When doing the research to add to my experience for this article about the link between spiritual abuse and narcissism, here are some of the eye-catching words I read:
- Spiritual narcissists are predators who wear a convincing Christian costume. (Willow Life Coach)
- …it does seem that religion and Narcissism really are a perfect match… (Esteemology)
- Spiritual narcissism is one of the most confusing, insidious and dangerous types of narcissistic abuse. (Melanie Tonia Evans)
There is tons more of that all over the internet and in counselors offices and support groups across the world.
So, what makes the link between spiritual abuse and narcissism so strong? Especially for covert narcissists, appearing spiritual allows them to appear to be a “good person.” Most established religions also have stages of authority in place, allowing the narcissist to quickly rise to positions to take advantage of those placed under the authority they were so easily able to gain. Because church authority is rarely a paid position, there is always a need to be filled. And very little accountability to narcissistic damage once it is filled.
Let’s take a closer look at the link between spiritual abuse and narcissism and how to recognize and avoid it going forward.
Table of Contents
Spiritual Abuse Defined
First, let’s clarify exactly what we are talking about when we say spiritual abuse (or religious abuse). Spiritual abuse is when someone uses Scripture or religious beliefs to hurt, control, or manipulate others.
The abuser can be a friend, family member, spouse, parent, child…literally any person that you are in relationship with. And the abused can also be anyone that is in their circle of people or influence.
What makes this type of abuse so insidious is that the religion and spirituality is supposed to be a haven from the evils of the world. And unfortunately, that is how narcissists are so easily able to infiltrate. There is also much trust extended to religious institutions. That has historically turned out poorly in so many ways.
There is no religious organization or denomination that is immune from spiritual abuse and narcissism.
Spiritual Abuse and Narcissism Among Religious Leaders
Narcissism naturally lends itself to the service industries: doctors, lawyers, corporate leadership, police, politics, teachers, counselors, pastors, and virtually any career that involves heavily influencing and leading other people.
Religious leaders can be very influential. People flock to them for advice on a regular basis–and usually heed their advice. And this is exactly what draws spiritual narcissists to the clergy. But are they actually religious? In spite of the fact that they know all of the right words to say and rules to follow (for others more than themselves), it is just the act they put on to get the authority and narcissistic supply they need. It would be very difficult to be a truly religious or spiritual person while intentionally destroying those around you. To read more about this, click here.
I do want to make it clear that not all church leaders are narcissists! There are many good leaders out there that are doing amazing things in ministry. We cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. But it is very important to recognize narcissistic spiritual leaders when we find them. The amount of damage they can do when left in their powerful position can be unspeakable.
Spiritual Abuse and Narcissism Among Religious Lay People
Spiritual abuse is not limited to leadership positions, although lay people in religious institutions certainly use leadership positions as avenues to abuse. They primarily use their family and people who get close enough to them to be abused. Let’s get a closer peek at what that looks like.
Spiritual Abuse by Quoting Scripture
Narcissists will spiritually abuse their spouses to force them to do things they don’t want to do. The most primary way this happened to me was by quoting scriptures. My ex would quote scriptures on how I needed to obey everything he said. He quoted scriptures about how he was the head of the house and I was required to submit to him. But he would never follow through on those verses where the husband is supposed to love and take good care of his wife and love her as Christ loved the church.
My church leadership went over those verses ad nauseum with him. One of the ones they brought up frequently was 1 Peter 3:7, which said, “Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life—so that nothing may hinder your prayers.”
His answer was always that nobody could tell him what to do and his relationship with God was fine. It was at this point that my church leadership totally understood what I was up against.
Another way my ex would quote scripture against me was regarding forgiveness after he had done something to me for the hundredth time. He would quote the words of Jesus saying we should not forgive once or twice, but “seventy times seven.” When I said I forgave him but he couldn’t do that particular thing again, he would accuse me of keeping accounts or being unforgiven because he expected his apology to allow him to go back to exactly the way things were before. Consequences for repeated abuse were “not allowed.”
Spiritual Abuse by Reporting to Church Leadership
Many times, when abusive spouses don’t get what they want out of their family behind closed doors, they will appeal to the church to make them “obey.” This happened to me multiple times. The first thing my ex did was turn me in to two different pastors. Both could see what was going on to a degree. But they also both said we needed to seek professional counseling because they were at a loss of what to do.
We actually did get professional counseling. I was feeling like my life was going to be “over” at that point because he had such a good public presence that I thought he would easily fool the counselors too. But he didn’t. My counselor later called the day I started marital counseling with him as the “best worst day of my life.” She was absolutely right.
Over time, our counselors began working with the church in hopes of restoring our marriage (and because if everyone was working together, it was impossible to be lying to anyone).
The Backfiring of the Abuse
Things did not go well for my husband and he quickly got frustrated when he couldn’t get anyone to force me to “obey” him. When he wasn’t getting the results he wanted, he resorted to writing letters to the church leadership, asking them to bring charges against me for about 8 different things. All with extensive scripture proofs.
Again, I was so fortunate that they saw what was going on. They informed me that they had received the letter from him. (He had provided me with a copy on our living room mantel.) They also let me know they were not entertaining his request for charges.
When his special appeal to the church leadership didn’t go well, he filed charges against them to the regional church government. That also didn’t go well for him. Both the counsel assigned to study and rule and the presbytery at large ruled UNANIMOUSLY in favor of our church. This only made my ex more angry. And that’s when he wrote a letter to every member of our church. How embarrassing. But yet, it backfired for him. The letters were emailed on a Friday night. My pastor called me to inform me on Saturday. And that Sunday, he sat the whole congregation down to explain to them what was really going on and that he was way out of line.
The Result of the Church-wide Abuse Tactics
My pastor later told me that about 95% of the church membership was very aware of what was going on and had our back. I got the same feedback from many other members. But the 5% were very loud in their opposition. They just didn’t want to see what was there because they wanted to believe my ex’s empty words and lies.
My ex ended up leaving the church because he couldn’t force them to do his bidding. And he found a church that would. And they helped him put the final nail in the coffin of our marriage.
Other Forms of Spiritual Abuse by Narcissists
There are lots of other ways spiritual narcissists abuse people in the church space. Pitting people against each other, often without anyone even realizing it, is a major tactic. Usually what is said is so underhanded that nobody gets what is really going on. It usually goes something like, “Hey, if you could just pray for me. I’m feeling so unsettled because I was talking to Sally about _____ and she was really upset at me about it. I just don’t know why she would react that way but pray that my attitude would be good.”
They couch it in words that seem like they are taking the blame, but they are in actuality throwing shade on the other person. They can do this for years and cause absolute chaos in the church before anyone even realizes what is going on.
Narcissists Pouring on the Charm
And finally (but not an exhaustive list–I could literally write a book on this), spiritual narcissists are charming. They know how to make a great first impression. They can instantly look like the most godly person in the room.
But the problem starts when the narcissist must try to keep the first impression. Over time, they cannot maintain close relationships. They are unable to keep their reputation clean because people sense there is something wrong. But they can’t quite put their thumb on it because the abuse is so underhanded and behind closed doors. When the narcissist feels their charm slipping, they simply pour on the charm, generosity, or other love-bombing tactics. And once again, they are back on top, at least for a little while. Until the next crap goes down and they have to climb their way out of it again.
How to Recognize Spiritual Abuse
Spiritual abuse can go on for years or even decades undetected. That is because it is very underhanded. It generally happens behind closed doors or in words that initially sound like caring, compassionate words while their actual meaning is actually destructive. This makes spiritual abuse one of the worst types of abuse. It is very hard to identify and guard against. But once you can identify it, your job of identifying and guarding against future abuse will be much easier.
Here are some ways to recognize spiritual abuse.
Go to the Scriptures to Recognize Narcissistic Abuse
1 Timothy 3:1-9 pretty much covers it all. It says:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
6 They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, 7 always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. 9 But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.
1 Timothy Broken Down
I actually tried to highlight the parts of this passage that applied specifically to narcissists. But really the whole thing does. Those are all qualities of a narcissist, but some of the highest hitting points are:
- They have a form of godliness but deny its power. This is because they are placing their own power and control even over God. Honestly, they are not looking for the best that God wants for them. They just want what they want. And they really can’t even see God past themselves.
- They worm their way into homes and gain control over women. (Okay, they said gullible. And I have to admit I was gullible.) My ex lured me by saying he was going to rescue me from my abusive home. And he lured his current wife by saying they needed to hurry up and get married before he retired from the military. They were married 6 days after we got our divorce papers. She so settled and she doesn’t even realize it, at least not publicly.
- Always learning but never able to come to the truth. This one speaks for itself really. And honestly, it makes me really sad for my ex.
- Men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. Again, no need to expand on this.
- They will not get very far because their folly will be clear to everyone. This happened to my ex. He started a whole new life over a few years ago. I often wondered what all the people who saw him appear with no past life thought.
If You Feel Like Something is Wrong, Don’t Stay Silent
I stayed silent for over 25 years. I knew things were very wrong but I also knew that he had such a stellar public reputation. So I just knew if I said anything, it would all get turned on me and I would be the one going down.
In the end, God had my back. My ex turned me in, but everyone who got involved actually saw what was wrong. And my healing started immediately. I ended up with such a huge team of support.
So if you think things are really wrong, even if you can’t put words to it (most abused people can’t), tell someone you know you can trust. It may change your whole world!
Is Scripture Being Used to Force You?
If you are disagreeing with someone and they regularly quote Scripture to force you to do something you do not feel is right or appropriate, you are likely being spiritually abused.
This got very tricky for me because I knew things weren’t right. But my standard of determining was based on asking myself if he was asking me to do something against the Word of God. He knew this very well. So everything we argued about wasn’t necessarily about things that were bad. It was just changing everything I did or wanted to do. Until I no longer had any autonomy. Because I was in the thick of things, I couldn’t recognize the abuse for what it was. So he got away with it for years, until there was not much of me left.
Do You Feel Unexplained Anxiety Around That Person?
If you don’t feel comfortable around that person, clearly something is wrong. You may know exactly why you feel that way. In that case, you can move forward in dealing with the difficulties. But when you can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong, you need to understand that something is bothering you and figure out what that is.
Just know that if you are feeling discomfort, you need to listen to your gut. There is something, whether it is something in you or the other person, that you will need to work through.
Are you Able to Express Your Thoughts and Opinions?
Are you able to comfortably tell them what you are thinking? Or do you fear ridicule, anger, punishment, or other negative reactions to what you have to say?
After many years, the kids and I were all nearly silent when my ex got home from work, came into a room, was in the car with us, or virtually anywhere that he could hear us speak. We never knew what was going to set him off. And the last few times I had casual conversation with him, he would literally turn everything I said upside down. I could never be right. So I just stopped talking anytime he was around.
That was not healthy. But I felt trapped. Now I know better. And I will never find myself in that position again. I am also super sensitive if I see the same thing happen to others in my presence. It is incredibly important for us to speak out when we see others oppressed in this way.
There are probably many other ways you can tell if spiritual abuse and narcissism are being used against you. But this is a good start. If you trust your God-given instincts, you will have won half of the battle. God gave you those instincts to be able to discern. Don’t let abusers let you feel guilty for calling them out.
It is Nearly Impossible to Argue Fairly With a Spiritual Narcissist
If you get into an argument with a spiritual narcissist and have the courage to respond, you will find yourself on the downside of the argument very quickly. The reason for this isn’t because the narcissist has the better argument. It’s because he invokes the name of God as his right-hand man.
The spiritual narcissist will always argue that he knows exactly what God is thinking and you need to fall in line. If you don’t, you are in direct rebellion against. God.
When my ex played this game and the counselors and church leadership were involved, he would falsely accuse me of “sinning against God.” Then when they would explain why I hadn’t, he would then tell them that they were unbiblical as well and leave in disgust. At the end of everything, he ended up walking away from counseling, leaving our denomination, and going to one that didn’t believe in abused spouses being able to flee to safety.
He may think he won all those arguments by invoking the name of God on his side. But he has no idea what he really lost. At least, not that he will ever acknowledge. I will always wonder what he actually realizes and thinks.
What has your experience with spiritual abuse and narcissism been? How did you realize what was being done to you? Feel free to share below!
How to Avoid Spiritual Narcissistic Abuse
Now that you can recognize the tie between spiritual abuse and narcissism, let’s talk about ways you can avoid it. Note that the steps below are specifically for spiritual abuse from a spouse. But the steps work as well for pastors, coworkers, other family members, or any narcissistic relationship with a little bit of tweaking.
Narcissistic Defense 1: Confide in Some Supporters
First, if you are experiencing this in your own home, you need to talk to someone you can trust. This can be someone in church leadership, a counselor, or a couple of close friends, especially if they have been through similar issues.
It is important that you proceed cautiously. I had incredible amounts of support. But there were a couple of times that I trusted people that turned out to not be looking out for my safety or well-being. Fortunately, the couple of times this happened I realized pretty early on. And because I did have so much support, I was fine when these people chose to throw me under the bus. Those few peoople did cost me my church home of 26 years in the end. In spite of the huge number of supporters at my church, the few detractors were just too loud in their views and anger toward me. But in moving on, God had bigger plans for me.
Narcissistic Defense 2: Keep Everything in Writing
Second, if you are having issues with blame shifting, lying, denying, and other forms of deception, it will be greatly to your advantage to switch most of your conversations to texts, emails, or letters. This will not stop the accusations and crazy from happening (I know, that part surprised me too), but it will allow you to keep things straight for your own reference and for any proof you need when accusations are thrown at you.
Changing my contact to everything in writing actually allowed me to document everything I needed for church leadership, counseling, lawyers, and court dates. It was even more to my advantage that I had started doing it before my ex and I physically separated (we were in-house separated at the time).
Narcissistic Defense 3: Be Prepared for the “Punishment” That is Coming
By now you realize that if you counter the narcissist, he will be coming after you with a vengeance. You dared to cross him. That brought shame to the surface that he cannot allow to happen.
While the narcissist’s tactics are all pretty obvious and lacking in creativity, you still cannot see the future. So you will not know exactly what is coming your way in the way of revenge. That is okay though! You have supporters in place. And it is critical that you have told the truth from the start. If your story is clear and rings true, it will take no time at all for professionals to know what is really going on.
And then you have everything in writing. You may even have people who have witnessed things happen that can testify for you. So whether your spiritual narcissist is turning you in to church authorities, counselors, or even taking you to court, you are covered!
While all of these things may seem obvious, realize that when we are going through narcissistic abuse, no matter who is doing the abuse, it is hard to think with a clear head. Fuzzy thinking will be something you will need to get through before you can be emotionally healthy. But with the right support in place, you’ve got this!
There are so many tricks in the narcissist’s bag that allows them to get their narcissistic supply in the church in near unlimited amounts. And many times, nobody has any idea what is really going on. They can perceive that something is wrong, but can’t quite put their finger on it.
Fortunately, though, the church is starting to wake up to what is going on. There are two books that I found absolutely instrumental in working with my church toward healing. I was fortunate to have a church that took a deep look at what was going on and make the necessary adjustments. And I think that without these two books it would have been a much harder journey to get there.
If you are having issues with an abusive and/or narcissistic spouse, family member, or even someone else in the church, click on the pics to check out these books and share them with someone that you know is safe to go to for help. I hope they will be as life-changing for you as they were for me!
If you liked this article, I think you will also love the following articles:
- How Narcissists Use Religion to Control and Manipulate You - December 26, 2023
- Do Flying Monkeys Ever See the Truth? - December 16, 2023
- Flying Monkeys Spying: Understanding and Dealing With It - September 21, 2023