Church Bullies and the God Who Wasn’t There

Church Bullies and the God Who Wasn’t There September 19, 2020

Hi and welcome back! On the heels of yesterday’s discussion about two fundagelical bullies, I ran into another post about how to identify and deal with a church-based bully! What are the odds? It’s an interesting post, though. I mean sure, it applies to a lot more than just Christian churches. But it also illustrates a very potent contradiction to Christian claims. Because no god protects Christians from bullies, bullies freely wreak havoc in churches all over the world.

a playground free of bullies
(thom masat.)

“Four ways to recognize a bully in your church.”

On September 14th, Baptist News ran an opinion post from Jonathan Davis. He titled it: “Four ways to recognize a bully in your church.”

I hadn’t heard of Davis before. He leads a rural church networking group and pastors a church. His bio pic makes him look extremely young.

Interestingly, he includes no dates whatsoever in his schooling information. Since I’m a curious little cat that way, I went a-digging. This blog post indicates that Davis received his DMin degree in 2019. So our dude is actually, in fact, extremely young. I offer this information only because his advice certainly sounds like the product of someone idealistic who is not, to put it kindly, well-versed in the ways of the world.

(Oh, fundagelicals, never change. Never stop letting your youngest Christians offer sage advice about life. I mean, really: what could possibly go wrong?)

Davis begins his post by describing a confrontation between himself and “a retired career Marine” who was throwing his weight around and being disruptive and argumentative. Suddenly, Davis tells us:

I felt compelled to place my body between him and the sanctuary doors. Not quite knowing what came over me, I said: “If you want to shout at or even fight with me, it’s not going to happen here right before worship. You need to leave right now.”

Gosh, I just can’t imagine “what came over” him, can you?

coy john mulaney
Hmmm…

But it must have been something truly miraculous, because the bully quickly “tucked tail for the parking lot!”

And Now, the Actual Advice.

After cautioning us that church bullies can be any age, take any form, and hail from any demographic and socioeconomic status, Davis launches into his four telltale signs of bullyhood:

First, when confronted about their behavior or when challenged they will almost always blow up.

Second, if a bully is unwilling to change his or her behavior once confronted, the bully will do everything necessary to maintain the position.

Third, if the bully leaves (especially if they take others with them) people will think you ran them off.

Fourth, over time, after the bully is confronted (which may take more than once), you will see a pressure valve release in the church as people realize they do not have to make every decision according to what the bully demands.

Did you notice anything strange about this list? Anything missing?

I sure did.

What’s Wrong Here.

All of Davis’ advice begins with the confrontation of bullies — and never actually covers identifying them at all.

By the time any confrontations take place, bullies have already caused a whole lot of damage. But Davis devotes not one word to the lead-up to these confrontations, nor any advice for handling the confrontations themselves. His post was about recognizing bullies, not handling them, so it’s very strange that he only talks about what happens after they’ve been confronted and never tells us how to recognize one.

Had Davis failed to notice that his “retired career Marine” (RCM) was a bully before that fateful morning? How had Davis interacted with RCM before then? Davis implies that he just has no idea, y’all, what came over him *COUGH*jesus*COUGH* to give him the courage to confront RCM. However, if this incident occurred as he describes, then it seems clear that RCM was by then a well-known problem child in that church.

It sure looks like Davis doesn’t know how to identify a bully until he confronts that person. At that point, a nice Christian will try to change their behavior. A bully will “blow up” and drill down harder on their behavior. And that’s really the only way to tell if the naughty person is a nice Christian or a bully, apparently.

Like aha! They found the bully! J’accuse!

Jeez. I knew churches can be really dysfunctional, but this takes the cake. And the frosting. And the wooden spoons, the bowl, and the mixer blades.

The Epidemic of Church-Based Bullies.

These days, evangelicals in particular continue to become more and more extremist and authoritarian. Their worst elements constantly drive out the kinder and more compassionate flocks still in the pews. As this winnowing process continues, I only expect the number of bullies in churches to rise — alongside the damage they do in their never-ending quest for power.

So when I went hunting for other Christians talking about church-based bullies, oh my gosh I found a mountain of them:

That’s about half the ones I ended up bookmarking and reading, but the search pulled up literally millions of returns. So yeah, I reckon bullies are a quiet-but-recognized-issue for churches these days. Many of these advice posts deal with the question of pastoral/leadership bullies, but most describe laypeople.

Really Recognizing Bullies.

If I had to write a post about how to recognize bullies in groups, I’d focus instead on describing authoritarians hunting for power:

  • Having to be correct all the time
  • Talking over others
  • Staking out territory and defending it at all costs
  • Refusing to take others’ input
  • Blowing up when criticized in any way
  • Displays of anger and aggression when their own suggestions aren’t taken
  • Gatekeeping behavior. (A real X would…)
  • Tribalism: us vs. them, dehumanizing enemies, etc.
  • Creation of an inner court
  • Power-seeking: cozying up to leaders, becoming a right-hand-man, etc.
  • Gossiping to tear others down, sniping, muttering, etc
  • Scapegoating victims and hounding them out of the group
  • Causing constant drama and chaos

Unfortunately, I’m betting Davis and most of his church would run afoul of most of the stuff on my list, just like most evangelical churches would. Maybe that’s why RCM ran roughshod for as long as he very clearly did.

In his post, Davis did his entire congregation a disservice by not dealing with RCM right away, long before he showed up at the wrong service and got a surprise he wasn’t expecting.

That family of first-time visitors that he describes that “looked on with dismay” at the confrontation were quite right to do so. This was not a church that could protect them from bullies, and I hope they realized that.

I hope they skedaddled to find a church that was way less dysfunctional.

The God Who Wasn’t There.

Interestingly, Davis paints a picture of churches that operate along completely natural and human lines. It’s actually a pleasant surprise that he doesn’t suggest prayer anywhere in the post. Then again, most of the posts I linked don’t make that suggestion either.

I’m glad, because prayer would be the worst possible response to a bully wreaking havoc on a group. Bullies count on nobody making any real efforts to stop them, and nothing illustrates the idea of doing nothing real like prayer.

No omnimax gods stand by to rescue churches from bullies. Even Davis knows that, even at his level of experience. If bullies are to be handled, other people must do it.

I couldn’t find any Christians anywhere wondering why the god who supposedly watches over them 24/7 allows bullies to destroy churches and rip apart loving relationships by the thousands.

I’m guessing that’s a very risky mental road to take.

The God Who Doesn’t Do Anything For Anybody.

What do you suppose would happen if RCM left Davis’ church in a huff? Do you suppose he’d soberly reflect on the loss of his community, resolve to do better, and find a church where he could begin living out the ideals that Christians generally consider to be “Christian virtues?”

Nope.

We all know, right, that RCM would just start up his power-mongering at a new place — and would have no kind words at all for the upstart young pastor who’d been so mean to him at the last one. It takes work to dismantle an authoritarian worldview. Very few Christians even recognize this worldview as a problem, much less are willing to work to change it.

Still, it’s appalling to me that Davis all but gloats over the idea of a bully leaving his church:

If the bully leaves the church because of unwillingness to change and repent when confronted, that’s a good thing, because the church will be healthier for it.

That’s nice. What about the next church the bully destroys, however? It’s like Davis doesn’t even care about the other Christians who will deal with this bully after his church “break[s] free” of the bully’s control.

And Jesus sure ain’t gonna help any of them at all.

Bullies in the Age of Christianity’s Decline.

If I were an evangelical minister, I’d be paying very special attention to how my church handles disruptive elements like bullies. Evangelicalism is swiftly becoming a moldy attic trunk full of conspiracy theorists, bigots, wackjobs, and yes, bullies. A church leader can ill afford to give congregations any reason to skip out on church services — or to forget to write out their tithe check each Sunday.

Check out the comments on any Christian blog post (that allows them) discussing church dysfunction, and you’ll see many dozens of Christians lamenting that they had to leave their churches over struggles like these. These Christians always seem very sad about having left, but they sure didn’t hang around!

The truth is inescapable: a group must design itself around keeping bullies away from power — and most especially away from any potential victims. Members’ safety can’t be an afterthought, and it can’t be entrusted to magical imaginary friends or members’ own discretion. If the group’s leaders don’t specifically design the group’s rules and dynamics around members’ safety, they will leave.

No gods will help Christians stay safe, and no gods will stop any bullies from hurting Christians, and no gods will change any Christians into better people.

And that might be the best news we could possibly hope to have right now.

Only Human.

Right now, a lot of us are hurt and shocked by recent news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing. Truly, we’ve lost one of the brightest lights in our sky and a beloved champion of justice and human rights. And now, many of us rightly fear what’ll come next.

We feel these fears because evangelicals are, as a group, a bunch of bullies, and these bullies happen to hold a very outsized amount of political power for the relatively small size of their tribe. Thus, they will likely have a great deal of input regarding Justice Ginsbug’s successor.

I share these concerns and fears and hurt.

And I’d like to gently say that everything happening is, at least, purely human. No gods are involved at all. It’s all just people.

Just as Christians first attained absolute power in the Dark Ages through earthly and natural means, they attained their outsized power in the modern age in the same way. Once they lost the temporal power to force others to comply with their demands, they almost immediately began to decline. No gods seem at all interested in changing their fortunes, either.

Churches know very well that bullies operate only in the material world. They know that nothing supernatural will ever help or hinder bullies.

And we, in turn, know this same truth about evangelicals as a whole. 

NEXT UP: How irresponsible Christian researchers stoke panic to make sales.


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Last note: When Mr. Captain read Davis’ post and got to the line about him not knowing what came over him, you shoulda seen him roll his eyes. I laughed so hard. He thinks the whole incident with RCM is like “this one time at band camp…”

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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