Blog Post

The Absence of Opposition

I regularly meet with students and friends who are wrestling with whether or not they should leave their job, ministry, church, or whatever current endeavor they may be involved with. In almost every case, the single-biggest issue that is prompting each person’s struggle is the opposition that they are facing. In almost every case, the presence of opposition is taken as conclusive proof that it’s time to move on. But difficulty and conflict, in and of themselves, are not good indicators that our work is finished. We so easily give in to the temptation to think that if we are serving where God wants us to be, then there won’t be any opposition or difficulty. We need to be reminded that such is not necessarily the case.

The apostle Paul, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us as much in 1 Corinthians 16:8-9, when he says: “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” According to Paul, it is quite possible to have “many adversaries” and thus much opposition in a place where there is, nevertheless, “a wide door for effective work.” Opposition is not always a good indicator that it is time to move on, and it may mean just the opposite.

One of the quotes that I have hanging on a shelf in my office speaks to this. It is a quote by G. Campbell Morgan, who preceded and mentored Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in London. It reads as follows: “If you have no opposition in the place you are serving, then you are serving in the wrong place.” I love this quote, because it reminds me that rather than looking for the presence of opposition as the determining factor for whether we stay or go, we should look instead for the absence of it. The absence of opposition is actually more meaningful in evaluating whether we should stay where we are or leave for something new; and there are several reasons for why this is so.

In the first place, we need to remember that the absence of opposition is something that is reserved exclusively for heaven. There is no disunity in glory. There is no conflict, no pride, no selfishness of any kind. Heaven is the only place where perfect peace and unity exists. But this is not true here on earth. Conflict and opposition are part and parcel of the sin-infected and sin-affected world in which we live. This means that, wherever two or more of us are gathered here on earth, there will inevitably be disunity and difficulty from time to time. Even the most mature Christians struggle to get along with others occasionally. Even the best of intentions get sidetracked sometimes. Anyone who has grown up in a family with siblings knows how true this is. Brothers and sisters don’t always get along with each other. And the same is true of those who are brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the “household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). If we are looking for the absence of opposition, we are deluding ourselves, because that reality doesn’t exist anywhere outside of heaven.

This is an important factor for us to consider, because the biggest reason why so many of us hop from job to job or church to church is because of the problems and conflicts that we begin to experience over time. These things lie just beneath the surface, and it’s easy to overlook them initially. But, after a while, they will inevitably come to light. And when they do, we are ready to leave for “greener pastures” elsewhere. We need to remember that there is no perfect job and no perfect church, which means that there is no opposition-free job or church. Every job and every church will have opposition. We ought to keep that in mind as we consider whether or not it’s time to leave. 

In the second place, the absence of opposition indicates that you and I may actually be unnecessary. Almost anyone can do a job or serve in a ministry that has no opposition whatsoever. It doesn’t take any strength or courage to do that. It doesn’t take any skill, wisdom, political savvy, emotional intelligence, or perseverance to maneuver in that kind of an environment. It just takes a body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The whole reason we conduct job interviews, check references, and establish minimum requirements for education and experience is because opposition exists, and we want to find the best candidates to handle that opposition. The presence of opposition in the workplace is actually job security for those who can handle it well. It is a ministry opportunity within the church. But if we are looking for a job or a church where there is no conflict or difficulty, then we are looking for a place that doesn’t really need us.

In the third place, the absence of opposition can be an indicator that you and I are doing something wrong. It could be a sign that we are being unfaithful. Maybe we are compromising in the face of challenges or remaining silent when we see things that are wrong. It may “keep the peace” to compromise or remain silent, but it is hard to see how these things are good for the company or ministry in the long run. Churches and businesses need members and employees who care enough about them to speak up when they see something that is not right and to boldly and, yet, Christianly, tackle the challenges they encounter.  

For all of these reasons, the magisterial reformer John Calvin believed that ministers should be trained not only in sound doctrine but also in handling conflict and opposition. He realized that opposition is inevitable precisely because there are sinners in every institution or organization (including ourselves), even in the church. We need to be prepared for the day when conflict comes, because it will come. We must train ourselves to handle opposition well. It is, as Calvin also understood, a tremendous ministry opportunity. Oftentimes, we can accomplish more in and through conflict and difficulty than we could in a lifetime of ministry without it.

Calvin himself faced significant and long-lasting opposition. He was asked to leave Geneva after less than 2 years of ministry in large part because of the poor way he handled the opposition that he was facing in the church and city. His successor in Geneva and first biographer, Theodore Beza said this opposition lessened after he returned to Geneva almost three years later but notes that Calvin endured persecution and even open hostility until the day he died. Just a handful of days before his death, Calvin still, according to Beza, had in the church “a number of men who were out to cause trouble” for him and who were constantly searching for ways to subject him “to numerous indignities.” Where would Geneva have been if Calvin had allowed the presence of opposition to keep him from returning to Geneva? Where would the Reformation have been? Remember that Calvin’s real work in keeping the Reformation together—which he did almost singlehandedly—came after he returned to Geneva in 1541. I, for one, am glad that Calvin didn’t allow the presence of opposition to determine what he did. It is likely that he knew that the absence of opposition is a far better guide.