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Is the Bully Epidemic in our Churches? by Karen Yates

Until 6 months ago, even with all the campaigning and advocating, I didn’t take today’s “epidemic” of bullying too seriously.

I’m ashamed to admit it out loud. But the truth is, when I read reports of bullying, I dismissed some of it (not all of it) to over-reactive, over-litigious parents and hyper-sensitive children.

While there have been horrific occurrences of bullying that have led to tragedy, particularly anti-gay bashing, threats, and cyber cruelty, I missed the good ol’ days when a kid could punch another kid in retaliation, and when administrators and teachers weren’t wrought with fear over holding mean kids responsible for their unruly, disruptive actions.

Things changed, however, when one of my own children was forced to deal with unwanted, repeated bullying behavior. At a Christian homeschool hybrid, no less. That’s when I started realizing bullying was serious, and bullying behavior was happening in our Christian churches (and schools), among both children and adults.

Our Bullying Story Played Out
It started with my oldest son, the big brother in the third grade, coming home from school and telling me one particular girl at school is ‘not being nice’ to his little sister at recess.

When I explored it with my people-pleasing daughter, she downplayed it.

A week later a concerned parent pulled me aside and told me she had worked multiple times in the classroom, and she observed my daughter being mistreated by the same specific girl. She reported having witnessed spitting, stomping, and dirty looks. I initiated a conference with the teacher who confirmed what I was told.

This time when I talked with my daughter she was more open. I encouraged her to stay away from this girl, and I empowered her to report to the teacher or parent anytime she felt uncomfortable. (She thought speaking up was tattling.) And I told her she had a right to defend herself with her words and with her body.

A week later the teacher pulled me aside because my daughter had been disciplined for threatening the little girl. Apparently after being stared at for a while and asking her to stop, my daughter took the scissors out of her pencil box and threatened to cut the little girl’s hair off if she didn’t turn around and stop staring.

The following day there was a second incident where my daughter pushed the little girl. The teacher told me, “After weeks of being bullied, I think your daughter had had enough and just snapped,” the teacher said. You don’t say?

After the “pushing incident” I took my little girl out to frozen yogurt and told her I was proud of her.

Several meetings later (with the teacher and principal), written emails documenting complaints, and lots of coaching, we ended the year on a high note. Many factors probably contributed to why the situation improved, but I suspect my daughter’s demonstration that she could not be bullied made a sizeable difference.

Bullying Defined
StopBullying.gov, a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, identifies “bullying” as:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
  • Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

Could it be that forms of bullying are taking place within the walls of the Church, and not just among children? Making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone verbally, and intentionally excluding someone from a group are acts of bullying commonly found in our youth groups, small groups, adult Bible studies, Christian online communities, and Christian subcultures. In some instances, I’ve been a bystander and a witness—perhaps you have too.

In the case of social media, where some evangelical leaders have massive platforms, and a slam or personal attack is made publicly, is this bullying?

When we attack or mock another believer’s personhood (not their theology or doctrine), in private, online, or in front of any audience, is this bullying?

When we publicly share a person’s indiscretion in a way that slanders, gossips, or insults, is this bullying?

Evangelicals seem to be enamored by Christians with power in the “real world.” Yet Christ was enamored with those who had nothing to offer Him. He saw past the external—the appearances, the wealth, the popularity. His heart was for the bullied—the weak, outcast, leper, homeless, fatherless, prostitute, and oppressed. We know intellectually that we are to emulate Him, but why is it so hard for us to live out?

Anti-bullying expert Paul Coughlin, founder of The Protectors, an organization aimed at equipping children, parents, and school officials against the rising trend of bullying shared with The Christian Post, “We are calling upon Christians kids throughout the nation to stand up and assertively, but non-violently oppose intentional acts of cruelty and abuse because it is abuse. Right now our Christian kids are just silently sitting by and doing nothing when they see another person being torn apart.”

Are our children the only ones ‘silently sitting by and doing nothing when they see another person being torn apart.’ Or are adults bystanders too?

Another factor in overcoming bullying behavior within the Church starts with each of us remembering who we once were. Especially for those in positions of influence, we need a brazen, painful, and continual reminder of our own fallenness—that we are in no position to use our power to build our selves up at the expense of those around us because we ourselves came from nothing, deserve nothing. When we’re aware that we are no better than another person, and when our own sinfulness is at the forefront of our minds, we simply cannot treat another human as being beneath ourselves.

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written; “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

Perhaps we need to acknowledge that we might be guilty of condoning and/or participating in bullying-like behavior. No, we have never stuffed a fellow believer into a trashcan. But have we excluded? Have we name called, ridiculed, slandered, or personally attacked another? If so, then let today be the day we lay down our weapons and not look upon ourselves more highly than we ought.

And for those who have been a bystander, let’s choose to intervene, confronting the bully, reporting what we see to authority (elders, pastors, church leaders), or comforting the target. To defend the weak, marginalized, oppressed is a genuine opportunity for the Church to take leadership in our nation’s anti-bullying campaign. But it starts first with acknowledging the problem, humbling ourselves, and being willing to intervene for the greater good.