Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Distruptive Who Go to Church pt.1

Harding Lectureship September 29, 2008
Warren Baldwin

The Complainers (Israelites - Numbers 11)

You’ve met the complainers. There is never a shortage of them at church, work, community programs or your own home. Complainers seem never to see the positive, the bright side or the possible. They only see the people or things that fail to meet their expectations, so they gripe.

Why do people complain? One reason is they are not happy with what they have. When the Israelites were roaming in the wilderness they enjoyed God’s protection and care. God was present with them and provided for their needs, including daily doses of manna. The manna was wholesome and nutritious, and even if it delighted the taste buds the first few times one ate it, I’m sure familiarity with manna dulled the pleasure with it. When my wife and I owned a distribution business for chocolate we could eat all of it we wanted. That was exciting for the first few months, then we actually grew tired of it. The same thing happened to the Israelites with manna and they began to complain. "We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost - also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic." (Numbers 11:5).

Complaining is rooted in selfishness. Manna may not have been a choice delicacy after months of exclusive dining on it, but it was still the provision of God and something that should have been received with gratitude. Instead, "the rabble" (v.4), those not faithful to God’s purpose for Israel, rejected God’s blessing with complaint and sarcasm.

To a church divided by selfish pursuits and vain conceit Paul wrote, "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault ..." (Philippians 2:14-15). Complainers think of themselves and their wants; they do not consider the needs of the larger body (cf. Philippians 2:1-4).

Complaining tends to grow in intensity. Complaint against manna began with "the rabble" and eventually spread to the whole community, so that Moses could hear "the people of every family wailing." (V.10). This troubled Moses and angered the Lord. The rippling effect of complaining was disrupting the entire community and threatened to undermine God’s redemptive work among his people. God responded by giving vent to his burning anger and striking the Israelites with a deadly plague. (Numbers 11:33).

A second reason people complain is alluded to above: complainers are not grateful. The Israelites who complained against manna were not only disappointed because their selfish desires were not met, they were ungrateful. They didn’t appreciate the good things God was doing among them.

Susan attended a church with eighty members. The women of the church met one morning a week to study the Bible and pray. One Monday night a month they met for a service project. They might fix a food basket or do a craft for a shut-in. The purpose of this service night was to apply some the principles of service and ministry they learned during their Bible study.

Susan was not happy with that arrangement, so she complained. She was not able to attend the morning Bible study, so she wanted the ladies to use Monday night for study. Her needs were not being met by the current arrangement, so she complained. She could not accept the good work the ladies were doing for members of the congregation and the community, nor was she grateful to be a part of a church and ladies’ group that was so committed to doing good.

The Criticizers (Aaron and Miriam - Numbers 12)

The criticism of Aaron and Miriam occurred in an environment of criticism. Theirs was not an isolated event. Criticism is a contagious spirit. It is like a germ that floats in the air and you catch. In Numbers 11:1-3 all the people were critical because of their hardships. In Numbers 11:4-35 the rabble began to criticize the lack of food variety. Their criticism created a considerable problem for Moses. God responded by sending a plague upon them. In Numbers 12:1-15 Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses and, in effect, God.

The criticism of Aaron and Miriam was not merely a family spat. Nor was it the criticism of the weak against the powerful. Aaron was the high priest and Miriam was a prophetess. She was spirit-filled and wrote songs of Israelite victory (Exodus 15). Aaron and Miriam were two powerful, influential personalities in Israel. What could posses them to attack their own brother, the leader of Israel?

The reason stated for their criticism of Moses is his Cushite wife. Was their complaint racially oriented? Was it based in covenant concern? But, this isn’t the real issue, anyway. The real issue for Aaron and Miriam is they were attacking Moses’ spiritual authority. (Num. 12:2). Notice their stated complaint in v.3: "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?" The reason they give to oppose him and the accusation they level against him don’t line up. They have private motives but public accusations. Their agenda is secretive and unholy.

Aaron and Miriam were both religious leaders. Yet, they both entered into the criticism game with ulterior motives. They were insincere. They were vying for power. They wanted to be spokesmen equal with Moses.

All of us function with certain flaws and failures. As spiritual leaders we exhibit three flawed styles of functioning.

1) Dysfunctional. The dysfunctional leader lacks emotional maturity and depth. He or she seeks emotional feeding from the congregation rather than providing emotional support to the congregation.

2) Malfunctional. The malfunctional leader over-functions. He tries to do too much himself. He doesn’t seek the advice or help of others. He doesn’t reflect upon and learn from his mistakes. He is just ready to jump in and go again.

3) Nonfunctional. The nonfunctional manager doesn’t function. He or she does ... nothing. They may be lazy or scared or uneducated about what they should do. But the bottom line is they do nothing. (Managing the Congregation, pp.18-19).

We all lean toward one, or a combination, of these unhealthy functional styles. Aaron and Miriam operated out of one, maybe two, of these styles. They may have been dysfunctional or malfunctional. It either case, their poor functioning led them to operate out of the "dark" side. Their leadership took on a neurotic bent called "suspicious." (Leading the Congregation, p.98) They were suspicious and envious of Moses. They desired greater leadership themselves, and wanted to center leadership in themselves. To do so, they perceived that they had to attack Moses. Criticism became their modus operandi for discrediting Moses, unseating him from his position of leadership and authority, and placing themselves in the drivers seat. Their motives were shameful; their actions were destructive. Fortunately, God intervened.

But God doesn’t always intervene so dramatically in the affairs of men. Instead, he depends upon men and women of character to stand up, be counted, and temper any unhealthy attitudes or behavior in a congregation. Remember, criticism can be systemic as well as individual. Individuals may criticize, but they often do it in a larger system, or environment, that encourages that negative behavior.

There are three things we can do to make sure we are not contributing to toxic criticism in our
family, work place, or congregation.
1) Examine our own motives. Why do we want to lead? Are we really ready to lead? Or, why
aren’t we leading if we are capable of it? What fear holds us back?
2) If we have a legitimate concern about something, we need to go that person individually and discuss it with him or her. Don’t make that person the object of criticism, either just or unjust.
3) Remember that we all have our God-given abilities and talents to contribute to the health of the body. Do the best you can with your gifts; respect and appreciate others for the exercise of theirs.

The Connivers (Korah - Numbers 16)

There is a three-fold step of dissatisfaction: Complaining, criticizing, conniving (manipulating, rebelling). The last of this three-fold step can be seen in Korah.

Korah was a Levite. He and his family were given certain responsibilities in the worship of Israel. In Numbers 4:1-20 they were given the responsibility of carrying sacred objects, such as the ark. But, limitations were also placed on them. Numbers 4:20 says they were not to look at the holy things or they would die.

Having a responsibility is an important part of feeling part of a group. It lets us know we are contributing. It gives us "ownership" in what the group is doing. Problem: we aren’t always happy with what our responsibilities are. We see someone else doing well with their tasks and wonder, "Why can’t I be doing that?" Sometimes that is ok. Sometimes that leads us to develop new talents.

But sometimes it is a problem, too. Korah wasn’t happy with carrying the sacred objects. He wanted to administer the rites of a priest. He wanted to be a priest. But that was not his call from God. Numbers 16 is the story of Korah’s rebellion against Moses and his rebellion against God’s chosen responsibilities for him.

Korah’s behavior: (Numbers 16:1-3)
1) V.1 - He became insolent. Rude, disrespectful.
2) V.2 - He rose up against Moses. He led 250 other men in his rebellion
3) V.3a - Korah and the others came as a group to oppose Moses
4) V.3b - They accused Moses of setting himself above the rest of them.

Moses offers a lengthy rebuttal. Moses says, "God has brought you near to himself; God has given you special work to do with the tabernacle; God has given you a ministry to the community." "But," Moses continues, "You want more. You are trying to get the priesthood, too." (V.8-11).

Korah’s rebellion is a continuation of a series of rebellious behavior. In Numbers 13 & 14 the people rebelled against God’s plan to take the land. Now, in Numbers 16, some of the leaders are rebelling against God’s plan for Israel’s spiritual leadership - the priesthood.

There are several reasons why people rebel. The reasons are not always bad. Here are some bad:
1) Some people simply cannot work well with others.
2) Some people always have to lead. They won’t follow or work with someone; they must always be in charge.
3) Some people can’t stand to see a smooth operating system with happy people. They themselves are disgruntled with life and they want to "share" their unhappiness with others.
4) A less severe reason, some people don’t know how to communicate their ideas very well.

There are good reasons to work for change: The system may be very sick, and rebellion seems to be the only way to effect change. (It is important for Christians to realize, though, that there are healthy ways to work for change).

How can you tell if a rebellion is occurring under negative or positive directions?
1) How open are the people and their intentions in the rebellion? Is there a lot of secret stuff going on? The more secret the rebellion tends to be, the more sinister the intentions of the rebels seem to be as well. On the other hand, the more open and honest the people are, the more noble their intentions seem to be. They may be more sincere in working for what they perceive to be necessary change, and are not just rebelling to get more power or influence for themselves.

2) How do the people in rebellion treat the leaders they are rebelling against? Do they show any respect? Any mutuality? Any care? Do they just attack, attack, attack without any thought of the harm they may be causing? In their rebellion are they maintaining their Christian character and treating others with respect? Do they try to engage their opponents in conversation, or do they just accuse them?

If you look at Korah, much of what he did seems to be of the less noble kind of rebellion.
1) Korah gathered a group around him.
2) He had his group primed for rebellion.
3) He didn’t seek to engage Moses in honest and open conversation. Instead, the opening lines of speech were accusation. He accused Moses of setting himself above everyone else. He didn’t honor that Moses was wearing himself out in service to the people. Korah wasn’t interested in doing all that; he just wanted leadership, and he had to take Moses out of the way to get it.
4) He was rude. The Bible calls him insolent. He didn’t show proper respect for Moses. Even if Moses had some failures, he was still deserving of respect. Korah didn’t show any.

This was not a wholesome attempt to bring needed change in Israel. This was an attempt for a frustrated man to get more power.

God does not respond well to complaining, unjust criticizing, or conniving. (Numbers 16:22-27; 31-34)

To avoid rebellion:
1) Everyone should be able to feel they belong
2) Church must provide opportunity for everyone to serve as they are able.
3) We, all of us, should be able to express what we think is good and bad about what is going on. We need to practice openness, honesty and respect for others so that way our motives can be trusted.

Earlier I told you about a woman named Susan (not her real name) who complained about the ladies program. Her complaining eventually turned to severe criticism (voiced in private meetings with other women) and conniving. Her constant complaining and criticism eventually wore down the resolve of the other ladies, and they let Susan be in charge of the Monday night program. She immediately dispensed with service projects and began showing a film series about "discovering our dysfunctions." The other women were not in support of this change and eventually the Monday night program and the weekly Bible study were killed.

The complaining and criticism killed the joy of the Bible study and the service project night. When the joy is gone, so is the life. Two good programs died because Susan was selfish and ungrateful. Rather than thinking of the good of the group she chose to complain, criticize and connive for position (leader of the group) until she killed a good work.

As a humbling note: we need to be aware that we might be someone else’s "disruptive" personality. So, as we discuss the "disruptive," we want to do so humbly and cautiously.

Warren Baldwin

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