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It’s for good reason that the Apostle Paul is considered one of the greatest leaders among the first generation of Christians. He was the early church’s foremost theologian, pastor, missionary, and church planter. He was also the Christian faith’s chief exemplar. Through the descriptions of his life in the book of Acts and the biographical details contained in the various epistles, we see him setting an example of how a Christian is to live. In fact, he lived such a godly life that he could, in humility and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tell others, “Be imitators of me.” Those who closely follow his instruction and example will be living lives that are pleasing to God.
In his writings, Paul addresses a host of issues related to both Christian doctrine and Christian living. He describes what Christians are to believe and then tells how, on the basis of those beliefs, they are to live. In Philippians 2:14–15, he discusses grumbling, an issue of enduring relevance. Knowing that the church in Philippi is encountering a time of trial that may soon turn to an outbreak of persecution, Paul is eager to ensure that the believers there endure it without sin. He knows that their attitudes and actions through this challenging time will honor or dishonor the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only that, their attitudes and actions will either attract or repel the unbelievers who witness it.
As Paul calls on these believers to endure persecution well, he pairs two related words in instructing the church to “do all things without grumbling and disputing.” Both of these words refer to interpersonal conflict. At this point, Paul’s foremost concern is not that these believers will rebel against the providential sovereignty of God in their circumstances but that the trial will cause them to turn on one another. Attacks from outside will soon be paired with disputes on the inside, and the church will inevitably collapse into chaos. Thus, when he refers to grumbling, he warns against making negative comments about other members of the church behind their backs. When he refers to disputing, he warns against senseless debates or confrontational quarrels. The first threatens unity through sinful gossip while the second threatens unity through sinful confrontation. To the degree Christian unity is disrupted, Christian witness will be undermined.
There are at least two kinds of grumbling that are popular in our culture today and that are a temptation to contemporary Christians. The first is what I refer to as “casual grumbling.” This is a pseudo-serious way of expressing discontent about other people, and it is most often done under the guise of humor. It’s meant to evoke a laugh, but the humor actually masks the fact that we have uttered dead-serious gossip destructive to Christian unity. Then there is what we might call “direct grumbling,” which eschews any guise of humor or attempt at respectability. Here we directly speak to one person about another person who is not present. Grumbling meets gossip as we openly complain about their actions or attitudes. Rather than following biblical guidance and speaking directly to a person who has offended us, we speak to anyone or everyone else. This invariably erodes relationships in the church and foments disunity.
Then, of course, there is what Paul refers to as “disputing.” Disputing is the stuff of angry hallway confrontations or cutting comments on social media. It is approaching another person and dealing sinfully with his sin or with what may be perceived as an offense. It is making public what should be kept private and handling with anger what should be handled with grace. It is furthering disunity instead of pursuing peace. In both cases, we see that grumbling and disputing are not merely actions but evidences of a disposition. They are not just words of our mouths but attitudes of our hearts. They do not simply reflect something we do but broadcast something we are.
As Christians, we are responsible to maintain the unity of our local churches, and to do that, we need to protect our relationships with our brothers and sisters. When we face the temptation to grumble and dispute, we need to look—to look back, look up, and look forward. We first need to look back to the cross, to Jesus, who, though He was God, uncomplainingly “emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant” and humbled Himself “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). If anyone had reason to complain, it was Jesus, yet He uttered not a word of grumbling. Having looked back, we can look up to see the good purposes and kind providence of God in our lives. Even the most difficult circumstances have been ordained by the One who promises He is working “all things together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). And then we can look forward to the coming consummation, when we will know that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (v. 18).
As long as sin remains in us, conflict will remain in the church. Though it is unfortunate, it is also inevitable. There will be times when we disagree with others. There will be times when we need to confront other people for their sinful actions or attitudes or to dispute with others to contend for the truth and guard the gospel. But both must be handled with love and grace. Both must be seen as opportunities to further unity rather than further disrupt it. Both must be seen as threats to our calling to shine as lights in this dark and needy world.