A Few Thoughts on Bullying

Wed, 20/03/2019 - 14:50 -- James Oakley
No Bullying

Earlier this week, our Deanery Synod had an excellent 45 minute presentation from one of the clergy in our deanery, Revd Dr Lorraine Turner. Lorraine's doctoral thesis was on the subject of bullying as experienced by clergy, and her subject with us was bullying.

Clearly, 45 minutes is far too short a time for anything other than the most cursive of introductions, especially for someone who has studied this with the thoroughness required for a PhD. Nevertheless, it was extremely helpful, for reasons including the following:

  • The observation that the standard definition of bullying (as used by the Chartered Institute of Personal Development, and then as adopted by many agencies including many dioceses) falters because it centres on the intent of the bullying action, which may well not be present in all instances that a reasonable person would feel constitutes bullying, and which will be impossible to prove.
  • The observation that bullying is as prevalent in churches as it is in schools and places of work.
  • Giving us a wide-ranging list of negative acts that, when experienced severally over a period of time, could be indicative of bullying. This is very helpful for helping to spot nascent signs of bullying, and also for laying out destructive ways of relating that are easy for anyone to slip into.
  • The remark that those who are severely bullied then have a reduced ability to relate healthily to others. This means they may then do things themselves that could be conceived of as bullying. Lorraine remarked that many dioceses seem to find it hard to distinguish the victim from the bully, for instance misapplying the Clergy Disciplinary Measure to victims of bullying.
  • Mediation is often suggested as a solution for bullying situations. However, unless careful preparatory work is done to empower the bullying victim and to rebuild their confidence, all mediation will do is allow the bully another opportunity to manipulate things to disadvantage their victim further.
  • Churches and their clergy will not be able to address bullying properly unless they are already able to deal with conflict management in situations that are not bullying related.

All in all, 45 minutes very well spent.

Since then, I've done a little thinking on some of the relevant biblical material. Lorraine did start her presentation looking at the New Testament verses on "building up", and also pointing to the long list of "one another" verses, all of which are the antithesis of bullying behaviour. But there wasn't time for further biblical reflection, so I offer a few thoughts below.

Jesus was bullied

Crucifixion was a deliberately cruel and humiliating way to kill somebody. The Romans ensured this, to maximise its deterrent function. Jesus was taunted, dressed in fake robes, spat on, beaten, paraded through the streets of the city at festival time, stripped naked, and hung up for all to see.

Jesus shared our humanity, enjoying the full range of suffering. This means that, whenever we suffer, he knows what it's like. It's easy to think of Jesus experiencing things like bereavement, but he also was on the receiving end of the most vicious kind of bullying. So, whenever someone is bullied today, the Lord Jesus knows exactly what that is like. He's been there.

Christians will be bullied

"If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first." (John 15:18). "It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!" (Matthew 10:25)

Christians will be treated in the way Jesus was. They persecuted, mistreated and killed him; Christians can expect the same in every age, even if most do not end up being physical martyrs.

To follow Christ is to deny ourselves and take up our cross; we renounce the right to a life that is free of bullying. He was bullied, and so we will be too. I'm talking about our mistreatment at the hands of those who treat Christ with contempt, not about relationships within the Christian church.

Sometimes, the right thing to do is to turn the other cheek, in the same way as Jesus did not open his mouth. Other times, the right thing to do is expose what's going on and stand up for proper treatment, much as Paul would not be led out of the Philippian jail by the back door. But when we do this, it's not because we have a right to be treated properly, but because we can see we help others by exposing the problem.

Christians should not bully one another

Chapters like 1 Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5:22-23 show that bullying behaviour should not be the way we relate to one another. We should also not relate this way to the world around us, even when we are on the receiving end of such. In Ephesians 6:5-9, masters are told not to be harsh with their slaves, but slaves are told to obey their masters with sincerity, whether the masters are good or cruel. 1 Timothy 6:1-2 makes this even more explicit

Christians do bully one another

1 Corinthians makes for sobering reading. There were many problems in Corinth, but a lot of them boiled down to different status and ranks in society. The Christian gospel levels things, so that believers of every rank (rich or poor, slave or free, Jew or Gentile) are on an equal footing. But the hierarchy of Corinthian society was so deeply entrenched that it pervaded the young church there. The ones who were used to being privileged found it hard not to be so treated within the church.

This is what lies behind the abuse of the Lord's Supper as recorded in 1 Corinthians 11. The "haves" (the wealthy) were using shared church family meals as an opportunity to shame the "have nots", parading their wealth and tucking into luxurious food that they brought first and would eat before the poorer members got to have what little was left.

Sadly, it is the same today. Christians do sometimes bring the battles for status, and the divisions over social status, into church. When this happens, it's easy for one group of Christians to belittle others in ways that amount to bullying

Does God bully?

I throw this in to provoke thought and further discussion.

At the Exodus, God deliberately humiliates Pharaoh to puncture his self-projection as god in Egypt. God gains glory over Pharaoh in a series of plagues that show Pharaoh's powerlessness at exactly the points where he asserted his power. Look at this story again with your favourite definition of bullying beside you, and ask if God is bullying Pharaoh.

Nebuchadnezzar thinks he is the one who built up his mighty empire, so Daniel 4 records an incident of "boanthropy". God made a form of insanity come over Nebuchadnezzar so that he lived outside eating grass, until his hair and nails grew and he looked like a wild animal. This lasted probably for seven years before he acknowledged the rule of the God of heaven, and his sanity restored. Was God bullying Nebuchadnezzar to humble him in this way?

We could look at other examples as well. They raise a number of issues. One is the point that Lorraine made: Defining bullying is notoriously difficult. If you end up with a definition that would make God a bully at times, either your definition is wrong, or you have to say that bullying is not intrinsically evil and and of itself.

Part of the answer to that may be to recognise that it's God we're talking about. Here's an analogy: Is it sinful to claim that you are the most important person in the universe? The answer is "yes" - unless you happen to be the most important person in the universe. It would not be sinful for God to claim that he is the most important person in the universe; in fact, God would sin if he denied that he was the most important person in universe. The actual sin is to claim that anyone other than God is the most important person in the universe. But how that works in practice is very different if you actually happen to be God.

So with bullying. There may be behaviour that would be bullying and wrong for anyone other than God himself. But even so, the point remains: We need to be a little more nuanced and careful than people often are. We cannot simply write down a definition of bullying, and then claim that anyone who does the thing you've defined is doing wrong. The definition may be flawed, and whether it's wrong may depend upon the situation (including the people and circumstances involved).


Christians don't just have a moral imperative to stamp out bullying. We have a God who has been bullied himself, and then calls us simultaneously to renounce any right we have not to experience the same, and to behave better than that to others - especially within the Christian community. Nevertheless, whilst bullying is a bad thing, it is hard to define precisely. We need to take care not to make it a cardinal sin; instead, discussions on bullying situations need to look at the actual people and circumstances in play. Working out a Christian response to these complex human interactions requires more thought and care than the impersonal application of an anti-bullying policy.

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