Chuck DeGroat. When Narcissicism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020. 200 pp, $24.
Imagine the following scenario.
You are approached by two people in your church, both people that you know, love, and trust with equal measure. Person A needs to tell you something about Person B. Person B, according to Person A, has been spiritually abusing them. Person B has been using their leadership and influence to convince other people that Person A’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. Moreover, according to A, Person B has persisted in a pattern of manipulation toward A: saying things to belittle, minimize, or ignore A. Person A feels incredibly victimized by Person B, and does not know how they can persevere at this church while Person B remains.
Person B, meanwhile, believes that Person A is being disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. Person B tells you that Person A has been going around different groups and individuals in the church, spreading false information about Person B because the two simply don’t agree or get along. Person A, according to Person B, is angry that they’re not more influential in the church, and they blame Person B for that. Person B says that Person A wants to steamroll over several policies and even people in the church in order to get their way, but has thus far been prevented. This is why, according to Person B, Person A has now accused Person B of being a spiritual abuser, and B feels very strongly that A needs to be sharply rebuked for dishonest and misleading behavior.
I would imagine that if you’re reading this and have any pastoral DNA in you, you’re sweating a bit. This is exactly the kind of scenario that church leaders dread with all their heart. And why is that? It’s not just because nobody likes being in the middle of two accusatory opponents. It’s also not just that this situation represents a significant use of your relational bandwidth. Part of the reason this scenario is so daunting is that you have to decide not only whom you believe, but what to even call this. Is this an issue of spiritual abuse? Is this an issue of colliding personalities? Is it sin? Is it rivalry? Is it schoolyard name calling? So much of how you proceed from this point on depends on what kind of situation you think you are dealing with.
When it comes to the topic of spiritual abuse in the church, conversations and debates so often get stonewalled because people decide that someone is “just trying to protect” a certain class. Conservative-leaning evangelicals are wary of victim advocates because they perceive a looseness with truth telling in the name of satisfying demands. Left-leaning evangelicals often express frustration with those who instinctively defend pastors or ask for evidence, intuiting that these deflections come from a desire to prop up the successful system at all costs, even the cost of trauma to real people.
My concern with Chuck DeGroat’s book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse is not that I think he takes the “wrong side.” In fact, I think he does a pretty good job for the most part of avoiding tropes and caricatures in either direction. My concern with the book is that I think it fails significantly on the question raised above. DeGroat’s book is good at tracing out a recognizable portrait of spiritual abuse and waving red flags at leaders and systems who may be trampling over people. But it is much less good at calling those things what they are. DeGroat seems to go out of his way to avoid calling spiritual abuse sin. He abandons the language of sin, repentance, and discipline in favor of therapeutic language like narcissism, vulnerability, and gaslighting. The problem is not that those words are fake or unreal. The problem is those words aren’t enough. They leave spiritual abuse in the realm of the psychological, not the moral.
Defining Spiritual Abuse Down
This is the first of several indications throughout the book that the primary mechanism for identifying narcissism is how people feel toward those who may be narcissistic. I know it may sound very pedantic or even callous to call out this opening illustration from DeGroat’s youth. I don’t doubt that he really did feel slighted and that this was tremendously disappointing. But the fact that a book with “emotional and spiritual abuse” in its subtitle begins with this kind of story is potentially telling. It raises the question of whether the discussion of spiritual abuse that follows will be tethered to realities above the psychological, or not. In fact, the book struggles to do this.
In chapter two, “Understanding Narcissism,” DeGroat defines narcissism by reproducing the diagnostic criteria from DSM-V. This is slightly overwhelming and takes up a page and a half. What’s more, the DSM’s language is clinical and describes behavior typical of narcissistic people; it does not define narcissism ethically or theologically. DeGroat comments on the DSM’s criteria, which clarifies how he will understand narcissism throughout the book. “Grandiosity and attention seeking” are there, which makes sense. The narcissistic person develops a “false self” and tends to use people and relationships to feed this identity. So far, so good. But importantly, DeGroat does not connect narcissism to the biblical problem of inflated self-regard. In fact, he explicitly rejects this. In one particular case study, DeGroat determines that “Gary” suffers from a lack of self-love. His “entitlement, his lack of empathy, his pattern of grandiosity” flow from shame and trauma from his own childhood.
This framework leads DeGroat toward a truly confusing interpretation of Genesis 3. “And while theologians have often named pride as the reason for humanity’s fall from grace,” he writes, “it is more compelling—both theologically and psychologically—to see shame as the underlying force that propelled Adam and Eve toward the forbidden tree.”
The serpent, like a fine-tuned inner critic, appeals to their lack. Adam and Eve think they have been deprived. Given an extraordinary garden, they are forbidden from partaking from a particular tree—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Is God holding out on them?
Adam and Eve experience limitation for the first time. Why do Adam and Eve reach for the fruit? Perhaps they’ve already begun to believe the lie of toxic shame—that it’s not enough, that they’re not enough, and perhaps most important, they’ve started to doubt God’s goodness as well. (41-42)
It is extremely disappointing that this very provocative re-read of the fall of man does not come with any additional theological argumentation or exegetical evidence. In fact, the above discussion of Genesis 3 pivots almost immediately to psychological/therapeutic reflection. One senses that a massively important theological foundation for engaging spiritual abuse has been laid down with hardly any notice.
DeGroat’s use of shame as a powerful motivator of narcissistic and addictive behavior is not wrong. I can testify from first-hand experience that powerful feelings of shame over an addiction or besetting sin often serve to empower the behavior. You cannot, in my experience, make such a person despair out of their behavior. They have to believe there is something waiting for them on the other side of holiness that is better than what they have now. But there is a profound difference between noting the role of shame in relationally and spiritually harmful behavior, and positing internalized shame as the root of it. Because the problem (according to DeGroat) is disconnection of the self, the solution is not repentance, but re-actualization. But because re-actualization is an internal, not an external phenomenon, DeGroat’s therapeutic model for dealing with spiritual abuse requires that other people’s experiences bear the primary responsibility for signaling narcissistic behavior.
Narcissism, Or Not?
Many narcissistic pastors have little ability to empower others in meaningful ways. They keep staff in ambiguous roles, perhaps changing titles often or realigning structures. This is confusing and demoralizing for hardworking staff members. Most narcissistic organizations are fiercely hierarchical, and staff are seen as clear subordinates. In the end, the narcissistic pastor may see empowerment as a threat to his control and authority. He may be perfectionistic and unable to trust another to fulfill a task up to his standards. He may tease authority without actually giving it. Out of exhaustion and exasperation, disempowered and demoralized staff learn over time to stop asking.
Again, it matters immensely that DeGroat does not introduce the language of sin, pride, or idolatry into his taxonomy of spiritual abuse. Consequently, there is a serious ambiguity to much of what DeGroat describes as abusive pastoral behavior. Is a pastor’s “little ability to empower others” always a symptom of internalized shame and trauma? Or could it be poor leadership skills? Is it sin, or not sin? We don’t know. Do churches sin against staff members by telling them they are subordinates? Is hierarchical structure within church leadership sinful? We don’t know. But this paragraph strongly hints that they are artifacts of spiritual abuse.
This uneasy framework culminates in some genuinely concerning judgments. In chapter three, “The Nine Faces of Narcissism,” DeGroat describes one narcissistic personality as “the optimist.”
Despite his wife’s pain, Travis continued to speak about the Lord’s goodness and the provision of God. His wife, Shanna, sat quietly, feeling abandoned by God amidst her cancer diagnosis, but he kept reminding her that this was “God’s good plan” and that she’d experience healing “right around the corner.”
Travis was the eternal optimist, always looking to the new good thing God could do in his life, always planning ahead, cheerful and bright. But Shanna’s illness provoked an even greater anxiety in him, sending him into a frenzy of spiritual platitudes that only repulsed Shanna. “I don’t need your spiritualizing, Travis. I need you. But all of this is about you. Your anxiety. Your need to feel like God can fix this. And you’ve completely missed me.
Travis’s style of relating is an example of spiritual bypassing, a form of spiritual abuse in which real emotions and deep pain are avoided in favor of a spiritual panacea. (57-58, emphasis mine)
It stretches the limits of charitable reading to contemplate that Travis’s response in this scenario can easily and obviously be chalked up to spiritual abuse. While of course it is possible that Travis’s search for God’s goodness in this trial could be self-centered, it is certainly not automatically true, any more that it is automatically true that Shanna’s feelings of being abandoned by God are true.
This passage is particularly problematic because it reveals a profound deficiency near the center of DeGroat’s framework. By abandoning the theological language of sin, idolatry, and failure to love others, and by porting in their place the language of therapy culture, DeGroat has left the reader with the near impossible task of resisting spiritual abuse with nothing more than impressions. The only way to follow DeGroat’s framework to its consistent conclusions would be to only and ever center the felt experiences of some people, and to rebuke and correct everyone else. Banished are any thoughts of helping even the suffering to view their experiences from the lens of Scripture. Gone is the possibility of seeing both those in authority and those under authority as fallible people. Instead, the spiritual world of When Narcissism Comes to Church is divided into black and white, good and bad people: the good people who are in touch with their inner selves, and the bad people who are not.
Confusion runs rampant. In chapter seven, “The Gaslight is On,” DeGroat offers several characteristics of spiritual abuse. “Silencing” is a trait of abusive churches and systems; DeGroat does not say whether stopping a false teacher within the church counts as spiritually abusive silencing. “Certainty” is a trait of abusive churches; he does not say whether requiring a membership covenant or a statement of faith is abuse. It’s likely that many readers who are already suspicious of things like statements of faith or membership covenants will read those things into this list and feel reaffirmed in their aversion. What about people who feel differently? Are those readers consigned to accepting their status as spiritual abusers? Or is there nuance and care missing from these categories? Again, the lack of a theological foundation appears to give DeGroat freedom in appealing to psychological categories, but it actually muddies the waters.
Call It Sin
When Narcissism Comes to Church has helpful things to say. Admittedly, I have been harsh and exacting in this review. That’s for a reason. DeGroat’s expertise, his skill as a therapist and a writer, and the current tensions throughout evangelicalism mean that a book like this could have an explosive impact within a church. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book could split churches right in half and end ministries. This is not wholly a tragedy. When sin is confronted, bad things happen; when sin is not confronted, worse things happen. There are deep layers of un-confronted sin in many churches and inside many pastors. These are not sleeping dogs, they are time bombs. People like DeGroat are well within their biblical rights to sound the alarm.
But this book makes a monumental decision: a decision to put the Bible’s moral language to the side, to call a disorder what the Bible calls sin, to call self-actualization what the Bible calls repentance. This book’s aversion to biblical categories does not empower readers to confront spiritually abusive systems. It instead makes those systems harder to disrupt. I said above this book could split churches. Yes it could. But splitting a church and defeating spiritual abuse are not the same thing. Only in the light of God’s judgment against our self-love, against the curvature of our affections inward, can we see other people for divine image bearers that they really are. Only in the light of God’s Word can we discern sin from mistake, selfishness from reasonableness. It won’t do to respond to spiritually toxic environments by centering experiences and feelings at the cost of biblical categories and the discovery of truth. This approach merely exchanges one set of heresies for another.