Bullying is a serious societal problem that has resulted in suicides among children, teens, and young adults. 160,000 children per day stay home from school to avoid bullying. About 85 % of bullying incidents take place in view of others, yet only 11% of bystanders intervene on behalf of the victim. When bullying occurs, there are four parties to consider: The bully, the victim, interested observers (peers), and authorities.
The most urgent issue we face as parents is the case of our children as victims, and what we can do to respond to or prepare for bullying. What should we as Christian parents teach our children? First, a biblical view of life should include the realization that we live in a fallen world. God intended it to be good, and people have messed it up through disobedience. Bullying is evidence of that. Bullying happens in the context of families (sibling conflict, spousal abuse, child abuse) and in the larger society (at schools and in church). It’s in this larger context, particularly school settings that we will think through parental preparation and response, calling on the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth of Scripture to us. Let’s look at what the Bible mandates, what it permits, and what it models for us.
Biblical mandate for Christ's disciples
God’s plan for the mature Christian is stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-5:45): “Do not resist an evil person” and “Love your enemies.” The context of this sermon is Christ speaking to His disciples—those who commit to follow Him. In this sermon, Jesus lays out kingdom principles in the life of a mature adult Christian, and so it is not directed specifically to children being bullied. We need to be cautious in applying it to children without considering the dynamics of children’s settings. School settings as we know them today did not exist in Jesus’ time. To love our enemies, and turn the other cheek are certainly commands to adult Christians, but are they prescribed actions for a child in the face of bullying?
In this passage, Jesus reiterates the Old Testament commands: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Christian parents want to teach these core truths to their children, but we all wrestle with how to apply these truths when our own children are attacked by larger, older, or more aggressive children. Do we teach our child to take the abuse, knowing that this invites even more abuse? It’s in this very predictable and difficult situation that we need the whole counsel of Scripture.
Let's look at the nature of the attacks Jesus referenced in His teaching. In the first example, we are to turn the other cheek when slapped. This is not an attack of lethal force, it is a blow to our personal pride, a ‘diss’ in today’s vocabulary. In such a case, it is better to walk away and suffer a blow to our pride than to retaliate. (However, retaliation is not the same as resistance, and we’ll discuss biblical resistance later.) The second example is that of a brother taking you to court. Again, this is not an attack on one’s life or person, but a public and controlled petition before the courts. The third example describes oppression by the powerful on the weak--oppression that is unfair or uncompensated. None of these attacks involves lethal force or debilitating injury. None of these examples precludes the principle of self-defense to protect life. All of these examples involve adults and none expressly describes children.
Scripture permits us the tool of self defense for the purpose of maintaining order in society, yet within the command to love all people. Exodus 22:2a “If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, their will be no bloodguiltiness on his account.” This specific Old Testament law allows for self defense but is set within the larger context of the justice system of the nation of Israel.
God’s design for His people was that they take their grievances against a neighbor before the court system. The quote “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” comes from the Old Testament context of how the court should levy punishment in a fair manner—the punishment should fit the crime. It did not give permission to take vengeance into our own hands. Romans 12:19 says ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” ‘
At the national level, God gives mankind the talent and skill to make war for the protection of the nation and of our families.
“Blessed be the LORD my strength which teaches my hands to war, and my fingers to fight," David writes in Psalms 144:1. And in Nehemiah 4:14 Nehemiah told the people, “Do not be afraid of them, remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.”
While God gives us the freedom to protect our lives and property, He also expects us not to use lethal force when simple resistance or court action is called for:
Exodus 22:2 “ If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, their will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account.” (Emphasis mine.)
Thus, the principle of self protection tells us that if a thief breaks into a house to rob and is killed, it is not a capital crime. But if the sun has risen (and thus the homeowner can see the intentions of the thief, that he is unarmed or intends only to rob) then we are not allowed to kill since there is no imminent danger to our person.
If we apply this to bullying, then a person has Biblical permission to defend themselves against an attack on their person or on their family, but only so far as the least violent methods available. This is consistent with Jesus’ own behavior when He was under attack.
In John 18:19-23 Jesus is on trial. He is slapped by a guard for no good reason. This, by definition, is bullying —physical abuse by one having an unfair physical advantage. Jesus did not physically defend Himself, although He would have been just to do so. Jesus did however verbally respond by questioning the legitimacy of the bullying act. "If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" There is good advice for our children in Jesus’ model: We can confidently teach our children to resist verbally when attacked, but do not strike back.
Another role model for us is the Apostle Paul, who was abused often.
Act 23:1-3 And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, ‘Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.’ And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall: for you judge me according to the law, and yet you command me to be struck contrary to the law?
Paul resisted the physical abuse of a bully with a verbal argument. And when he could, he used the legal system for protection. This may be the most important factor in our application of Jesus’ command to love our enemies when it comes to bullying and our children.
Biblical role of government and authorities:
God ordains government to protect the weak and to fight evil: Romans 13:3-4 says “Rulers are a threat to evil people, not to good people. There is no need to be afraid of the authorities. Just do right, and they will praise you for it. After all, they are God's servants, and it is their duty to help you. If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God's servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is.” CEV
God allows us to use the governing authorities as Paul did in Acts 16:37 (after being beaten, Paul appealed to the magistrates for justice). In Acts 22:25 Paul faced an unjust punishment and used his rights as a Roman citizen to protect himself. He resisted verbally and respectfully when he asked “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?”)
We, too, can look to the police and the courts to protect our rights as individuals. As a culture, we also look to schools to protect our children. Yet schools are a social institution that often fails to perform this job well.
The problem with school settings:
Large-group school settings were not the norm in bible times -- rather they are a recent development from the 1800’s. We ask and expect the school setting to perform this role of protection when our children are not in our direct care. This is clearly a faulty expectation! The universal characteristic of almost every school, whether public or private, is a large number of children under the supervision of few adults. Schools create environments where older, more powerful kids have lots of opportunity to prey on younger or less developed children. On top of that, schools today emphasize academics and shy away from teaching character, so by design they fail to intervene in disputes among children. In today’s culture, is it any surprise that bullying is on the rise in our schools? Schools today have created the perfect formula for bullying and the pacifist child makes the easiest target.
If government is God’s designed institution to protect citizens (adults), what is God’s designed institution to protect children? Parents, obviously. The Bible teaches us that parents are to bring children up in the “nurture and admonition” of the Lord. Nurture includes protection. We are also told that one who does not take care of his family is “worse than an infidel.”
Government has the responsibility to protect its citizens, but within the family, parents have specific responsibilities to protect their children. This suggests that children cannot be expected to protect themselves from bullies, and frankly, schools do not serve this protective role adequately. Parents, then, must do so.
Biblical role of peers:
Galatians 6:2 tells Christians to “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. “ Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan to show us that we have a responsibility to love our neighbors.
Christian parents want to teach these principles to their children, and should do so. If our society took more personal responsibility to help others in need, then groups of children would come to the aid of bullied children. But this expression of what should be is no guarantee of what will be. Since only 11% of bystanders now intervene to help a victim of bullying, it is practically certain that a victim will have to stand alone, once the bullying event has started.
What should parents do?
Until schools begin to teach character again, and children can feel safe, parents must be prepared to intervene. Intervention may involve meetings with school officials to develop a plan to prevent bullying. Parents should be sure that prevention, not reaction, is the goal of the school. If they minimize their duty to prevent bullying or don’t appear committed to it, parents must act. This may involve removing a child from a school where bullying has begun. It may involve home-schooling. Either way, it is critical that we prevent hopelessness in our children. Proverbs 13:12 says “Hope deferred makes the heart sick: but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life.” The term ‘sick at heart’ here should remind us that real depression is possible for the victim, and depression is difficult to treat.
Part of what we must teach our children is that suffering is allowed by God to refine us and make us more like Him ( Romans 8:28, 29). However, parents have the right and responsibility to protect children from hopeless situations. Parents must help their children maintain hope!