Resisting is not rejecting.
A wise pastor friend pointed out to me this morning that one of the most difficult tasks he has in ministry is to teach people that resisting someone is not the same as rejecting them. He and I were sharing a coffee and discussing our historical tendency to be passive aggressive (seems to come with the territory for many pastors), and how for any healthy relationships, especially in church, this has to be confronted and called what it is – the fear of man. For both of us, happily, God has managed to break us enough to deal with this. (Ed: someone said Steve Mc used to be passive-aggressive, but now he’s just aggressive.)
My friend mentioned that within his congregation he is trying to show people that he is able to resist an idea they bring to him, a sinful attitude they have, a quick fix solution the offer, a poorly thought out proposal, or even an attempt to control him, without it being rejection of the person. And the flip side he is learning is that he must also believe that when people resist those same things in him, they are not rejecting him. The resistance is, in fact, often God’s way of shaping and refining us, and ensuring we pursue love between brothers and sisters in Christ.
He is spot on. But the fact is many people confuse the two. And, more worryingly, many people in ministry leadership confuse the two! Why more worryingly? Because to confuse resistance with rejection from a leadership position has a strong trickle-down effect. It is a warning sign that something is wrong within you, and an even larger neon-light-filled warning sign that something is going to go wrong because of you!
What do I mean by that? Simply this. There is little that is more dangerous among the people of God than a leader who is so brittle that they cannot cope with people pushing back on their ideas. At its foundation, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the gospel of grace and an inability – or unwillingness – on the part of that leader to find their identity, security and acceptance in Christ. Undealt with, it will haunt them at every turn, follow them to every church, and creep into their bed with them at night to lie next to them and whisper rejection in their ear at 3am. So if that is you, then there is something deeply wrong that urgently needs correction. You may be confusing resistance with rejection. And it will take more than willpower to get it right, it will take a deep work of God’s Spirit to enable you to see your acceptance is grounded in the, ironically, rejected One.
But here’s the bigger issue, the consequence of that problem. It’s not a problem you can bottle up. It has too much internal pressure; it leaks. This tendency to confuse resistance with rejection can create a big horrid snowball of filth capable of burying your Christian community in a toxic sludge. And there is plenty of proof that this is happening more and more in the evangelical world of the super-leader. I am getting tired of seeing the long list of blog posts/emails/public letters about major church leaders around the world in which this brittleness and tendency to read resistance as rejection is playing itself out in ugly ways. There is a depressing familiarity to it all. I just read another one today, and it was like a plagiarist’s dream: All of the problems were the same, all of the fall-out the same, all of the financial irregularities, power-plays and “hijack” meetings were the same; only the names of the pastor and the church were changed.
I have experienced this too in a smaller way. And here is the irony: Tolstoy my have been the greatest novelist ever, but he was dead-set wrong when he stated at the start of Anna Karenina “Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Truth be told, there is a depressing sameness to toxic families – and toxic churches – and a creativity and uniqueness to the healthy ones that their pale, sickly cousins cannot rival. Leaders who read resistance as rejection fuel paranoia, suspicion and make covert – and not so covert – attempts to control God’s people that leads to all sorts of fall-out. Generally that fall-out comes later, slowly and not until there has been a long list of casualties. But when it does come it is usually an even bigger snowball, an avalanche even, that strip away all pretensions, brings hurts straight to the surface, and leaves people worn out, confused and battered. God is never glorified in it, that’s for sure.
Of course that’s at the extreme end of things. That’s usually the domain of highly gifted leaders who, conversely, are short on character. For the rest of us, muddling along in Averageland, our propensity to read resistance as rejection leads to an unspoken dissatisfaction, an ennui or flatness to our ministry life and the church. And since the fish rots from the head, it will retain leaders who cow-tow to our paranoia, and it will lose leaders who lovingly stand up to and say “no” to us from time to time.
Resisting is not rejecting. Can you discern the difference?
Ed: This has a number of applications for Christians dealing with ethical and moral issues in the wider world, and who are seeking to maintain a biblical stance on matters in which they are increasingly being vilified. But more of that in a further blog post.