“First, healthy systems—whether ecclesial systems, nonprofits, or secular organizations—value and build up everyone in the system, maximizing the benefits for all without exploitation. In narcissistic systems, success benefits some and not others. The weakest within a staff or congregational system are subject to exclusion,
abuse, and more.”
Caveat: please read footnotes in this blog.
For the first several hundred years… up until the third century AD when Christianity became legal in Rome, we saw a Church that was known for its charity, it’s kindness and it’s selflessness. While there were false teachings to deal with, the Church grew rapidly and there was a strong succession of humble leaders that led it - albeit still human. The Church stood in sharp contrast to culture... with its focus on helping the poor, the widows, the orphans, women... and slaves.
Soon after 300 AD, Constantine moved into power and became a Christian… however, he quickly saw his faith as a way to win wars. Chuck Degroat says of Constantine and his impact on the Church:
“I think I could make an argument that when in the 4th century Constantine saw the sign of the Cross with the words, “In this sign you shall conquer,” the church didn’t hesitate for a minute to plug into the battery source of the Empire because it saw in that reflective pool an image of itself as powerful, strong, rich, influential, and unstoppable.”
Since then, the Church has … in a sense, been in a war for its soul. Henri Nouwen, a renowned Dutch Priest, author and theologian says of the Church’s dance with Narcissism:
“The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led”
In another post we talked of the origins of the word Narcissism… today we will delve into the soul of it… and why we must root it out... especially in the Church.
In his book The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch defines narcissism as the “longing to be freed from longing.”. Narcissism breeds in the absence of Self Love. In far to many Christian communities shame is elevated… leaving a fertile ground for fake piety and image projection. Christ calls us to love ourselves as he loves us… and others in the same way. Instead, many Church cultures teach a life of shame and thus provide fertile ground for Narcissistic abuse to take root. This however is NOT the way of the Cross. When we hear “take up our cross and follow him”… we interpret that to mean “take up our shame and follow him”… and that is the farthest thing from the truth.
The narcissist is in love with the image they have created of themselves… not the person they really are nor the one they are created to be. They cannot tolerate the limitations of their own humanity… which means that any appearance of vulnerability will likely only be past sins and not an openness about their current state. This type of vulnerability is something Chuck Degroat calls “fauxnerability”.
The truth is that because the Church has given in to shame as a form of piety it has allowed the Bride of Christ… the organism that is called to release the captives and bring freedom to those bound in sin... to become simply another form of captivity. Further to this, this preoccupation with shame and self loathing has allowed narcissistic activity to go unchallenged in some Church cultures and created a battlefield instead of a place of healing.
The hunger games that narcissism has created must end! The litany of disgraced pastors we have seen in the last ten years is something I believe is being led by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is coming back for a spotless bride… not a messed up spiritual abuser.
Chuck Degroat gives us some pointers in determining if we are in a healthy Church:
Spiritual abuse can include some or all of the following characteristics:
• Silencing. Spiritual authority is invoked to silence someone because of their gender, a difference of opinion, or a rigorous hierarchy. Those who speak may be scolded and will likely feel shame around having a voice or opinion.
• Moralizing. Legalism in service of abuse is particularly harmful, as strict codes of behavior or moral expectations are elevated above trusting relationship with Christ. The victim will internalize a sense of shame around who they are when they cross the artificial boundaries of a spiritual abuser.
• Certainty. A belief system is offered as inerrant and infallible, the only valid expression of the Scriptures, and a member’s good standing requires signing off on the whole of the belief system. There is often a tribalism in which the church or denomination has the truth and others do not. If anyone deviates or raises questions, they are shamed or ostracized.
• Experientialism. The most spiritual people have the most ecstatic experiences, and those who don’t are questioned, marginalized, and made to feel like they don’t have enough faith or aren’t as blessed by God. They are made to feel deficient and wonder why God wouldn’t give them the same experiences.
• Unquestioned hierarchy. Hierarchy in abusive situations isn’t empowering but disempowering. Those who are not in charge are made to feel small, insignificant, and unenlightened. Some may wonder why they’re not good enough or smart enough to be given some authority or at least to be considered.
A healthy Church will have little anxiety, it will be free to ask questions, encourage debate and discussion, it will operate with transparency and encourage trust… and it will encourage a Christ-centred self love.
A healthy Church will not elect nor install a Pastor who is struggling with a narcissistic personality. They will spot fauxnerability a mile away.
We must come back to Christ… back to his plans and purposes as the spotless bride he’s already made us! We are messed up… but he loves us where we are NOW… what matters first is our hearts posture towards HIM.
“but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” - Romans
Jesus says in the book of Matthew:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.””
This love of self is not the unhealthy version shown in 2 Timothy… it is rather an understanding of the fact Christ loves you where you stand NOW… not where you are going to be. He wants to walk with the sinner towards freedom from BOTH sin and shame! It is His spirit that will guide that journey through a relationship of love, the power of the cross and his word leading us.
As believers - if we become both spiritually and mentally healthy in our view of ourselves in the light of Christs finishing work at the cross… we can then begin to see with “unveiled eyes” when a narcissistic leader comes into view. We can then speak up when we see spiritual abusers… and as Paul says… “avoid such people”.
“But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” - 2 Corinthians
The Church that is concerned more with “mission”, “image”, “reputation” or the protecting of its elders than of setting captives free becomes a prison for many. Such a Church will be blind to its own collateral damage so long as it’s stated core objectives are carried out. If that is describing the current Church you attend - it’s time to seek the Christs perspective for direction. If we tolerate Narcissistic behaviour in the Church... how shall we stand in opposition to it in culture.
While I may quote many authors… I do not always agree with everything they teach. Chuck Degroat for example spends a lot of time on the enneagram… something that I feel uncomfortable with and cannot endorse nor support until I’ve studied it sufficiently. Currently I am uncomfortable with it in how it labels people and how it has been utilized in new age practices. At the same time Chuck makes many valid points in his books about Narcissistic behaviours.