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Understanding the Tactics of a Religious Narcissistic Father

Reviewed by Karis A. Williams, MSMHC, LPC,   January 13, 2024

A religious narcissistic father looks like an amazingly kind and generous person to the world.  He knows they don’t see what goes on behind closed doors.  And he knows most people will never see him close enough to see past the act he puts on.  So, what do we need to “see” about religious narcissistic fathers and how can that help those that are in relationship to them?

Being in the family of a religious narcissistic father is perhaps the most dangerous place to be.  There is no haven in the home.  Not only are they abusive to their wives and children, they use God and the Bible as a weapon against them (among other things) in order to keep and maintain their abusive control. All while maintaining an amazingly good, staunch pillar-of-the-community reputation in public.

Let’s take a closer look at the specific issues that family members face when living with a religious narcissistic father.

What are the Traits of a Religious Narcissistic Father?

The religious narcissistic father is most often the covert type.  Two different people emerge, just like Jekyll and Hyde.  Each side behaves in vastly different ways.  And his mind constantly plays tug of war between the two sides, struggling to keep everything straight. (This is actually one of the ways that counselors can prove the narcissism–the lies and stories get so out of control that even the smartest narcissist cannot keep everything straight.  Once it begins to unravel, it spirals.)

Let’s take a look at the traits of each side of the coin.

Dr. Jekyll:  Good Christian Father

In public, the narcissistic father is the most humble, honest, sacrificial kind person you could imagine.  His voice is friendly and empathetic as he speaks in love and encouragement to everyone he meets.

He will do any task, no matter how menial, because then everyone will see him as such an amazingly reliable person.  When other families are facing troubling issues, he will be there to help.  Since he has to be seen as the perfect father with the perfect family, coming to the aid of struggling families will allow him to flex his “perfection.”

He will quote Scripture anytime he can so he can show how close he is to God.  He makes God his right hand man! No, I did not say that backwards–they actually think God needs them.

He will study people to see what will push their buttons.  Then he will know what words and actions will move them to love and worship him even more.  Here is a perfect example.  There was a woman in our church who literally worshiped the ground my ex walked on.  Every time she would talk about him to me, she would literally be gushing like a school girl with a crush.  And then one Sunday, she came running up to me and grabbed me by my arms.  In her best swooning voice, she said, “He just made me cry!”  I was so confused and replied, “Who?”

“Your husband!  He just sang Happy Birthday to me.  It was so amazing that he made me cry!”

I literally had no words.  Later on, when the church leadership had my ex removed from our home, she ran up to me begging me to invite him back to church.  When I explained to her I couldn’t do that and that he didn’t even live in our home, a look of horror came over her face and she turned tail and fled.  She has never talked to me since.

Mr. Hyde:  Tyrannical Christian Father

Behind closed doors, if the religious narcissistic father is not being treated like the king he thinks he is, then there will be hell to pay.  The narcissist that feels his supply is not being met will fly into a rage to get things back in line immediately.  And he will make sure everyone in the house realizes that if they fall out of line again, he will rage again.  The rule of the day becomes staying under the radar.

Publicly, the Mr. Hyde side emerges but in a way that the family sees from a mile away while he continues to appear like Mr. Empathy to everyone observing the public family dynamic.  Let me explain with what used to be a regular occurrence in our house.

Daddy Dearest spends the morning before church yelling at the family so that by the time they get to church they will “fall in line” with his perfect family expectations.  But one child doesn’t fall in line quite like he wanted them to.  He can’t rage at the child.  He will be seen as a flawed father.  So instead of yelling, he speaks sternly to the child with seething voice and dark eyes while smiling for all who are in sight of what is going down.  The child knows they have committed a cardinal sin.  But everyone else thinks he is just lovingly chastising his child.

Further, when the child fades away to escape, the father very “lovingly” explains to those within earshot that he loves his family dearly and is trying so hard to serve them, but he’s not sure how to get through to them–he just doesn’t know what’s wrong.  But he will do whatever it takes to save them from themselves.

The horror of this is that so many people believe the lies of the narcissist and actually feel sorry for him that he is such a victim of his terrible family.  And he never even had to say a negative word about them.

A Perfect Example of Feigned Concern

You will see a classic example of this feigned concern in the movie,  Gaslight.  Gregory Anton, played by Charles Boyer, publicly pretends to love his wife, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman), and be incredibly concerned for her wellbeing because he says she is acting so irrationally.  He tells all of her friends this.  They all desert her, thinking that it is such a shame that she is so off the rails when she has such an amazing husband.

When everyone leaves, he then goes on to turn her reality upside down by purposely making her think she’s going insane.  I won’t spoil the ending for you!  Click on the title above or picture below for more information on getting and watching this movie.  If you feel that you have ever been gaslit, this movie will be earth shatteringly enlightening for you!


What Religious Narcissistic Fathers Do to Their Children

Narcissistic fathers tend to bully their families.  Religious narcissists are no different.  They bully, but they use God as their authority to get away with the abuse with no way for their family to call them out.  Who can speak out against the authority of God?

There is a ton of gaslighting, making the whole family doubt the facts about nearly everything.  Up is down, right is wrong, motives are misjudged and interpreted through his eyes instead of the actual reasons for the actions.

Religious narcissists constantly lie, all while claiming to be the most honest person in the room.  One day, my ex actually told me he is the most honest person he knew.  I just looked at him speechless.  When he did get caught in a lie, he would say he misremembered.  Over time, he said he needed to spend some time figuring out why he “misremembered” things so much.  To my knowledge, he hasn’t done that yet.  (Insert major eyeroll here.)

Religious narcissistic fathers also do the following:

  • Religious narcissist fathers won’t let their sons win the family games
  • They won’t justify their children’s behavior, especially if they are right and he is wrong
  • He will belittle and shame everything he can to hide his own shame.
  • In public, he praises his children and tells everyone how wonderful they are for the sake of looking like the perfect family.
  • While he seems so empathetic in public, the religious narcissistic father has no more empathy than his secular counterpart.  His children’s struggles are their own problem, not his.
  •  They see their children as an extension of themselves, not as their own selves.  My ex used to brag that his kids were there to do his bidding/cleaning/organizing/serving.
  • If their children are not being useful to them, religious narcissistic fathers see them as inconvenient and burdensome.
  • Their punishments tend to be extreme.  Some examples in our home were holding out books until their arms couldn’t do it anymore, and other military-style, bootcamp type humiliating punishments. (My ex spent 34 years in the US Navy.)
  • His feelings are easily hurt and he will rage over it.
  • He is incapable of even the slightest criticism and will “bury” anyone who tries to do so.

How Sons are Affected by a Religious Narcissistic Father

Sons and daughters are affected very differently by a religious narcissistic father, so I will talk about each one individually with regard to how they are affected.  Additionally, different children are affected differently.  Their personality, how they handle the abuse, and how their father abuses them all play a part in the dance they live around each other.  With all of this in mind, let’s talk about the details.

Sons who are raised by narcissistic fathers have a significant chance of being either narcissistic themselves or codependent.  The pendulum swings to both extremes.  And they can fall anywhere on the spectrum of minor to severe.

If they fall on the narcissistic side, they learn from their father how to hide their shame by presenting themseloves as amazing in spite of the actual facts.  And they will destroy others to make themselves look better.  They will use all the same tactics as their father, increasing in use as they get older until they master the mask of narcissism.

On the other end, those sons that do not become narcissists tend to show signs of codependency.  They suffer from feelings of inadequacy.  They try to stay under the radar so they won’t be seen or yelled at as a burden.  They feel as though they are not worthy of being fully loved.  This goes into adulthood and can be a major reason why they don’t find a spouse who loves them in an emotionally healthy way.

They are guarded in all of their relationships, from personal to neighbors to work to family.  And they think they need to be a perfectionist in order to not rock the boat.  Because of this, they tend to be high achievers and very successful in life.

They will have difficulty in their spiritual life because of the religious abuse.  Many adult sons of religious narcissistic fathers leave the faith altogether.  Others struggle in the church for years without significant spiritual growth. Their father expects them to be perfect in their faith.  And they will use their sons’ fear of God to get them to comply with anything they want them to.

Often sons feel empty emotionally as they realize they are missing out on a healthy relationship.  They often see friends who have a good relationship with their fathers.  Additionally, they may feel deep loneliness and dissatisfaction even in spite of their success.

Variations of How Sons are Affected by Their Narcissistic Father

In the case of the “golden child,” the religious narcissistic father will pit his favorite child(ren) against the others, making all of the kids miserable.  The golden child fears being knocked off his pedestal.  He will allow them to go places that the other kids can’t go to.  My ex used to take his favorite out for golf all the time while the others would beg and then end up staying home because he didn’t want the inconvenience.

When disciplining the kids, he will use the golden child as the example of how the others should have behaved.  And the punishments will be nonexistent for the golden child while severe for the others.  Spankings (often in degrading ways), face slaps, rage and demeaning words were the rule of the day to keep the kids in line.

For the children who dare to speak out against the abuse, the rage and punishments will be exponentially worse.  Most sons realize very quickly that it will be better for them in the long run if they stay under the radar.

My Sons’ Experiences With Their Father

I have five sons.  They are all very different from each other.  I loved that about having a large family–one of my favorite things was seeing how different my children were as they grew up and what made each one who they were.

Anyway, my oldest son (second child) is an alpha male type.  He is very detail oriented and has no problem calling bullshit when he has been treated poorly by anyone.  In spite of this, he had a lack of self confidence that he heroically tried to hide.  His dad bullied him relentlessly until the day he left home. For a while, he tried to make amends with his dad.  But eventually, he just couldn’t deal with the non-relationship relationship and constant family abuse from long distance.  They no longer speak and haven’t for years.

My second son (fourth child) was affected very differently.  He was the “golden boy.”  My ex treated him like he was the perfect son and  could do no wrong.  But my son could see what he was doing to everyone else.  While he was grateful for not being a target, he worked to stay under the radar.  When he was 15, my ex dragged me to counseling to make me obey him better.  (In a great turn of events, the counselors saw through his antics!)

I started bringing home books my counselor recommended (you can find a lot of them on my resource page).  My son would steal them off my nightstand before I could finish them.  Today, he is also no longer in contact with his father.  He just earned his Master’s degree in psychology and is officially working as a counselor in that first agency I went to all those years ago.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am that some truly good things came out of all of those difficult years.

My third son (sixth child) was a mix of the previous two.  He would hide because he was afraid of his dad’s anger.  But every once in a while he would emerge and assert himself.  My ex would shut him down and bring him to tears in one or two sentences and extreme anger flaring.  He has not spoken to his dad since he was 15 years old, right after our church had my ex removed from our home.

My fourth son (seventh child) was a timid, shy child from birth.  It drove my ex crazy.  He stayed out of the line of his father’s fire until his father left our home.  He had seen enough of what had happened to his siblings to know he didn’t want to be anywhere near his dad.  He tried to spend some time with his dad at first, but it didn’t last long.  They have not spoken in a couple of years.

My fifth son (number eight) is only 10 years old as of the writing of this article.  He did not spend any time alone with his dad for the first six years of his life.  He just stayed close to me and the rest of his siblings.

One of the first things my ex did when the church had him removed from the home is demand time with his kids–not because he enjoyed the time but because he could continue to control us from a distance and because he could post pics on facebook to make it look like he was such an amazing Christian father in spite of the church leadership having him removed.  He played the perfect victim.  Or so he thought.  My pastor told me that 99% of the church membership was not fooled by his victim act.

My youngest son did not want to spend time with his dad for all the same reasons as his older siblings.  But the courts did not see it that way for him.  They did not force any of the other kids to spend time with him because they were teens.  And according to the standards the Virginia court system uses to determine custody, he should have been able to get the same as his older siblings.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.  But he doesn’t have to do overnights with his dad and no Sundays because of the religious abuse.

The court did assign his dad a few hours on one weekday and a few hours on every other Saturday.  As of now, he just does the few hours one weekday a week and no Saturdays because he wants that time for his new family.  Honestly, that works fine with us because our son hated being away from us and our plans on those days he had to be with his dad.  It turned out to be a win-win for everyone.

How Daughters are Affected by a Religious Narcissistic Father

Daughters are affected by their religious narcissistic fathers in many of the same ways listed for the boys above.  But there are some additional considerations for the girls.  Many of them are because of the cultural differences that men hold against women in the church.  Here are a few of them.

Daughters of Religious Narcissistic Fathers Experience Isolation

My ex tried everything he could to prevent me and the kids from talking about life in the house.  The more isolated he could keep us, the more he could gaslight, deny, judge, and otherwise emotionally and psychologically abuse us without being discovered.  If we weren’t talking about what was going on, we generally felt like we were the only ones feeling the way we were.  As we started talking, we realized a lot had been going on for a very long time.  And once we realized our story was the same, communication was kept open for the sake of emotional safety.

Interestingly, after being separated from my ex, I found out that for the 30+ years we were together, he isolated me from many friends and family members.  He would say and do things to them after I left the room that would cause them to keep their distance.  I never had any idea until he was out of the picture.  I am sad for all of the years of loss with my friends and extended family.

Sexual abuse and Religious Narcissistic Fathers

Sexual abuse is unfortunately just as rampant in Christian circles as it is in the secular world.  It is just kept quieter.

When in counseling, my counselor explained to me that sexual addiction often runs hand in hand with narcissism.  I was amazed to see how that played out in my marriage.  While I don’t have any direct knowledge or proof that my daughters were sexually assaulted, other people who were aware of the other abuse in our family have said there were signs that indicated that there COULD have been abuse.  Again, no proof was ever found, so for now, I can’t say that there definitively was sexual abuse.

I do know that two of my three daughters have had extensive night terrors based on dreams that their dad sexually abused them.  They also have no memory of anytime they were alone with their dad in their whole childhood.  They weren’t alone with him  often, so this is very odd to me that those alone times wouldn’t be strong in their memories.

A nurse friend also says there were some physical symptoms of sexual abuse in at least one of the girls, based on her behavior and mannerisms growing up.

I will likely never know as the girls have not felt that it is a road they are able to go down at this point.

Inability to Speak up With a Religious Narcissistic Father

While my boys were often not allowed to share their thoughts and opinions, it seemed that my ex was more adament about those rules for his daughters.

He would say what was what and there was no arguing.  They were only allowed to say, “Yes, Dad.”  It had a very cultish authoritarian church feel to it.  He just was not going to be crossed on any level.  Only complete unquestioning obedience was ever allowed, even as the kids got older.  Nobody was allowed to have their own thoughts, unless, of course, they perfectly aligned with his thoughts.

Daughters of Religious Narcissistic Fathers:  Different rules from boys

The girls were not allowed to even do all the things the boys could do.  First, they had to maintain a constant femininity.  They had to come off as girls at all times.  This was an issue when the girls were playing video games or listening to music.  They weren’t allowed to play all the games the boys could.  And the girls were not allowed to even listen to Christian rock music because it wasn’t “becoming of a lady.”

The constant double standards were incredibly frustrating for the girls as they grew up and felt like they were powerless to do things that came natural to them solely because they were girls and never based on their own personal interests or preferences.

One final double standard was how they could dress.  The boys had little to no rules while the girls always had to look like girly girls.  There was no leeway, even for my youngest daughter who was such a tomboy.

They did get some reprieve from the double standards while he was out to sea for extended periods.

My Daughters’ Experience With Their Dad

My oldest daughter (first child) has always had a hot/cold relationship with her dad.  They have a lot of similar mannerisms.  As a young child, while she and I were best friends, she was always considered her “daddy’s daughter.”  They often thought similarly and functioned similarly.

As she got older, the abuse and confusion began to increase.  And as of about two years ago, she cut all ties with him.  Unfortunately, she has cut ties with the majority of her siblings as well as me.  As she has gotten older, she has taken on many narcissistic traits herself and it has made relationship very difficult for all of us.

The second daughter (third child) is the only child that is currently in contact with her dad by choice.  There were a couple of years that she had cut ties with him based on past abuse and that she didn’t want her daughter around him.  But then she started spending time with him, according to another daughter it was to spite me.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t spite me, it only hurts her emotionally and doesn’t teach her how to function in healthier ways.

Her relationship with her father was odd.  They didn’t talk much or relate much except for lots of hugs and snuggles through the years.  It was a very odd relationship that has left me confused as to what the real nature of the relationship is.

As for my youngest daughter (fifth child), she has not been in contact with her dad since he was removed from the home.  And she even testified against him and the abuse in court for her younger brother.

She was the most abused of most of the other kids (my oldest son was also more of a target than the others).  The biggest reason for this is that neither one of them were willing to take the abuse lying down.  So they both paid the price of standing up for themselves.

How Wives are Affected by a Religious Narcissistic Husband’s Relationship With His Children

Wives of these men feel like they are being pulled in opposite directions.  For years, they may not understand what is going on.  They know things aren’t quite right.  But they are trying to be the best wife they can while trying to give their husband the benefit of the doubt.  They don’t realize they are being gaslit and controlled.

The vast majority of women that end up marrying religious narcissistic men are Christians that are trying to honor God with their wisest decision.  They want to marry the man that will help them to live their entire life for God.  So they end up marrying the man that seemed to honor God with every part of their life.

Those women had no idea that they were marrying someone who had put on an act in public and was a totally different person behind closed doors.  And even then, it can take years to realize that.  That is because the religious talk and “accountability” doesn’t end when they get married.

Religious narcissistic husbands will spend years convincing their wives that they have to obey everything without questioning them.  Their words are straight from God.  To question them is to question God.  And because those wives are eager to please God, they willingly submit.

When they see their husband say or do things wrong with the kids and talk to their husband about it, they get shut down so fast.  I remember thinking he just misunderstood.  So I would try to rephrase it in a better way.  He would get very angy and tell me he was fine and I had no right to question him.  You would think I would have figure out that we were being manipulated and controlled in a most ungodly way.  But I just kept giving him the benefit of the doubt.

I thought he didn’t know any better.  And I prayed for him to grow in wisdom.  I loved him as best I could and prayed and hoped he would return the love.  None of that happened.  The more I gave him, the more he demanded.  Until there was nothing left but him.

I tried to protect the kids when I could.  To this day I regret that I was too weak to stand up to him at times with the kids.  My counselor helped me to work through that guilt for over a year.  And I realized upon talking with the kids after the separation and divorce that there were several memory gaps where I had totally forgotten about things that had happened that my mind couldn’t handle, much like what our daughters went through.

What Children of Religious Narcissistic Fathers Miss Out On

The biggest thing that children of religious narcissistic fathers miss out on is a true relationship with their father.  They will never get that.  At least not from him.

They miss out on their dad being at their games, recitals, parties, and other special days.  They miss out on hobbies with their dad.  And they miss out on special trips, or even weekend trips to the home center for the weekend project with a stop by at fast food for a treat on the way home.

They miss out on the little things in life that make it fun.  They don’t get to enjoy the special talks with their dad when they’re having a rough day or even “just because.”

Maybe one of the biggest things that kids of narcissistic fathers miss out on is being able to relax in their own home when he is there.  Walking on eggshells is the order of the day.  And finally, they don’t get to enjoy a true spiritual life with a Heavenly Father that is compassionate, loving, and full of grace and mercy.

My youngest two now have a step father that they actually call their bonus dad.  I love that!  They finally understand what relating to a father figure looks like, even in all of its humanness and imperfection.  And the older children that have gotten to know him have a friendship that they have never experienced before with their real dad.

How Children of Religious Narcissistic Fathers Heal

The good news in all of this gloom and doom is that children of religious narcissistic fathers respond very well to counseling when they are able to find the right counselor.

Once they are no longer under their father’s thumb, they no longer walk on eggshells.  They start to think clearly and see their reality for what it really is instead of the clouded thinking.

One of my children seems to be a full blown narcissist at this point.  I’m hoping it isn’t too late for a counselor to break through.  Another has continued in damaging narcissistic relationships with others.  But most of the other kids have started healing and some have come along significantly.

One has been diagnosed with PTSD but has healed so much over the past 5 years.  Many have walked away from their dad and not wanted to think about how it all affects them in their daily life, but healing still happens as they relate to others in more healthy ways.  Even my 10 year old is healing well.  He has been in counseling for a few years now.

The important thing here is to see the narcissistic father for what he is.  When children (minor or adult) can see that, they can understand that it isn’t them that is so deeply flawed like their dad communicated to them.  And they can begin to see life in a whole new way.


Have you been in a relationship with a narcissist that affected your children?  How were you all able to heal?  Are you still in healing?  I would love to hear more of your story!  Feel free to share in the comments below.  Or if you don’t feel safe sharing publicly, you can message me your thoughts and feelings here.

Blessings and hugs,

If you found this article valuable, I think you will find the following ones valuable as well!

How to Deal With a Religious Narcissistic Mother

What to do When Your Narcissist Threatens You

The Bible Used as a Weapon Against You:  You can Overcome!

What Does the Bible say About Abusive Husbands?

The Link Between Spiritual Abuse and Narcissism

What Does the Bible Say About Abusive Husbands?

The Link Between Spiritual Abuse and Narcissism

Can a Narcissist Change for Love?

Why are You Attracting Narcissists?

How to Help a Narcissist Heal

Why Narcissists Love Going to Church

Does a Narcissist Know They are a Narcissist?

How Religious Narcissists Think?

Can a Narcissist be a Good Person?

Narcissistic Behavior:  What to Look Out For

Praying for Your Narcissistic Husband

Are Spiritual Narcissists Overt or Covert?

How to Navigate Religious Narcissistic Parents

What Happens to the Soul of a Narcissist?

How to Heal From a Spiritual Narcissist

Can You Maintain a Relationship With a Spiritual Narcissist?

Can Narcissists Have a Spiritual Awakening?

How Will God Judge a Narcissist?

When the Church Says to Move Back in With Your Narcissist

What Can We Say to a Friend Who’s Divorcing

23 Reasons Why Narcissists are Drawn to the Church

When the Church Doesn’t Recognize Narcissistic Abuse

Will the Church Support Divorcing a Narcissist?

What Does the Bible Say About Narcissism?

Can a Spiritual Narcissist Heal?

Can a Narcissist Be a Christian?

What is Spiritual Narcissism?

What Does the Spiritual Narcissist Do When You Try to Leave?  

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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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