No one likes a bully. Most of us recoil when we encounter a person who preys on the weak and uses verbal and physical abuse to display his superiority. But bullies aren’t only found on grade school or high school playgrounds; they can be found in churches as well, particularly in discipleship relationships.
This kind of bullying, however, does not need to express itself in verbal or physical abuse. It can manifest itself in a subtle form of spiritual tyranny where the teacher, by virtue of his position and self-perceived knowledge, tends to overwhelm and micro-manage his disciple. Sadly, when these kinds of discipleship scenarios progress unchecked, both parties—the discipler and the one being discipled—will find their spiritual life stunted and their relationship with one another in serious jeopardy.
What about you? Are you a discipleship bully? Am I? How can we know if we have become or are on the path to becoming a discipleship bully? I will suggest eight signs.
A sure sign that you are straddling the line between helpful teacher and overbearing micro-manager is that you’re constantly annoyed and frustrated by person you are discipling. If his slowness to grasp biblical truth, his predicable failures to follow through on his promises, and his lack of personal discipline all draw your self-righteous indignation and prompt you to thank God that you were never that immature, look out: you are growing into an unbearable discipleship bully.
2. You are unable or unwilling to learn from the person you are discipling.
If you resist learning from your disciple’s passion for Christ, his insight into Scripture, or his knowledge of the human condition, then you are probably displaying the early character qualities of a discipleship bully. Granted, discipleship by definition requires that a student is learning from a teacher, so there will always be an asymmetrical structure to the relationship. The teacher must be able to say, at some level, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). But the wise man is willing to learn from anyone (Prov. 9:8-9), and it is nothing but pride that tempts us to think we cannot learn from those who are younger or less mature than we are. When discipling new Christians, for example, we can often learn much by their childlike trust in God’s Word and their newfound passion for evangelism. Recently, I received helpful insights from a younger brother about how I could improve our college ministry.
3. You are unwilling to admit when you have been wrong.
None of us is infallible, so none of us can interpret Scripture perfectly or apply biblical truth to every situation without making a mistake. Usually, it’s not the occasional bad advice that will rupture a discipleship relationship but the teacher’s unwillingness to admit he gave bad advice. If good leaders are those who make good second decisions, then good disciplers are those who give good second counsel. Be on guard! If in your desire to protect your godly image you struggle to admit to the one you are discipling that you were wrong, you are showing signs of early-onset discipleship bully.
4. You do most of the talking and little listening.
A good teacher not only knows what to teach, he also knows how to teach it. And knowing how to best apply the truth to your disciple will require that you understand him and his current situation (see Prov. 20:5). But if you are in the discipleship business because you like to hear yourself talk, then it is unlikely that you will do much listening (see Prov. 18:2). You will probably drone on and on about your opinions and your insights, but much of it will never land because you never took the time to get to know your disciple.
5. You become personally offended when a disciple does not follow your counsel.
Rather than grieving that the disciple refused to believe and obey God’s Word, you take the dismissal as a rejection of your own wisdom and insight. You might even feel slightly surprised that he did not follow your counsel because it was, well, so good. Beware! Your offense reveals that you might be more interested in transforming this disciple into your image than into the image of Christ.
6. You will often push your preferences just as much if not more than biblical principles.
In our discipleship relationships, we should desire our brothers and sisters to obey Scripture and walk in obedience to Christ. Indeed, we aim in discipleship to teach others to obey everything that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). But as we disciple others, we must be careful that we are urging conformity to biblical instruction, not to our own preferences. If personal preference dominates the content of our counsel, it is likely that we are seeking our own glory (John 7:18) and growing into a discipleship bully.
7. You refuse to make any helpful provisions for your disciple.
Again, it is true that the structure of the discipleship relationship will be asymmetrical where the discipler will set most of the terms of the meetings. Where will you meet? How long? What will you talk about? But Christ shows us that the leader is also a servant (Mark 10:42-45; John 13:1-17), and if you are unwilling to make sacrifices that would be beneficial to the disciple, you are not walking in love; you are walking like a self-centered, uncaring, discipleship bully.
8. You fear that the disciple might become more godly and spiritually competent than you are.
Is your hope that this young man or woman surpass you in spiritual maturity and biblical competence? Why not? Is it because you cherish your spiritual superiority and can’t fathom the thought of this young disciple—currently immature, unwise, unlearned, unskilled—growing into a godliness that rivals your own? If so, you are well on your way to becoming a discipleship bully.
The danger of becoming a discipleship bully is real, for we are all sinners and prone to pride, self-exaltation, and the temptation to lord our maturity or position over others. But by God’s grace we can all grow into humble teachers who care only for the good of those we disciple. May grace prevail in all our discipleship relationships.