Spiritual Bullies

There seems to be a lot said in the media today about bullies and bullying. Bullying is not a new issue, but social media websites and instant communication through technology has brought the issue to the forefront of people’s thoughts. Bullying is a sinful practice and one that ought to be taught against and abhorred by Christians. One thing to remember about bullying that is often forgot, is that bullying is not an adolescent or even pre-adolescent problem only. Children bully because of a sin nature that plagues every human, but they are taught to perfect their bullying through the adults that surround them. In the church as well as in the world, bullying takes many forms, but one aspect of adult bullying in the church that has often been ignored is spiritual bullying. Spiritual bullying can be perpetrated by those in leadership and it often is, but it is also a problem among those within a congregation.

Bullies are often not confronted and when they are, it is usually not done well. They are often confronted through violent means (if not physical then verbal) which may cause the bully to leave the victim alone but really does not change the heart or long-term behavior of the bully. This leads many to say “Once a bully, always a bully.” And no doubt, this appears to be the truth. Spiritual bullies in the church are not much different. Sadly, they are not confronted well by God’s people either. Like bullies on the playground, this is usually because they aggravate other Christians to the point of frustration and then the victim’s response is to punch them in the nose (this is metaphor…but sometimes literal even in the church) or teach them a lesson they will never forget. This too will not change the heart of the spiritual bully, but will lead them to retreat into self-justification and feelings of vindication.

There are a few weapons of spiritual bullies, but the most effective by far is fear. Spiritual bullies want people to be afraid. They want people to be afraid of crossing them, be afraid of making a wrong choice, or be afraid of facing some kind of punitive judgment. And so spiritual bullies will (while taking the high ground of superior “spirituality”) use ultimatums, manipulate others to agree with them… or else, conflate minor or secondary matters to first priority (the minor matter is obviously something that the bully wants) or threaten with exposing the victims faults. All this is for the purpose of causing those around them to feel fear. It is not that they are necessarily wanting them to feel threat of physical or emotional attack but to cause those around them to “see their point of view.” To “agree with me for your own good.” If they can cause those around them to be afraid of not doing what the bully wants or at least making the victim walk on egg shells around them, in the long run, they feel they win. They will do this enough to cause others to give up and just give them what they want. And so fear wins the day, instead of faith.

But what do bullies want. At the heart of bullies, both spiritually and culturally, is a selfishness intent on personal comfort or validation. It might seem unusual, but it becomes obvious to many that bullies are more insecure than those whom they bully. Of course, no self-respecting spiritual bully would ever admit that he is insecure and seeking his comfort because he is uncomfortable with his God relationship and others relationships with him. But whether he admits it or not, insecurity is his chief problem; and insecurity is a nicer way of saying faithless.

The Bible does address bullies. First, we must realize that bullies need the Gospel. Only the true Gospel of Divine grace and mercy will deliver them. The testimony of the Apostle Paul comes to mind. He was a bully of bullies, a spiritual bully bar none. It took the intervention of a sovereign God with his grace to rescue Paul from his spiritual bullying and make him to be the greatest edifier of the church in all of history. How do we deal with bullies? We minister God’s grace and pray for God to do to them what he did with Paul.

But often the spiritual bully in the church is a professing Christian, and it is possible that he is a true believer who is living a life of disobedience walking in his former lifestyle. Either way, he needs grace and so we must minister grace. “When he (Jesus) was reviled, he reviled not again. When he suffered, he threatened not but committed himself to him who judges righteously” (I Peter 2:23).” If your enemy is hungry give him bread to eat, if he is thirsty give him water to drink, for in so doing you will heap coals of fire upon his head and Jehovah shall reward you” (Proverbs 25:21). Ministering grace to spiritual bullies does not mean that there is no confrontation concerning their sinful behaviors; there must be appropriate confrontation (“If any man speak let him speak as the oracles of God”) but that confrontation must be with the purpose and in the manner of ministering grace to the individual.

If we as Christians who were the enemies of God but are now made saints by the justification of Christ’s sacrifice cannot minister grace to those who are our enemies, what are we then saying about the power of the Grace of God. Dealing with spiritual bullies is no easy matter, but God has given us grace so that we might minister grace to all men.

 

7 Comments

  1. Cathy said:

    Thanks, Pastor Matt for this great reminder.

    January 19, 2012
  2. Nerida Zhao said:

    Yes it is true as you say that we should as Christians minister grace, but often the bullied person gets to a point where they feel they cannot say anything. They feel sidelined, excluded, talked about, judged etc. This puts them in a mental state of being unable to speak to anyone about the situation because they feel very low, of little worth and often depressed. Daring to say anything puts them in a position of further exclusion, sidelining etc. So they suffer in silence and in fear- even in a church.As a Christian we want desperately to belong to the church and the bully wants consciously or unconsciously to control the person’s belonging to the church: the fear is of further exclusion.Gossip or half truths about someone is a way chosen consciously or unconsciously as a way or controlling another person. Yes we are saved by Christ and all Christ’s brothers and sisters but sadly, a pecking order may then emerge of the better and the best in churches.Thanks to God for his Salvation in Jesus which we have received. I agree with you the bully should be ministered to, however the person who has been bullied may be humanly unable to do anything about it, being as they are in a dark place, spiritually and socially in the church.Others may need to have the perception and grace to minister to both persons- indeed a job needing enormous sensitivity, strength and wisdom (from God). Thanks for your blog!

    April 29, 2013
  3. pmatt said:

    Thanks for your comments. It is true that bullies need to be ministered to with grace. However, as you say, bullies do lead people into depression and discouragement. I have experienced that and know I will continue to experience this. I also agree that we may be humanly unable to do anything about it, and that others need to minister grace to both persons. Ministering grace is not absent of ministering truth to the bully to rebuke with the Scripture and if the bully will not repent to begin a process of the whole congregation delivering such a one over to Satan, that he may learn not to blaspheme. One can do this with gentleness and meekness, yet with firmness, and you are correct, it is not often the one bullied who should do this. Good reminder that this job needs enormous sensitivity, strength and wisdom from God. Thanks again for your well-written comment.

    May 1, 2013
  4. Firefly said:

    Good article. Many of us have crossed paths with spiritual bullies and often they are staff members of the church. One method of control is gossiping. They are quick to gossip to their circle of friends they have influence over and also to the pastoral staff. Rarely will a pastor question a staff members motives. They have to demonstrate they are behind their staff 100%. I know of several instances where the spiritual bully has told people in their circle of influence to write someone out of their life. To consider them dead. Sad indeed!

    March 7, 2014
  5. pmatt said:

    I agree with the gossip thing, Firefly. I have not been a part of a large staffed church, usually just a few elders on staff. Interesting that you point out the manipulation of the bully even over those his organization “superiority.” Your perspective is spot on. They will manipulate in any way they can, anyone they can.

    BTW, I don’t believe spiritual bullies and spiritual leadership are the same thing. But some people who don’t like following leaders accuse them of bullying. It is a difficult line to walk.

    March 15, 2014
  6. Daughter of God said:

    This comment is for pmatt; please listen to this word from someone that
    has attended a church for over two decades and seen firsthand what
    bullying in a church looks like. Your last paragraph stated it’s usually
    people that don’t like following leaders and that only claim to be bullied.
    Most christians would never think of accusing a leader or staff member
    of being a bully unless it were true. First of all, most of us really want
    to belong to a church and be part of the family of believers. If anything,
    we put our leaders on a pedestal and are surprised when they do anything
    we would consider a “bad witness”. I totally loved my church and the
    members. They were my family for over 20 years; even when they were
    mistreating me, I still considered them my family, sometimes closer than
    my relatives. I put up with constant bullying from the pastor and from
    those that were fortunate enough to be part of his “group”. His wife was
    and is a snob, and is known to look down on people for various reasons.
    Do you realize that someone on staff can make up something about
    someone in the congregation for any number of reasons, and because
    they are on staff their word will be taken as truth. This trickles down on
    the congregation member who never really knows what was said about
    them, until later. No way to defend yourself.
    The pastor believes what was said without talking with the member first;
    to do otherwise would be disloyal to the staff member, even though
    that would be the scriptural way to do it. I was not a high maintenance
    member and never bothered the pastor or his wife at home. I prayed
    my own prayers with my own friends and was making progress spiritually
    even though I was not getting much help from leadership. As a teacher
    in the school there I was in authority of every student in my classroom.
    Having to discipline one of the students (the pastors child) was
    probably part of my undoing. The way I understand it, the pastor is
    my authority in the church, but the students were under my authority
    in the school. There was more to it than that, but you get my drift.
    It’s highly unlikely,( but not impossible), that someone would make up
    a story about being spiritually bullied by someone in leadership. On
    the other hand, staff members may be trying to protect their jobs or
    positions. or even their status in the church, and being human,
    can fabricate stories about other members if they feel in any way
    threatened by them.

    Every incident should be investigated, not glazed over because you don’t want to be “disloyal” to a staff member.
    Remember, those on the “inside” have an advantage
    over those who are not. Our duty as christians, and especially
    christian leaders, is to protect the most vulnerable under our care.
    I’ve seen christian leaders use the most unkind methods of rebuking
    a member (publicly from the pulpit) when simply sitting them down to
    investigate first would have been the biblical way to do it. The end
    does NOT justify the means!!

    January 18, 2015
  7. Keesha Bone-Smith said:

    Pastor,
    Can I get the scriptures to back up spiritual bullying please..

    February 11, 2017

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