When Bullying Occurs in Churches

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.

Leave a comment

  1. In researching the topic of “Church Bullies” for submission for publication, yours in the first to not list a bunch of “holies”! I am impressed by the fact that your approach is that of “people management”. Or, as I have termed the exercise “Magnificent Manipulator”, drawn from the Apostle Paul’s approach to the forming of the church.
    Somehow, I have overlookd a date on your article, but it is very timely and especially for my endeavors.
    Would you be inclined to give approval for this blog to be considered in the “collection”?
    Wayne Montgomery, Th.D.
    Retired Elder
    The United Methodist Church
    Kansas West Conference

  2. Rev. Valerie J. Scott says:

    Factual and very well wrritten! Bless you for the insight and education

  3. Johnny Mullens says:

    I am doing research for a book on Compensatory Narcissistic Personality Disorder in ministers and church leaders. The pulpit minister in the Church of Christ that I attend is a narcissistic bullies who has lied about me to church leaders and lied to me. He told me in front of an elder that I was using diabetes as an excuse to sit in the back at church because he wanted the members to sit 8 rows from the back. I watched as he went constantly from narcissistic rage to crying in the meeting. He is very punitive. I learned James 5:!6 is the wrong verse to use when meeting a narcissistic bully. They seize on weakness. I would see why the minister is a minister (or church leader)and what areas of their life is so bad that they feel inferior and have to bully to compensate for their inferiority or how much cognitive dissonance affects their faith.

  4. Phil Pidgeon says:

    I had an unsettling incident at church yesterday. I asked a leader to pray with me for the intention of a friend who is trying to find a long lost daughter. This leader asked me what church did I belong to. He asked me what were the motives of this woman in wanting to find her child. He told me that he would not pray with me and wanted to end the communication. He said to me that there was a spirit in me and would not tell me what that spirit was. I asked me what he meant and he said that he would not tell me. Emotionally I fell sick, spiritual I wonder is there really a God and could this leader who just gave a lesson on the message of Jesus Christ as a servant and how we should be willing to serve and show mercy to others. I would like an answer from him, or should I just keep my mouth shut.

  5. Donella Gallo says:

    Excellent article on church bullying. I have been in full time ministry for many years and have seen so much bullying going on by church members and leaders trying to get their own way. There is just not enough information available for us to be able to know how to deal with such difficult people so I am glad to see something being written on this subject. Thank you!

  6. john potts says:

    What about when the bully is the preacher?

  7. Loves God says:

    This reply is to Phil Pidgeon: Phil, I am sorry you went through that horrible situation; sad to say, I have had similar
    situations in the last few years. I was verbally abused by
    my pastor for about 15 years, usually the abuse was public.
    He could have called me aside to discuss any concerns but
    instead he decided to point the finger at me and publicly
    rebuke me on unfounded charges. If he had taken me aside,
    which by the way, is biblical, we could have reached some
    sort of agreement in the matter. Instead he thought what-
    ever he assumed I was doing needed to be brought out into
    the open for all the church to witness. Later on I decided
    to confront him (I did it privately, unlike what he did).
    When that made it worse, I left (God told me to “wipe the
    dust off my feet” and leave). When I tried to find another
    church in the area within 2 months the next pastor falsely
    accused me in public in a Sunday morning service. I
    tried to meet with him but he refused to hear me out. Putting
    two and two together, I realize the first pastor spoke to him
    and accused me to this pastor, and the 2nd pastor
    believed him and came against me publicly without ever having
    gotten to know me. I left and have been having trouble since
    finding a church. I have heard of pastors contacting other
    pastors anywhere in the area about those that have left (even
    with good reason), and spreading accusations so that the
    pastor and the one searching for a new church never make a
    connection. I really believe God is getting tired of these
    shepherds that are scattering the sheep and instead of making
    us better prepared, are causing much confusion in the body
    of Christ. But please remember, God is real and God is good…
    no matter how people act God will NEVER leave you or forsake
    you. Ask him to help you get over the hurt and to heal you.
    Please post about your friends daughter. Did they find her?
    Also, Phil, ask God to help you find other believers that will
    help you heal inside. Not all Christians are like that pastor.
    He may have you join a small group for fellowhip. Please
    don’t give up.