We have seen bullies on the playground, schools and workplaces. But what do you do when you encounter them in the church?

We look to our church to be a safe place, to be edified, encouraged and supported. We find grace, forgiveness, and hope. We come to worship together, fellowship together as we work together to spread the gospel. However, not all of us can say that this has been our experience every time. Spiritual bullying is more common than any of us realize. They are still around, though maybe in more subtle form. People are being hurt by the very people who are supposed to protect and care for them.

Spiritual bullying is a behavior where an individual in a position of influence or leadership (primarily the pastor) does not emulate the character of the Great Shepherd in shepherding the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4,2 Timothy 4:1-5). It is characterized by psychological and emotional manipulation, and exploitation.

How to identify spiritual bullies?

The signs of spiritual abuse can vary depending on the context, but here are 03 key signs to watch out for:

  1. The spiritually abusive leader “pulls rank” and “lords it over others” (Matthew 20:20-28; 1 Peter 5:1-6), rather than acting as a servant leader.
  2. The spiritually abusive leader intimidates, judges, condemns, shames, and blames the sheep without regard for the spiritual well-being of the sheep (Jeremiah 23:1-4; Matthew 23:1-39), rather than speaking the truth in love and ministering grace (Ephesians 4:11-16, 29; Colossians 4:3-6; Titus 2:10-12).
  3. The spiritually abusive leader might suggest he is in a “higher” position (e.g. spiritual father) and therefore require your (spiritual son/daughter) obedience through unbiblical enforcement of accountability.

How to respond to the spiritual bullies?

Dealing with spiritual bullies is not an easy matter. Everything boils down to the person’s “motives of the heart”. And we must be careful to make judgements about motives – as only God can perceive the hearts of others. We can, and are called to, weigh the fruit produced in people’s lives.

  1. PRAY
    In the midst of our disillusionment, grief, anger and sadness, we must reach out to God in prayer. God has given us grace so that we might minister grace to others.
    We must respond to abusive power by listening to the abused — attending to victims’ cries of pain and grief. We are called to grieve with the victims of abuse.
  3. SPEAK
    We must speak the truth for the sake of those abused, rejected, and marginalized. We must stand with those who have been cast down.
  4. ACT
    The scriptures give us proper process for the evaluation and discipline of those in the church (Matt. 18, 1 Tim 5). The culture today is quick to cast blame and tear down systems and institutions without due process. Christians have been given a right way to deal with error and sin in these passages.

Spiritual abuse is a legitimate concern for Christians. Bullies don’t just disappear when you graduate from high school. We don’t need more bullies in the church, they must be dealt with. Many people hurt badly, and some people leave church because of it. Christians are taught to submit to their leaders, however, the Bible also teaches us to be bold and courageous.

A genuinely loving pastor will care for his flock humbly and respectfully. He speaks the truth in love and confronts sin in a gracious way. He uses his best judgment and may choose to go against your opinion without devaluing and demeaning. He will protect those who could easily be victimized due to physical disabilities, intellectual weakness or any other factor which makes them susceptible to abuse. There is no place for abuse of any kind in the church. It needs to be called out for what it is. Jesus called himself gentle and lowly – that is the standard for all leadership.