Murmuring Members

There is a book in my personal library titled — Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict (Augsburg Publishing House, 1988).

The author is Dr. Kenneth C. Haugk, a noted pastor and clinical psychologist from the great state of Missouri, who for close to three decades has been conducting workshops and doing extensive consulting with various church leaders on how to deal effectively with antagonism in congregations. Dr. Haugk has very appropriately dedicated his insightful book “To caring Christians everywhere who suffer the attacks of antagonists.”

We might as well be perfectly honest here and speak very frankly — virtually every congregation, whether large or small, whether “liberal,” “mainstream” or “conservative,” contains a hardened handful who seem to feel “led of God” to criticize and castigate everyone and everything around them. They are murmurers, grumblers and complainers; disgruntled disciples who can almost always be counted on to stand opposed to the leaders and their vision. They are some of Satan’s most effective workers! Such conflict within a local congregation, “though caused by so few, has the potential to disrupt, even to destroy, the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ through the people of God” (Haugk, p. 11). Congregational conflict is a serious matter!

Most psychologists will readily acknowledge that the majority of aggressive antagonists are so obsessed with their cause that attempts to reason with them generally prove futile. They are right, and you are wrong … Period. “Hard-core antagonists cannot be reasoned with because they lack the emotional stability to understand” (Haugk, p. 29). Dr. Haugk points out that, diagnostically, these people have a personality disorder that prevents them from exercising reason in their dealings with others. Thus, they are hostile in their interactions with those whom they oppose, and they are also insatiable in their demands. “That insatiable quality drags problems out interminably” (Haugk, p. 30). They are religious Rottweilers; they clamp their jaws on someone or something, and they never let go! They will die before admitting defeat.

  • Religious antagonists are also most often very rigid. “Rigidity is characterized by inflexibility of thought, usually coupled with excessive concern for precise and accurate procedure” (Haugk, p. 63). This is why the hard-core legalists and patternists are also the ones in the church most likely to be the aggressive antagonists. It is their nature! “Someone with a rigid personality sees the world as totally static; his or her explanation of events is, by definition, the unquestionably correct interpretation. Rigid individuals ridicule or ignore differing opinions and skillfully overlook contrary evidence. … Those who have rigid personality structures are devoted to keeping their narrow views intact” (Haugk, p. 63). Thus, we see these people fleeing from dialogue with others of differing views, building walls of exclusion and isolation around themselves and their fellow rigid religionists, and attacking all who dare to differ with their interpretations. These are dangerous, delusional men and women, and they can prove to be a festering thorn in the flesh of those disciples devoted to proclaiming God’s grace and promoting responsible change.

To illustrate this problem in a practical way, let me share a portion of an email I recently received from a reader of these Reflections from the state of Texas. He wrote, “Bro. Maxey, your thoughts have been a blessing since I found your web site about a month ago. Coincidentally, I had been leading an adult Bible class on being a Christ-centered church, unity with diversity, respect for others while searching for Truth …. much as you have professed.

In this class I used instrumental music as an example of an issue about which there is silence in the NT Scriptures. I suggested we teach what is positive about a cappella singing, rather than just proclaiming ‘instrumental music is a SIN.’ But, when I was asked if I believed this was a ‘salvation issue’ …. I honestly had to reply NO. I have been a deacon here for 15 years, and a member for 29, and I am now being confronted by one man who has labeled me as a ‘false teacher.’ I guess his next step will be to disfellowship me. The gentleman who has confronted me is a former deacon with a very rigid background and his conversation with me is filled with anger and rage. The class is rather large (45 in the class) and has gone fairly smoothly up to this point. I have taught for over 20 years, and am not by nature confrontational, but a peacemaker. I fear for the health of our church body! Your thoughts would be welcome.”

This deacon in the state of Texas has had an encounter with a congregational antagonist. A view was expressed that differed from his own, and the reaction was immediate, intense and confrontational. The resulting conversation was filled with anger and rage, and the message to the teacher was clear — “Repent, or feel the full force of my wrath!” This brother should indeed fear for the spiritual health of the congregation where he serves, for “What begins as an isolated problem has the potential to spread rapidly, endangering the very life of the entire body” (Haugk, p. 45). It is imperative that faithful men take immediate action. “One dare not sit back and watch antagonists cripple and disfigure a congregational body” (Haugk, p. 42). Dr. M. Scott Peck characterizes such people as “evil.” He writes, “I have learned nothing in twenty years that would suggest that evil people can be rapidly influenced by any means other than raw power. They do not respond, at least in the short run, to either gentle kindness or any form of spiritual persuasion with which I am familiar” (People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil, p. 68). We must understand the mindset of these antagonists — their concern is not for the group, it is in exercising lordship, regardless of the cost. They “have the objective of hurting their opponents in some way, getting rid of them, or both. The good of the organization is not a concern” (Haugk, p. 34). Their objective is “purely and simply to destroy opponents, irrespective of cost to self or others” (ibid).

“It is of paramount importance to recognize the type of individual you are dealing with!” (ibid). “Too often people have felt that antagonists had to be placated” (Haugk, p. 39). This tendency to coddle caustic critics has many times proved to be a fatal error. You don’t attempt to placate such people. They must be dealt with decisively and forcefully, as Dr. Peck suggests, or they will only become emboldened in their resolve to impose their will upon the congregation, enslaving those who meekly submit and destroying all those who oppose them.

One of the primary ways to deal with such assaults upon one’s character and teaching is to simply continue to boldly proclaim God’s TRUTH. Dr. Kenneth Haugk correctly observes, “The one place antagonism cannot live or grow is under the bright light of Truth” (p. 47). If you are preaching Truth, continue doing so! Truth has nothing to fear from those who oppose it. Keep standing for what is right, even when others stand against you. One thing you will quickly notice about these vocal critics is that they tend to back down very, very quickly if you insist upon sitting down with an open Bible between you and examining the matter in-depth from God’s Word.

Over the years, when I have requested this of my critics, about 90% of the time they flee for the hills. In-depth examination of the matter from God’s Word is not what they seek … they seek your total submission, your complete compliance; you are to defer to their will without question. Challenging them to responsible dialogue and in-depth study will either bring about rage or retreat in most cases. Few true antagonists are all that interested in learning all the facts of a matter; indeed, they tend to fear such investigation, as it may just show their assertions to be invalid. “Don’t confuse my opinions with facts!” This reminds me of the tongue-in-cheek observation of Sydney Smith (1771-1845), who said, “I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so!” Although a humorous statement, it contains much truth with respect to the approach of too many church antagonists.

It is important to note, at this point in the discussion, that not all those who may challenge our personal positions, perceptions, preferences or practices are thereby antagonists. None of us should be above having our convictions challenged. Proverbs 27:17 informs us that “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Frankly, I expect to be held accountable for my actions, attitudes and assertions. It is unhealthy not to be. When brethren love one another, and when they love the Truth and the One Body, they will seek to “sharpen” one another through loving, responsible dialogue over an open Bible and with open hearts and minds. Therefore, I hasten to point out that having one’s views questioned does not necessarily mean one is the victim of an antagonist in the church. Quite the contrary! It may actually be a sincere demonstration of another’s love and concern for you.

Paul instructed Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Tim. 4:2), but that did not make Timothy an antagonist. Why? Because he was advised to do so “with great patience and instruction.” When you love someone, you seek a more positive encounter than that which is sought by most antagonists. William Penn (1644-1718) correctly observed, “He that corrects out of Passion raises Revenge sooner than Repentance.” If another is perceived to be in error, you take them aside in love and instruct them in the way of Truth “with great patience.” This is exactly how the husband and wife team of Aquila and Priscilla dealt with the teaching of Apollos. “They took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). This couple did not go on the attack; they didn’t malign Apollos and “write him up” in the brotherhood journals as a “false teacher.” Rather, they approached him in love and engaged him in respectful dialogue concerning the way of the Lord. There was nothing antagonistic about the exchange, and as a result a brother was enlightened, Truth prevailed, and unity and harmony in the One Body was maintained.

This is not how church antagonists behave, however. When one says or does something with which they disagree, they go on the attack. As the reader from Texas experienced, their language will be “filled with anger and rage.” One’s character will be maligned; one’s motives brought into question; one’s integrity impugned. A whispering campaign will begin, the sole purpose of which is not redemptive or restorative, but simply to undermine and destroy the credibility of the one with whom they differ. Slander and defamation are common tools of church antagonists. Rarely will you find them willing to engage in open, respectful, in-depth examination of their differences with another with an open Bible before them. Instead, they prefer to attack the man, rather than the message. Ezra Pound (1885-1972) very wisely noted, “You can spot a bad critic when he starts by discussing the poet and not the poem.”

Again, how does one respond to such assaults upon one’s character and ministry? How does one deal with such caustic criticism of one’s motives and methods? The apostle Peter gives us some excellent advice in his first epistle. “And who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:13-16). Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who was certainly no stranger to harsh criticism, remarked in a speech before the House of Commons on December 6, 1946, “So long as I am acting from duty and conviction, I am indifferent to taunts and jeers. I think they will probably do me more good than harm.” Churchill was living the advice of the apostle Peter.

The advice of Peter is very similar to that of Paul to Timothy — proclaim Truth and defend Truth patiently, with gentleness, with much instruction, and with respect. When those who are being viciously attacked respond with the spirit of Jesus, the end result is the shaming of the attackers! Early in this same epistle, Peter tells us that Christ Jesus has left us an example to follow in this respect (1 Peter 2:21) — “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (vs. 23). In other words, do not respond in kind. Show yourself to be on a higher spiritual level than that. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not” (Rom. 12:14). “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone” (Rom. 12:17). “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God. … If your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21).

We are to trust in our heavenly Father. He will not only be our mighty refuge and shield, but He Himself will take care of the antagonists for us — “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord God (Rom. 12:19). Our task is to continue proclaiming Truth, continue doing good (even to those who wish evil upon us), and to continue behaving in a righteous manner. By behaving in a godly manner, continuing to do good to all around us, we bring great shame upon those who are behaving in an ungodly manner. We who are faithfully serving Him have absolutely nothing to fear from such antagonists. After all, “If God is for us, who is against us?!” (Rom. 8:31). “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies!” (Rom. 8:33). There is tremendous peace in knowing that “greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

  • I can’t help but think of how God dealt with those who murmured against Moses. His own sister, Miriam, grumbled and complained against him, and we are told that the anger of the Lord burned against her. God struck Miriam with leprosy for her murmuring (Numbers 12:1-10). I would encourage everyone to read Numbers 16. Here we see powerfully displayed the outpouring of the wrath of God upon those who dared to array themselves as hateful antagonists of His chosen leaders; leaders who were simply seeking to proclaim the will of God and to lead His people accordingly. When the smoke cleared, so to speak, thousands lay dead. Antagonists will always, at some point, be called to account. The Principle of Reciprocity — they will inevitably reap exactly what they sought to sow!

“Experiencing an attack from an antagonist can crush your spirit, diminish your sense of personhood and self-worth, and even threaten your attachment to the church. You may have a spectrum of feelings ranging from anger, frustration, confusion, and depression to fatigue, tension, and total discouragement. These feelings might lead you to wonder, ‘What am I doing here? Should I leave or stay?'” (Haugk, p. 173). Let’s face it, one never comes away unscathed from an encounter with a vicious antagonist in the church. Even if one survives the attack, one is nevertheless left wounded, sometimes seriously. If this happens enough, and no relief is forthcoming, the wounded eventually, weary of the strife, retreat from the battlefield. That is exactly what the antagonists seek. Your defeat will delight them.

Beloved brethren, please let me encourage you — never, ever cower before a church antagonist! “Endure hardship … fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5). Fleeing from the face of oppression only empowers the oppressor! “Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm!” (Eph. 6:11). “Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm!” (Eph. 6:13). Remember: there is no protection for the back. The soldier of Christ Jesus must stand and fight, not turn and run! Men and women of faith do NOT flee. They fight the good fight, keep the faith, and finish the course (2 Tim. 4:7). Even though your fellow disciples may desert you, and even though the battle may be fierce, you can nevertheless say confidently with Paul, “The Lord stood with me, and strengthened me … The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Tim. 4:17-18).