I prayerfully clenched my leather preaching Bible. I was minutes away from preaching a sermon before a congregation I loved and knew.
This particular Sunday, during the sermon, a middle-aged man I’ll call Joe came down the center aisle, sat in the front row, and listened. After the service, Joe jumped to his feet and handed me a sheet of paper. “This is the Holy Word of God,” he said. “I can’t argue with God.”
The paper was saturated with red-inked Scriptures similar to 1 Timothy 2:12.
“Since you are a woman, you have no business preaching,” Joe said. As I attempted to gently walk Joe through the passages, I realized I was getting nowhere, and he only got angrier. Joe’s words left me feeling wounded.
Opposition shows up in many shapes, forms, and sizes. It has shown up in the form of a youth pastor explaining that God would only call me into ministry if men didn’t step up to their calling, or a friend sending me a 3,000-word Facebook message saying he could not be excited for me serving in his church because I am “blaspheming the name of God as a woman preacher,” or a denominational leader who ignores my phone calls.
When Opposition Comes, There is always a Crossroads
Many think that my accepting a call to serve as senior pastor at Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene means gender isn’t a conversation at the church. However, there is hardly a week that gender doesn’t come up. There is hardly a week when I don’t hear of someone deciding to leave the church because they “just can’t do a female pastor.”
While most of our community is affirming, some very loud voices are not.
I met with a woman upon learning that her family, which I knew and loved, was leaving the church.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I firmly believe the role of the senior pastor needs to be a man. Please don’t take this personally.”
As I listened to her, every word hurt deeply. I left my office that night and wept with my face buried in my steering wheel. I cried out, “How long, O Lord, will the bride of Christ continue to limp along?”
Lament and grief are normal emotions in the face of opposition. Feelings of anger are normal. But as I lead this church I love so very dearly, I always have to ask myself, "What am I leading with?"
I could make it my mission to prove to my opponents how wrong they are; I could flood Facebook with articles on women in ministry; I could do a preaching series on women in the pulpit; I could get angry, shout, yell, and be bitter.
But leading with anger won’t fill a room with eager listeners wanting to learn more; it will scare them away. Taking the posture of Jesus; loving my opponents, praying for them, and serving them will advance the message.
Every time I come face-to-face with an “opponent,” I reach a crossroads: bitterness and anger eventually will become my banner, or I can simply preach on, teach on, lead on, serve on. I could argue and get combative. (Believe me, the urge is there every time!)
However, the moment I decide to let anger and bitterness seep into the depths of my being is the moment I lose sight of what I was called to do in the first place. Resentment and animosity become my starting points instead of leaning into the empowering presence of the Spirit and allowing grace and love to be the banner under which I serve, lead, shepherd, teach, and preach.
Jesus’s Teaching on Anger
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus demands more of His followers by pushing them to embody His vision for the new kingdom community.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matt. 5:21-22).
Jesus set a new ethical code for the already-but-not-yet kingdom community. The future kingdom of God in Revelation 21 illustrates that anger will be no more. Love, grace, and unity will permeate God’s people.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to live into this kingdom reality here and now by practicing peace, presence, love, and grace over anger and bitterness.
The Holy Spirit, not anger, empowers me to serve the church. My calling, not anger, keeps me in the pulpit in the face of opposition. The cross puts to death the anger, bitterness, rage, and malice in my heart. Grace, not the enemy, enables me to look at opponents as children of God. Jesus reminds me that my calling is not mine to behold or control. The faithfulness of King Jesus drives me to forgive and love subversively, even when it hurts.
Bitterness Only Hinders
Several years ago, a woman in our church I’ll call Jan thought I could do no right. From day one she opposed me, and she let me know this by the lengthy and angry emails she sent to me.
Bitterness is a funny thing; it lurks in the darkest corners of our hearts: it simmers, it boils, and when we least expect it, it seeps into everything. It affects the way we lead, the way we pray, our perspective, and the way we minister. Bitterness tells us that we are the victim, and it paralyzes love and joy and goodness and gentleness.
Whenever I received an email from Jan, I read it dozens of times. Then I would go home and talk about it with my husband and would think about it through the night.
Whenever I saw her in church, my thoughts were not peaceful; they were filled with anger, rage, and hatred.
That’s what bitterness does.
It’s taken me years to know when bitterness is creeping at my door when I face opposition. It’s taken me years to turn toward the peace and goodness of Christ and against bitterness. It’s taken me years to recognize that moving along is what I am called to do.
There are times when I do feel angry. But I don’t want to choose anger as my go-to response and use it as my banner.
Tips for Survival
At times, it is so easy to obsess over the opposition we face, the things we hear, or our lack of opportunities. But I can either choose to allow these things to defeat me and tear me down, or I can move from surviving to thriving.
Here are a few tips on how we can do that:
Know your argument. Difficult conversations often happen when we least expect them. When I was moving, my dear, sweet church in Chicago threw me the most beautiful going away party. Person after person offered me encouragement, love, prayers, cards, and gifts. Eventually, a man came to me and said, “What makes you think you can be a senior pastor? It’s fine that you preach to women, but never to men.”
I blubbered my way through some sort of response. I then realized that I needed to rehearse a non-combative response for situations like this. Know your argument, know the right questions to ask, have your four-minute elevator speech, and be prepared.
Relax, it’s not a battle. Often, when we are approached by those who oppose our ministry, the knee-jerk response is to get in battle mode. But within the body of Christ we are not in a battle. Instead, we are edifying, we are shepherding, we are leading, we are teaching, and we are admonishing—even those who might oppose us.
Furthermore, we usually won’t convince someone who is opposed to women in ministry in one conversation. Often it takes folks significant time to process, read, listen, and pray. So lay down your weapons; the folks are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. Give them time, lead them when you can, teach them when you can, edify when you can, but trust the work of the Spirit.
Pray for compassion. I am always in awe of Stephen. In Acts 7, after preaching a glorious sermon, Stephen was stoned by his opposers. As he felt the piercing pain on his skin, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Stephen’s prayer came from a place of compassion, love, and being able to see people the way Jesus saw them—even his opponents.
Not too long ago I began to pray for the Spirit to give me a heart of compassion and love for those who, due to my gender, oppose me as a pastor. The Spirit is always faithful, and when we pray for such things, transformation happens.
Eyes on King Jesus.
When Jeff and I moved to Chicagoland, I wanted to be part of a church-planting movement there and immediately called my denominational leader to let him know. I spent months making phone calls and sending emails to our denominational office. I poured out my heart. I prayed. I longed. I waited.
I never heard a word back.
I watched friend after friend accept exciting ministry opportunities, and I eventually received an opportunity at a great church—outside my tribe. But whenever I scrolled through my newsfeed, looking at pictures of my friends’ ministry opportunities, bitterness would knock on the door. I would whisper, “Lord, it’s just not fair!”
In John 2, we glimpse an intimate conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus commissioned him with a fresh challenge and calling: feed His lambs and sheep. Jesus trusted Peter to participate in the ministry of shepherding until his task would be complete by laying down his own life.
But then Peter looked over his shoulder to see John and asked Jesus, “What about him?” (John 21:21).
Jesus reminded Peter that his task was to not worry about others’ callings; but to follow Jesus. And in Acts, we see Peter did what he was commissioned to do—shepherd the sheep with his eye constantly on his King.
Our calling as shepherds of God’s people is to follow Jesus wherever He leads. As I daily walk with Jesus, I have constant opportunities to look over my shoulder and ask, “What about him?”
More than a few times I have wanted to ask, “What about him, Jesus? How can this pastor have such a fruitful ministry and limit so many women from feeding your sheep? It’s not fair!”
And in that moment the Spirit whispers, “What’s that got to do with you? Keep your eye on me, Tara Beth!”
Sometimes anger and bitterness get the best of me. This most often happens when my eyes come off King Jesus. When I obsess over the situations that have brought opposition, the fruits are anger and bitterness. The apostle Paul said, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil 4:8).
Paul wrote this while living through some of the worst opposition of his life—he was in chains! And yet, not only did Paul’s opposition cause him to rejoice (Phil. 4:4), but it also emboldened him to preach the gospel, even from the sidelines!
Paul wasn’t superhuman; he was a Spirit-filled human whose eyes were on King Jesus.
I don’t want to lead out of anger and bitterness; I want to be on mission, emboldened by the Spirit, with my eyes on the King. We are not the ultimate authority but simply a conduit of God’s grace, truth, and love under the reign of King Jesus.
When we are faithful to the task we have been called to, hearts are transformed and the body of Christ is edified.
Opposition will happen. Sometimes it will cut deep—to the heart. But you have been created and called for such an incredible time as this.
Five days after my difficult conversation with him, Joe had a severe brain aneurism.
I was on hospital visit duty and struggled with the thought of visiting Joe. As I arrived at the hospital, I prayed for the Spirit to propel me to love him with the same self-sacrificial love that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount.
When I walked into the room, I was overcome with sadness for Joe, slumped in a wheelchair, staring at the floor. I sat next to him. During our conversation I placed my hand on his hand and said, “Joe, we’ve been praying for you at church, and we love you.”
He began to weep uncontrollably. At that moment, I knew I meant it; I loved Joe. The Spirit had indeed propelled me and impelled me to love him with the indiscriminate love of the Father.
That’s what the living God can do in and through us; even in the darkest days of opposition, the Spirit turns our heart toward love and grace.