Church Bullies: Who They Are and How To Spot Them

Posted on April 8, 2015 in Theology by

Stop bullying Bullying is a central topic in the news these days. Truthfully, I would not be surprised if everyone has been bullied at least once in their lives. When I was a kid in school I was bullied for various reasons; of course at that time I didn’t know it was bullying, we just called it teasing. People are much more sensitive to bullying today than they were a few decades ago.

So it would not be much of a surprise if we all sat around sharing our stories of being bullied in school, or college, or in athletics. What would be a surprise, however, is if we all say around and shared our stories of being bullied…in church!

There’s an old (sad) adage that says “Christians are the meanest people in the world.” Another similar (and equally sad) adage says “if you want to learn to fight, join a church.”

It’s unfortunate that people supposedly filled with grace, love, joy, and humility are often some of the meanest, rudest, most hateful and hate-filled people in town. And sadly, most churches have at least one “church bully” in their midst.

I know how mean church people can be; I’m a pastor’s son and have seen and heard more than any person should. On top of that, I spent more than a decade serving churches in various capacities. I’ve been behind closed doors more often than I care to admit. But I never connected the concepts of bullying with people in church until I read a couple of articles that made this obvious.

The first article centered on characteristics of church bullies, you can read it here. See if these characteristics fit the “church bully” you have come to dread:

  1. They do not recognize themselves as bullies. To the contrary, they see themselves as necessary heroes sent to save the church from her own self.
  2. They have personal and self-serving agendas. They have determined what “their” church should look like. Any person or ministry or program that is contrary to their perceived ideal church must be eliminated.
  3. They seek to form power alliances with weak members in the church. They will pester and convince groups, committees, and persons to be their allies in their cause. Weaker church staff members and church members will succumb to their forceful personalities.
  4. They tend to have intense and emotional personalities. These bullies use the intensity of their personalities to get their way.

Those are just 4 of the 9 traits given in the article about “church bullies” but those four certainly resounded with me and experiences I’ve had.

I recall one church where the pastor’s wife had a reputation for being the “meanest, rudest” person in the whole church. Parents kept their kids away from her. Others refused to serve in any capacity with her. Many members of the church were glad when she would take vacation because she would be gone for a few weeks.

Another man was famous for quoting Scripture, or praying, and loved to share his personal testimony. But if anyone crossed him or disagreed with anything he said, he would put a target on their back. He had a very forceful, intimidating personality that he used to get his way. Not even the pastor was willing to oppose him.

It’s people like this that cause others to leave the church, sometimes for good. People wonder how a person can claim to be a Christian and simultaneously have a reputation as a mean, hateful person. The answer is simply that they can’t. Jesus made it clear that the world would know we are His disciples by how we “love one another.” (John 13:35) For a person to be known as hateful, rude, manipulative, or as a bully is a clear indication that such a person does not know Jesus.

It’s the same as if I claimed to be a Christian but also had the reputation as a liar, thief, or cheat. No one would believe that I was a Christian because my reputation says otherwise. These “church bullies” are often people that have never met Jesus but are simply feared and therefore given a pass in the church. The effects of this have been devastating on people personally, and on the church as a whole.

The other article (click here to read it) I read shares some ways to recognize the church bully and stop them before they tear our church apart. Some of the suggestions are:

  1. Have a high expectation church.I have addressed the issues of high expectation churches and low expectation churches many times on this blog. Higher expectation churches tend to be more unified, more Great Commission focused, more biblically defined, and more servant oriented. Stated simply, high expectation churches don’t offer an environment conducive to bullying.
  2. Encourage members to speak and stand up to church bullies.Bullying thrives in a church where the majority remains in silent fear of church bullies. Bullies tend to back down when confronted by strong people in the church. We just need more strong people in the church.
  3. Make certain the polity of the church does not become a useful instrument to church bullies. Many churches have ambiguous structures and lines of accountability. Polity is weak and ill-defined. Bullies take advantage of the ambiguity and interpret things according to their nefarious needs.
  4. Be willing to exercise church discipline.Church discipline is a forgotten essential of many churches. Bullies need to know there are consequences for their actions, and church discipline may be one of them.

Again, this is just 4 of the 9 suggestions made, but these four alone are worth reading the entire article. If more churches employed even these four suggestions I believe not only would “church bullies” be stopped, but churches as a whole would be healthier.

It’s sad that many churches have very low expectations of their members. I’m not talking about expecting members to come to activities, or attend services. I’m talking about the lack of expectations for members to be growing in their personal relationship with Christ, to be growing in their own sanctification, to be serving actively, to be studying Scriptures at home, and to be actively teaching their kids. Most churches have nothing formal or otherwise to equip their members and encourage them toward growth.

The result is weak members that are easily led astray by the bullies. Because people don’t know what they believe or why they believe it, they can’t recognize the bullies (or false teaching) and stand up to it. Others, are simply afraid (check out 2 Tim. 1:7).

Though I have spent my whole life in the church, I have never, to my recollection, seen proper church discipline exercised as the Bible teaches. The truth of that statement is a sad burden. I remember sitting with a woman that was upset by an article I wrote addressing church disciple. She could not believe that I would suggest kicking someone out of the church for living in unrepentant sin. She said “I don’t think that’s right.” I told her it’s what the Bible teaches and pointed her to Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians. She continued to disagree! When I asked if she was disagreeing with the Bible she exclaimed “of course not, I just don’t think it’s right.”

She was also a pastor’s wife. Sigh…

Listen, church discipline is biblical. Claims of loving people to the neglect of biblical church discipline are heresy. We can’t love people more than God loves them and God’s Word teaches church discipline. So refusing church discipline on the grounds of love is not love but idolatry. It’s idolatry of ourselves and our own ideas that are in opposition to the teachings of Scripture. That kind of arrogance and pride will not be rewarded or blessed.

Unfortunately, church bullies are real. I would venture to say that nearly every church has one. They threaten to leave when they don’t get their way, they intimidate others and almost never apologize or admit that they were wrong. The abusive behavior of church bullies is not just a detriment to the people inside the church they hurt, it is a detriment to the people outside the church that know of their abuse. This abuse must be stopped before it has the opportunity to hurt another person.

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