On 31st May, 2022, there was an online conference organised by ABEL (Against Bullying, Encouraging Love) entitled Pedestals, Pulpits and Pews: Perspectives on Bullying in the Church of England. Recordings of the presentations are viewable on YouTube. This article from Andrew Goddard is his presentation which, while only exploratory in nature, opens with how to think ethically in relation to bullying and then offers some more explicitly theological reflections. It draws on his expertise as someone who has taught Christian ethics within theological education and his own experience, alongside others, of bullying behaviour and the failure of Christians with oversight to address it.
Most people who have studied ethics have been introduced to the idea of different approaches to ethics where perhaps the most common categorisation is a threefold one. There are deontological approaches focussed on rules and obligations, consequentialist approaches concerned about outcomes or consequences, and virtue approaches concerned about character and habits and patterns of life. I have doubts about this schema but it points to three elements which need to be considered in any ethical thinking or three lenses through which to consider ethical questions.
First, we need to think about the nature or structure of our actions and how we act. This involves thinking about patterns or structures of actions that can be identified and named and morally evaluated, often by formulating moral rules or laws to guide us and enable moral judgments. Second, we need to think about actions’ consequences which also shape our decisions about how to act and how we evaluate our own and others’ past actions. But we need also to think, third, about actors or agents. That means considering the sort of people we are and we want to become, the sort of cultures and communities we inhabit and want to develop – their ethos and patterns of moral formation or deformation. I want to begin with some thoughts on bullying and ethics in relation to each of these three elements.
The first area of ethical reflection concerns how to define, categorise and evaluate actions. In one sense every single action is unique. But moral (and legal) reflection involves identifying, classifying and naming patterns of action and offering judgment on whether these are to be commended or condemned. “Bullying” is one such classification. I want to highlight 5 areas by suggesting there are two elements to bullying which while not unique are importantly distinctive and then noting three issues raised by focussing on the nature of the act.
First, “bullying” is a classification and terminology which now has a negative moral judgment tied to it either by definition or consensus. Often our ethical debates are about whether some action is right or wrong—abortion, euthanasia, war, divorce. We agree what sort of behaviour it is that we are talking about but disagree about whether it is right or wrong, about whether/when such action might be justified. Other ethical categories are ones where the terminology itself builds in the moral judgment or there is near-universal agreement that what it refers to is wrong—injustice, sexual abuse, genocide. Bullying is in this latter category; there are few if any people willing to defend bullying as such or to present a case for “justified bullying”. The defence instead is that what happened is not bullying.
This explains why bullying is what “Yes Prime Minister” referred to as an “irregular verb”, a jocular label for what I discovered is technically called emotive or emotional conjugation. Bernard’s example (in an episode called “The Bishop’s Gambit”) is “I have an independent mind, You are eccentric, He is round the twist.” We might come up with something like “I implement creative change through strong and effective leadership, you have poor change and personnel management skills, he bullies”. All this means, of course, that questions of definition become particularly important.
Secondly, “bullying” is a category which tries to classify and name not so much a specific action but a pattern of action extended over time. If we say that someone stole from or assaulted me we are often pointing to one specific, perhaps very brief, action or interaction which stands alone as a one-off. While it is perhaps possible to use the term “bullying” for one single action, if it is genuinely a one-off then usually “bullying” is not an appropriate term. Thus one long-standing widely used definition of bullying refers to “repeated, deliberate verbal or physical abuse by someone with more power than his or her target” (Olweus, Aggression in the Schools, 1978). This has some important consequences. By definition it therefore takes time to realise or discern that bullying is occurring, both for observers and for victims. Given that bullying is wrong, that means that, by the time such a moral evaluation is able to be made, wrong has been done for some time and sustained harm already suffered.
Three further observations building on these. Thirdly, the fact there is agreement that bullying is wrong means that we need to take care in how we use the term – it is not morally neutral. Hence questions of definition are of particular importance. The defence to accusations of bullying is almost always going to be “I wasn’t bullying”. Definitions are, however, not always easy especially if we then seek to delineate and distinguish bullying from other categories such as strong leadership, harassment, manipulation, undue pressure, pastoral or spiritual abuse. We may be attracted to the famous test applied to “hard-core pornography” by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it”. However, whatever sympathy we might have for the view that “I know bullying when I see it”—even more when I am experiencing it!—we do need to seek to develop a wide consensus and awareness as to what is meant by the term.
Fourthly, as in the definition noted earlier, at the heart of any such definition must be issues of power. At the heart of bullying is a combination of power imbalance and abuse of power. That means that wherever there is an imbalance of power we need to be aware of the danger of bullying occurring. It means that to identify bullying we need to develop an account of the proper use of power. We will return to this in our later theological focus.
Fifthly, we need not only to define bullying but address what motivates it: why do people bully? This might be simply to assert, maintain or increase the imbalance of power through controlling and abusing the relatively powerless. It might be because someone is viewed as of less value because of some characteristic—their sex, race, sexuality, beliefs. It might be in order to achieve certain outcomes—overcoming opposition to change, silencing disagreement.
That forward-looking motivation leads nicely into the second ethical area: the consequences of our actions. Here I want to explore two areas in relation to allegations of bullying behaviour, one relating to defences and one relating to accusations.
Firstly, as we’ve noted few defend bullying as bullying but often the behaviour which leads to accusations of bullying is defended as justifiable actions necessary to achieve good and important outcomes. This is a classic consequentialist ethical argument—the end justifies the means, you can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs, you can’t turn round a big organisation headed for the rocks without taking drastic measures, and so on. In church contexts this gets even more serious as the ends used to justify the behaviour normally claim to be part of God’s purposes, whether in terms of church growth or effective mission or securing greater holiness or giving respect to church leaders. But God is at least as concerned about our means as he is about our ends. Even if it is accepted that there have been problems, the argument is often used that these must be kept quiet as otherwise the consequences—the damage to individual or institutional reputations or even the gospel itself—are too great. This is of course often another form of bullying even if dressed up in legalese as a confidentiality clause in some settlement.
Secondly, in relation to accusations. When an accusation of bullying is made we are being told that among the consequences of the accused person’s actions was that this person felt bullied by them. That simple fact in and of itself must always be a cause of concern and proper investigation. Especially given the serious effects of being bullied on people’s mental, physical and spiritual health and well-being and that the nature of bullying means it will already have taken some time for it to become evident. To fail to investigate properly any accusations of bullying—which was my experience—is a serious but often almost systemic institutional failure that compounds the negative effect of the bullying behaviour itself.
But this does not mean that whenever someone reports bullying that bullying has indeed taken place. In some cases the accusation may simply be false and malicious. The paradox is that as we rightly begin to take bullying more seriously accusations of bullying can themselves, because of their power and potentially damaging consequences for those accused, become a form of bullying. In other cases there may be patterns of bad behaviour that need to be addressed but the language of “bullying” may be inappropriate—here we return to the challenge of definition.
In short, approaching bullying through this lens of consequences highlights the necessity of establishing and using proper and trusted procedures by which concerns about bullying can be raised and then properly investigated and effectively addressed.
Virtue and character
Turning to the third ethical lens, “bullying” is used not just as a verb for actions but as an adjective for people. In the 1950s a Parliamentary sketch writer gave the Conservative politician Reginald Manningham-Buller the memorable nickname “Bullying-Manner”. Fellow lawyer, Lord Devlin, wrote of him in a way which illustrates the complexity of bullying and also how, perhaps particularly among Christians, bullying can be done in more subtle but still powerful ways. Devlin writes of the nickname “Bullying-Manner”:
This was wrong. He was a bully without a bullying manner. His bludgeoning was quiet. He could be downright rude but he did not shout or bluster. Yet his disagreeableness was so pervasive, his persistence so interminable, the obstructions he manned so far flung, his objectives apparently so insignificant, that sooner or later you would be tempted to ask yourself whether the game was worth the candle: if you asked yourself that, you were finished… (Quoted in John Sackar, Lord Devlin, p 228).
Because bullying refers to a pattern of action over time it inevitably speaks more directly than do certain other failings about the character of the agent. It points to a vice—a habitual pattern of bad behaviour, a disposition to respond in certain bad ways to particular people and/or situations. That is one reason why the accusation of bullying is so serious. One can admit one has got drunk, even on a number of occasions, without thereby admitting one is a drunkard. To admit bullying, in contrast, is to admit something negative about one’s character.
This points to two further important areas. Bullying in relation to the agent means firstly that challenging questions are raised about how we best respond to those who bully. These relate to whether and how there can be transformation of character not simply greater clarity and enforcement of rules. Connected to this is how in some cases the pattern of behaviour may be related to psychological or personality disorders such as narcissism. These are real challenges. We have as a church to be a place of forgiveness, healing and fresh starts but many of us will sadly know situations including in church senior leadership where someone’s leadership style in one context has been experienced as bullying but they are then appointed to another, perhaps more senior and powerful role, and the same pattern recurs causing further damage.
Secondly, the reality is that the character of a leader shapes the wider culture and ethos of the common life of their community or institution. When the person in charge has a bullying manner that has damaging effects not just on those directly subjected to the bullying but much more widely, including giving licence to others to bully.
So what, in the light of these ethical reflections, might be said theologically about bullying? Again this can only be selective. After pointing to theological anthropology I will more fully try to sketch out an account centred on Christ and the Spirit, with a focus on power, to help us respond to bullying in Christian contexts.
As so often in Christian ethics a key theme must be to unpack and explore the belief that all human beings are made in the image of God and called to be God’s image-bearers. Set in the context of ancient near eastern myths and terminology this designation in Genesis 1 is radical because it universalises or democratises a status elsewhere limited to the ruler, the one with political power. In contrast, the Judaeo-Christian tradition, though not without its failings, has come to recognise and defend the inherent dignity, fundamental equality, and intrinsic value of every human being. Alongside that it has particularly sought to protect the weak and vulnerable. Bullying behaviour, particularly when directed against people because they are different and/or vulnerable within a wider community, is a denial of this fundamental conviction. It diminishes a fellow divine image-bearer and limits or prevents their flourishing and the fulfilment of their call to bear God’s image.
As Christians it is Christ as the Son who is, in the words of Colossians 1, “the image of the invisible God”. And God’s purpose, according to Roman 8:28, is to “conform us to the image of his Son”. Here we find the strongest possible anti-bullying message rooted in Jesus’ incarnation, his teaching, and his example.
Paul in Philippians 2 famously calls the church to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” and that mindset is the very antithesis of bullying – it is kenotic. It is self-emptying love as seen in the one
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing….he humbled himself
Here we see the path of true and divine power in which the one with the greatest power does not use that power to establish, solidify and extend his own power or to disempower and disregard others. Rather he empties himself, makes himself nothing, in order to enter the position of the relatively powerless and use his power to serve them and seek their good.
And that anti-bullying pattern is what he then calls his disciples to do in their own lives and exercising of power and authority. In Matthew 20:25 and Mark 10:42 he describes how the rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over them” and says “Not so with you. Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”. The Greek word katakurieuo speaks of a pattern of behaviour with some similarities to what we would call bullying as those with power “exercise their rule to their own advantage and contrary to the interests and well-being of the people” (NIDNTT, 2:519). In 1 Peter 5:3 it is applied to the life of the church as the shepherds of God’s flock are warned about “not lording it over those entrusted to you”.
Philippians 2 continues its account of becoming a servant with the culmination of Jesus’ kenotic path and in the passion accounts of mocking and spitting, we see this path involves being subjected to patterns of bullying behaviour. Here for those Christians who have been bullied is the comfort that Christ has been there too – in a pretty extreme form. He stands not with the bullies even if they claim to be acting in his name but with those who are bullied and abused by those who have more power.
Jesus’ way, faced with an imbalance of power, is the fulfilment of the vision of the servant in Isaiah 42: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice”. This is why patterns of leadership which embody, justify or turn a blind eye to bullying behaviour among Christians, perhaps on the grounds that it serves God’s purposes, are so distorted, even blasphemous. This consequentialist defence highlights one of the core spiritual diseases that underlies bullying among confessing Christians and amounts to a denial of the two great feasts (between which this conference paper was first presented) of Ascension and Pentecost.
The Ascension speaks of Christ’s rule—the second half of Philippians confirming that the pattern the Father honours is the kenotic pattern. It reminds all with authority and power in the church that accomplishing God’s purposes is not something which depends on us and we have no justification for “using any means” in order to accomplish to those purposes. Much bullying within the church stems ultimately from a lack of trust in God and in the reign of Christ over the church and the world.
Pentecost similarly is the gift to us of God’s “incomparably great power” which is “the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms”. Appeals to the Spirit’s power can sometimes be a cover for bullying and abusive use of human power but the key here is that it is the Spirit’s power and that mighty strength is at work on the dead Jesus. The Spirit’s power is not evident in bullying power, however successful that might sometimes appear. The Spirit’s power works through those who walk Christ’s anti-bullying way of the cross so that the Spirit’s power might be at work even on the powerless dead.
As those called to embody the way of Christ, all forms of bullying should therefore be a scandal in the church. Never something to be tolerated, perhaps as a necessary evil, or implicitly or explicitly condoned even celebrated because they appear to yield what we might think of as success. Instead, with Hudson Taylor, we need to cultivate the conviction that it is God’s work done in God’s way—which is the way of Jesus—that will never lack God’s supply.
And God’s greatest supply of course is the Spirit and as we close I want to tie this to the earlier reflections on virtue and character to end on a more positive note. The biblical passage most often linked to virtue is the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. All 9 of these virtues are powerful antidotes to a “bullying manner”, but perhaps none more so than that translated “gentleness”. This of course takes us back again to the way of Christ. Some of you may have come across the recent book by Dane Ortlund. It opens by pointing out that in the 89 chapters of the four gospels “there’s only one place where Jesus tells us about his own heart”. That place is Matthew 11:29: “I am gentle and lowly in heart”.
And so it should not surprise us that Paul entreats the Corinthians in 2 Cor 10 “by the humility and gentleness of Christ”. After describing the Spirit’s fruit he urges that Christians caught in transgression be restored “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1). Timothy is called to instruct his opponents gently (2 Tim 2:25) and to pursue gentleness (1 Tim 6:11).
To return to our opening ethical reflections, in relation to bullying in the church yes we need to work on definitions and establishing good processes of investigation and response but here is the real antidote. Above all we need a deeper, positive Christ and Spirit centred vision and we need to make that vision a reality in church life by allowing the Spirit to bear fruit and by doing what Colossians 3 urges the church to do: put on “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience”.
Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Assistant Minister, St James the Less, Pimlico, Tutor in Christian Ethics, Westminster Theological Centre (WTC) and Tutor in Ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. He is a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and was a member of the Co-Ordinating Group of LLF.