Bullying is using force to compel a person to do something against their will or to punish rather than correct. It does not aim for the good of the person. It aims to control or to harm.
Despite recent attention on bullying and developing strategies to address it – in schools and in the workplace – very little is being said about bullying in churches. But bullying in churches is very real. Attention to the dynamics of bullying will raise awareness of its prevalence in communal life and help guard against it.
1. The Abusive Use of Knowledge
Bullying cannot occur without the use of force or the exercise of power. In Christian circles such force or power is often expressed as knowledge. Those who are ‘right’ are those with influence within the church group.
Certain characteristics of our theological tradition feed this dynamic. Our faith is grounded in history; we believe on the basis of revelation and we experience the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. These characteristics of our faith bring us certainty and confidence. How do we express our convictions? Usually with vigour!
The difficulty with possessing knowledge is not the knowledge itself but the way it is communicated to others. When knowledge is used to dominate people it is a form of bullying. The church bully is the one for whom the aphorism ‘knowledge is power’ is a working reality.
2. Can Goodness be Compelled?
When Christians try to compel people to do good acts they often call these actions ‘duties’. A duty is an absolute obligation that a person must behave in a particular way, no matter the circumstances. The argument is made that as we are created beings, we must find God’s instructions for living in scripture and obey them.
Christians do have a duty to live in response to the love God has shown us. There is, however, a limit to the things that can be rightly described as duties in church life. When people act in response to force or pressure – rather than love for God – they are being bullied.
3. Punitive Behaviour by Christians
When power fails to influence others, bullies turn to punishment. Christians tend to punish by withdrawing financial support or their presence (or both). Such actions, however, are not usually described – or understood – as intent to punish. Such actions may be justified by reference to conscience. It is difficult to criticise an act of conscience! However, withdrawing support from a group is rightly described as punitive when it only harms or weakens the group and does not actually express the true concerns of the conscience.
4. Some Suggestions
Here then are three suggestions for keeping a check on church bullies.
First of all, model ‘being right’ in the right way, and be alert to those who need guidance in this matter. Help people to resist the temptation to use knowledge to dominate.
Secondly, observe when people are being pressured to do certain things. Those who are exerting the force may need to be challenged about their actions, and those who are complying may need support to resist.
Thirdly, be aware that when disagreements arise, people act in ways that have more to do with punishing than achieving the good they are ostensibly aiming for.