When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

(v. 2)

Narcissism is not merely a psychological phenomenon. It’s a theological one, too. It concerns how we speak of and participate in God’s life. In the coming blog posts, I’m going to highlight how this impacts key doctrines and themes that are often used and abused by narcissists, especially narcissistic pastors, for the sake of their self-protective strategies. This in turn leads to what I often call the “narcissistic debris field” in churches and among Christians who once trusted their unassailable leader, but now question faith and wonder about God’s goodness.

I may not get to everything I’d like to get to, and I want to save some of this as further content for the book I’m writing (When Narcissism Comes to Church). But I’d love to hear how you resonate with the themes I present. How have you seen this play out? What are ways you’ve seen theology used and abused? Offer your thoughts in the comments section or via email.

This is not intended as a criticism of any particular doctrine – that would make for a much longer essay, and one I may not be qualified to write. It is to ask the questions: how do our psychological needs lead us into particular doctrinal stances? How do our self-protective strategies prompt us to re-frame doctrines? How might we become more reflective about our theology, not less, in pursuit of psychological health?

So, let’s first summarize the biggies, and I’ll go into more detail as I can in the next few weeks.

A theology of sin – It may be ironic that pastors, churches and denominations that claim “a high doctrine of sin” often protect, hide, and defend the sinner. I may see this more because of my familiarity with and work within Reformed contexts, but I’ve never seen a high doctrine of sin jettisoned more quickly than when a narcissistic pastor’s reputation is on the line. Sure, the doctrine comes in handy when the elders are tracking down folks having premarital sex or preparing their statements on homosexuality. But quite miraculously, the get-out-of-jail Grace Card seems readily available to the charismatic, grandiose, and inspiring leader who…well…probably just had a bad day. More often than not, I see sin reduced to bad behavior/actions. Sin is something he did wrong (but, of course, he repented and all is well…more on that to come). They do not see sin as a complex matrix of motivations, attitudes, and actions which are rooted in hiding, self-protection and self-preservation (Gen. 3), requiring a deep commitment to self-understanding over a long period of time. They do not have categories for psychopathology (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, etc) which are deeply resistant to change, constantly morphing into new shapes and identities, and requiring long-term care. Picture an iceberg where only aImage result for iceberg small shard of ice is visible above the waterline. This is the sin they treat, ignoring the massive mountain of ice beneath. And in so doing, the debris field of damage within and without is ignored.

Repentance – A shallow view of sin leads to a shallow repentance. Shallow repentance looks like admitting the troubling behavior and committing to not doing it again – case closed. And thus, shallow repentance leads to quick restoration. After all, who wouldn’t believe the sincerity of a pastor who preaches so wonderfully and charismatically, and who has influenced so many? Shallow repentance can look like blame dressed in the garments of personal responsibility – “I’m really sorry that hurt you.” Shallow repentance can also look ‘raw and honest’, at times – see my blog on fauxnerability. It can be accompanied by words that seem spiritual – “Saul lifted up his voice and wept…I have sinned” (see 1 Sam 24; Matt. 7:3). But it’s another manifestation of narcissism’s grandiosity and incapacity to connect with the true self. It is repentance as self-preservation, not as confession “with grief and hatred of one’s sin,” as the old Puritan once put it. And narcissists do this really well! Even more, shallow repentance only repents of the above-the-waterline behaviors, for looking beneath is harder, more timely, and would likely reveal a depth of deceit within that he doesn’t want to see. (PS: Notice how quickly these pastors demonize therapists, and switch from one to another in order to find one who will collude.)

Forgiveness – All of this (above) leads to an expectation that the narcissist and/or abuser will be forgiven (which also means restored). In this, the burden quickly switches from abuser to victim, as anyone impacted is asked to forgive quickly and fully out of a spiritual duty. Anything less than full forgiveness is narrated as angry, petty, grudge-holding, and un-spiritual. Within this is a pitifully vacuous theology of Grace – again, grace as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Ah yes, it’s dressed up in pretty words like Wild, Lavish, Unconditional, Prodigious, and more. However, if you’ve done hours of interviews with staff members like I have who’ve worked under these Grace-preaching folks, it’s not pretty at all, as they will tell vastly similar stories of abuse, gaslighting, rage, manipulation, deceit, addiction, and more. Grace extended to one who is diagnosably narcissistic is indeed a reminder of God’s lavish love for every broken sinner, but is made manifest in a careful and loving process geared to each particular situation, and with expert clinical consultation.

Sanctification – I’ll need to do some more work around this, but I have a theory that Protestantism’s centuries-long failure of imagination for sanctification has led to a tragic fissure between doctrine and life, manifesting in moralism/legalism (sanctification as law-keeping) on the one end and libertinism on the other (sanctification as enjoying your get-out-of-jail-free card). I think that one of the many reasons I and others have gravitated toward the larger tradition (Catholic and Orthodox spirituality) is for a more rich imagination for spiritual maturation, for character, for discipleship – theosis! I think that one of the reasons we see narcissism so embedded in evangelicalism, from the evangelical love-affair with Trump to our obsession with grandiose pulpiteers, is because we lack a substantial spiritual theology with implications and practices for becoming more fully human. We’ve given this over to the therapeutic community, detached from the church, which privatizes the whole thing. I’ll have much more to say on this, I suspect.

Guilt and Shame – We also have an inadequate understanding of the theological and psychological dynamics of guilt and shame. I have a working theory that narcissistic pastors are driven by shame (which, of course, they don’t see) but obsessed with guilt (which weighs on them mightily, leading them to preach against it with their Audacious, Robust theologies of Grace). Often, their theologies are adopted in service of quieting the devastatingly loud voice of shame within, which they misinterpret as guilt, leading to the adoption of overly juridicial atonement theories. Because they dismiss guilt as a manifestation of the law, they fail to develop a mature conscience, and this emotional stuntedness appears in secret battles with addictions (sex/porn, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) and an incapacity to relate healthily. They don’t realize that their real battle is with shame, which also exists beneath that behavioral waterline, and which drives their compensatory, grandiose, empathy-deficient false self. Every single narcissistic pastor I’ve seen shows up strikingly in a pulpit, but is stuck at a much younger emotional/developmental age in a way that creates a damaging debris field. The process of growth takes a lot of time, which makes me wonder about these quick turnarounds I’m seeing among recently scandalized pastors. Note: I’m writing for the community I know best, but I’ve seen shame-fueled NPD manifest in the theological constructs of Pentecostals and Progressives, Episcopalians and Emergent.

Ecclesiology – I’ve seen the most narcissism in contexts of church plants, non-denominational networks, and low-church settings. Yes, I’ve seen it among high-church Catholic priests I’ve seen, too. But more often than not, those with NPD like the freedom of starting something new (which means building their own leadership team, where power dynamics and inadequate training come into play). They like networks where structures are loose, polity is underdeveloped, seminary ed isn’t required, and accountability is low. They like the freedom and flexibility of creating worship experiences that center on the personality and sermon of the preacher. If they are grandiose and charismatic enough, they can and will find their way into more accountable settings, but they’ll use their power and ecclesial protectors to shield them from real accountability.

God’s Sovereignty – Often, shame-based narcissistic pastors will adopt an overly transcendent and distant theology of God. The God who “holds one over the pit of hell as a spider” (not implying Edwards was a narcissist, btw) is a theology that actually revealsImage result for god as judge one’s psychology, one’s view of himself at the depths. But out of touch with his shame, he externalizes his self-deprecation in a theology that has a “theoretically” high view of sin (see above) and an overly transcendent view of God that distances himself from real vulnerability, with God and others. The last part of the last sentence is loaded, and requires unpacking, which I don’t have the space to do here. But a narcissist is incapable of real vulnerability, and an intimate encounter with Jesus requires it. With anyone I’ve ever worked with who is diagnosably narcissistic and has, with lots of time and therapy, grown into self-awareness and maturation, there will be an inevitable question they have about whether or not they ever knew God. (I’ll remind them that God is so kind that he has always known them and never left them…it was they who, addicted to the false self, lived apart from God). Note: what psychological needs might an overly immanent picture of God emerge from?

OK, that’s a start. There is so much more ground to cover. What about a theology of gender? A theology of divorce and marriage? A theology of victimization? What else?…let me know! I wanted to begin with the big categories.

Ultimately, this is a challenge to mature theologically, as well! With John Calvin and Augustine, I believe that self-knowledge is a prerequisite for any healthy God-talk. When theology and psychology become friends, wonderful things happen. I could name a number of more recent books by theologians that are beautifully self-reflective. How does this post invite you to reflect more carefully on your own theology? How does the theological tradition you are in reflect your own psychological needs or dispositions? What about this post connected with you, and needs further reflection on your part?

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14 responses

  1. This is so rich! Lots to revisit and digest. Coming from a Pentecostal upbringing, as well as some more recent experiences with ministries with a focus on spiritual warfare, I’m wondering about your thought on the theology of evil and the “kingdom of darkness.” I do in fact believe in evil and spiritual warfare, however I have witnessed how narcissist ministry leaders (not just your traditional pastor at the pulpit) have, in my opinion, created an ominous overinflated perception of reality of the power of evil…bordering on idolatry. I have seen it used as a way to manipulate, excuse, shame, and isolate believers, while honing their focus on the charismatic leader’s abilities and chosenness for the ministry, all under the guise of the power of God. Thoughts?

    • And under the guise of “an attack from Satan” which elimates all personal responsibility fir their actions. We can shift blame to an outer world and no one has to be held accountable.

      • Agree with both these comments — any disagreement or accountability becomes turned outwards as “spiritual attack.” I’ve also experienced the misuse of healing ministries, as a way (perhaps) to perpetuate superiority? “I prayed, you weren’t healed, therefore you must be doing something wrong.” (Sin, lack of faith, etc.). Also prophecy as a means to be God-like and to control. This is all so interesting— thanks!

  2. This begs the question – what do we do when we find ourselves working with a narcissitic pastor?

  3. So glad I found your Twitter/blog! Coming out of an experience with narcissistic friends/pastors. (Church planters, of course). This is helpful stuff.

  4. This is a great article. I lived it! I have all the words and phrases the pastor and the board used to twist truth to fit their agenda. The bible has become a trigger and articles like this help to undo some of that damage. So much I could say in this comment. I will pray about it and respond later. I have lots of case study material if you need any for your book!! We are still picking up pieces in the debri field and the landscape will never be the same.

  5. just skimmed but will read again later… I did not see this, but have you or will you mention “sin equalization” the distorted belief that all sin is the same in God’s eyes so we don’t have to deal with porn or mention something like porn anymore than any other sin… there is no reason to treat a porn addiction as any different than a sugar addiction or a running addiction is the attitude i’ve run into the crc.

    the truth is all sin is the same in the sense that any sin separates us from God, but the consequences are vastly different… and God does view different sins as worse than others… ie whoever causes a little one to stumble…

  6. Oh My! I’m blown away by your observations. Every paragraph of this blog has a line that’s verbatim of my experience with a narcissistic pastor. Thank you for naming some of the psychosis. That’s comforting.
    I wonder, since it seems like relationships are seen as transactions and people are used for what they can do for these type of pastors, how that plays out in their own relationship with God. My guess is that they too feel they are “doing” something for God, being used by him, be it their charismatic teaching or book deal. All this “doing” seems to lead to burnout, fatigue and the feeling that they carry the weight of “their” church on their shoulders. Of course, they don’t see past the fatigue for what it really is- a faulty way of relating to God- but it’s spun to paint themselves the victor who has given their life for the church.
    Yet, while they complain about the weight they must carry in this high calling, they would never walk away from a position of such power and unbridled authority. When you don’t have the capacity to relate to God and others in a honest relational way, you utilize this transactional type of relating, which is tiring for the pastor, and so very damaging to everyone around him or her.
    One final thought: this narcissistic type pastor is so sly, so charming, and so protected that they remain in positions of influence for way too long. This leads to the frightening realization that they are teaching this transactional relational style to those they pastor because it is passed along experientially, whether they ever speak it from the pulpit or not.

  7. Thank You Lord! Chuck this is a huge answer to prayer! I’m so thankful this is being addressed, especially with your reformed background and experience… I know this goes beyond the reformed tradition, as no tradition is exempt from narcissism, but the reformed context is my tribe and I’ve been beating this drum a bit and so thankful to see someone with your expertise and training addressing this!

  8. What is sad is that in the quick effort to clean up and put it aside, the hurt and violation for the abused and what deep seated issues may be going on with the perpetrator are pushed aside. This takes time and cannot be done in a month or even 6 months. It should be done wisely when looking into the reality of what occurred in order to instill a healthy that in the brokenness the love of Christ surpasses all of the things.

    Our culture often seems to completely miss the point of how to adequately understand sexuality.
    Anything that has to do with sex seems to be shamed based. Sex is not seen as a gift to cherish deep in our physical bodies that it is intended to be. I know this is done in some homes and hopefully better than what I experienced. I wonder if maybe there could be times honoring teens growing in life celebrating the life changes and have a safe place to express with older adults who can give wisdom through their experiences as they share honestly.

    The person who was abused should feel safe no matter what and have the opportunity to listen to how the abuse has affected him or her. A space should be provided for the perpetrator in which the person can talk without any fear of judgement or a desire to project the false self. Good questions from a wise person may help the person discern how their spirits may be affected by this. This is not sugar coating this is looking at honest reality.

    A Christian viewpoint to the metoo# movement would be to dig deeper in what has occurred identifying the issues and then look deep to see what redemption and grace have to offer. Our culture is set on shaming but not moving beyond.

  9. You have no idea how toxic these wolves among the sheep are. My divorce became final in May after 29 years of marriage to a narcissist. (I didn’t know that’s what he was until God took me on a very painful journey to freedom from this incredibly demonic situation). My ex husband starting leading a ‘free’ church (he calls it) 4 years ago and it’s all about his glory and people worshipping him. And most of them are clueless. (As I was for 27 years)… you would be shocked if you heard my full story. I believe God has given me a calling to help the church (Christians) see these wolves and protect themselves and the flocks. Thank you so much for exposing all this… I believe this is one of the biggest ways that the enemy will make believers love grow cold (as we are warned!)

  10. Your suggestions Theology of marriage etc are all good…perhaps you should also add a Theology of Singleness. I have recently been looking at this more closely and there is so much there that is almost never taught in churches.

  11. Chuck, thank you for this post. I look forward to reading the book! I’m curious, do you see differences in how narcissism presents itself in male leaders versus female leaders in the church?

    • TC, great question. Because church leadership is male dominated, we certainly see much more narcissism “proper“ among males. We do see close cousins of narcissism, the so-called cluster – B personality disorders, like histrionic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder, among both men and women. I don’t have a statistic to share that would suggest if women or men struggle more, but my experience is that I see fewer cases of narcissism and more cases of borderline or histrionic personality disorder among women. Don’t trust my anecdotal evidence though! Only an observation.

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