A young friend experienced extreme bullying at her Christian school. I hadn’t really understood modern-day bullying, until she explained it to me. (She told me it was like the infamous Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.)

One of the most important things this young friend helped me understand was the dynamic of bullying. Some students at her school were genuinely nice people, but they lived in such an environment of fear that whenever the main bullies were around, they remained silent or even participated in the bullying if necessary, so they wouldn’t become a target. (You may wonder why no one tried to alert teachers or administrators about this massive problem, but someone did and it wasn’t believed, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog post.)

So while I was pondering the dynamics of a bullying school environment that went stratospherically beyond anything I had experienced in my own high school days of mild bullying, we heard a sermon on Galatians 2.

“Well, what do you know,” says I to myself, “there it is again!”

Recognizing the social dynamic of bullying

The story goes that the apostle Peter and the other Jewish Christians were actually welcoming the Gentile Christians and even eating with them (a truly big deal in those days) . . . until the bullies came.

The bullies weren’t swaggering studs or prima donna divas; they were the very righteous looking rule-followers described by the apostle Paul as “those of the circumcision.” (In other words, the ones who said, “Look here, fella, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll become a Jew before you become a Christian. That’s the only way to God.”)

When the bullies came, they filled the entire environment with fear.

Even the apostle Peter was afraid of them. I’ve pondered how that could happen, when he had the boldness in Acts 2 to preach the way he did, but I guess it just goes to show that intimidation can happen even to strong believers.

And when it happened to Peter . . . it happened to all of them. All of the Jewish Christians who had been happily eating and interacting with the Gentile Christians all drew back and separated themselves again, as if the Gentile believers were the pariahs they had been considered to be before Christ came. Even Barnabas, the one who had so boldly stood up for Paul in Acts 9.

The apostle Paul is the one telling this story. He came into this environment of fear and laid Peter out straight in no uncertain terms, because the very essence of the gospel hung on the truth of who Christ welcomed into His Kingdom and at what level. (An excellent study for another day.)

But how did Paul refer to what Peter and the others were doing?

Two-facedness. Dissimulation. Hypocrisy.            

This was a very important point to me, as I’ve become aware in recent years of the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing kind of hypocrisy. This kind of hypocrisy is fundamentally different.

Three kinds of “hypocrisy”

The first one embodies the two-facedness of one who is wicked in private and Mr. NiceGuyChristian (or Dr. SuperChristian or any of several other holy permutations) in public.

That second one embodies the two-facedness of one who is kind in private but who participates in the bullying—or at the least draws back from support for those being bullied—in public.

Then the other day I was reminded of a third kind of hypocrisy—or maybe better, a kind of “pretending.”

And I believe this completes the circle by which an entire system of hypocrisy remains in place in many of our churches.

I had considered before the fact that while the abuser lives a double life, in most churches his victim also has to live a double life. Then I found this double life very aptly described in this article, which I shall call “Bad Advice for Young Wives.” in the advice given to the wife of an emotionally abusive man who according to the description is “rude, surly, and angry all the time,” “spends a lot of time in the basement [emphasis in original],” and sometimes “curses, yells, calls us all kinds of names, and throws things.”

The advice given takes up the whole article, and I’ve already written an alternative reply, but I’d like to zero in again on this one paragraph of Bad Advice to this abused wife:

What does respectful and pure behavior look like? Peter [in I Peter 3] gives us the first clue. It means becoming your husband’s greatest cheerleader. Praise him when he does anything well. Notice and comment on it when he is respectable in anything. Talk him up to the kids, friends, neighbors. Cook good meals, things he likes. Do all your wifely duties with joy and excitement. Be transformed into who you would be if he were the greatest husband on the planet. Remember, that you are doing this for Jesus Christ, the one who died for you, not for your husband (as if he were your lord). You have risen above your situation and you are serving [your husband] because you are serving God.    

If a woman in this situation were to try to follow this counsel, she would be living a sham life, yes. But I believe it’s more complicated than that. There’s fear involved, and perhaps shame, but I don’t think they’re the only ingredients.

I believe a primary motivation behind this kind of pretending is the desire to do the right thing.

If a Christian wife plays a pretender in an abusive marriage—pretending her husband is wonderful when in reality he’s abusive—it is often because she has been told to do so by people she respects.

She has been told this is what will be honoring to her husband.

She has been told this is what will change her husband to be the kind and good husband she thought she married.

She has been told this is what the Word of God teaches.

The fact is, though, that this is not true. This kind of “hypocrisy” is not honoring to her husband (living a lie is never honoring to anyone). This isn’t what the Word of God teaches. She has been given destructive counsel, and as a consequence is made far more vulnerable to the destructive attitudes and actions of the destroyer.

Breaking out of the toxic dynamic of bullying in the Christian culture

In Joy Starts Here, authors Jim Wilder, et al, describe a church environment that more or less parallels what I’m talking about. For the most obvious hypocrite, they give the obvious name Predator. For the ones who have remained silent because of fear, they give the name Possum.

possum playing dead so he won't get dead for reals

Pretending they just don’t see or hear anything (“I believe the elders”) can be a pretty effective way for some people to be left alone.

I’ll add that for the ones who are preyed upon who act as if all is well because they’ve been told to and because they genuinely hope it will help their marriage, I’d give the name Pretender.

There’s a fourth group the Joy Starts Here authors refer to, though. It’s the ones who refuse to play this deadly game, the ones who will speak truth, for themselves, for their children, and for others. They give that group the name Protectors.

In my young friend’s Christian school, there wasn’t one of those. In many churches there isn’t one.

In the story of Peter in Galatians 2, the Protector was the apostle Paul. Can you imagine what those Gentile Christians must have felt when he spoke up for them?

In reference to the bad advice for young wives article, the Protector was every person who wrote to the author of that article or spoke up in social media in defense of that young woman (whether she was a real person or only representative of many in our churches who have been given such destructive counsel).

There is a hypocritical dynamic permeating many churches and parachurch organizations.

But I’ll add, it’s a dynamic that newcomers are often unable to readily perceive. In fact, I believe there’s a fifth group that I can’t give a “P” name to—the Unaware, who haven’t discerned this destructive power dynamic going on in the churches and parachurch organizations. If and when they’re made aware of it, though (as I talked about regarding myself in this blog post), they must make a decision. Will they roll over and play dead?

like this possum

Or will they rise up?

By the grace of God, by the Spirit of God, “Possums” can rise up to become Protectors. That was the case with Peter and Barnabas—they humbly learned their lesson from Paul and thoroughly changed to fearlessly embrace their Gentile brothers and sisters.

That can become the case too, more and more, in our churches.

So let’s pray

I pray that many who have played the happy pretender, because they believed it was the right thing to do to help their marriage, will understand that God is honored by honesty.

Not vindictiveness. Not maliciousness. But honesty.

I pray that many who have played the blind and deaf hypocrite because they were uncaring or afraid or intimidated will become discontent with the half-life of worshipping God while ignoring their neighbor next to them who is dying.

I pray they will become willing to expel the root of bitterness from their midst and stand up to protect those among them who are being oppressed.

Am I asking for too much? Ah, but that God we’re raising our hands to in worship is a great and mighty God. He can do great things.

Let’s pray that He’ll do them here, now.

In our churches. In our Christian schools. In our Christian colleges. In our Christian seminaries. In our Christian coalitions. In our Christian ministry organizations.

Let’s pray that He’ll wake up Possums to become Protectors who will be willing to stand for the Oppressed against the Predators.

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

And that will be a beautiful thing.


This post was published at the website of Leslie Vernick.





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