« Back To All News

of the same mind

Girls_conflict by Kimberly Vaughn

The youngest of 14 children, I have six sisters and seven brothers. Add to that a multitude of other relatives primarily centered in Cleveland, Ohio. I grew up steeped in large-family dynamics, with generations overlapping each another. Forget about birth order theories—you could be the youngest sibling, but have nieces older than you, and be the eldest of your second cousins at school. You learn to be socially multi-dimensional.

I have great memories of “growing up Vaughn,” with an unbreakable bond, no matter our differences. We are, and always will be, the Vaughns. We have great love and pride in being Vaughns.

In large families, there are no shortages of opportunities to practice socialization, something I didn’t appreciate until I ventured out and into other systems in college, in the workplace, in seminary and in congregations.

Lessons from my formative years became part of my foundation for navigating relationships with people who do not know “The Vaughns.” This is true for each of us: we are products of the social systems of our formative years. In these early systems we learn both negative and positive ways to handle conflict.

As I look at Paul’s instructions to the church in Philippi, and to Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2), some things remind me of growing up with lots of sisters, cousins and other female relatives. Some things also raise questions for me.

First, do we know what was really going on with Euodia and Syntyche? Were they having a disagreement with each other? With others in the community? What caused Paul to share these words? We can only imagine, and our imaginations may run in various directions.

Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche to be on the same page, for the sake of the mission. But was there really a conflict? Paul simply encourages them to have minds that agree. Could it be that these women simply have differing opinions about an issue, and are not in conflict? Have we bought into a different interpretation that has affected Christian women negatively?

Can’t women be passionate and expressive, without someone assuming there is conflict? I can’t help thinking that biblical scholars favoring the conflict interpretation have never seen me, my female relatives and friends communicate! As sometimes is the case, what about the possibility that third parties assumed they knew what was happening, interpreted the situation from the sidelines, and then offered their own “color commentary,” thus worsening the situation?

For some reason, in our culture, instigating conflict between women is often seen as amusing or entertaining. Turn on any reality TV show and see how “drama” between women is encouraged in order to boost TV ratings and advertising dollars. Log onto social media to see which celebrity is feuding with another. It appears to be biased against women. Drama sells, and apparently, it sells even more when the drama is between women.

Second, if Euodia and Syntyche were in conflict, were they the only two people involved in conflict in this community? Or is it just that they are only the ones Paul named? Could it be that other problems were present? If so, why were only these two women named? If not, why did Paul offer them the same advice or admonishment—“Be of the same mind”—that he earlier gave the entire community? Is it possible more was happening than we know?

There is always more to a story than what we see. Remember junior high or middle school? Draw attention away from your issues, put someone else in the spotlight, therefore protecting your own hide. Children master this tactic, and adults practice it as well. Among my own siblings, it would be untrue to believe that only the girls had disagreements, while the boys were peaceful. We were equal opportunity bickerers. It was just a matter of who got caught.

Third, why in our culture may males disagree, while females may not? Who decided that experiencing and expressing anger was solely a male trait, and that females who experience or express anger are problematic?

It is untrue and unfair to assert that women and girls bicker more than men and boys. It is probably more true and fair to assert that we are socialized and conditioned to express our disagreement in different ways.

It is more acceptable for males to be aggressive, while it is less acceptable for females to behave in such ways. The assumption is that if women behave this way, something must be wrong with them. But why is this acceptable for men? Is this a genetic instinct in the male of the species, or is it social conditioning?

The notion that women should not express anger seems to be rooted in attempts to control the behaviors of women. Throughout much of human history in most cultures, women have been expected to be as docile and obedient as children. If women expressed anger, they were expected to express it in much the same way children do: screaming, yelling and crying. Cultural pressure forced women to accept these behaviors, prohibiting them from exhibiting mature conflict management skills. Centuries of church teaching reinforced these expectations, leaving an impression of men as the only ones expected to be capable of rational, mature behavior.

Now there are myriad exceptions to these “rules.” Women throughout history (and church history) have stood out as peacemakers, great thinkers and social reformers.

I have been strongly influenced by my sisters, other relatives and friends, and my cultural context. As the years pass, I continue to learn the power of transformative relationships with other women. For example, I have learned:

To say, “I always love you, even when I don’t like what you do or say.” This may be hard for the other to hear, and they may feel betrayed. We are conditioned to equate “like” with “love,” but real love speaks a hard truth. Translation: I’m in your corner, no matter what happens.

That it’s perfectly okay to be different. How you express your version of sisterhood will be different from me, and that’s perfectly fine! My sisters and I are varying versions of our parents. We like and dislike various things. We have varied approaches to life, politics, spirituality, fashion and friendships. It’s beautiful. What unites us is our sister-ness. We love each other deeply and always support each other. We do not have to be alike to love each other.

If tempers flare, take a break. If we are upset, we go our separate ways briefly. Once we have cooled down and assessed why we are upset, then we go back and talk. The times we’ve failed to do this, there was a direct, negative impact on how the conflict unfolded. Go to the one with whom you have a grievance. Sit down and reason with each other.

To keep unnecessary people out of it. What can happen when those who aren’t part of the issue get involved? The situation could escalate out of control, making resolution more challenging. While those individuals may mean well for you, they don’t need to add to the anxiety.

A large family functions like the crew of a ship. In order for the system to work, we must work together. Many tasks keep the system running in a healthy manner, and these are monumental tasks, even during good weather. During times of conflict or crisis, working together can become a Herculean task.

Church communities are systems. Like families, there will be anxiety and conflict within church systems. Just as we learn from our families the rules of socialization and conflict management, we need to bring healthy socialization and conflict resolution practices into congregations. If we viewed our sisters (and brothers) in Christ as if they were truly siblings, how would that look?

In our congregations, we can:

Say “I love you even when I disagree with you.” We can say this early and often.

Know that it’s perfectly okay to have differing opinions. God did not design us to be exactly alike in all things. God loves diversity! After all, within the beauty of the Trinity is the dynamic, reciprocally-sharing diversity of Creator, Redeemer and Spirit.

Imagine three figures dancing, laughing and sharing in love. Imagine the kinetic energy around
those three. This is God’s triune nature, a perichoresis, a sacred dance of God’s diverse nature. In Dancing With God: The Trinity From A Womanist Perspective (Chalice Press, 2006), author Karen Baker-Fletcher calls this a “dance of the Spirit”—the “dynamic, ongoing movement of God in creation as God continuously creates and recreates, making all things new. God, who is a spirit, moves creation to literally and metaphorically dance.”

Read Scripture, which says to “be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Feeling anger is one thing; hurting someone with anger is another. Go to a quiet place, discern what is triggering your anger, then come back and talk calmly, if possible. Speak only for yourself. Name your anger only. Recognize that no one makes you angry; you choose to be angry.

Practice Matthew 18:15–20. If there is a disagreement, go directly to the person. Point out the problem, one-on-one. Hopefully, this resolves the problem. If not, then and only then, bring someone else in to help bring peace. Try to avoid gossiping or tearing down the other person. Try your best to resolve the problem with the other. This is the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation, and it is a hard discipline. Sometimes it is impossible. Yet, as followers of Jesus Christ who reconciled us to God, it is our task as disciples to practice forgiveness and reconciliation.

See that it takes the participation of every part of the body of Christ for the work of the church to get done. If there is anxiety or conflict in the system, it can shut down everything. Look at the bigger picture. How do your words and actions help or hinder the mission of the Church?

Again, say “I love you.” Say it at the beginning of a misunderstanding, in the middle, and at the end. Say it and show it in your actions. Love can cover a multitude of problems.

Sounds like congregational life, doesn’t it? Maybe Euodia and Syntyche were part of a normal congregation, and behaving like normal human beings. Maybe they were involved in conflict, or maybe not. Maybe Paul was asking them to be big sisters, who can teach the rest of the family how to love one another, even through disagreement.

Maybe Euodia and Syntyche had Paul’s admiration after all.

The Rev. Kimberly Vaughn is assistant to the bishop for Multicultural Ministry, ELCA New Jersey Synod.

To read this and other Gather articles in their entirety, subscribe now.  As a subscriber, you can also view Gather online, as an app on your iPad, on your Android device and on your Kindle Fire. To request a free copy of the magazine, contact us.