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spiritual bullying

Spiritual bullying is more common than any of us realize. Have you ever had the sense that you are being coerced or intimidated into something as an overseer? Maybe it is something that even seems valid: like taking a certain position on a spiritual matter. But the pressure comes with unwanted aggression, constant pressure and the abuse of power. That is called spiritual bullying.

What is Spiritual Bullying?

Regrettably, spiritual bullying is alive and well in assemblies today, though it is more common in some areas than others. As a therapist who works with victims of bullying from time to time, I may be more sensitive to this issue and would like to raise awareness of it among the Lord’s people. I have seen bullying from the platform, amongst both aged saints and young people, and against overseers and servants of the Lord.

Any one of us can engage in bullying behaviours from time to time: this is not acceptable but an isolated incident does not make us a bully. Also, it has become a buzzword in our culture and can be thrown out as a cheap dismissal of someone’s perspective. Consequently, it behooves us to be clear on what is, and what is not, spiritual bullying as well as the difference between one act of misbehaviour and a characteristic problem requiring the full attention of the oversight.

Bullying itself has three key components, per the National Institute of Health:

  1. Unwanted, negative, aggressive behaviour
  2. Perceived or real power imbalance (be that social or spiritual)
  3. Repetition over time

All three components must be present to qualify a set of observed behaviours as spiritual bullying. I believe the first element is prohibited in the overseer qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3, under words or phrases such as, “no striker…not a brawler” (v.3, KJV) and also in the deacon’s wife as, “not slanderers” (v.11, KJV). Of course, these prohibitions would extend to any believer functioning in the house of God.

Further, the element of power imbalance must be present in order to differentiate the behaviour from conflict, even repeated conflict. Unfortunately, conflict does happen. But when the conflict incorporates a clear element of real or perceived differences in power, then we are looking at bullying.

Those differences in power could look like:

  • A difference in age. For example, an older believer using his or her age (seniority) as an indicator of power.
  • Abuse of leadership roles. For example, seeing one’s position as a preacher or overseer as a place of power rather than service.
  • Gender issues. For example, leveraging male privilege to force a sister to comply with a demand.
  • Socioeconomic status. For example, threatening the withdrawal of fellowship unless the donee complies with personal demands.

Finally, the third element, repetition over time, is important just to distinguish an isolated episode of bad behaviour from a problematic, consistent pattern. This distinction is significant: it would not be wrong to call out an isolated episode as bullying behaviour, but when repetition is present then then one may wish to consider assembly discipline (more on this in “How to Protect Your Flock” below).

What Does Spiritual Bullying Look Like?

While these three components are pretty clear, it is helpful to clarify what spiritual bullying actually looks like. What are the typical, characteristic behaviours? What feelings are invoked when bullying is happening?

Let us begin with more granular behaviours and move towards the larger cultural features of bullying.

Brow beating is the act of intimidating someone into doing something with stern, abusive words. An example might be, “Only a fool would think it acceptable to read from the New International Version.” Myself, I would also suggest that the saints not use dynamic equivalents or paraphrases as their main text in their study of the Word of God. The problem with this example is not in the position of the speaker; rather, the problem is the means by which the position is communicated. These are stern, abusive, dismissive words to use. They are bullying words.

Other forms of bullying language are mocking, scoffing and criticism. When you have an aggressive pattern of this kind of language over time, you may be witnessing the activity of someone who is a railer (1 Corinthians 5:11). When this is coupled with an imbalance in power and these words are used to coerce or manipulate another person then you are witnessing the activity of an extortioner (1 Corinthians 5:11).

A more subtle form of bullying language is false or conspiracy rumours. These take the common form of “people are saying that…” and the victim is led to believe there is a coalition of thought against them when in fact, no coalition exists. In fact, this kind of language is used in culture to shape the relationships of a group in order to establish power where no legitimate power exists. And, usually, where no legitimate, factual information exists.

Another form of spiritual bullying is guilting. This is the bully’s effort to convict your conscience of something that God has not convicted you of. They wish to inspire guilt within you and are doing so via the imposition of their convictions upon you rather than (if necessary) confronting you with the Word of God and allowing the Spirit of God to convict you. This happens all too frequently from our ministry platforms.

An extended version of this is might look like a preacher (that’s the power imbalance) brow beating people (that’s the unwanted, negative, aggressive behavior) who hold a different conviction on a non-Biblical issue from a number of conference platforms (that’s the repetition of behaviour). This would be a clear-cut example of spiritual bullying.

Brothers, this should be below the dignity of the Bible teacher. Listen to the very clear language of Paul to Timothy about our Bible teaching: “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves;” (2 Timothy 2:24-25a, NKJV).

I am not calling for the watering down of our convictions or passions about important Biblical truths. Nor am I decrying the wise guidance on a plethora of assembly and Christian living issues we need to hear from our conference platforms. I am just asking us to listen to how that teaching is being given: if it is spiritual bullying, it must be confronted because spiritual bullying is an unbiblical, ungodly way to communicate the truth of God.

When opinion triumphs grace, when words are harsh and love is not apparent, and when minors are majored on: then we are looking at spiritual bullying.

But, this is hard to confront! Why? It is hard to confront because one key aspect of spiritual bullying is intimidation. Now intimidation itself can take many forms. Sometimes it looks like an angry, brother with a raised voice and clenched fist thumping a podium. Other times one’s extensive knowledge of Scripture or original languages can be swung as a social stick over the heads of less studied brothers in order to intimidate. In a group form it can look like older brethren tut-tutting as they dismiss another perspective on a difficult passage without a considerate, thoughtful rebuttal. In all of these examples, a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 13 would show that behaviours have derailed from divine standards.

Group Tactics

Alienation is another tactic employed in spiritual bullying. As overseers, we need to be particularly careful in our employment of assembly discipline. It would be easy to cross the line from a careful, caring application of this truth into bullying territory.

While alienation is more likely to be a group tactic, it is possible that one bully could attempt to alienate an individual brother or sister away from the assembly or even just away from the assembly’s care for them.

When bullying behaviours become common and widespread it is possible that a culture of fear could be created in the assembly. This type of scenario is possible on an oversight. Paul warned the Ephesian overseers, “that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29).

A culture of fear is one in which there is no possibility for dialogue. The person or group in power are not receptive to feedback and either directly endorse or refuse to confront the bullies.

Further escalation of this type of scenario may result in a bullying culture where assembly members at all levels perceive the support or implicit blessing of elders and/or preacher to carry on with bullying behaviour. This is a profoundly challenging situation to address and correct.

It is because of the sinfulness of the behaviour in its elementary forms, as well as the possibility of escalation, that we as overseers must address and confront bullying when it happens.

How to Protect Your Flock

There are both passive and active methods to prevent and confront bullying.

Passive Resistance to Spiritual Bullying

I chose to mention passive methods because as overseers we may find ourselves at a conference or event hosted by another assembly and become witness to bullying happening there. In that situation, it may be out of place to use direct confrontation if, for example, doing so would undermine the local leadership.

At the same time, I would like you to consider the role of the uninvolved bystander. Most bullying occurs in some arena: either in a broadcasted email thread (cyber bullying) or in a group of people such as a Bible reading or even having tea after meeting. It rarely happens in a one-on-one situation.

The reason for this is that bullies often leverage the silent consent of groups to amplify the power imbalance.

For example, when a brother takes a shot, couched in sarcastic humour, at another brother during a Bible reading and we all laugh, we act as a coalition with the bully. This happens even if I would personally dislike and disagree with his behaviour. What I fail to confront, I condone.

From Passive to Active Resistance of Bullying

I would challenge you, and myself, to actively confront such behaviour. In all fairness, I know for myself that what is really happening in these kinds of situations are usually more obvious in retrospect than in the moment. So I miss them too and I fail to defend the victim. But as soon as I am observing a pattern of behaviour I can choose to (at least) passively resist by refusing to laugh with the bully. This undermines the power imbalance because it is a visible refusal to endorse the behaviour.

When we see this pattern in those who preach at different assemblies, we can passively resist by refusing to invite them to our assembly or conferences.

Ultimately, as overseers we should create and foster culture within our assembly where bullies have no traction. If we believe the people we serve are a stewardship from God, we will do everything we can to protect the flock of God. When we foster grace within the assembly and teach the people of God that their identity is rooted in Christ and they are created in the image of God, bullies will not have any traction. When we respond to brokenness with love and compassion and live by the values of the Good Samaritan, we will defend and support and uphold the rights of the weak. Again: bullies will not be able to stand up to this.

I appreciate and am challenged by the divine command of Psalm 82:3-4, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (ESV).

Active Resistance to Spiritual Bullying

Bullies must be confronted and challenged. I figured this out when I was a young boy. The second knuckle on my right hand still bears the scar of one front tooth of a childhood bully. That punch removed the perceived power imbalance between us and the bullying stopped immediately. Now, the overseer is not to be a striker so more refined tactics are required today! However, direct challenge is still the best method as the goal is to remove the power imbalance.

It should be no surprise that the New Testament teachings equip overseers for an ideal response to bullying. First of all, the overseer is qualified as a person who has his temper under control (1 Timothy 3:3) and who is also tasked with the gentle, spiritual restoration of the wayward (Galatians 6:1). While my schoolyard response may have been effective in that context, as adults we give bullies the least amount of traction with us when we remain calm and realize that this is an issue which is intrinsic in the heart of the bully. They would like us to think we have the problem, but this is not the case.

A bully wants the object of bullying to feel that there is deficiency within them. However, our identity in Christ assures us that we are accepted by God and worthy of respect. This means that in the face of bullying the overseer can carry the assurance that the problem lies within the bully’s heart. Consequently, a gentle but firm confrontation is all that is required. Often, we fail to shepherd bullies just by a desire to avoid conflict. However, how will the bully have an opportunity to see their behaviour through God’s eyes if we refrain from confronting him or her?

The calm approach is key: a bully gains the upper hand when we respond in like manner to his behaviour. A fight or flight response is one that comes from a place of fear; thus, when the bully sees this, he is encouraged to continue because our response indicates that we feel he is more powerful. John counteracts this tendency when instructing Gaius how to respond to the bullying of Diotrephes by stating, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good” (3 John 1:11 NKJV). In other words, do not respond in kind. Further, even John’s self-prescribed response is not one of retaliation or counter-domination, but simply observation: “I will call to mind his deeds which he does…” (3 John 1:10 NKJV). He will be firm but calm in his response.

Remember that the power imbalance which is a necessary ingredient is one that only needs to be a perceived reality. Really, in view of the work of Christ, why would there be a power imbalance between any of God’s people? We need not fear bullies nor do we need to act like them in response.

Responsibility is not license for bullying. No, overseers are instructed by Peter not to lord it over God’s heritage (1 Peter 5:3). Even the great Apostle Paul moved among the Thessalonians with gentleness, like a nursing mother (1 Thessalonians 2:7). There is no biblical justification for bullying from preachers, from overseers, or from any of God’s people.

Do Something About Spiritual Bullying

While I am encouraging a gentle but firm response, let us not procrastinate. The sooner we confront, the better.

Bullying is an escalating behaviour that destroys sheep. Charged with protecting the flock, overseers must respond to bullying.

What we excuse now we may soon find ourselves unable to corral. Eventually, the unconfronted bully may find this characteristic so deeply embedded in their interactions that excommunication as an extortioner or reviler is the only recourse.

Do not be intimidated, brothers, for our Saviour is on our side and says regarding the bully, “woe to that man by whom the offense comes” (Matthew 18:7).

One of the functions of the shepherd is to defend the flock against predators. Your intervention — even against what you might see as mild bullying — could save the spiritual lives of many sheep and preserve their testimony, and the assembly’s, for the glory of God.

About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.