When it comes to movie bullies, perhaps he is one of the most famous. In the classic film A Christmas Story (1983), the red-headed Scut—wearing a coonskin cap and flanked by his shorter partner in crime, Grover Dill—would often torment young Ralphie and his brother on the way home from school.
The reason this movie (and this scene in particular) resonated with audiences is because people can relate. Most everyone grew up knowing a bully in their school; someone who would intimidate, threaten, and domineer the other kids.
Indeed, bullies are part of the human experience. So prevalent, in fact, that one could easily make a list of famous movie bullies: Biff Tannen (Back to the Future), Johnny Lawrence (The Karate Kid), Ace Merrill (Stand by Me), and Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter).
Of course, bullies don’t just disappear when you graduate from high school. They are still around, though maybe in more subtle form.
And, perhaps most sadly, bullies are even in the church. Although we’ve always known this to be the case, the depth of this problem has become more and more evident over the last few years.
At the beginning of 2019, Sam Allberry called attention to the problem: “How Do Churches End Up with Domineering Bullies for Pastors?” There he lamented that “a sad trend has developed in recent years: Pastors having to leave for bullying.”
At the end of 2019, Collin Hansen echoed Allberry’s concerns:
This [problem of bully pastors] is the next pressing issue our churches must face. For far too long we’ve tolerated this kind of leadership that should plainly disqualify pastors by several standards in Titus 1:7–8. Why do we think it’s okay for pastors to abuse their members and fellow leaders so long as they don’t steal money or have sex outside marriage?
Hansen and Allberry were remarkably prescient, because just a short time later, Christianity Today wrote a story about how Acts 29 CEO Steve Timmis was removed because of “abusive leadership” and “bullying.” Ironically, these were some of the same concerns that led to the removal of the founder of Acts 29, Mark Driscoll.
Even more recently, we see the problem of abusive behavior in the downfall of Jerry Falwell, Jr. Prior to the revelations about sexual misconduct, Falwell’s reign as president of Liberty University was riddled with concerns about bullying, abusive behavior, and intimidation.
Sadly, high profile cases like these are just the ones we hear about in the news. Behind the scenes, there are many more cases of spiritual abuse that are happening that we will never hear about. Indeed, in a recent conversation with some of our counseling staff here at RTS Charlotte, I was shocked to hear about how many cases of spiritual abuse they have seen over the years.
And it’s not just an American problem. Over at Premiere Christianity in the UK, Heather Tomlinson tells of an organization that was set up to help victims of spiritual abuse. After opening, “They were inundated with Christians contacting them. So many people were seeking help that they had to shut down the support group, because they did not have enough resources to respond to all the queries.”
In short, spiritual abuse is more widespread than we think.
Of course, it needs to be said that the vast, vast majority of pastors and leaders are godly, wonderful people that don’t abuse their sheep. Most pastors shepherd their flocks gently and patiently. But, that doesn’t mean we can ignore the small (and growing) number that do not.
It’s not all that different than the way we view the problem of abusive police officers. The events of 2020 have highlighted the reality that some police officers do use excessive force. This does not negate the fact that the vast, vast majority of police offers are honorable, kind, and brave. But that doesn’t mean we ignore those who abuse their office.
And as a seminary president, and as someone who has taught at a seminary for nearly 20 years, I think the growing problem of spiritual abuse is an important issue that seminaries have to address. I have realized that our curriculum does not adequately address this issue; and I would imagine that the same is true of most other seminaries. This means that we are sending out folks into ministry who are not prepared to spot spiritual abuse nor adequately deal with it when they do.
As one small step in the right direction, I am launching a new blog series over the next few months on this vital topic. Hopefully this will be a helpful resource for pastors and Christian leaders out there who, like me, are concerned about this issue.
But, there’s another reason why I think the issue of spiritual abuse needs more attention. Not only is it more widespread than we think, it is also more damaging than we think.
When we think of leadership failures that really damage the church, we tend to default to the two big ones: sex and money. Thus, most of our attention is devoted to making sure pastors are not sexually immoral or financially irresponsible. Indeed, so myopic is the church’s focus on these two issues that a pastor is rarely removed from office for anything else.
But, as we will explore in a later post, the Bible is clear that pastors’ can be unfit for another reason: if they are domineering bullies (Matt 20:25; 1 Tim 3:3; 1 Pet 5:3). And there’s a reason for that. Such behavior wounds much more deeply than most people can possibly imagine.
Unfortunately, the public stories like the ones above—as sad and tragic as they are—can never really communicate the depth of suffering that spiritual abuse causes. It is only when you actually sit across from a real person and hear their story of their pain and disillusionment, that you will come to grips with how deep the problem can really be.
And most people have never done this.
And so, we have an obligation as a church, and as Christian leaders, to pay better attention to this problem. While all shortcomings of a leader have potential to harm the flock, there’s something exponentially painful about bullying behavior. People are being hurt by the very people who are supposed to protect and care for them.
At the end of A Christmas Story, Ralphie had finally had enough. A new light kindled within him, and he realized that the bullying had to stop. He stood up to Scut Farkus—for himself, for his brother, for all the kids in the neighborhood.
Perhaps the church should take a cue from little Ralphie. We need to recover the biblical requirements for pastor/elder—not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the flocks we protect.
(Note: A version of this article previously appeared on The Gospel Coalition).