Bullying is in the news—tragically so. In recent weeks there have been several media stories of children who have committed suicide in response to being bullied by their peers. In a horrific video posted on CNN, a seventeen-year-old boy was recently beaten with fists by two other students while on a school bus. The bus driver did nothing. In another case, I saw the recording of a thirteen-year-old boy beaten up by three other students, also while riding a school bus.
Bullying is a fact of life, which has probably been around since Cain and Abel. The apparently stronger—verbally and sometimes physically—abuse those they deem weaker. It happens not only, of course, in schools but also in the workplace, on sport teams—even in the home. Sadly, it can also happen in the church.
Bullying also takes on different personas. For instance, there are bullies, like the ones mentioned above, who use physical prowess to intimidate, and hence to seek to control, others. We are all perhaps familiar with the schoolyard bully who uses threat of a “knuckle sandwich” to rob his fellow student of tuck money. Of course, these bullies sometimes grow up to be larger bullies who threaten people on the roads and in communities and even in the workplace.
But there are also those who are verbal bullies. They remind me of some of the mighty men of David who “could use both the right hand and the left in hurling stones” (1 Chronicles 12:21). They are adept at hurling verbal missiles in an attempt to defeat others. And in spite of our parents’ well-intended words of attempted comfort, it is not true that “names can never hurt us.” Many of us would argue that we would rather experience sticks and stones breaking our bones than the harsh and injurious words that can often break our spirit. After all, as Solomon wrote, “who can bear” that (Proverbs 18:14; 17:22)?
One of the verses that I often reflect upon is Proverbs 12:18: “There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health.” In other words, words can destroy or build up; it all depends on how we use them. Healthy communication involves not merely the truth of what we say but the tone as well. On far too many occasions I have been guilty of a sharp tongue, which had the immediate effect of bullying my way into getting my way, but in the end I have done enormous damage. Can you relate?
If you are guilty of being a bully then you, of course, need to repent. You need to love your neighbour as yourself and this will go a long way towards correcting your behaviour. And, yes, I have Christians in mind. In fact, Christians who bully are the ugliest of church members. Diotrephes is a case in point.
Diotrephes of 3 John was the consummate bully. He used intimidation to hinder the expression of godly hospitality to those who were ministers of the gospel. In fact, the text tells us that he went so far as to excommunicate those who loved missionaries (v. 10)!
There is so much that can be gleaned from this ugly account, but suffice it, for the purposes of this article, to note that Diotrephes’ problem was that “he loved to have the pre-eminence.” Literally, he “loved to have first place” and would brook no rivals. To ensure this, he chose bullying as his means to guard the castle of self.
The text does not reveal a lot about how his fellow church members responded. Perhaps they chose to endure his abuse as they simply got on with serving the Lord. Perhaps they responded by loving him and hoping that the kindness of God would lead him to repentance. Perhaps others became discouraged and quit the church. What we do know is that they reported it to someone who could do something about it: They told John the apostle, this pastor-apostle who was known in the region of Asia Minor as “the beloved apostle” (hence the apostle of love and the apostle who loved). They told “the beloved” of Diotrephes’ malicious words against John and of his divisive love of self, manifested in his disregard for the godly. There is a lesson here for us: Apparently these church members knew that they could not sort this problem out by themselves so they sought apostolic help. They sought the help of someone with authority.
When your children are being bullied they should have the assurance that they can tell those in authority, who will in turn do something about it.
I have often heard the erroneous, though no doubt well-intended, counsel that a child cannot be sheltered all the time by their parents and should sort out bullies without interference from parents. That may be true of an eighteen-year-old, but not for a younger child. One reason children do have parents is because God expects for them to be sheltered and protected! But further, when a child turns to his parent for help, he is learning the value of submitting to and trusting God-ordained authority. We should beware of training future vigilantes.
John was a loving and therefore a lovely man. Because of this, he would not tolerate the beloved Bride of Christ being abused by a bully. He made it clear that he intended to do something about this—face to face (v. 10). And by the way, if John was on Facebook he still would have made this a person to person confrontation. Cowards and bullies (usually one and the same) thrive on social media. No, Diotrephes was about to experience John’s earlier nickname, given by Jesus: “son of thunder” (Mark 3:17). I would love to have been in that room when the bully met this man. It was a classic scene, no doubt, of “the Bully and the Beloved.” Biblical boldness is a far cry from sinful bullying. It is really beautiful. Just look at Jesus.
Now, of course, we do not have the apostle John to turn to when assaulted by a bully, but we do have apostolic truth preserved in the Word. So, when you are being bullied, then open the Word and ask the beautiful and beloved Saviour how you can likewise biblically and thus beautifully respond to the ugliness of a bully. In fact, this is precisely John’s admonition to us: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good” (v. 11).
Stay tuned for further instalments. This is a huge issue: If you have any questions you would like addressed in future articles, please drop an email and I will address them accordingly.