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A Sensitive Topic: Personality Disorders in the Church (Part 1 of 5)

Author’s Disclaimer: This is a topic easy to abuse. “Let’s label people with a disorder so we can kick them out of church leadership!” No, that’s not the purpose of this series. But I have found the information I’m sharing here so personally liberating—and so helpful a framework in explaining various cult leaders I have encountered—that I have decided that others might benefit from it, too. I hope everyone who reads this does so with critical thinking, grace, and a desire for truth and restoration rather than finger-pointing.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Part 3: Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
Part 4: Paranoid Personality Disorder
Part 5: How to Handle Personality Disorders in the Church

What is the difference between a real portrait and a caricature? The first is the truth, and the second is a recognizable but silly distortion of the truth.

In the church today we tend to caricature cult leaders. Say the word “cult” and folks conjure up barbed-wire compounds, deadly Kool-Aid, and zombie-like followers. Say the phrase “cult leader” and Jim Jones, David Koresh, or Sun Myung Moon come to mind. Cult leaders are raving lunatics, Hitler-like despots, or sinister manipulators, right?

Sometimes.

But most cult leaders are more subtle than the extreme image presented by the media. So why do we caricature cult leaders?

Two reasons:

  1. First, caricaturing a person is easier than painting an accurate portrait of them. That’s why we love political cartoons so much: because the artist has already done the work of boiling down a complex candidate into a funny-looking man or woman with big ears and a gap-toothed grin. It takes time, energy, and fair-mindedness to think carefully about the many nuances of a person’s personality and beliefs. People are more complex than a caricature.
  2. Second, I think it is because we like to remove the idea of “cult” and “cult leader” to a comfortable arm’s-length distance from our own experience. It is scary to think that our leader might be a cult leader, because that would mean that we are in a cult. All cult leaders have red horns and pointy goatees, don’t they? Even the women. So we’re okay.

The reality is more subtle.

Instead, most cult leaders are unintentionally malicious or controlling. They really do believe that they have the truth and that people are better off for being under their leadership. They really do believe that they are serving God and that the church at large is going to hell in a hand-basket. Their patterns of manipulation only grow more clear over time. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, members of these groups may not even recognize what is happening until the symptoms become extreme. And the cult leader is usually the last person to think there is a problem. Why?

The Explanatory Power of Personality Disorder

In my research on cults—and in my own experience as a former cult member—I have learned that many cult leaders evidence traits of undiagnosed personality disorders.

What is a personality disorder?

According to the Mayo Clinic:

A personality disorder is a type of mental illness in which you have trouble perceiving and relating to situations and to people — including yourself. There are many specific types of personality disorders.

In general, having a personality disorder means you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking and behaving no matter what the situation. This leads to significant problems and limitations in relationships, social encounters, work and school.

In some cases, you may not realize that you have a personality disorder because your way of thinking and behaving seems natural to you, and you may blame others for the challenges you face.

Many cult leaders evidence the characteristics of particular personality disorders. The most common among cult leaders seem to be Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, and Paranoid Personality Disorder. These disorders help promote the desire for messianic leadership and being in control. While these undoubtedly couple with spiritual warfare issues and the hardening of heart that the Bible says false teachers and false prophets experience, Personality Disorders are worth examining in their own right. Otherwise we run the danger of being simplistic and caricaturing all cult leaders with horns and hooves.

What’s the road map for this five-part series?

Parts Two through Four

In the second, third, and fourth posts, we’ll talk about how to recognize the three disorders mentioned above: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, and Paranoid Personality Disorder. Since cult leaders usually baptize their personalities as the best way to live—or claim that the way they do things and relate to other people is the way God wants everyone else to function—it is legitimate to discern whether their personality is truly holy and healthy or instead shows signs of being unhealthy.

Warning: This is a sensitive subject. The point here is not to initiate a witch-hunt where we assault the pulpit with pitchforks and torches, nor to give grumbling church-members ammunition against an unpopular leader. After all, each of us may demonstrate some of these characteristics to a greater or lesser degree, right? Most church leaders do not fit into these categories.

Instead, the purpose of these posts is three-fold:

  1. First, to educate church laypeople and leaders about a psychological reality which occurs in only 1% to 5% of the general population, and which may sometimes help to explain the behavior of a controlling and manipulative leader. You won’t have to think hard about whether someone fits into one of these categories. If they do, the profile should fit like a glove and it will be like a light-bulb turning on in your mind.
  2. A second purpose is to strip away the caricature which says that all cult leaders are raving lunatics. Instead, we will present a more accurate portrait, taking into account the subtleties of personality disorder.
  3. The third purpose is to expose the lie of cult leaders when they say that they are more holy or healthy than their followers. If they have a personality disorder, it would be better for everyone to know it so that they can get help. This brings liberty to people who live in psychological or spiritual captivity beneath an unhealthy leader, and it may bring great healing to the leader’s life.

Part Five

In the final post of this series, we’ll conclude with how churches and congregations can lovingly—but assertively—help leaders who struggle with personality disorders. There is hope for both churches and leaders. The goal of Christians should be to build up the church, not tear it down.

Anything less is a caricature.

5 comments on “A Sensitive Topic: Personality Disorders in the Church (Part 1 of 5)

  1. Looking forward to the series!

  2. Very interesting topic and not often discussed enough within religious communities I don’t think. There is a term for leadership by those with pathological personalities. That term is pathocracy.

    Pathocracy can emerge in any human system. Religious communities can be, in some ways, even more vulnerable I think. It would do a great deal of good if religious people were to become more educated about pathocracy and be more wary about it.

  3. Is part 4 and 5 not completed yet? they are not clickable to go to them if they are. Thanks

    • Hi Teresa–you are absolutely right. Those are projected posts in the series but I haven’t written them yet. They just provide a road map of where we’re going. I hope to complete them in the next month or two. Thanks for your interest!

      Best Regards, Steve

  4. very interesting topic and really enjoyed reading!

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