The Apostle Paul’s Seemingly Impossible Command

The Apostle Paul gives the following impossible command to the Philippian church:

Bible Complaining Leadership Elders Submit Obedience14 Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe

First, he does NOT say, do your best to avoid arguments. He doesn’t say try not to complain. He does not say the overall attitude should be compliance, not complaining. No, He says, do everything without complaining or arguing. Everything. No complaints.

Second, the main concern in this command is not your psychological well-being or your need to be protected from spiritually abusive pastors. The issue is squarely one between God and His people. If you belong to God, then do what you are told to do. [note the . ] And when you are told what to do—and thus are doing what you have been told to do—don’t allow your heart to grumble or your mouth to complain. When you are thus characterized by glad obedience, you are acting as blameless and pure children of God.

Third, the sum of such a compliant, obedient heart is a powerful witness to a perverted world. The most natural activity in the world is refusing any authority outside of yourself. All of us are by nature like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, who finds even the smallest thread of binding to be positively unbearable.

This wildness of heart and untamable demand for fleshly autonomy is evident even among Christians who have godly leaders lovingly instructing them.  It has a very long history among God’s people. It was prevalent in the Israelites in the wilderness. (Numbers 14:2-3, NASB),

2 All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?”

In the midst of their suffering, they cried, “Why God!” Then they refused to trust the leaders God had given them, demanding instead to return to the past, which wasn’t perfect, mind you, but it was at least familiar. It was manageable. They could navigate the past. They knew they could get along comfortably there, but they had no guarantee of comfort going forward into a future which demanded faith in the place of sight. The past was easier to accommodate. It was doable. So, they grumbled at the man God provided to lead them into a promised future.

Such grumbling and complaining is both natural and wicked. It is severely and consistently condemned throughout Scripture. Jude marvels that the archangel Michael would not dare to condemn the Devil; instead, he said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (See Jude 9.) Yet, mere humans crept into the church and did not hesitate to “revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals….”  “Woe to them!” says Jude, “they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (Jude 11).

Paul, likewise, has severe words for those who cannot obey without complaining. In a letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 10), Paul speaks of the rebellion of Israel in the wilderness. He has a particular interest in protecting the church from grumbling, so he warns them not to “try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.  Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.”  You see the pattern? Grumbling and complaining get you killed. It’s not safe. Not good.

Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians that the stories of Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness were written down so that later generations of God’s people might be instructed—that is, might learn from them how to follow godly leaders.

“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor 10:12).

Like it or not, we must be humble and obedient people, holding firmly to Christ, keeping His word, and serving His Bride as He completes His redemptive work in this world. We must not be like the rest of the world, acting as unreasoning animals, demanding our own rights, pursuing our own fleshly preferences. We must be humble, obedient, and faithful sheep listening for and responding to the voice of the Good Shepherd Himself.

What does that mean in practical terms? Consider these 4 applications:

Submit to your elders:
 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)

Do not entertain charges against your elders:
19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. (1 Tim 5:19)

If you disagree—or think you might disagree—go before the Lord in prayer and dive into the Word in study before ever disparaging the work of your church or its leaders.

Finally, when you feel you must question your pastor or elders, do so with fear and with faith. The issue must not be viewed as your preferences versus the pastor’s. The only issue is the preference of the Good Shepherd Himself. What does Christ command? What does His word teach on the subject? Bring your concern to the man with your Bible in your hand and the hope of reconciliation in your heart.  Then, and only then, can you claim to be doing what is right before God.

This is a grievous subject. More than a few churches have divided and split as a result of grumbling and complaining. Those who grumble and find fault are often followers of their own lusts. They speak arrogantly, flattering some people for the sake of gaining advantage over others (Jude 16). They cause deep divisions in the otherwise unified body of Christ. And this is why the Bible says, “Woe to them!”

This expectation of unity and peace among believers is why Peter asks, “What kind of people ought you to be?” Then answers, “Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless” (2 Peter 3:14).  It’s also why Paul lovingly tells the Philippians to do everything without complaining or arguing. Paul does not want any in the church to fall into the condemnation and woe of fleshly grumblers.

We need to think more about what this means in the church. So, what are some questions for a further post?


Why God Is Not Impressed with Our Anger

Moses, God’s Leader, Had Trouble With Trust, Too

God Restrains His Wrath, And We Can Restrain Ours

What Are the Top Two Priorities for the Local Church?

English: Church of Jesus Christ (Zion's Branch...

Church Building in Independence, Missouri.

This Sunday, I will finish a 6 week series on the New Testament concept of the church. When Christ sought to establish the instrument through which He would sustain His redemptive work to its completion, He founded the church, called both His body and His bride. Christ’s church must accomplish Christ’s purposes and should honor her Lord. How does she do this properly? What ought to be her priorities?

I am interested to hear some responses. Obviously, because I am preaching on this Sunday, I have my own opinions. I think the two greatest priorities for the church are worship and fellowship, but I understand I have my work cut out for me. There are many other possible answers. Some would hope the Church would first be salt and light, shaping the culture (this would be the Reclaiming America crowd).

Others would argue for the urgency of evangelism. Who could deny the immediate necessity of reaching out to more than 3 billion souls who are presently destined to perish, apart from hearing a word of hope through the gospel of Jesus Christ? What about those who argue that social action is our top priority–feeding the hungry and serving the needy? And still others would say that missions work–sending the gospel to the unreached corners of the globe–is that which is most important. So, what are the top two priorities for the local church?

2 Dangers of Putting “Para” in front of Church

Prefixes are fascinating little pre-words. Kids studying for the National Spelling Bee learn prefixes in order to quickly unlock the meaning of words. The prefix para can help a contestant unlock the meaning of the more than 11,000 English words which employ it.  The only problem is that English is notorious for its exceptions.  Not all para prefixes are created equal.

Para comes from a Greek word meaning “to come alongside.”  Most likely, it’s the Greek word which folks had in mind when they determined to put the para prefix ahead of the church.  Para-church, then, would mean, “come alongside the church.”  Para-church ministries would be those designed to come alongside church ministries.



But what if the para prefix used were the French version instead of the Greek?  Instead of meaning “to come alongside,” the French prefix para means “to guard against/protect from.”  (A parachute protects from a fall.)  In this prefixed arrangement, Para-church organizations would be designed to guard against or protect ministry from the church. Surely, para-church organizations aren’t guarding against the church, are they?

Some Christians have dismissed para-church ministries altogether as evil parasites.  I don’t think they are. Para-church organizations are obviously successful.  Mack Stiles points out that there are more than 91,000 para-church organizations operating in the U.S., with assets exceeding $4 billion.  Obviously, lots of folks think they are worthwhile.  And they are.  Para-church organizations often are able to gain access to prisons (Prison Fellowship) and to other populations which are difficult for churches directly to enter.  So, para-church ministries do have a role to play in the church.  But there are a couple of dangers which must always be kept in mind.

Dumbing Doctrine
First, Para-church organizations have an identity problem. If they don’t belong to a particular church, then to what church do they belong?  The most obvious answer is the “church universal,” the Church which in its early years was called “catholic.”  But the catholic (little “c,” meaning universal) church is difficult to define.  Does it include the Catholic (big “C,” meaning Roman Catholic) Church?  Does it include the Russian Orthodox, Mormon, or Jehovah’s Witness churches?  Any effort to answer such questions also slices off potential funding sources.

Photo courtesy

Para-church organizations by definition must appeal to churches outside of their local and denominational frameworks for support.  Many will appeal to government agencies and secular humanitarians as well for financial support.  This broader appeal for financial resources demands a broader (in the sense of more generic) appeal to biblical doctrine.  Doctrine divides.  Emphasis on doctrine inevitably leads to shrinking the population of the giving groups.  So, para-church organizations become generic.  If they had a doctrinal flavor, it would be vanilla.

Many para-church organizations present themselves as unisex jeans—able to fit whoever is putting them on.  They promise to work regardless of the true identity of those who use them.  Broad appeals for cash lead to narrowing appeals to Scripture. Para-church organizations often end up wearing doctrinal dunce caps.  It’s at least a danger.

Disengaging Church
A second danger to consider with regard to para-church organizations is the danger of increasing the tension between church and para-church.  Neither wants to be controlled by the other.  Because the para-church organization is not anchored in a particular church, it is run independently of all churches.  There are usually boards which control the organization, but boards are not churches.  Churches are better than boards at holding people accountable to Christ (or at least they are supposed to be).

What happens often is that the para-church group begins to drift away from accountability to Christ.  Christ is deemphasized on behalf of the work supposedly done in His name.  The homeless shelter that once shared the gospel simply becomes the homeless shelter.  Or, worse, it may become merely a gym or recreation center.

Mack Stiles illustrates this second problem brilliantly and succinctly:

The standard cliché for parachurch is that it’s not the church, but an arm of the church. Yet historically, that arm has shown a tendency to develop a mind of its own and crawl away from the body, which creates a mess.

A dismembered arm is certainly a mess.  So, it’s best—insofar as it is possible—to keep ministries within the church, holding the body together in unity.  On occasion, it will be beneficial for the church to partner with a para-church organization, but when it does, the church must keep these two dangers in mind in order to avoid them.

Given the dangers, it might be best for us to think of the prefix para to represent neither its Greek nor its French roots, but, rather, to refer to its Italian meaning when put in front of the church.  In Italian, the prefix means “to protect,” as a goalie parries away a shot toward the goal he is defending.  Both church and para-church organizations would be best served if our main interest were protecting and defending the Bride of Christ.

Traditional Church Dead?

A Christian writer, Michael Spencer, has recently said:

“One thing I want to try to say loud and clear is if you are concerned about evangelicalism’s future, then get out there and support church planting because new congregations are doing much better than those congregations that are facing generational horizons or are in real danger of simply ceasing to exist,” he contends. “Church planting, I think, house churches — I think we’re going to enter an era with a lot of diverse forms of the church. Denominationalism and the traditional church on the corner is going to be, I think, the minority report.”

What do you think? 

How ought we to respond to this assessment?