For the Christian, we know God has given us what we need to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. However, we sometimes feel trapped by our understanding of His direction. We may think when we are serving in a Christian ministry that there is a one-way road map when dealing with a self-serving and destructive ministry leader. However, there is more than one response to toxic bosses found in scripture.
The Bible gives at least three ways by example and instruction for dealing with abusive supervisors:
- Head Down
- Head Up
- Head Out
We see in Peter’s first epistle instructions for the slave dealing with a “unjust” master.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.
[1st Peter 2:18]
When interpreting this passage, we must firstly remember that Peter was speaking specifically to slaves, not your average 21st Century employee. Though there is much to be learned in the passage throughout the ages and in voluntary work situations, these slaves, whether forced into servitude or by choice signed their lives away because of financial need, were not at liberty to leave their place of employment. Peter says, “Keep your head down so it will not be any worse for you.”
I believe Peter is speaking to those who are convinced nothing good can come of responding to the boss. The employee is convinced that any response will only make matters worse, bring greater emotional trauma, and possibly the loss of his job.
He goes on to say that it is better to be treated badly when doing the right thing than doing wrong. I believe he is critiquing responding with abusive tactics to the abusive tactics of the leader. We at times feel justified in striking back in anger and using one-line clever quips to put someone down. However, even engagement with evil people should be a witness to the abuser and others. So, we are called to show respect for the image of God in that evil person though they be unjust.
Peter bases his instruction on the example of Christ when he went before the authorities who unjustly abused Him and he did not strike back…though he could have done away with all of them with one word as the Son of God. Jesus did not attack.
God gives permission to keep your head down and take the abuse at least when you see no other good options in the circumstances.
Then there is Nathaniel who, as a prophet, went to King David (who had the man-given power to destroy him) and confronted him for his sin against Bathsheba and her husband Urriah. Because David was not a toxic boss (though quite sinful), he responded well to Nathaniel’s challenge. He repented.
On the other hand, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the gods of Nebuchadnezzar and he did not respond as David did. The trio said:
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Daniel 3:16-18 (ESV)
And the King’s response? “Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated.” Daniel 3:19 (ESV)
The three men trusted in the Lord, and kept their heads high. Nebuchadnezzar was intending to fry them to a crisp, but God saved them. He does not always save those who stand up against oppression, but he did in their case.
Sometimes, God calls his children to hold their head high when facing abusive authorities so it can be cut off!
Finally, there is one last way to respond to nasty bosses: Get out of there. Jesus, in Luke 4, chose to disappear into the crowd rather than be thrown over a cliff. His time had not come for Calvary and so He walked away from the abuse. There would come a time when he would keep His head up (responding to the Chief Priest especially) and keep His head down (responding to Pontius Pilot), but in Luke 4 He got out of there.
Trauma increases with greater and greater exposure to toxic bosses. Distrust in organizations, boards, leaders and all things Christian build over time. Several of my interviewees testified to these results of their experience of staying in a toxic organization.
My Own Experience
I have seen all three of these responses from others who have suffered under toxic leadership. My wife and I used all three when working with a mission agency for eight years.
- I challenged the CEO on one occasion (head up) and he shifted the blame and let me know it was not appropriate for me to challenge his authority.
- We refused to get sucked into a discussion (which would likely be used against us) about our issues with the CEO (head down). He had shown himself to be lacking in humility and to use what was said in meetings with missionaries to hurt them later.
- And, we finally left the organization knowing there was nothing left to be done about the leadership.
Rest in knowing that the Lord leads His people and gives wisdom as we ask (James 1:5). Though we can seek justice (head up), we need to remember that striking back in anger is not one of the options God has given us.
Keep your head up, down, or head out.