Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Several dozen questions have come in over the months on the abuse of pastoral authority. Matthias is one such listener who wrote us, asking, “Hello Pastor John. How do I know if my pastor is a spiritual bully? What does this look like?”

Take Care

This is an extremely delicate subject. On the one hand, just to talk about it can signify (in some settings) an oversensitivity to healthy pastoral authority that is not bullying at all. Someone might accuse a pastor wrongly of bullying just because they don't like his tone of voice, or he seems to be a bit firmer than they grew up experiencing from their dad.

“There is no such thing as a kind of leadership that doesn’t lead, or ruling that doesn’t rule, or governing that doesn’t govern.”

On the other hand, there are bad shepherds. The Bible makes it clear that there are. Our experience today makes it clear that there are. There are bad, abusive shepherds who don’t love the flock. We know this from prophets in the Old Testament. We know it from abuses in the New Testament. They abuse their position and use it for an ego trip, or the need for control, or even more sinister and sick harm to others. So, the question is very, very important. We can fall off the horse of truth on either side: we can minimize bullying or maximize it when it is not really there.

I think the best approach is to ask this: Where does the Bible have an equivalent to bullying? I mean, the word bullying doesn’t occur in the Bible, but the reality is there. The word is all over the place in the New Testament and it might be helpful just to point out a few things that bullying is not and see where we go from there.

What Bullying Isn’t

Bullying is not the rightful use of authority that sometimes today we call leadership. There is no such thing as a kind of leadership that doesn’t lead, or ruling that doesn’t rule, or governing that doesn’t govern. There really is governing in the church. “Let the elders who rule [or govern] well be considered worthy of double honor” (1 Timothy 4:17). Or 1 Thessalonians 5:12: “Respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.” Or Titus 2:15: “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” There is a place for strong leadership — even rebukes. People don’t generally like to be rebuked. “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Or 1 Timothy 5:20: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”

The first thing to say is that we need a biblical, robust view of authority and leadership and even forceful words at times, lest we accuse a pastor of bullying when the problem may be that we didn’t grow up in a family with any firmness in discipline, and therefore we are hypersensitive to any tone of voice that is different from our mother’s soft exhortations.

Consult the Bible

But let’s do the opposite. Now let’s turn to passages that describe the kinds of things that might be involved in bullying and how a pastor should not have them.

Building, Not Destroying

A pastor should seek to use his authority to build up, not tear down. “Even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you . . .” (2 Corinthians 10:8). Is authority in the church being used for tearing people down or belittling people, or is it clearly in hands of love that are building the people up?

One of the reasons you have to rebuke one person in the church is because they are hurting the sheep. They are hurting other people. Out of love, and for the building up of other people, you may have to get tough with a sheep-hurter or destroyer or a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Being Kind, Not Quarreling

A pastor should be patient and kind. He shouldn’t have a short fuse. “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Does the pastor have a temper problem or is he patient with all? A pastor should not be quarrelsome, but gentle — a good teacher. That is, he explains things to win people over. He doesn’t just push his ideas through because they are his ideas. He explains and tries to win people over.

Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:24, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” This is the opposite of bullying, right? “God may perhaps grant them repentance.” The Lord’s servant knows God produces repentance. He doesn’t do it. He can’t make it happen by his forcefulness. God makes them come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, by which they have been captured to do his will. The great work of deliverance in the church is done not by being quarrelsome but by being kind, teaching, patiently enduring, being gentle in all things.

Exemplifying, Not Domineering

The pastor should have a joyful willingness to lead by example without domineering. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2). Does this pastor love money? Is he abusing people as he lines his pockets? “But eagerly.” Is he eager? Does he love his work in a humble, God-exalting way?

Here is probably the closest reference to bullying: “Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Does the pastor get down and live alongside his people, giving examples to them, or is he always pompously pronouncing with a domineering sense, “I am the big shot in this church and you guys ought to toe the line”? That is bullying. That is the opposite of what God calls his shepherds to be.

Caring, Not Neglecting

A shepherd should have an eagerness to heal and rescue and seek the straying. Ezekiel 34:4 is one of the most indicting texts. It says to the shepherds, “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” There is a perfect description of what loveless, uncaring bullying would look like.

Working With, Not Against

The pastor should have a desire to produce joy in the church by rejoicing with the church. 2 Corinthians 1:24 says, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.” There is the beautiful picture. The pastor comes alongside his people. His whole goal is a happy church — a church happy in God. He models that happiness and gets alongside his people in happiness. He takes no pleasure in loading people down and watching them struggle. He wants to give necessary loads. There is a burden to be borne, but “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). The pastor should give a burden-lifting gospel. With every load he puts on the people for obedience, he gives burden-lifting help with the promises of God.

The opposite of that is Matthew 23:4, talking about the Pharisees and lawyers: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” That is a perfect description of one who uses his preaching or teaching to bully his people by laying burdens on them. But there is no gospel lifting. There are no joy-giving promises to help them live out with success the burdens he is putting on them.

Meeting Qualifications

Finally, a pastor should be self-controlled, not violent, and having a supreme love for Christ. 1 Timothy 3:2–3 says, “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.”

How do I know if my pastor is a spiritual bully? Go to the Bible, especially the New Testament. Use all of it to form a well-rounded picture of what biblical leadership and biblical shepherding are, then measure your pastor by that. Be careful not to accuse him of bullying when there may be an aspect of his ministry where he is sincerely growing and improving. Always be aware of your own fallibility — of possibly forcing a view of leadership that fits your preferences rather than fitting the Bible.

But I will end with this: If you see a pattern of serious shortcomings along the lines that we have just developed, seek him out first. Share your concerns. His reaction to you will tell you a lot.