THREE WAYS I’VE LEARNED TO RESPOND TO ANTAGONISTS

argueThere is an episode on the comedy sitcom The King of Queens, in which Carrie Heffernan is shunned from every nail salon in the neighborhood because of her poor attitude towards her manicurist. As it turns out, the nail salons are in cahoots with one another, and whenever she angrily leaves one they fax her picture to the others to make sure that no other salon has to unwittingly inherit her antagonistic behavior.

This is a funny picture, to be sure, but I cannot help but sometimes wish that churches had a likeminded network when it comes to antagonistic church members. And by “antagonistic church members,” I mean those whose sole job in life, it seems, is to cause grief for their pastoral leaders.

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 (Heb 13:17).

I have served as a pastor in Southern Baptist churches since 2003, and in the span of these years I have had the privilege of pastoring three different churches. Unfortunately I have encountered antagonists in every single one of them. I’m convinced that every church has their village antagonist(s), which inspires me to consider how I have learned to deal with them over the years.

The following includes a summary of what I have learned, along with a few insights into each thought.

HURRY TO TRUTH

It’s not unusual to have arguments with people. And it’s especially not unusual to have arguments with people in the church. The church harnesses one of the two most vitriolic topics in the cosmos–religion. The other is politics. Even Paul, one of our great apostolic fathers, had a “sharp disagreement” with Barnabas, one that caused them to “separate from one another” (Acts 15:39).

Some arguments can be healthy, but others can be harmful. Unfortunately, many of the arguments that take place in church are harmful because they include individuals manipulating theological truth for personal gain. And sometimes theological truth is ignored altogether.

This is why, when facing an antagonist, the first thing every pastor ought to do is “hurry to truth.” This is a phrase developed from one of Paul’s letters to Timothy. He writes,

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15).

The word “diligent” means “to hurry.” And Paul’s advice to Timothy is to “hurry towards the word of truth.” In so doing there is no need to be “ashamed.”

Thus, some of the best advice a pastor can have to combat an antagonist is to “hurry towards truth.” Even if rumors and lies are spread by the antagonist, the pastor, so long as he hurries toward truth, can stand before God unashamed.

And there will be rumors and lies spread by an antagonist, about a pastor, throughout the course of his ministry.

In the same passage Paul details what it looks like to not hurry to truth. This is good advice for both the pastor and antagonist, but in my experience the content could easily be used as the mantra of antagonistic behavior. He describes how some engage in “worldly and empty chatter,” which leads to “further ungodliness” (16). He also says that such talk spreads like “gangrene.” Gangrene is a disease describing the death of body tissue.

Thus, antagonistic behavior, the kind that manifests itself in lies, can be likened to a disease that kills the tissue of the body of Christ [1].

And this is usually the primary goal of an antagonist. He might not articulate his desires in this way, but his goal is to have things his way, and he’ll gladly antagonize the pastor and church to get it.

The most important thing I have learned throughout the course of my ministry is to hurry towards truth, even if that truth is unpopular, and even if it upsets some. The pastor’s job is not to please men, but to please God, and sometimes the two aren’t compatible.

BE SILENT (BUT NOT COWARDLY)

In one of my former pastorates there was a man who had a resume of antagonizing pastors. If there were a club, he would have been the uncontested chairman. A day rarely went by when I didn’t hear from him concerning his discontentment with me, or hear from someone else about how he was discontent with me.

One evening I overheard him in the office next door to mine grumbling about me. Being inexperienced in this situation, I reacted the only way I knew how, which was by defending myself and arguing with him.

This made things worse.

If I could go back, I would not have handled the situation this way. It was unprofessional and unbecoming. When I look at Scripture, I never see Jesus handling antagonists this way. Jesus was gracious, kind, loving, and edifying. He did combat antagonists, but not the way I did. I was more concerned with defending my honor. Jesus was always concerned with defending the Father’s honor; He was concerned with defending truth.

I have learned that, sometimes, one of the best things that I can do to combat an antagonist is to be silent. And this is really only possible if I have hurried to truth. This means that if I have done everything in my power to be able to stand unashamed before the Lord, and an antagonist is still antagonizing me, then it’s not my job to defend myself. My job is to speak the truth, to speak it in love, and to honor the Lord. This is what Jesus did. And he did it at the most agonizing moment of his life, when the world antagonized him because of his messianic proclamation.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth (Is 53:7).

Jesus didn’t need to defend his honor. He had the Father to do that. In a few days he would be raised from the dead and in that day the antagonists would know that he spoke the truth.

I believe that pastors should follow this example.

This of course is not to say that our antagonism is on par with Jesus’ death and resurrection. But it is to say that, so long as we speak truth, that sometimes being “silent before our shearers” is best, because God will expose everything for what it is.

And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Heb 4:13).

And silence, the kind discussed here, should not be confused with cowardliness. By every means a pastor ought to confront issues, and confront them at their core. The silence suggested here is the kind that comes after the right things have been done, and when there is nothing left that can be done.

PRAY FOR, LOVE ON, AND HELP (IF POSSIBLE)

I would be remiss if I did not mention this final method of dealing with antagonists. At the end of the day, an antagonist is a human being who needs God’s grace and forgiveness just like the rest of us. He might not even be aware of his antagonism. In fact, he usually isn’t. And this is a very sad thing.

Unfortunately, in my experience an antagonist isn’t interested in considering that he might be the one in the wrong [2].

Pastors ought to pray for those that antagonize and have a history of antagonizing the church. They ought to commit the individual to prayer and find ways to love him and help him, if possible, instead of ways to get rid of him. Unfortunately a repeat antagonizer is nearly always impossible to work with. I’ve come into churches and identified an antagonist before he antagonized me, (although he had already antagonized others).  I did my best to work with such individuals and plug them in, but, true to form, they eventually showed their true colors.

Still, it’s unfair to hold a man guilty before a crime and a pastor’s prayers, love, and help might be what is needed, even after the antagonism, to help the antagonist become a viable and productive member of the church.

We are all broken people and we all have our shortcomings before the Lord. The goal should always be reconciliation and redemption. This is something a pastor can potentially accomplish with an antagonist when exercising the right amount of love, patience, and forgiveness.

[1] It is important to note that the context of this particular passage has to do specifically with lies concerning the resurrection of Christ. This blog seeks to employ the general concern that Paul seems to be suggesting in the letter concerning theological manipulation. While the context has to do with the resurrection of Jesus, I don’t think it is unreasonable to also use this passage to detail the various lies one can create concerning other issues too. This, in my estimation, is the height of “empty chatter.”
[2] And when a pastor is the one in the wrong, he ought to willingly admit it and seek forgiveness too.

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3 Comments

  1. Lynne Denena says:

    Sounds like the best thing that has come out of those years is a pearl of great price! You probably hate it, but as young as you are, I continue to be amazed at your spiritual maturity! May THE LORD continue ……..

  1. […] have anything against Jared Wellman and I would even encourage all of you to check his latest post, which I have considered while writing this. I don’t want to come off as antagonistic. I don’t […]

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