whole group would disintegrate into isolated and often warring units.  Men can never really love each other until they love Christ.  The brotherhood is impossible without the lordship of Christ”[5]


That thought leads us to the table before us.  We partake of the bread and wine recognizing Jesus Christ as our head.  He is the head of our marriages.  He is the head of our ecclesia.  He is the head of our ecclesias.  We must stand fast in the Lord by making sure our attitude is not taken over by defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and especially contempt.  We can be sure of this, the more in measure we practice epieikes, that is, moderation, forbearance, reasonableness and being gentle, then the more unity we will have in Christ Jesus.  Now as we partake of this bread and drink of this cup we must hold fast to the head from which the whole body is nourished and knit together. 


[1] Blink, Malcolm Gladwell, pg. 33

[2] Ibid, pg. 29-30

[3] “The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians”, William Barclay, pg. 75

[4] New Testament Words, William Barclay, pg. 95-96

[5] “The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians”, William Barclay, pg. 71


[i] Barclay continues by saying, “It may be hard to translate this word, but it is not hard to see the clamant need of the quality which it describes.  We live in a society where men insist on standing on their legal rights, where they will do only what they are compelled to do, and where they desire to make others do all that they can compel them to do.  Again and again we have seen congregations torn by strife and reduced to tragic unhappiness because men and women, committees and courts stood on the letter of the law.  When a congregation’s governing body meets with a copy of its Church’s book of laws prominently displayed on the chairman’s table trouble is never far away.  A new world would arise in society and in the Church if men ceased to base their actions on law and on legal rights and prayed to God to give them epieikeia.”