Three Ways I’ve Learned to Respond to Antagonists

by Jared Wellman on April 24, 2014 · 18 comments

There 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.

1 Jeff Johnson April 24, 2014 at 10:31 am

I thought this was well-written and well-reasoned from the Scriptures. Every pastor should take this advice to heart.

At what point does the antagonism become an open sin that needs to be addressed by church discipline? I agree that we should accept personal insult without becoming angry, bitter, or argumentative. As you put it, we should rush to the truth but not necessarily to our own defense. These antagonists, however, rarely limit their complaints to one-on-one discussions with the pastor. Like you overheard in your office, they gossip, back-bite, and grumble to their fellow church members and others in the community. They publicly and actively oppose the pastor’s leadership. This will undermine the reputation and unity of the church. I think most of us, unfortunately, have seen situations where one or two antagonists become such a vexation to the pastor that he loses his effectiveness or leaves, while the rest of the church supports the pastor but stands by silently.

2 Tarheel April 24, 2014 at 11:30 am

Great post….but if I may…

“I never see Jesus handling antagonists this way. Jesus was gracious, kind, loving, and edifying.”

I do not think Jesus was always gracious, kind and edifying. Yes, He is love so love always informed his actions – but always kind – I am not so sure.

The whip incident comes to mind, as does Matthew 23. he did some pretty aggressive name calling there.

Paul spoke of desiring that people who would deceive and teach heresy would castrate themselves.

Sometimes Jesus and Paul demonstrates it is appropriate and godly to be quite abrasive and dare I say even agressive in the face of some people.

3 Jared Wellman April 24, 2014 at 11:59 am

I’ve had that response come up before Tarheel. My thoughts are that, while Jesus was surely aggressive in some of his actions, his seemed to always have some kind of intent behind it. That is, it wasn’t an argument for the sake of argument, and he never tried to win a debate (for the sake of winning it), which is what tends to happen between pastors and antagonists.

I would say that this is the difference. And thus, Jesus being “gracious, kind, and [especially] edifying,” I think, is a fair assessment.

So, I agree with you that it is okay (and arguably biblical) to be “abrasive,” as you say, if the situation calls for it, but I think the intent of that abrasiveness is important too.

4 Tarheel April 24, 2014 at 12:04 pm

I do not mean that aggression should be our default mode of response (in fact I agree that our default should be what you have contended) but by the same token aggression is not always the wrong response either.

That said, again…I appreciate your post it is good and meaningful.

5 Tarheel April 24, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Oh, and as you say, intent is king – so to speak.

6 Jared Wellman April 24, 2014 at 11:56 am

Thanks Jeff.

To answer your question, (and it’s a great question), my convictions are that it’s wise to remain in communication with the church leadership concerning antagonistic behavior. I try to do this at our church. This way, nothing catches the leadership by surprise, and they also are able to help maintain the potential issues when they are inevitably discussed in the hallways of the church.

Once the antagonist begins threatening the life of the church, meaning that it’s no longer just a grumbling man in the pew, Matthew 18 should be followed.

Thanks again for reading Jeff!

7 Richmond Goolsby April 24, 2014 at 11:28 am

Jared,
Great article brother! We have all been there and still going through some, wonderful words of wisdom. The Holy Spirit often reminds me of the way Jesus rose above His antagonists and stayed true to the mission at hand.
Thanks so much!
Richmond Goolsby

8 Jared Wellman April 24, 2014 at 11:56 am

Thanks Richmond! Hope all is well with you.

9 Jim Pemberton April 24, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Great article! I have a couple of observations:

1) I want to add to the admonition to be silent. Jesus is a great example, but I would point out that Moses was also. In leading the Hebrews, Moses quickly and strongly defended God, but he never defended himself. When attacked, it was always God himself who weighed in on Moses’ behalf. Stay in communion with God and let him work in the hearts of those who come against you.

2) There’s often a fine line between antagonizing someone with evil intent and with misguided good intent. It’s good to call out sin, but it’s not necessary to call out someone merely on the basis of antagonization. It can defuse an antagonizer to positively verbalize the recognition that they have a good intent where that is the case if they handled their good intent poorly. If they actually had evil intent and you are mistaken, then it may convict them to realize that they didn’t have the good intent you are praising them for. Regardless, they may be taken aback by your kindness toward them enough to hear a loving rebuke for having handled whatever intent they had with inappropriate antagonization.

A final word. Among our staff and deacons, they are unified in such a way that they rebuke antagonists on behalf of each other. If there is a way to develop that kind of trust and fellowship among the church leadership, it will go well with you. For what it’s worth, Moses didn’t have it even among his siblings, or Jesus among his disciples (Judas) but it’s worth it if that can be developed.

10 Jared Wellman April 24, 2014 at 4:03 pm

Thanks Jim. I cannot personally agree more with your sentiment concerning the church leadership’s unity. That is a key, I think, in ultimately dealing with antagonists.

11 DJG April 24, 2014 at 5:27 pm

Great word, Jared. Thanks for stating clearly these words of wisdom.

12 Jared Wellman April 24, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Thanks Denny!

13 Dave Miller April 25, 2014 at 4:27 pm

I’ve kinda been out of circulation this week, but this is an excellent article, Jared.

A lot of great wisdom.

14 dr. james willingham April 26, 2014 at 10:11 pm

I definitely think this is one of the better articles. The writer learned from experience and from study of the word of God, the latter being the best guide to dealing with such problems. In my first church some 50 years ago, I face a division in which, as one nearby pastor, who was a seminary graduate (NOBTS), said, “They could not get an experienced man. They all knew the people were going to take their frustrations out on the next pastor (some believed the former pastor was guilty and some did not). They tried to fire me twice that first year. One of my messages was an attempt to expound I Cors. 13, which interestingly enough bears directly on what Jared as stated. Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15 were enraged, and yet Paul writes in I Cors. 13, “Love is not easily provoked,” actually, in the Greek, it is, “Love does not become enraged.” I leave it to you all to work it out. In any case, Jared you have written well, thoughtful, with good insight, and helpful ideas about handling such situations. I managed to survive my situation for another year and a few months. When I left, the chairman of deacons said I had done them a good job, and they would give me a good recommendation to any place. Keeping one’s cool is very important to the process of handling the difficulties, and I think our writer pretty well exhibited that needed quality.

15 Jared Wellman April 28, 2014 at 9:27 am

Thanks for the feedback Dr. Willingham.

16 Bruce McGovern April 28, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Some years ago, there was a well written book on this exact topic, called, of course, ANTAGONISTS IN THE CHURCH. It not only described the different types of antagonists, but tells how they are to be dealt with.

http://www.amazon.com/Antagonists-Church-Identify-Destructive-Conflict/dp/0806623101

The book was written for pastors and church leaders, by a person who had at times been a consultant advisor for churches in trouble because of an antagonist.

The writer recommends the elders set up a program to deal with them. Antagonists definitely can take out an innocent pastor, and shut down the church. You cannot deal with an antagonist by turning the other cheek.

The introductory anecdote tells of an antagonist, in this case a man, but not always, who finally hounded the pastor out of the church. He got a flock in California, several thousand miles away. The first Sunday, the antagonist was sitting in the front row!!!!

The book tells when to resist and when to leave. If you are guilty as charged, leave. If you are innocent but no one believes you, leave.

The book was recommended to me, not for church, but for a family member who was the worst sort of antagonist. The book helped ever so much.

In my case, the family antagonist definitely was working to destroy my name with the most outrageous lies, and the majority of the family believed every word. I chose to separate myself completely from the family. The best thing I have ever done.

17 Christiane April 29, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Hi BRUCE,

this all sounds very pain-filled . . . for now, you may feel that estrangement from this ‘toxic’ family situation is best for you; but continue to pray and to hope for some meaningful reconciliation (with healing involved) at some future date . . .

I am the last to judge, as I do have a situation with a family member that has been difficult for me, and I did not know how to handle it except to withdraw from this individual . . . my initial feeling was one of relief . . . but then it occurs to me that the individual in question has many issues that I am aware of, and possibly some that I am not aware of . . . so it may fall to me to find a way towards a reconcilation, if God will show me the path and give me the strength of grace to go forward so that I will not be in disobedience of this beautiful commandment found in Isaiah 58:

” . . . not to hide yourself from your own kin”

God is merciful. And Our Lord came to reconcile men to God, but also to reconcile men to each other . . . that is the power of grace working where we have stumbled on our own journeys.

Be encouraged . . . and hope for better to come . . . that is the way of our faith to know that we are not alone on our walk, especially when we are hurt and confused, and even a bit lost as to what to do that is truly best AND blessed.
God’s Peace remain with you, BRUCE. He makes all things new. :)

18 dr. james willingham April 29, 2014 at 11:38 am

And, when you innocent and right, you stay and confront. I know of several cases, where men of God asked Him to deal with such people. In one case, the Evangelist said, “Lord, Kill them all.” And the Lord did exactly that. The church where it happened had a revival that lasted for several months and about 600 were converted. The Evangelist was…well. I won’t say, but you can find a similar example in the biography of Ev. Mordecai Fowler Ham, the fellow under whom Billy Graham was converted. Sometimes God does take an active part, and sometimes he just lets the preacher fall flat on his face. The one above tried some of the same tactics in another church and fell flat on his face. God will be dictated to by no one among the children of men, but a child can asked Him and He will treat it like a fond command.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: