Same Shove, Different Impact: Spiritually Bullying a Trauma Survivor

Today, I write about an uncomfortable topic: my perspective on spiritual bullying in Christian communities. As I’ve shared before, I was raised in one of the more religiously conservative traditions in the US (Presbyterian Church in America — PCA). I am also a child sexual abuse victim of a PCA elder (now deceased). In some circles, this makes my perspective suspect and causes significant discomfort. But it also gives me a unique perspective on spiritual bullying in Christian communities. Why focus on spiritual bullying? Because, in my experience, spiritual bullying is rampant, insidious, often undetected, and (if detected) frequently ignored by others in authority. Yet, also in my experience, it can have a disastrous impact on trauma survivors. Am I comfortable writing about any of this? No. Far from it. What I share below is my perspective and mine alone. I have tried desperately to reconcile my perspective with the typical responses to spiritual bullying I’ve seen in almost every Christian community I’ve been involved with the past 30+ years. But I have failed. Miserably, in fact. Of course, my perspective is not the whole story — no one person’s perspective ever is. But it is, I think, a perspective that may be helpful to share precisely because it is not typical .

Before I begin, though, how am I defining “spiritual bullying”? Admittedly, it can be hard to define which, in turn, makes it hard to identify. For this post, however, I define it as someone using any form of spiritual authority or power (or connections to spiritual authority or power) to belittle, manipulate, intimidate, hurt, or uncharitably silence those with limited status and connections both in church or in the church’s social sphere (i.e. Christian communities). And what type of people are spiritual bullies? Well, contrary to popular opinion, they’re not always official church/organizational leaders. Spiritual bullies can be anyone in Christian communities including socially/economically/emotionally powerful laymen/women. Really, a spiritual bully can be anyone who is able to leverage a particular form of power to significantly sway or control an outcome, regardless of what official position they hold within a church/community. Sadly, spiritual bullying often aligns itself with coveted skills — taking charge, being decisive, speaking convincingly, etc. It can even be played off as being overly passionate. “I yelled at you because I’m just so passionate about loving Jesus that I couldn’t help it!”

In my experience, Matthew 18:15-17 is used in these situations to bring resolution to what is considered a relatively minor inter-personal conflict. Someone feels as if s/he was sinned against, so s/he simply needs to confront the offender and ask for an apology. Once that apology is given, the conflict is considered resolved and relationship is restored. I’m oversimplifying, but that is how I’ve typically seen the passage used.

However, this approach doesn’t ask two very important questions: Is there a significant power imbalance between the offender and the offended? Is this behavior an isolated incident or a consistent pattern for the offender? If the answer is “yes” and “a consistent pattern” to these questions, then I humbly submit to you that using Matthew 18:15-17 to resolve the “conflict” is actually a misapplication of the passage — where spiritual bullies are concerned, the issue is NOT inter-personal conflict. The issue is attempted spiritual domination of others.

To understand why I consider this an important topic, try to see it through the eyes of a child who was sexually abused by a church leader. Imagine decades of devastation and confusion, pain and betrayal heaped on that child through one act of satanic selfishness by a person who claimed and exercised spiritual authority. Imagine the suicidality, the distrust of all other people (particularly those in authority), and the internal devastation that impacted every subsequent relationship. Now imagine trying to re-engage in Christian communities as an adult who has experienced this depravity — to slowly try to trust those with spiritual authority again. How, with that kind of experience, would you respond to a spiritual bully using his/her power or authority against you to belittle, manipulate, intimidate, hurt, or uncharitably silence you? In short, how would you respond to someone trying to spiritually dominate you? Individual abuse survivors may respond differently depending on their level of healing, but the response that concerns me the most is a descent into despair that leads to increased suicidality. Let me repeat that — spiritually bullying a trauma survivor can trigger despair that can cause them to descend into increased suicidal thoughts and behavior.

You see, it’s one thing to spiritually bully non-traumatized people: their mental health typically allows them to either defend themselves, call out the behavior, or ignore it and move on. That doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it does make the fall-out from it more manageable. But it’s something else entirely when the injured person has been previously traumatized. In other words, it’s like a physically strong person shoving an already injured person. An uninjured person may fall when s/he gets shoved, but s/he can get back up and walk away (typically). But if you shove a person whose bones remain weak from previous trauma, you’ve just subjected that person to an immense amount of pain via re-breaking the same bones. Same shove, different impact. Hence the temptation to despair of ever healing again.

But, since we are not talking about visible wounds, enter Matthew 18:15-17 for conflict resolution. The offender apologizes, the offended forgives. Done. Except it isn’t done, is it? Why? Because — going back to our shoving example — the previously traumatized re-injured person is still in immense pain, re-broken, and left to hobble (or crawl, as the case may be) somewhere (anywhere!) to find help with assessing the damage and working toward re-healing the injury.

But there’s another aspect of reliance on the Matthew 18:15-17 model in these situations that concerns me. From my perspective, it can create a vicious cycle that enables spiritual bullying. Why? Because it (at least initially) assumes that there is not a significant power imbalance between offender/offended. But that’s not how bullying works, is it? And when only required to apologize, spiritual bullies know that they will be unilaterally forgiven for repeat offenses. Why should they change their behavior? This leaves the traumatized person afraid of being shoved again and again and again, leading to being broken again and again and again. But as long as there is an apology and forgiveness each time, Matthew 18:15-17 has resolved the conflict for all intents and purposes. Never mind that it’s, in essence, enabling destructive behavior by allowing spiritual bullies to retain their authority, notoriety, and privileged status with zero consequences. Hence the vicious cycle.

I think you can see now why I, as an abuse survivor, am so concerned about this. I realize, though, that some might think my perspective is flawed and I’m simply overreacting about spiritual bullying because of past trauma. Perhaps I am. Some may ask, “Don’t the benefits of ‘strong’ leadership outweigh ‘minor’ flaws like this?” In my opinion, no. You see, if we value a shallow form of conflict resolution above deep-rooted repentance in this matter, we’ve just demonstrated that some spiritual authorities are above God’s law. That their leadership skills outweigh their sins and earn them special favor with God and his church. In essence, we’ve said that they don’t need to repent and rely on Jesus daily the way the rest of us do. If that is not an affront to the gospel and a soul damaging affirmation of “earned favor” with God, I’m not sure what is. And we wonder why so many “trusted spiritual leaders” are caught in such heinous sins as sexual abuse or assault. I’ll wager that if so many “smaller” sins weren’t overlooked in favor of leadership skills, they would have found it much harder to progress to “larger” sins with impunity. But don’t take my word for it — Dr. Diane Langberg has spoken extensively on the subject.

Just to be clear, though, there IS a difference between having a somewhat abrasive personality, a tendency toward bossiness, etc. and actually being a spiritual bully. I am not arguing that there is a “one size fits all” stereotype to this. Also, I am NOT saying that all conflict is bad. Healthy conflict in Christian communities is absolutely necessary. People are going to disagree and agree to disagree and sometimes leaders will have to make unpopular decisions on non-essential (and even essential) issues. Those are not the situations I’m talking about. Sometimes the opposite situation happens, too, where someone falsely accuses a spiritual leader. Obviously, a considerable amount of wisdom is required in all of this.

Bottom line, though — Christian communities that harbor spiritual bullies are not overall healthy communities. How can they be when a vulnerable part of the population lives in fear of spiritual authority being used against them? Please, try to understand a trauma survivor’s perspective on this. God knows that this trauma survivor has tried to understand the typical Christian community’s perspective on this my entire life. And I have yet to make peace with it.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash