Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!
On September 21, 1788 the army of the Holy Roman Empire was arrayed against that of the Ottoman Empire. On paper, it looked like the Austrians had the superior force and a good chance at victory. But that evening things went south…to put it mildly.
As best we can figure, it went more or less like this: a group of cavalry officers, ostensibly scouting for enemy troops, came upon a group of Romanian peasants who sold them some barrels of schnapps. As they were consuming said beverage, an infantry group came upon them and insisted on them sharing their booze. The cavalry troops were not so inclined, and a fight broke out. During the fight someone shouted “Turks” and pretty much everybody, thinking they were under attack, fled.
Naturally, these geniuses fled back in the direction of the main camp. And of course the commanders in the camp thought that they were under attack, and opened fire. At this point the entire army, all 100,000 of them, now thinking they were under attack by the Ottomans, fled in all directions, shooting wildly at anything that moved. By the time they were able to regroup, the Austrians had lost possibly thousands of men (estimates vary). During the confusion the Holy Roman Emperor himself got unceremoniously knocked off his horse. The whole incident so demoralized him that he withdrew his army from the field, thus handing the strategic town of Karánsebes to the Ottomans.*
What does this story have to do with our text? The answer lies in what I believe are the key words: in the original κατ’ ἀλλήλων – rendered in English as “against one another”.
In this verse he continues addressing the brethren, but his words are decidedly sterner. The exhortation against grumbling is accompanied by dire warning: if you do grumble, you could be judged (ἵνα μὴ κριθῆτε – in order that you not be judged), and indeed the judge (κριτὴς) is at the door. Where’s the love we were feeling in the last verse?
In truth, we are feeling the love in this verse as well. It is just the tough love of a general who knows the mortal danger of infighting among the troops. Remember that it’s not just grumbling we’re talking about, but grumbling “against each other” (κατ’ ἀλλήλων). It’s like the general is walking into the middle of the camp and shouting “stop shooting at each other, you idiots, there’s an enemy out there.” Then he court-martials the ringleaders.
If you have spent any time at all in the context of a local church, you know that infighting is, sadly, a common occurrence. And while James doesn’t go into details here as to its causes, the illustration I used at the beginning of this post offers some intriguing possibilities.
Why do Christians fight with each other?
They forget the mission. Buying schnapps from peasants while you’re supposed to be scouting is forgetting the mission. Getting entangled in the affairs of this world, neglecting spiritual disciplines, developing a carnal outlook: for the Christian all these are forgetting the mission. They can lead to disaster.
They get jealous of other believers. Things really got out of hand when two groups of people wanted the same schnapps (I think this is the most I’ve ever used the word “schnapps” in one post). You would be surprised at how many times I have seen petty jealousy, over the silliest of things, destroy the fellowship of a church.
They fail to communicate. One of the problems faced by the army of the Holy Roman Empire was that it was made up of people from many different nations, who spoke many different languages. At one point a group of soldiers thought the men in front of them were screaming “Allah!” (which would indicate that they were Turks) when in fact they were shouting “Halt!” Christians in a local church setting must talk to each other, instead of grumbling about each other. When this happens, it can clear up a multitude of misunderstandings before they grow into major conflicts.
They lack discernment. The whole disaster at Karánsebes could have been averted at several points had people stopped long enough to assess the situation. Instead, the panicked and went out with both barrels blazing. This is why it is so important for a church to have wise leaders who will stop and make sure they know the whole situation before wading in.
Focus on the mission, don’t succumb to jealousy, communicate, exercise discernment…all essential for avoiding the tragic consequences (and divine judgement) of infighting.
*There are numerous versions of this story, due to lack of documentation and the fact that participants were understandably reluctant to talk about it. What I’ve posted here are what seem to be the most agreed-upon highlights.
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