In addition to doing research on Romans, my eye has also been directed towards trying to make sense of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Part of the reason is that I think in Philippians we get a vision of the telos that Paul seeks to guide the gatherings of believers toward: the imitation of Christ’s humble servanthood. We see this theme getting expressed a little bit in Romans (Romans 8.16) and 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10.31-11.1), but it in Philippians where see it as a very explicit and salient theme.
So, when I heard the preacher mention make a passing comment about people who value God’s Word takes seriously what is said, including not complaining, it became a source of thought and reflection afterward because it is soon Paul gives the early church hymn about Christ’ servanthood in Philippians 2.6-11 that Paul exhorts the Philippians to “do all things without complaining and arguing.” (As a side note, often times sermons inspire people to think on those things that didn’t relate to the central theme.)
In addressing what Paul is exhorting the Philippians into, it is important to say that what constitutes “complaining” and “arguing” is often in the eye of the beholder. For some, people distinguish between complaining and not complaining, arguing and not arguing based upon what they themselves feel uncomfortable with.
For instance, a highly controlling leader may think any expression of negative feelings or attempt to persuade them that their plans may not be the best will interpret that person as “complaining” and “arguing.” Meanwhile, a leader who is concerned about those people he leads won’t think people are “complaining” and “arguing” when they express their problems and concerns. In other words, people who expect that others should conform to their vision and expectations are prone to see any pushback as complaining and arguing.
Or, consider two people who are discussing politics on facebook where they don’t agree. A person who is comfortable with diverging opinions will be less inclined to think the other person is “arguing” in the negative sense, but rather discussing and debate. However, people who are less open to divergence are going to be more inclined to interpret debate and disagreement as “arguing,” even if there is no attempt to compel or insult the others for disagreeing.
It is important to keep this in mind when we read passages like Philippians 2.14. A person who is highly uncomfortable with a disagreement or being told that not everything is going well may expect more from themselves or other people than a person who is more comfortable with ambiguity and tension.
So, my first point to bring forward is that Paul’s advice is not a universal prohibition against expressing any problems or disagreements for individuals. Paul isn’t trying to encourage the Philippians to be a “Be happy and be quiet” or “be a good team player.” Paul isn’t saying “Get along or move along.” Often times, the prohibition against complaints and arguing is used as a way to reinforce power hierarchies in which those who are powerless are to not say anything about the decisions and actions that those who have power have. Paul is not telling people to live in a community of hierarchical dominance without any sort of dissent. Rather, Paul is providing insight into how a community of mutual servanthood to each other.
This brings me to my next point: it is important to note that Paul is not giving moral guidance as to how an individual is to act, but how the community is to live together. Paul’s instructions are given under the assumption that there are some traits that define the community in Philippians 2.1: that they are encouraged and hopeful in Christ, that they are seeking to console each other in love, that they are sharing together in the Spirit, and they have a basic concern for each other’s well-being. Paul is addressing a community of believers in which they have a certain shared experience and concern, particularly within the life of the Triune God. So, Philippians 2.14 is not addressing how individuals should behave, but rather what should define the life of the community of those called and formed to Christ. Paul is providing a community ethos, not a moral rule for individualistic behavior.
There is a marked difference between a community ethos and moral rules targetting individualistic behavior in terms of how we ‘judge’ people based upon their behavior. People who fall short of specific behavioral rules are typically expressed as expectations that people are obligated to conform to. As a result, we are inclined primarily to focus on people’s “guilt” for failing to hold the standard and not the goodness of living according to the rule: you don’t get credit for what is expected on you. As a result, when breaches of behavioral rules occur, we then consider the step of some sort of discipline, punishment, or, God forbid, vengeance to ‘correct’ for the wrong. We typically motivate people to follow behavioral rules based upon punishment and withholding of privileges.
Meanwhile, a community ethos tends to operate more so as something we encourage people to be a part of because there is something good and life-giving about this way of life. People are not automatically regarded as bad people if they fail to adhere to the community ethos, although punishment may still be necessary under the case of severe or repetitive violations that cause serious harm and damage. People are not controlled to try to live within a community ethos either, although they can be encouraged to live within that ethos with roadblocks to realize it being brought to light. What ultimately distinguishes a community ethos is that it something people are positively encouraging to be part of, not threatened, punished, and controlled into. In other words, Paul’s words about not complaining and grumbling is providing a vision for how the believers should seek to live to be part of a community defined by the love of God, not a law that people are controlled by.
This vision of serving others without complaining and arguing is also something that Paul does not expect the Philippians to be doing immediately, but is a consequence of their learning and growth. Note that the exhortation to not complain or argue comes right after Paul says they should work on their own salvation in line with God’s work in their lives (Php. 2.12-13). Because of the persuseciton and chains that Paul was living in, whether Paul would be able to guide and teach the Philippians anymore in the future was uncertain. As a result, Paul is encouraging them to go to the next step so that their love “may overflow more and more with knowledge and insight to help [them] determine what is best.” (Php. 1.9-11) If the Philippians can know and experience what the completed, mature love of Christ is, then they can be spiritually autonomous and not have to be dependent upon Paul going on into the uncertain future. So, Paul provides a vision for the community that progresses beyond simply having positive regard and concern for each other that they already have and move towards bringing this love to its fullest fruition. When they as a community learned to deeply love and serve each other without complaining and arguing, they can then be confident that they will be innocent people whose life will stand apart from a corrupt and depraved world (Php. 2.15).
So, what Paul is calling the Philippians is a description of the way of life for God’s people that they can realize only through the word and work of God (Phi. 2.13, 16). The community is called to be formed towards the fullness of love.
This way of framing Paul’s words would lead us to look at complaining and arguing differently. Rather than immediately blaming the person who “complains” and “argues,” we would instead suggest there is something amiss in the community when people are lead to complain and argue. Maybe that person is the problem. Maybe they are a perpetually dissatisfied sort who complains and argues to control and get their way. However, maybe that person isn’t actually the problem, but it is that the community is not reaching the fullness of love in some way. A complaint or an argument is a signal that something is amiss, but it doesn’t automatically blame the person who brings the complaint or who argues.
I bring this up because of the way the two wings of American/Western Christianity have been training to function. On the one hand, evangelical/traditional Christianity has had a way of interpreting the Bible’s words against complaining in an individualistic manner, telling people it is wrong to speak up and use their voice when they think something is wrong or something bad is happening. The end result is that we oftentimes put an undue burden on those whose only power to protect and address great harm is to use their voice, automatically guilting them for saying something that isn’t nice and challenges us. We can call this “polite” Christianity” On the other hand, we are witnessing a way of life among progressive Christians that think the life of the Church is to be one who constantly argues and complains about every perceived injustice, which they oftentimes label as “prophetic” but in fact show a reduced sense of discernment between things such as inequalities, wrongs, and frustrations and evils, abuses, and harms. When you use “prophetic” to be a justification for constantly arguing, complaining, and accusing about every perceived fault under the sun as something oppressive and harmful, one is going far off track from Paul’s vision of the complete love of Jesus Christ. We can call this pseudo-prophetic Christianity.
On the one hand, polite Christianity has been used to silence egregious harms done in our midst. For instance, when sexual harassment and abuse are occurring in the halls of the church and enable be using the influence of religion, we need to be able to hear these complaints. There is something seriously, seriously wrong in the community at this point. This the community far from being defined by its members seeking each other’s interest above their own, but rather reinforces the interests of those who have used power to harm; it undercuts the very thing Paul is calling the Philippians to live a part of. The experiencing of harms without complaint or argument isn’t the “love” that Christ came to enable us to live out and experience. So, to focus on not complaining due to the development of a norm of politeness that should not speak negatively gives power to the abuse. Polite Christianity has no power over the outright abuse of power.
However, when people are thought to be wrongly excluded from power because they don’t adhere to the way of life that the community has clearly established, pseudo-prophetic Christianity has for years sought to try to control others through complaining and arguing rather than seeking to form what it is they think God is calling of them. Pseudo-prophetic Christianity is tempted to treat outright abuse and full-blown neglect as on par with what they deem to be an unjustified inequality in power and privilege, treating harm and inequalities as always the same.1 In so doing, they perpetually complain and argue about everything as oppression. As a result, pseudo-prophetic Christianity has no power to form people into love, but rather readily justifies narratives of grievances for all perceived wrongs that are used to motivate further conflict with those whom they do not share much in common.
In short, when we treat Paul’s words in Philippians 2 as a community ethos that he encourages the gathering of believers on Philippians to participate in based upon their shared experience and concern for others through the Triune God, neither polite Christianity nor pseudo-prophetic Christianity can stand as innocent and blameless in the crooked and perverse generation of our present age.