Every leader worth their salt will face opposition. If you’re never getting pushback from people, if you don’t have a few people who resist you, I don’t think you’re leading. It’s just the nature of the beast. Moses had his share of grumblers. Nehemiah had Sanballat. Jesus had Judas and the Pharisees. And Peter had the religious leaders.
Nothing exposes people like a fresh vision for ethnic unity. Like turning on a light in a home infested with roaches, going down the path of ethnic unity will illumine hearts overrun by racism. Take a look at the opening lines of Acts 11. Peter is doing exactly what God told him to do. He is right at the epicenter of God’s will and still gets opposition. People are resisting because of entrenched ethnic and cultural biases in their hearts. And these are religious people.
For the last four hundred years, racism has been ingrained in the founding and fabric of America. What this means is the gravitational pull of our culture is downward into prejudice, discrimination, and racism. I also believe racism in America is a part of the whole “principalities and powers” language the apostle Paul uses to describe the demonic in Ephesians 6. For any leader to announce a vision of ethnic unity is to invite pushback from both people and the demonic all at once.
Leaders must brace themselves. The opposition will be dizzying. It will come from many of our White brothers and sisters who have a legacy of power and control and have proven they will fight to maintain it. It will come from many minorities who will be impatient, thinking you are not moving fast enough or being forthright in your denunciations. They can also be highly critical and lack grace, not understanding in many cases this is new territory for the leader.
Let me offer a few words of encouragement and hope to you. One of the common denominators of great leaders is their attitude. Reliable leaders are filled with hope, not optimism. The latter is based on circumstances. People are optimistic when they buy the lottery ticket or cheer for their sports team. That’s not hope. The writer of Hebrews talks about the community of faith having a hope which is anchored for our souls and how this anchor is enmeshed in the person of Jesus (Hebrews 6:19). Because Jesus conquered the grave, ascended to heaven, and will return again, we are not fighting for victory, but from victory. Yes, we lament times of racial atrocities, but we do not grieve as those who do not have hope. Reliable leaders can have genuine attitudes of joy even in the face of opposition because they know if God is for them, who can be against them?
Second, assemble a prayer team. Every time I talk to a leader who is looking to cast the new wine vision of ethnic unity, the first thing I tell them is to pray. This is spiritual warfare, and you will need spiritual artillery. Your vision and strategy without the weapon of prayer is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Remember, Peter’s ministry to the Gentiles in Acts 10 begins at noon on a rooftop when he cries out to God.
Reliable leaders also are never content with outsourcing the vision of ethnic unity; instead, they own the vision of ethnic unity. Of course, you should still put a team together and invest them with power. This is what the leaders do in Acts 6. But a senior leader at a church or organization cannot hire a diversity officer and expect them to do everything while they are not personally invested. People in the organization will listen to the minority leader you’ve hired, but they will ultimately look to you and how you live as permission for whether they should take what is said seriously.
The final thing I’ll offer is reliable leaders are people of conviction. The leaders who most inspire and move people do so not so much with what they say but with how they say things. The Greeks called this pathos, which is our idea of passion. To the Greeks, pathos was the sense that the leader was speaking from their gut and not just their head. Pathos is conviction. Pathos can’t be faked over the long haul. Pathos arises out of a sense of being all in. Pathos is being so convinced this person is willing to risk their livelihood, their reputation, and even their life over their conviction.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela all had pathos and risked everything for their convictions. Dr. King literally gave his life fighting racial injustice and what he considered to be the unjust war in Vietnam. The opposition King faced was so vast that just weeks before he died in 1968, the Harris Poll gave him a public disapproval rating of nearly 75 percent. Now, one can hardly go to any city without seeing some street or school named after him. King’s contemporary, Muhammad Ali, was also much maligned during the late 1960s because he refused induction into the US army and was very publicly opposed to the war in Vietnam. Had you been a gambler, you would have won a lot of money wagering in the 1960s that Ali would one day be called on to light the Olympic flame, which he did in Atlanta in 1996. Across the pond, Nelson Mandela joined Dr. King and Ali’s ranks of resistance when he barely escaped execution for his fight for racial justice and landed in prison on Robben Island, where he was vilified by almost all Afrikaners. Yet, right when Muhammad Ali was lighting the Olympic flame to shouts of praise and adulation, Mandela was well on his way to becoming the most adored person in the world, even though his convictions for racial equality had never changed.
And what about Peter? Well, he’s known as one of the pillars of the church, and some sections of the kingdom have even taken their adulation of him to some unnecessary extremes. But this is beside the point. While he may have been deeply discouraged by the opposition he faced from his ethnic kin, the legacy of his ministry was still being written. When the book was closed on his life, he found himself on the right side of history. He was a man of faith who trusted God and played a leading role in seeing Gentiles ushered into the kingdom.
Peter, King, Ali, and Mandela show us an uncanny habit of history: the future is always kind to those who take a stand for what is right, though the present tends to be brutal. No, I am not saying you will reap your reward on this side of heaven. You may very well lose your job and have a low “approval rating” among many. However, we are not laboring for the fleeting praise of people but for the eternal reward of God.
I promise you, a thousand years from now when worshiping at the feet of Jesus, you won’t wish you had pacified the status quo in your effort to build or maintain a megachurch. Quite the opposite. You will have wished you had done everything God told you to do despite questions from yourself and others. Do not fear. The cost is worth every penny.