This is part 3 of a series of articles describing the experiences of Christian organization employees working under abusive bosses. These articles are the fruit of interviews with employees who sought diligently to respond to their foul bosses in biblical and thoughtful ways. This article describes their application of 1 Peter 2. For an analysis of 1 Peter 2 in the context of employment, please see two of my earlier blog: Submission to Harsh Bosses.
The apostle Peter begins a section on “submission” to various authorities in the second chapter of his first epistle. Starting in verse 18, Peter instructs, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.”
My interviewees were asked if and how they applied this passage to their interactions with their toxic supervisor. Not surprisingly, most considered the principals involved and struggled significantly with their application.
Adam said, “I used it against myself just to guilt myself into submitting to his rule.” He said he related it to the Matthew 7 passage, telling himself “[the CEO] is very human. He is our director” and therefore, Adam should not judge or rebel against him.
Because Adam was in mid-level management, mediating between the CEO and the faculty and staff, he would recall this passage as he struggled in his own relationship with the CEO and when he spoke with those under his authority. He would say to himself and others, “The Lord puts you under even unjust authorities. And the way you reach those authorities is to be godly and submissive and humble.”
However, he went on to say he was not sure it created a genuine repentance on his part “as much as a control to keep things normal so there wouldn’t be any real disruptions.” He noted there were “big consequences when you” challenged the CEO.
He did not want to rock the boat and being the peacemaker provided some stability. Adam said, “You have to go home and go to bed and get up the next day. And the only way to survive the next day is to rally your head to think, ‘You know this is just the way Christians live or this is just the way life is and you have to accept it.’”
Adam explained, sarcastically, “I felt I had an obligation to mediate and so I would use things like that on them and it was amazing how it worked!” He said others would respond, “Oh, you’re right. He’s just human.”
Who’s the Boss
Ben suggested that there were two camps of people at his educational mission organization. There were those who “camped out” in the 1 Peter passage, saying, “We’re just here to take it. It doesn’t matter what happens, it’s not our responsibility. We’ll take it. We’ll suffer. He is our master; therefore, we will be subservient to him.” The others were in the Matthew 18 camp, “constantly butting heads. Constantly trying to bring about change.”
Ben said he considered the 1st Peter passage the most of several passages I asked him about. He said he “went back to it again and again and again. Sometimes looking for a loophole.” He argued his position with the organization was “voluntary” and received no funding from the organization. He suggested their accountability was “to those who put us there.” The churches and individuals who supported them financially were his “bosses.”
Ben recounted a sermon given in the organization chapel by the founder that was a “tirade against the students” and spiritually manipulative. He sent the recording to several supporters who were his mentors for their advice. Ben said they all responded, “Something’s wrong. It’s not you…something’s broken.” He believed it was to these supporters he was “subservient to in his position.” He finished saying, “It is a very unique relationship to have. Because, yes, he is my boss. Yes, I answer to him. But my livelihood in no way depended on him.”
Who’s the Target
Rather than applying the verse to himself, Graham suggested, “I would say that it was more used against us.” Others said to him, ‘Who were we to be going up against God’s chosen?’” [see blog] He said, “That was thrown at me a lot.”
This is a common argument I have heard when abuse is involved. Instead of calling the sinning brother to account, he receives special treatment and the target of his abuse is called to account for being hurt.
Graham explained how supporters and “leaders of projects from around the country” believed the organization’s founder totally, rather than believing the story of nearly two dozen witnesses to his sexual abuse. He went on to say,
The facts really didn’t matter at all. Anybody you talked to had a way of dismissing those facts whether it was based on [the founder’s] description of the women – one woman was simply too ugly to harass – or you know, those kinds of things. People would say, “I’ve talked to [the founder] about these women, and this is what he said, and that’s the fact and so you need to be under submission.”
Frances also experienced this betrayal. He said, “Being submissive to the board was one argument that was brought against me by the [board chairman].” However, she noted the board chairman “had become his own board and was operating against any awareness of the rest of the board.”
Frances believed her “judgment about what was best for the organization” and the lack of accountability the chairman had to the board structure trumped the view that she must submit without confronting the dysfunction of the chairman.
The discomfort my interviewees had with applying the 1st Peter passage in their situations was in part due to their understanding that the whole of scripture must be considered when interpreting one passage. Leaders are accountable. They do not have absolute power.
As noted in my earlier blog on the theological treatment of the passage, Peter is speaking to slaves. Though it most certainly has application to modern American employment structures, there are fundamental limitations to application of Peter’s teaching to those authority structures.
I would suggest my interviewees ran into trouble in particular when they made too broad an application of the passage to their abusive leader.
1 Peter 2:18