When Pastors or Elders Are Bullies

Scut Farkus.

When it comes to movie bullies, perhaps he is one of the most famous. In the classic film A Christmas Story (1983), the redheaded 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), Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter), and so on.

Of course, bullies don’t just disappear when you graduate from high school. They are still around, though maybe in more subtle form.

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.

Bully Pulpit
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 “a sad trend” that’s 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?

Allberry and Hansen were remarkably prescient, because just a short time later Christianity Today reported the removal of Acts 29 CEO Steve Timmis due to “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.

So, why do some churches and Christian ministries tolerate this behavior? No doubt there are many answers to that question. But let me suggest a primary one: we have forgotten how often Scripture speaks to bullying behavior as disqualifying for ministry.

We have forgotten how often Scripture speaks to bullying behavior as disqualifying for ministry.

Let’s be honest. When it comes to behavior that disqualifies Christian leaders, we almost always think of sexual or financial misconduct. Indeed, this is why the Falwell case is so sad. Many have wondered why it took a sexual scandal for the board to realize Falwell’s problems. Why wasn’t his abusive behavior enough?

Four Passages
The Scriptures are quite clear: it is enough. Sex and money are not the only issues. How shepherds (mis)treat their sheep is a key part of ministry qualifications. Consider just four verses.

“Therefore an overseer must be . . . not violent but gentle” (1 Tim. 3:3).

While at first glance this qualification may seem to refer to physical abuse only, the Greek word for “violent” (πλήκτης) is more all-encompassing. The HCSB gets it right: “Not a bully, but gentle.”

“Shepherd the flock of God . . . not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3).

Again, notice that Peter recognizes an inherent tendency in leaders to wield their authority wrongly, through domination, intimidation, or heavy-handed leadership. The Greek word here (κατακυριεύω) is literally “lord it over.” In contrast, the shepherd of God’s flock leads by example, not by force.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:25).

Jesus says this soon after some of his disciples request positions of power at his right and left. So, he clarifies the manner of leadership for the church. He begins again with the negative: not like the Gentiles who “lord it over,” but in the spirit of a “servant.” On this score, it’s noteworthy that many biblical leaders wrap their identity around the term servant (Rom 1:1; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1).

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone” (2 Tim. 2:24).

The prohibition against being quarrelsome does not rule out disagreement, debate, or even vigorous theological exchanges. But it does rule out language or behavior that is belittling, abusive, harsh, or derogatory. In contrast, the qualified Christian leader is “kind to everyone.”

While all shortcomings in 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.

Time to Stand Up
At the end of A Christmas Story, Ralphie had finally had enough. A new light kindled within him, and he realized the bullying had to stop. So 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.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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