Spiritual narcissists love churches. By “narcissist,” we are not talking about people who struggle with being too self-focused. That’s most of us. A narcissist is a person whose narcissism influences every aspect of their functioning. They are wholly self-focused, lacking in empathy, and willing to lie, cheat, and manipulate others to feed their insatiable need for power, control, and adoration.
Spiritual narcissists are predators who wear a convincing Christian costume. The Bible strongly warns of these wolves in sheep’s clothing. While often appearing to be the most devoted, gifted, and godly among us, they covertly insert their destructive tentacles deep inside our churches and destroy us from the inside out.
It can take years, even decades, for them to be exposed, but by the time this happens, factions have formed, untold numbers of people are deeply wounded, and the church is in shambles. However, if they are exposed early on, they simply jump to the next church full of new beginnings and fresh prey.
As Christians, we unknowingly play a significant role in welcoming these wolves and maintaining an ideal place for them to thrive. Of course, none of us want to attract or house these predators!
Let’s take a closer look at four reasons they are attracted to church and what we can do to change that.
It’s easy for them to hide in plain sight.
Spiritual narcissists are incredibly hard to detect in part because they don’t look anything like we think they will. They can appear passionate, the “cream of the crop,” world changers, God’s answer to our prayers, deeply connected with God, charming, sincere, spiritually gifted, discerning, etc. As Christians, we tend to ascribe godliness to those who demonstrate these characteristics, and in turn, give them immunity from in-depth scrutiny.
When someone speaks our spiritual language, we often check our judgment at the door.
While giving people the benefit of the doubt appears godly and grace-filled, it is also precisely what a spiritual narcissist depends on to remain hidden. They bank on the fact that if they walk and talk like we do, we will assume they are one of us. Sadly, it’s often a safe bet for them. The devil’s schemes wouldn’t be effective if the wolves presented as obnoxious, greedy, lazy, insincere, untalented, etc.
Matthew 7:15-16 says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”
Learn to let people’s actions do all their talking. Remain on alert for the time when the spiritual narcissist in your church accidentally reveals themself.
Securing supporters and disposing of threats is simple.
Narcissists live in an echo chamber. They surround themselves with a fan club composed of people who buy into their charade and echo what they want to hear. They discard, discredit, or keep in the dark those who don’t do or say what they want. They use their fan club to do their bidding and defend them against any accusations that arise. Some members will be relatively new fans, while others may have known the narcissist for years, possibly even decades, and still have never seen who they really are.
People start to see through a narcissist’s facade when they unintentionally expose the narcissist’s real character, become a threat, fail to comply with their demands, or are no longer useful for their purposes. The narcissist then punishes them, often in a way that is invisible to everyone but their victim. They may callously discard them or start a covert, yet effective and vicious smear campaign against them.
A narcissist’s smear campaign can be so effective that anyone who tries to expose the narcissist can appear to be the problem and is believed to be divisive, gossiping, judgmental, or unforgiving. Worse, the victim’s flaws can be used against them by the narcissist to “prove” their victim is the problem.
Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed.”
There is great wisdom in listening to the discernment of several people. At the same time, it’s also essential to make sure others aren’t unified solely because they are in a narcissist’s fan club.
They can easily win.
Often our response to problems between others is “I’m not taking sides.” When it comes to abuse, to not side with a victim is to side with the abuser. It’s often next to impossible for victims of covert abuse to prove how a narcissist is mistreating them. However, if we fail to protect victims because we buy into the narcissist’s Emmy award-winning display of spirituality, we will harm their victims, even if unintentionally.
Many victims report that the wounds caused by a narcissist’s supporters can be as painful as the abuse itself.
Narcissistic abusers plant seeds of doubt about their victim’s credibility even before their victim sees through their spiritual mask. They tell others that their victim is a liar, crazy, or in sin. When the victim speaks up and reveals the truth, the listener will have been conditioned to believe they are lying, delusional, or being influenced by evil. When someone says that another person is not who they are presenting to be, we need to take the time and energy to discern the truth.
We need to humbly accept how easily we are deceived by these master manipulators who don’t play by the rules the rest of us strive to live by.
They feel secure.
Many spiritual narcissists are skilled at figuring out our insecurities and needs and then presenting themselves as having the necessary qualities to be an integral part of the solution. Often they are successful at growing our numbers, offering innovative ideas, appearing to accept us despite our flaws, or endlessly giving of their time and energy. Once they serve a vital need, we easily overlook problematic behaviors and try to convince ourselves they are doing more good than harm.
I Corinthians 5:11 teaches, “I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.”
Pathological narcissists are habitually greedy, idol worshipers (the relentless pursuit of their own needs), and abusive. According to the passage, we should not be in community with those who habitually do these things. Instead of walking away from them or removing them, we allow them to stay and congratulate ourselves for not being judgemental, giving them grace, or offering them multiple chances to change. However, our failure to remove them allows them to stay in our midst, where they can continue to harm others.
The Holy Spirit often gives us warnings about people who aren’t safe. We call this a gut instinct, our radar, discernment, butterflies, the creeps, etc. Christians who strive to have godly reactions can mistake these God-given warnings as personal character flaws. Since we don’t always have tangible evidence to back up our adverse reactions, we can falsely assume that their source is our bent toward being critical, judgmental, unfriendly, etc.
People may think something like, “It’s so judgmental of me to think like this when I don’t even know them very well.” It’s certainly true that we all jump to wrong conclusions. However, it’s important to remember that we should first pray for discernment before dismissing our reactions.
Spiritual narcissists love our churches because it’s easy for them to hide in plain sight, discredit their victims, find supporters, and secure their position by becoming needed.
However, if we…
- remain on alert for the narcissistic wolves relentlessly preying on us,
- understand they can appear to be the godliest and most talented among us,
- believe that not everyone involved in our faith community will have honest motivations,
- understand that no place is safe from them or sacred to them,
- listen to whistleblowers and seek discernment,
- take a decisive stand against their ungodly behaviors,
- recognize that having strong supporters is common for narcissistic wolves,
- listen to people’s behavior far more than their words,
- obey the full teachings of Scripture when responding to abusers, fools, and scoffers,
…then we will be better protected from the immense devastation that occurs when these narcissistic wolves try to make our churches their home.