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.
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.
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:
- has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- 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)
- requires excessive admiration
- has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- is interpersonally exploitive, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- 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.
- 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.
- Lack of Empathy – May understand human nature very well, but seems to experience a disconnect when trying to empathize with other points of view.
- 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!
- 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…”
- 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.
- 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.
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!]