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How Can You Tell if Someone is a Religious Narcissist?

Reviewed by Karis A. Williams, MSMHC, LPC,   February 6, 2024

Religious narcissists are hiding everywhere in the church.  It isn’t just the very vocal and controlling preacher or priest.  Or the ministry leaders and teachers.  It can literally be anyone in the church.  Even just a casual member.   But it doesn’t end in the church.  Religious narcissists are in your extended family, neighborhood, schools, social groups–literally everywhere you go.  So, if they are indeed everywhere, how can you tell if someone is a religious narcissist?

You can tell if someone is a religious narcissist pretty easily if you are looking at a few specific things.  Religious narcissists will hold you to an impossibly high spiritual standard that they don’t hold themselves to.  They tie everything into spirituality, even where no connection actually exists.  And they claim that it is because they are so close to God and if you were that close you would do the same.  Over time, you find yourself fearful that if you stray from the religious narcissist’s control and manipulation, God will be angry or disappointed with you.

This gets you started on being able to tell if someone is a religious narcissist.  I was married to one for 31 years (plus a 4-year courtship before that).  I combined my experience with years of counseling, reading, and research.  As a result, I have learned how to identify other religious narcissists and keep myself safe from getting drawn into false religion.  Read on to see how you can keep yourself safe from these people and preserve your own spirituality.

Religious Narcissists Hold You to an Impossibly High Standard

Their words do not match their actions in spite of their high expectations for others.  They offer no mercy if you don’t live  up to their expectations.  But then on the other hand, when they fall short, it is always someone else’s fault, not theirs.  If only everyone else had done their part, they would have been stellar in their performance.

They will claim to listen to you and can even repeat what you have said back to you.  But they will rarely take your advice or words to heart.  And they will almost always end up doing whatever they wanted to do in the first place, no matter how much better your advice was.

The religious narcissist will have no problem making sure everyone around knows that you didn’t perform up to their standard.  This is for two different reasons.  First, it shows everyone else that what happened was not the narcissist’s fault.  And second, it made the narcissist look like the better person because they would have done a much better job than the poor failure did.

You Can Tell if Someone is a Religious Narcissist When They Tie Everything Back to God

The religious narcissist literally applies Scripture to every single thing they talk about or experience.  It doesn’t matter how un-spiritual the topic is.

I do want to clarify that this is different from someone who sincerely does everything with a spirit of prayer and conscious service to God.  There are plenty of Christians who truly do give their entire lives to the Savior who died for them and gifted them eternal life.

What I am talking about is the person who artificially injects spirituality into everything to make themselves appear like a better Christian.  It is a hard distinction to make.  But the person who has been spiritually abused will likely feel it acutely even though they cannot put the abuse into clearly expressed words.

The best way to understand this aspect of spiritual abuse from a religious narcissist is to experience healthy spirituality.  There is a test that cashiers use to learn to identify counterfeit money by studying real money.  They learn to identify real money so completely that they can easily see what is wrong with a counterfeit bill.  It is the same with spiritual abuse.  While one can overlook single or rare acts of spiritual abuse, if they know what is healthy and normal, they will be aboe to quickly identify spiritually abusive behavior, especially if it is frequent inappropriate behavior.

If you are not sure what this looks like, then you will most certainly enjoy the book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzarro.  It was the first book I was recommended in counseling when I began.  And interestingly, my then husband was deeply offended that she would recommend that book and refused to allow me to read it.  I had actually forgotten that had happened until over a year later when I went to show her this amazing new book I had discovered and read cover-to-cover between our weekly sessions.  She laughed at me and told me it was the book she recommended to me in our first session but my ex said no way.

This is the number one book I would recommend for healing from spiritual abuse, regardless of whether it was your husband, pastor, family member, or literally anyone.   Click on the book below to get more information here:


You Can Tell if Someone is a Religious Narcissist When They Position Themselves as Having a More Special Relationship With God

I spoke above about the religious narcissist blaming everyone except themselves for things that go wrong, or not exactly right.  But they actually take it a step further.  They make you feel as though you have violated God’s very will with your inability to be perfect.

This includes even those who may dare to disagree with them.  If you have a different opinion or way of doing things, you are just not as spiritually in tune with God as they are.  And they will not hesitate to let you know so they can help you grow closer to God.  Of course, it will be all them and their influence that allows you to be closer to God.  Who needs the guidance of the Holy Spirit when you have your narcissist to set you straight?

This type of thinking and behavior actually puts the narcissist in the position of God.  They are the ones that call the shots and determine what is holy, not God  or His Word.  If you find yourself in this position with the spiritual narcissist in your life, don’t even try to work it out with them or explain your position.  They won’t hear you.  They truly try to convince everyone that they are God’s right hand man.  They don’t need you to tell them how to be better, more spiritual, more thoughtful, more kind.  They’ve got this.  And they don’t need you.  They’ve got God on their side.

You Can Tell if Someone is a Religious Narcissist When They Cut Others Down to Make Themselves Seem More Perfect

This point kind of goes hand-in-hand with the last one.  The spiritual narcissist doesn’t need you because he has God.  That makes him virtually perfect.  He has to be seen as so in tune with God that you could never question his thoughts, actions, or decisions.  If he did have any faults, those are in the past.  He’s got it all under control now.

In order to prove how adequate he is in God’s eyes, he will showcase his own achievements (and often the achievements of those around him) to show how perfectly worthy he is. Even if what he is showcasing really isn’t that perfect or even right, he will package it that way so nobody can question him.

He is the big man on campus.  Yes, this is actually a term for the men who seemed to be fully sold out for Jesus.  Women who wanted to obey God with their entire lives would choose these men for their spouse.  If they married a man of God and then served with them throughout life, how could they go wrong?  Until they were married and realized that behind closed doors it was totally different.  The big man on campus was a total sham.  And they were totally duped.  Sadly, the colleges they attended would support their narcissism because the leadership was also narcissistic or didn’t realize that the Christian act was just an act and not sincere spirituality.

You Can Tell if Someone is a Religious Narcissist When They Demand Total Submission

This aspect of spiritual narcissism is usually found later on in years.  As the religious narcissist gains a reputation of being so spiritual and empathetic, people start trusting him with more authority.  And as he gets used to that authority, he begins to demand total submission from all, but especially his family, those he teaches classes to, and the committee members of the committees he now heads up.  Or if it’s the pastor, he will demand total submission of the whole congregation.

If you dare to question his motives or instructions to you, then you aren’t just questioning him.  You are going up against God Himself.  And he will make sure you know that so you can fall in line.

To make sure nobody strays very far, he will implement a series of rules designed to make sure nobody branches out in their own thinking.  If they just follow him mindlessly, they will be so much better off, especially in God’s eyes.

And if you go against their demand for submission, they will often fly into a rage instantly.  The will not tolerate being questioned.  Blind obedience is the order of the day.  If you don’t blindly obey them, you are in rebellion against God.  And your very salvation is at risk.  Or so they want you to think.  Because if you think it is that serious, you won’t even consider going against the wishes of the religious narcissist.

You Can Tell if Someone is a Religious Narcissist When You Feel Intimidated by Not Agreeing With Them

Their actions don’t match their words.  They talk about loving others but don’t.  But if you try to talk to them about it, there will be hell to pay.  They will belittle you, embarrass you in front of everyone else, and “prove” you wrong.  They will make such an example of you speaking up for yourself that nobody will have to courage to do so in the future.

They will claim to listen to you and even be able to repeat your words back to you, but they won’t listen and heed what you say.  In the end, they will do whatever they want regardless of what you want or what is best.  They live to hear their own voice and praise their own decisions and actions.

You Can Tell if Someone is a Religious Narcissist When They Misquote Scripture

You can tell if someone is a religious narcissist when they constantly quote Scripture, but not in the right way.  They likely have the words close to perfect.  It is when the application is wrong that you know they are not speaking the real words of God.

My ex would perfectly quote all of the verses that spoke about how a wife should relate to her husband.  But he would conveniently leave out all of the parts that talked about how the husband needed to relate to the wife.  It was all very one-sided.

When the counselors would try to explain to him that we had equal responsibility in the marriage, he would say he was caring for me by providing a home and money to live on.  Even when they pointed out the Scriptures he was missing, he would deny that he had any wrong to correct.  He would say that his relationship with God was fine.

I was the problem.  It would leave the counselors unable to progress with  him.  He couldn’t even admit to the smallest of issues, except maybe for a few minutes.  And then he quickly followed up by showing how bad I was and how much he had to put up with.  Everything was always my fault, even when I had nothing to do with it.

You Can Tell if Someone is a Religious Narcissist When They Maneuver Themselves Into Positions of Leadership

Religious narcissists believe they are the best leader and blame everyone else when things go wrong.  They never take responsibility for things that go wrong or don’t go as well as expected.

They lead by demanding and making others do all the work.  They don’t lead by example because they think they are higher than others.  They don’t need to be doing the menial work to get things done.  That is what their underlings are for.  Unless someone is going to see them doing work and they can receive praise and credit for it.  If they can be seen as saving the day, then they will do the work.  Or if they can steal someone else’s thunder.

I have two examples for this.  For the first one, we were working in the Kids’ club program at our church.  I was leading the middle school class, and two other ladies were leading the elementary and preschool classes.  It was a new session and we had just gotten our curriculum.  The club was held on Sunday nights.  That Sunday after morning church, the three of us teachers were discussing final details.  They realized the night before that they had gotten their materials mixed up and needed to go home and get them so they could both prepare their lessons that afternoon.

My ex heard that and immediately said he would go to one house, pick up the materials, and drive them to the other lady’s house. Right then.  With all the kids in tow.  And even though both ladies insisted that they had it without his help.  But he insisted. Huh???  We had very hungry kids in the car who didn’t want to be dragged around town for another hour before going home.

I was exhausted and hoping to get a little bit of rest before jumping into my own lesson planning, cooking, and set up for that night.  It ended up being a very stressful and frantic afternoon for me as time was too short for me to get all of my own stuff together.  And guess who didn’t even offer to help while I was running around the house frantically trying to make it work?

The second example was for the same Kids’ Club.  I was doing a series on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  The plan was to make a wooden wardrobe to put in the doorway so the kids could “enter” the magical world of Narnia for their classes.  When I was telling my then husband about my plans, he insisted he would like to help me by doing the wardrobe.  I appreciated the help so I told him that would be great.

But then, I wasn’t allowed to have any input as to the design (I wanted it to look authentic).  And I wasn’t allowed to have any input on anything at all.  Sure enough, when he finished it, it looked nice.  But it had random decorations on it that had nothing to do with Narnia.  And when he got it to church, he made sure everyone knew it was his project and brain child from the beginning.  How lucky I was to have him “looking out for me.”

A picture of a large wardrobe in a huge room, depicting the wardrobe that the Pevensie children used to get to Narnia in the book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

A Religious Narcissist Will Isolate the People They Work With in Order to Freely Abuse

This one was a hard one for me to figure out.  From the very beginning of our relationship (in high school), he would isolate me and most others he related to.  I just thought he was protected everyone’s privacy.  To explain away the weird things he said and did in those times, I would just think he doesn’t understand the situation.  Once he did, everything would be fine.  Except that it never was.

His two older sisters did the same.  When he would leave the room, they would start insulting me and bullying me.  When I would tell him later what had happened, he would always say he couldn’t do anything about it because he wasn’t there and didn’t see it.  It took me 25 years to realize he was encouraging them and playing along by claiming he couldn’t do anything about it and didn’t know anything.  That finally came to light in an argument after counseling one night.  And when I called him out on it, he just looked at me with a sheepish smile like, “Yep, I did that.  For years.  And totally got away with it.”

I could fill a book with all the behind the scenes scheming he did with his sisters against me.

When I finally started telling people that we had separated, literally everyone had a story to tell me about a time that he waited for me to leave the room and then he would seethe mean and nasty words to them or do other things that would make them stay away when he was around.  I had no idea.  He had very methodically removed everyone from me in a way that they didn’t realize what he was doing.  And they also didn’t realize he was doing that to everyone.  They all thought it was just them.  That is why isolation works so perfectly.

What he did confused most people because he was so different when everyone was in the room.  Because of the confusion, they would remember the odd behavior but never do anything about it because they didn’t realize it was a regular pattern of behavior.  So for years, it stayed hidden.  Until they felt safe to tell me once he had left.

How Isolation Affected our Family Life

In our family, from the time the kids were very small, we “weren’t allowed” to complain or express concern about things that seemed wrong to us.  We were only allowed to tell him in private if we had an issue with something he had done or said.  Honestly, I didn’t have a problem with that on the surface.  I am a fan of not airing someone else’s struggles or wrongs.

The problem came up, though, when the kids would approach me with a problem they had with their dad.  I would encourage them to talk to him about it.  But it wouldn’t go well.  Then I would try to go to him and advocate for the kids.  And he would then rage at me.  In actuality, it wasn’t that we needed to work things out with him privately.  It was that we weren’t allowed to have any issues with his behavior.  We were only allowed to treat him as though he was perfect.

And example was when my oldest son was around 7 years old.  He told me one day that he wished his dad would play with him.  I was still very naive at that point and told him to just talk to his dad about it.  I was sure he would apologize and suggest they go do something together.  That is not what happened.  My son came back to me a couple of days later and said his dad yelled at him when he said he wished he would play more.

I told him I would talk to his dad for him.  I was sure it was all a misunderstanding and as soon as I talked to him everything would be fine.  But no.  He actually flew into a rage with me and said “I am fine and you can’t judge my fathering skills.”  I was speechless.  And that became the rule of all issues with him.  We could only tell him how wonderful he was no matter what.  And yes, he literally told us that on a regular basis.

You Can Tell if Someone is a Religious Narcissist When You Feel Like Your Own Spirituality is Suffering When Associating With Them

I could never quite figure out what was wrong spiritually.  I had been to Bible college and felt extremely close to God then and at other times.  But for the last several years of my marriage and throughout my separation and divorce, I felt like God was completely gone from my life.

Actually, although I felt that way, He was right there.  I had a friend walking me through the separation and divorce that would share devotionals with me.  One of them was about all of the little blessings God puts into your life all the time.  For months after that, she would frequently remind me of ways she could see all of the little things the Holy Spirit was sending into my life and day.  It was very comforting to know that while I was walking such a dark road and couldn’t feel God walking beside me, He was still there.

Another way that I was blessed with knowing God was there was when my ex and I got tested for personality disorders.  Our counselors pretty much knew about my husband’s narcissism by this time, but wanted tests to be sure.  So they told me I would need to get tested so he wouldn’t feel like he was being singled out.  In return, they told him they were testing both of us to make sure I didn’t feel singled out.  This is because no narcissist will allow themselves to be tested.  They already think they are fine and everyone else is the problem.

So testing happened and the results were just as expected.  The man who administered the tests had me go first while he explained to my ex how things worked.  Then while my ex was taking his test, the administering counselor sat down with me to talk about what life would be like if he did in fact test positive for narcissism.

Then he shared with me the verse in Psalm 23 that says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, Your rod and Your staff comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Then he told me to think about what that really means.  God is there with me in the deepest, darkest parts of my life.  And not only is here there, he is in the valley with a feast for me while my enemies are looking on.

I can’t believe that he took a Psalm that I had memorized as a small child and made it show me something I had never seen before.  That conversation gives me chills to this day.

A Religious Narcissist Sucks up all the Energy in the Room

When a narcissist walks into the room (even covert narcissists more often than not!), he tends to want the whole room to stop what they are doing to notice him.  He doesn’t necessarily want to be put on the spot (an overt one would).  But he does want people to be so happy to be in the presence of his “greatness.”

My ex always did that when he showed up at church.  He wanted to be seen instantly as the Christian who sets the example for the whole church.  And until he totally unravelled in a narcissistic rage many people did do that for him.  After all was said and done, there were about five families that refused to believe what their eyes and ears had witnessed and chose to believe the act that he put on.

Those families chose to make it miserable for my kids and me as well as church leadership.  They said they didn’t believe the church (up to the regional level) had made the right decisions to get my kids and me out of the house for safety.  And they made it clear to everyone.  I eventually had to leave the church, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people believed the truth because the few that chose not to were so cruel and vocal about how they felt.

My spiritual life is in a much better place now that the divorce is just over a year in my past.  But I still have quite a ways to go.  And I now know not to let another person control my relationship with God.

So, I have digressed a little bit.  Let’s get back to how the narcissist sucks the energy out of the room.  Probably the most prominent way they do this is by making themselves equal to God and making sure nobody feels like they measure up.  A few well-meaning Christians might find him inspirational, hoping that one day they can be as holy as him.  If they are lucky they will realize that it is all an act and he is the furthest thing from holy.

Finally, they will insert themselves in other people’s conversations (remember the curriculum exchange story above?) in order to show them how spiritual and expert he is at anything that happens in the church.  This can go on for years before people realize what is really going on.  Most people (me included) will give other church members the benefit of the doubt that they are sincere.  That is because the majority of our fellow Christians are sincere.  And we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  But if we know someone is a narcissist, we should not be encouraging them to continue to fool the church body.

What to Do About a Religious Narcissist in Your Life

If you have a narcissist anywhere in your life, especially one that you associate with on a regular basis, there are things you can do that will be beneficial.  First, don’t argue with them.  You will never get anywhere.  You will be argued in circles.  And you will only get constant word salad (if you are not familiar with this term, it means a bunch of random words that get mixed up and don’t make any sense or add any value to the conversation).

Also, don’t get caught alone with them.  They will use it as an opportunity to either suck you in as more supply or trash and devalue you.  It all depends on how they perceive you.  Once you fall off the pedestal of perfection they set you on, the contempt usually becomes more than they can get past.  And they will go from praising you to destroying you.  All behind closed doors, of course.  But in public they will look like the kindest, most caring person.  And you feel like nobody would ever believe you if you told them what was really happening.

There are tons of resources to help you work through this.  You may not be familiar with some of the terms used.  If that is the case, here are some of the best related articles:

What is Spiritual Narcissism?

Can a Narcissist be a Christian?

Can a Spiritual Narcissist Heal?

What Does the Bible Say About Narcissism?

When the Church Doesn’t Recognize Narcissistic Abuse

How Religious Narcissists Think

Are Narcissists Evil?

Are Narcissists Demon Possessed?

Can a Narcissist be a Good Person?

23 Reasons Why Narcissists are Drawn to the Church

When Your Church Believes the Narcissist’s Lies

12 Ways the Church Helps Narcissists Abuse Their Victims

How Will God Judge a Narcissist?

Can You Maintain a Relationship With a Spiritual Narcissist?

How to Heal From a Spiritual Narcissist

The Best Resources I Found

There are two books that have been life-changing for letting people know the damage that narcissism does in the church and how to heal from it.  I have read both of them.  They are amazing.  In fact, I passed them along to my pastor because they were so good.  I was also fortunate enough to have a pastor that came to understand narcissism in the church.  You can check out both of these books by clicking on them:



You Can Use Your Knowledge of What Makes a Religious Narcissist to Check Yourself!

I googled for years trying to find out what was wrong in my marriage and family.  But I could never quite word my situation well enough to get the results I need.  And then one day I found it!  The word narcissism.

I had always thought narcissism was just a synonym for arrogance and self-absorption.  That week I learned it meant so much more than that.  And in a true act of God, at my very next counseling meeting the following week, my counselor asked me if I had ever heard the term narcissism.  My life was changed instantly in that meeting because I finally had a name and a reason for all of the bizarre things I had experienced for nearly 30 years.

She told me that day and many times later that just because we have a name for the abuse and difficulty, it didn’t mean we use that name against him.  It was our job to work on the issues in light of knowing what the problem was without throwing it in his face.

And that is the advice I would give to any friend struggling in the way I did.  My ex is still just as much a narcissist as he always was.  He knows about the diagnosis, but denies it and gets angry about it if brought up.  But not bringing it up and throwing it in his face did allow me the chance to try to heal our marriage before he finally left.  And in the chance that other people are working with a narcissist that is lower on the spectrum, healing could be possible if two people are willing to work through it.  Throwing a name on it does not afford that growth.

Speaking of spectrum, Chuck DeGroat mentions that there are three types of narcissism on the spectrum:  type, style, and disorder.  Type refers to the narcissistic traits that can be found in most of us.  We all have selfish moments from time to time.  But it doesn’t generally get out of control because we realize that it is not appropriate.  Style refers to a mid-level narcissism that begins to be a problem in relationships of all types:  work, personal, and intimate.  But with some in-depth counseling, improvements can be made.  Disorder is the level at which the narcissist is officially diagnosed and can rarely heal because the narcissism is so set.  There is a video below that talks a bit more about the spectrum.

And finally, be aware that even if you succeed in getting rid of the narcissist, whether in your home, neighborhood, workplace, church, or anywhere, the longer they have been there, the harder it will be to heal the culture that they have left behind.


Before I close out this article, I do want to stress that just because someone has some of these signs of being a religious narcissist, it doesn’t mean they are.  Anyone can have tendencies here and there, just like the signs of regular narcissism.  Having narcissistic tendencies is not the same as having narcissistic personality disorder.

It is important to not diagnose someone without the help of a counselor.  And we can never use our thoughts of someone being a narcissist against others, no matter how much of a narcissist they end up being.  The whole point of being able to tell if someone else is a religious narcissist is for you to keep yourself safe in your relationships with others.  Or at least proceed cautiously BEFORE something big happens that you may not have had anything to do with from the start.

How were you able to tell if there was a religious narcissist in your midst?  Were his tactics mostly what you read about here?  Did you find additional tactics they used on you or others?  I would love to hear what your experience with religious narcissists was like.  Feel free to share in the comments below or contact me here if you need to share privately.

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Hi! I am the founder of Navigating Religious Narcissism after being raised under a narcissistic mother and married to a narcissistic man for 31 years. It is my prayer that I can be as valuable on your journey to healing and peace as were so many who crossed my path of healing.

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