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Personality Disorders in the Church: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Part 2 of 5)

Author’s Note: Please read “Part 1: Introduction” for the context of this post.

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

“I know just what it is,” the pediatrician said kindly, smiling at the small boy in front of him. The boy shifted uncomfortably on the table’s crackling white paper and scratched his head.

“Yes,” the doctor continued, “you’ve got all the symptoms: a slight fever; headache; loss of appetite; a rash on your scalp, trunk, and face; and those itchy, flat red spots which are just starting to crust over. It can only mean one thing: chicken pox!”

Diagnosing a Personality Disorder

Wouldn’t it be great if personality disorders were as easy to diagnose as chicken pox? A lot of folks could seek help and a lot of churches would be spared from controlling, self-centered leaders. Indeed, many cult leaders seem to owe their controlling, messianic-type leadership styles to personality disorders.

And yet, personality disorders are diagnosable. It just takes a little more time than a single doctor’s appointment, and a little more psychological and biblical wisdom.

In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement, Jean Twenge, Ph.D., and Keith Campbell, Ph.D., say that “Like a disease, narcissism is caused by certain factors, spreads through particular channels, appears as various symptoms and might be halted by preventive measures and cures.”

While everyone has a particular personality—ways of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and one’s self—a personality disorder occurs when these traits are “maladaptive, inflexible, and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress” (DSM-IV). To be diagnosed as a personality disorder, such maladaptive traits must evidence several of the following characteristics:

  • stable and long-standing (often beginning in adolescence or early adulthood)
  • deviate significantly from the expectations of the surrounding culture
  • inflexible and pervasive across a wide range of personal and social situations
  • leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning
  • is not accounted for by another mental disorder or chemical substances
  • is diagnosed by evaluating an individual’s long-term patterns of functioning and must be evident by early adulthood
  • is not related to the response to a single situational stressor or transient emotional states

The point of all of this is that no one should ever leap to the conclusion that another person has a personality disorder. Instead, personality disorders become evident over time. Yet personality disorders have great explanatory power when evaluating numerous cult leaders—leaders whose maladaptive personalities and ways of thinking help create environments where people are controlled and manipulated in the name of God.

In this post, we’ll look at the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, discover what the Bible has to say about these traits, and then conclude with how these traits sometimes manifest in unhealthy leaders in the church.

Symptoms

A brief history lesson: the word “narcissism” comes from the Greek mythological tale of Narcissus. According to myth, Narcissus was a boy who fell in love with his own beautiful reflection in a pond. He stayed gazing at his reflection for years and years until he turned into a flower, the Narcissus.

Modern day clinical psychologists have borrowed the term to describe a particular type of person—a person who adores themselves and thinks that everyone else in the world is meant to serve and admire them. Narcissists make up less than 1% of the general population, and yet they tend to gravitate toward occupations which involve the limelight, so they are often highly visible.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV), people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five or more of the following:

  1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  4. requires excessive admiration
  5. has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  6. is interpersonally exploitive, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  7. lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  8. is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes”

According to Twenge and Campbell, narcissists do not secretly have low self-esteem: “Deep down inside, narcissists think they’re awesome.”

As you can imagine, having a narcissistic personality disorder would be problematic in church leadership.

Does Narcissism Occur in the Bible?

The Bible does not address narcissism using the word “narcissism,” just as it does not talk about dinosaurs, meteors or the Trinity with those exact words. Why? Because all of these terms were invented hundreds of years after the Bible was written. But the modern words describe ancient truths.

What the Bible does do is address the characteristics which describe a narcissistic person: selfishness, selfish ambition, grandiosity, entitlement, lack of empathy, interpersonal exploitation, envy, and arrogance.  Take a look at the following passages:

Romans 2:8 – “But to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [there will be] wrath and indignation.”

2 Timothy 3:1-2- “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self…”

James 3:14-16 – “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”

Philippians 2:3 – “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.”

In Acts 12:21-23, King Herod is struck down by God because he refuses to give glory to God but instead considers himself worthy of deification. In Daniel 4, God punishes King Nebuchadnezzar for praising himself and reveling in his own glory.

Notably, Jesus describes the Pharisees in terms which characterize narcissists. As Israel’s self-righteous religious leaders, many of them unfortunately evidenced the symptoms of narcissism. Here are a few passages:

Matthew 6:1-2 – “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men…”

Luke 18:10-14 – The Pharisee tried to justify himself and thought he was better than other men; the publican humbly admitted his unworthiness and went away justified before God.

Matthew 23:1-12 – The Pharisees did all their deeds to be “noticed by men” (v.5). On the contrary, Jesus says that his followers should be humble: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (vv.11-12).

Elsewhere, Jesus says that the Gentile rulers “lorded it over” those beneath them (Matthew 20:25), and Peter says that church leaders should not “lord it over” the flock entrusted to their care (1 Peter 5:3).

So the Bible has a lot to say against people who we would describe today as “narcissists,” and especially against religious leaders who have narcissistic personalities.

Narcissism in Church Leadership

Most church leaders today are sincere, hard-working, humble folk who sometimes make mistakes and who admit that they are sinners just like everyone else. This post is not about them.

Instead, even though Narcissistic Personality Disorder occurs in only 1% of the general population, many cult leaders seem to demonstrate symptoms of this condition: they are controlling, domineering people who believe they are specially gifted with unique truth. They have grandiose visions of themselves and believe that God has chosen them as messiah-like leaders who will bring a remnant of chosen people to glory. They refuse correction from other people, throw off alliances with other churches as “unholy,” and promote their own idealization and idolization by their followers. They believe they are right, and that everyone else is wrong.

  1. Grandiose – Presents himself as a hero who stands against Satan. People who oppose him are standing against righteousness, God’s servant, or God’s man. He frequently cites his own credentials, such as the college he graduated from, a book he has written, or his superior intelligence.
  2. Lack of Empathy – May understand human nature very well, but seems to experience a disconnect when trying to empathize with other points of view.
  3. Little Tolerance for Weakness – Cannot understand why other people struggle so much with sin or temptations. Instead of exercising grace and understanding, a narcissistic leader will deal in a draconian manner with struggling people. Advice usually amounts to one of three solutions: submit, repent, or get out!
  4. Paranoia – Narcissists often believe that other people are out to get them, are plotting against them, or trying to destroy their ministry. When people disagree with them, a narcissist may impugn the other person’s character rather than engaging in dialogue or critical thinking. The narcissistic leader tries to convince his or her followers that the world is against them. As Dory Zinkand says, “These suspicions begin to wear thin once the listener realizes the number of people who are said to be ‘out to get him’ is quite large, and the reason for their alleged plotting is unclear or stretches credulity…”
  5. Black and White Thinking – The Narcissist is unable to appreciate other points of view, since he lacks empathy and the truth always seems so clear to him. Because of this, he believes that other teachers are diabolically perverting the truth on purpose.
  6. Craves Attention – Narcissistic leaders want their followers to affirm how wonderful they are, often through public testimonies. A narcissistic leader may read thank-you notes publicly, share private conversations where someone else applauded them, or pat themselves on the back and then say that God gets the glory. Yet in the absence of admiration, any attention will do. What the narcissist fears most is being ignored, so “persecution,” media critiques, or other negative forms of attention give the narcissist his “narcissistic supply” of strong emotional reaction. Indeed, the narcissist may try to prolong such attention by exhaustively critiquing such press and trying to turn it around into martyrdom for righteousness’ sake.

Conclusion

Narcissistic Personality Disorder offers great explanatory power when considering a number of cult leaders in the church today. In the next post, we’ll look at Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, and in the final post of this series we’ll consider how to lovingly—but assertively—relate to narcissistic leaders so that the church is built up rather than torn down.

After all, a diagnosis is of little value unless we can offer the hope of healing.

Update, 11/17/15: Here are two helpful articles and a paper which all shed very helpful light on this topic. I’m encouraged to see these matters addressed more fully by very capable professionals. Praise God.

“Pastors with Covert Narcissistic Personality Disorder” by William E. Krill, Jr., L.P.C.

“Responding to the Narcissistic Personality Disordered Pastor” by William E. Krill, Jr., L.P.C.

“Frequency of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Pastors: A Preliminary Study” by R. Glenn Ball and Darrell Puls [Spoiler: It’s five times the rate of the general population. Five times!]

27 comments on “Personality Disorders in the Church: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Part 2 of 5)

  1. Excellent. Great insight…

  2. Unfortunately, Narcissistic personality disorder is not simply a disorder. It is evil. With it’s pervasive pattern of an empathy deficiency, these people are insensitive and abusive. To state this evil affects just one percent of the population is ignorant at best. It is an epidemic. “In end times people love will wax cold” In end times people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money and abusive.”

    Being a child raised by a narcissistic parent with a lack of empathy for ones own child, insidious abuse looms dismally on the horizon. These children are not only abused, their spirit is broken, leading to low self esteem, broken relationships and addiction. Addiction, the number one health issue in this country. It is no wonder then that the founder of the world wide addiction recovery program, Alcoholics Anonymous would state in “AA comes of age.” “The typical so-called alcoholic is a narcissistic ego central core.” ( Bill Wilson.) Since Narcissistic personality disorder is a disorder and not a genetic disease, the child growing up in the infected home adopts these personality traits, referred to as culture specific. Narcissistic personality disorder is the Jezebel spirit that Jesus warned us about in the book of revelation..We see it in goverment witch happens to be the seat of Satan, and until this hideous disorder is recognized for what it is, Satan will have no problem deceiving us too the end. . .

    • Hi Kevin,

      I really appreciate your response. Thanks for the reminder that narcissism is a sin, not just a disorder. I’d love to hear more of your insights on this topic, since it sounds like you have some experience relating to folks who have NPD.

      Could you share the source of your statement that narcissists make up more than 1% of the general population? I just double-checked the DSM-IV, which says on p.660, “Estimates of prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder range from 2% to 16% in the clinical population and are less than 1% in the general population.”

      However, given the biblical passages you cite, and with society trending more and more towards reality shows, social media, and broken families, I wouldn’t be surprised if your statement is true, but until I see another source for a contrary statistic, I have to stick with what’s out there. I’d love to hear more from you on this.

      Grace and peace, Steve

      • Stephen,

        The Handbook of Narcissism and NPD (Campbell & Miller, 2011) places the prevalence of NPD in the general population at ~7% for men, 4.5% for women. Similar numbers are found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2669224/ . The DSM’s numbers are derived from people diagnosed in a clinical setting, then estimated to the general population. One problem is that people with just NPD rarely present in mental health settings; the diagnosis is made in people who present with co-morbid conditions, so the prevalence is probably underestimated. I wish the ICD 10 (the WHO equivalent of the DSM V) listed a prevalence, but it does not (it lumps NPD with other PDs.) There are subtypes as well, with some subtypes less likely to do as much damage as others.

        (I did find this article in a “throw-away” (medical magazines, not peer-reviewed journals) which is pretty good, if a bit dramatic. Just google “narcissistic personality disorder rethinking”. It does a good job at helping one to understand how someone with NPD thinks.)

      • This is so helpful, Susan. Thanks for sharing these stats and for clarifying the reason the DSM numbers are low. That makes perfect sense. I’ll look into the article you mention. I’m so glad you’re contributing your expertise to this discussion. Thanks =)

    • how does one deal with a narcissist? they don’t ‘think anything is wrong with them. they confront and it usually escolates to verbal abuse because they are now arguing with you to win. and to distract you, they avoid or deny the real topic of issue so they can win the argument. I know of a 35 year old narcissist who argues with a mentally delayed 47 year old man only for the pat on the back and praise of what a good job he’s doing his christian duty.

  3. “I just double-checked the DSM-IV, which says on p.660, “Estimates of prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder range from 2% to 16% in the clinical population and are less than 1% in the general population.”

    NPD is rarely diagnosed officially. That is why the figure is so low. It takes a lot for a narcissist to seek any professional help. And even then, they are usually very clever at manipulating even professionals. Think of how DSM got their numbers? There had to be a professional diagnosis and orojected stats from that figure.

    it is all over the place. Check out Sam Vaknin’s videos for some examples of why so hard to diagnose

    http://samvak.tripod.com/

    • Thanks for this, Lydia. Not being a clinician myself, your comment still makes a lot of sense. Our culture is practically breeding narcissists through our reality shows, celebrity-worship, and over-emphasis on self-esteem in children rather than character development. I will check out the videos you recommend. Thanks.

  4. There’s narcissistic behavior, selfishness, self-interest at others’ expense. No lack of that in this world. Then there’s Narcissistic Personality as a mental illness. Over which, the person has no control. No capacity to choose and learn different behavior.

    Genuine NPD has a poor long-term prognosis and only moderately effective treatment.

  5. As a Licensed Professional Counselor, I believe that the rate of NPD is much higher than what you cite; and that ordained ministry is a magnet for NPD’s. Because of their high skill in manipulation, the church being a compassionate and forgiving place, and a woefully inadequate larger corporate response to NPD pastors, NPD is a scourge in the church that will continue to grow unless challenged with foresight and resolve.

    • I can’t disagree with you, Bill. I was citing the figures from the DSM-IV, but I agree that leadership roles attract folks with NPD, and that the church–especially small churches without oversight–are magnets. How would you tackle this problem?

  6. “According to Twenge and Campbell, narcissists do not secretly have low self-esteem: ‘Deep down inside, narcissists think they’re awesome.’ ” (NB they are discussing Narcissism, not specifically NPD)

    I am a physician with way too much experience with NPD, and I must disagree with the above; I would say, rather, that “deep down inside, narcissists desperately need to think they’re awesome.” That difference would explain why they get so angry/defensive/abusive when their self-image is threatened (per the Mayo Clinic; the DSM V has been recognized as being deficient on this diagnosis.) If they truly believed their image, criticism would roll off their backs.

    The myth from which this disorder derives it’s name is very significant: Narcissus fell in love with his image, not himself; he wasted away to nothing while clinging to his image. This is the easiest way to understand this mysterious disorder: they have nothing deep down inside of them to help them relate in a genuine manner (i.e. empathy) with others. They seem to lack (pardon the pun) the capability for honest self reflection. This is one reason the disorder is so resistant to treatment. Another is that they refuse treatment – it is too threatening to them to be told they are in any way in need of real, positive change. It’s astonishing, really, to study.

    Positions of power and admiration attract narcissists; the more intelligent ones often enter medicine, politics, and the clergy (the latter I have been told by Eugene Peterson; I would not have known this otherwise.)

    • Wow, Susan, this is such a helpful comment. Thank you so much for the clarification and corrections. That’s why I love blogging–it is life in community, with each reader adding their strengths. Do you have any books/articles you would recommend which would help readers understand Narcissism better? Also, do you know if Eugene Peterson has written anything about this? I am intrigued by his comment to you and would love to learn more. Thanks for taking the time to add such a worthy comment. Grace and peace, Steve

    • That’s interesting, Susan. I can’t quote my source right now, but I remember reading somewhere that there are various types of narcissism, and with those who are narcissistic due to being raised to believe they are more entitled than others, inferiority is not the root issue. They believe that they are superior, not because of needing to compensate for a lack of self-esteem, but because they think too much of themselves. Then there are those who have had to develop false selves due to chronic and severe invalidation as children, and these may be masking a deep sense of worthlessness. Christian psychologist Dr George Simon has written quite a bit about how traditional frameworks in psychology often miss the mark.

  7. Stephen, I would have answered sooner, but I didn’t get notification of a reply. I’m glad I revisited this post. What I have learned about NPD is from personal clinical experience and the Psychiatric literature, so, sadly, I have no book/article to recommend. I’ll keep it in mind, however.

    Eugene Peterson has not written anything on this subject that I know of; he was helping me personally with a Christian patient I was counseling whose husband had NPD. I turned to the godliest man I knew (he was my in-law’s pastor/good friend, and married my husband and I) for his opinion, thinking it might help her (it did); during our discussion, he surprised me with that information. Once I was told, I started seeing it – pastors with devoted followings who fire those to whom they are supposed to be accountable, whose apologies for long hidden abuses are self serving and appear bathed in Scripture, who resume their positions after brief respites, who have poor boundaries and little empathy for their victims. Clinically, it’s always fascinating. In reality, the harm they do is truly and stunningly heartbreaking.

  8. Do narcissists tend to be sexully exploitative as well?

    • I don’t have statistics on that, but narcissists do demonstrate personality traits which would easily lend themselves to sexually exploiting other people. Narcissists lack good boundaries and empathy. Narcissists fantasize about unlimited power, admiration, and love. They also have a sense of entitlement, which the DSM-IV describes as “unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.” The DSM-IV also says that a narcissist is “interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.” I wouldn’t say that all narcissists are necessarily sexually exploitative, but it would seem like a common correlation.

  9. Please pray for my pastor.

  10. Please pray for my pastor.

  11. Greetings Steve,
    This blog has been interesting, since recently I have been labelled as being “narcissistic” by wife of 27 years and 24 year old daughter. I have seven children (8 to 26) and I am not sure, but all may hold this belief.

    My wife and children separated from me last year suddenly, with no desire for a divorce or legal separation. I desired for reconciliation on my part but with the position of my pastor and session, they supported my wife and children separation and with no access to seeing my children (over 9 months). She, my wife limited communication with her, only thru emails. Emailing only on Saturdays from 7 am to 11 am, but only for “housekeeping” issues, no sharing of relational reflections. My wife showed no signs of accepting my seeking forgiveness for reconciliation.

    My wife was taken from us and recently passed into the arms of Jesus, 2 1/2 months ago.

    I am left with my children with this label, as well as being labelled “bipolar”. I suspected that I was misdiagnosed as being bipolar, but my wife believed strongly against my assessment. I recently, in fact several days ago, met with my primary physician and he agree that I was misdiagnosed, that I was not bipolar. He saw no evidence in my behavior since last September when I went off all medication for this condition.

    It is one things to have these attributes of a personality or biological disorder and another to NOT and be able to clear once self of them. Labels stick!

    In the arms of Jesus, a sinner but forgiven by His blood,
    Wreck

    • What made your wife feel you were narcissistic? Are you capable of sincere empathy? Can you feel the hurt and pain of others? Can you share the joy of others? If you cannot, then this is a strong indication that you may be narcissistic.

      Do you feed off others emotions, in particular, do feed off their pain and hurt? This is a strong narcissistic trait.

      Do you feel all your family should cater to your needs? Think your thoughts? and have no dreams nor desires other than bowing to you? If so, then this is a strong indication that you may be a narcissist.

      Do you rage when your late wife or children did not follow your same thoughts or directions? Did/Do you feel you must severely punish them if they do not walk in complete lock step with your thoughts and desires? Do you have a need to control them and not allow them to develop their own personalities? If so, you may be a narcissist.

      Are you capable of seeing your children or late wife as separate human individuals from yourself or do you see them as objects of your possession? If you see them as objects, you may well be a narcissist.

      Do you have a very nice public image, but a totally different monsterous face in the home that no one would dream possible? If so, you might be a narcissist.

      If none of these apply, then what specifically did your late wife feel was the problem?

    • I would get a clinical diagnosis Wreck. You getting help would inevitably help others. You can change your behavior. As a daughter of NPD parent, it has been he most damaging journey my whole life. Many adults of NPD parents commit suicide or die if drug overdose. We see your actions, we feel the fist , we hear the cruel words, over and over again everyday. I forgive you. I bet if you sought help, your children would forgive you too.

  12. Are these not the characteristics of Lucifer? The original angel of “light”?
    This is the core of personal evil.

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