When I was a teenager, I hated doing chores. My parents would tell me to clean my room, wash the dishes, or mow the lawn. I would eventually do it, but I would grumble and complain the whole time. The problem is I did not fully appreciate Paul’s exhortation: “Do everything without complaining and disputing” (Phil. 2:14, NKJV). Unfortunately some Christians ignore this exhortation, too.
The purpose for doing things without complaining and disputing is so “that [we] may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom [we] shine as lights in the world” (Phil 2:15). We need to be bright, shining beacons of God’s truth in this world. When we complain and dispute amongst ourselves, we tarnish that light and threaten to put it out—this harms our evangelistic efforts immeasurably. In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus also tells us that we are lights to the world, a shining city on a hill, and that we should shine our light before men for the purpose of glorifying God in heaven. We cannot do this if we are complaining and disputing.
Earlier in that passage, Paul says that we should be humble toward one another, fulfilling his joy by being like-minded (Phil. 2:1-4). As we continue reading, Paul calls to mind the example of Jesus since “in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). When we get to Philippians 2:14, Paul has already exhorted us to be humble, and the image of Jesus’ perfect humility is fresh on our minds. If our Lord can be humble and not complain as He is being led to the cross to suffer and die, then we also can be humble and cease our complaining and disputing in our lives.
When we complain about things, we send a message to those who hear it. It shows a lack of humility and a lack of respect for those in authority. Peter offers his own exhortation in regard to church conduct: “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Pet. 5:5). With pride comes a lack of humility. When we complain and dispute with those in authority, whether it be in our local congregations, our jobs, or even our government, we are in danger of losing the grace of God.
Such an exhortation is not limited to New Testament times. The Israelites in the desert after their exodus from Egypt constantly complained and disputed with Moses and the Lord. Paul tells us about his ancestors, “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not … complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:6,10). Throughout the books of Exodus and Numbers we see how much and how often they complained to bring about their destruction.
There are six main instances in these books, three in Exodus and three in Numbers, where the Israelites complained and disputed. On the fourth occasion in Numbers 11, Moses found it difficult to continue as their leader through the desert since he had to bear the brunt of their constant complaining. This time they were complaining that they only had manna to eat—manna that they did not have to plant or harvest, but that the Lord provided for them. This trap of ungratefulness and taking things for granted is unfortunately easy to fall into; I am sure many of us would feel the same way if we had only one thing to eat for several months. In the very first verse of Numbers 11, we see the Lord’s anger was kindled due to their complaining. “Now when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; for the Lord heard it, and His anger was aroused. So the fire of the Lord burned among them, and consumed some in the outskirts of the camp.”
Even after Moses pleaded on behalf of the people to cease this destruction, their complaining did not end. They craved meat despite their constant supply of manna. We see in Numbers 11:11-15 just how much the people had driven Moses to anger and despair, to the point of praying for his life to end. As a result of his pleading, the Lord told Moses to set up a group of seventy elders to handle the day-to-day affairs of the people, to take the bulk of the burden off Moses’s shoulders. One wonders if this is a reason for a plurality of elders governing the church today.
Regardless, God sternly granted the Israelites’ prideful demands. “You shall eat [meat] … until it … becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the Lord who is among you …’” (Num. 11:19, 20). We see in this passage that God did this, not because of their complaining, but because they despised the Lord. Therefore we can conclude that the Israelites despised the Lord through their complaining.
After the Israelites complained again and threatened to stone Moses, Aaron, and even Joshua when they heard a negative report from ten of the twelve spies sent into Canaan, the Lord appeared to Moses and said, “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?” (Num. 14:11). Once again, we see that complaining is not mentioned here, but rejection and unbelief. The Lord equates such complaining and disputing with rejection of God and a lack of belief and trust in Him.
The Lord then said, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me?” (Num. 14:27a). Those who complain against God are called an evil congregation. A few verses later, God informs Moses and Aaron that because of their complaining and disputing, because they have despised and rejected the Lord, because they do not believe and trust in Him, and because they are an evil congregation they will be forced to wander the desert and never enter into the Promised Land. No one twenty years old or older will be allowed to enter, except for Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who offered a favorable report of Canaan.
Sometimes, however, the Israelites complained for very legitimate needs such as food and water, but they did not make their requests humbly and respectfully. There will be times when we may have a legitimate need that we must take before the elders. In Acts 6:1, we read, “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” Here we see that the Hellenists had a legitimate need, and that they presented it to the Twelve, who did not chastise them for this complaint, but instead tended to their needs (Acts 6:2-6). It is not recorded how the Hellenists made their needs known, but because the response was not like that of God to the Israelites when they complained, we can conclude that there is an acceptable way to make a complaint.
If a congregation has qualified elders, they must “be blameless, … of good behavior, … able to teach, … gentle, not quarrelsome, … not a novice” (1 Tim. 3:3-6). These are qualities an elder must possess; therefore if one has a complaint, the elders will listen. If the complaint is just, they will follow the example of the Twelve by tending to one’s needs. If the complaint is not just, they will be able to teach the individual gently why it is not just. It is each elder’s responsibility to “[hold] fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Tit. 1:9).
When we complain and dispute with our elders and those in authority, we must not do so in the manner the Israelites complained to Moses, with a lack of humility and respect. If we do, we would be in danger of bringing anger and despair to our elders just as the Israelites did to Moses. We would also be in danger of despising and rejecting God, showing a lack of belief and trust in Him, and being an evil congregation. My brethren, we ought to avoid this at all costs. Sometimes, however, we do have legitimate needs that must be heard. These must be made humbly and respectfully before the elders, and we must adhere to their scriptural decisions.