Narcissists know how to get others to support their abuse, and most of the time, the “designated abuse assistants” have no idea. In fact, often they think they are being helpful to the couple and don’t realize that they are making the situation so much worse.
So, what are these ways the church helps narcissists abuse their victims? The simple answer is that they are very careful to use words that seem positive and kind, while they are actually destructive behind the actual words. Then they put themselves in the position of victim, causing the church to think that they are the ones who need their help, and that everything they do is innocent in intent. Once the church starts seeing the victim as the oppressor, the narcissist will push for their swift and severe punishment.
If the church can see what is actually going on before they get too far down this road, then the narcisssist’s agenda will be thwarted. But many times they do not see. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent ways the church helps narcissists abuse their victims.
Table of Contents
1. Making Both Partners Equally Responsible
I think that in seminary, pastors are taught that because both parties in the marriage are sinners, the problems in the marriage have to be caused by both of them. This is true, but not in the way they process it.
While it is true that both parties are sinners and there is no marriage where one of the people is perfect, there can definitely be one party that does unspeakably more harm than the other person. Blaming both of them for the poor quality of marriage when abuse is present is heaping even more abuse on the victim.
What makes this even more insidious is that the narcissist will use it to his benefit to further destroy his partner. The church has no idea that he is seeing them as support to continue to drive his spouse into the ground. They just see that they are trying to work on specific problems so the marriage can be restored.
2. Putting the Couple Together for Marital Counseling
Many people tell me that I was so brave to come forward and get the counseling and emotional healing I needed. But I didn’t seek out counseling. My ex-husband dragged me to counseling to punish me for trying to set boundaries and refusing to bend to his abusive demands.
I thought my world was crushed because he had a stellar reputation as an elder at church. I thought he would just as easily fool the counselors. But God protected me even as I felt like I was going to be buried. My ex-husband used those sessions to attack my character and make his demands. He expected the counselors to help him enforce those demands so I could be the “wife he wanted me to be.”
But a funny thing happened about 6 months into our counseling. It was actually my birthday. Our counselor called and asked if I could go to counseling alone that evening. I thought this was the end. I was going down.
What actually happened was she sat me down and explained that she could clearly see what was going on. She wanted me to begin solo counseling so I could get out from under my then-husband’s thumb.
That is the piece the church is missing. Some churches working with us said they couldn’t work on marital issues with only one partner present. They didn’t realize the abuser will use those sessions to find and use the very things the abused are struggling with. That is exactly what happened with us. My ex spoke about how much I offended him in almost a growl rather than a normal voice. He changed the facts about nearly everything. And he continued that until I told the church leadership that I would no longer meet with my husband present.
My counselor had no idea that she called me that day on my birthday. I did tell her about it over a year later. And she very quickly termed it the “best birthday present ever.” She was absolutely right.
3. Not Allowing the Abused Person to Keep Boundaries
Often, the church sees the victim’s need to set boundaries as an affront to the rights of the abusive spouse. They do not see boundaries as healthy. And they do not recognize the behavior of the abusive spouse as abusive.
When I tried to set boundaries toward the end of my marriage, my ex would immediately quote 1 Corinthians 7:4, which says, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband.” Unfortunately, that is not the correct interpretation of that verse. And he would also conveniently forget to finish the rest of that verse that says, “In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”
This verse has nothing to do with boundaries. But my ex-husband thought he could use it to justify that he could make me do anything he wanted me to.
My ex-husband would also brag that as long as he hounded me long enough, I would give in to anything he was asking me to do. When he said that, I realized it was time for me to learn to stand up for what was right. I needed to stop allowing him to control me like I was a dog.
4. Forcing the Abused to Let the Abuser Stay in the House
I had been a member of my church for 26 years. When they started to learn about my marital issues, it took the church leadership well over a year to see what was going on. My husband was very good at keeping the abuse and his church life very compartmentalized.
But when the counselors started leaning in on him, he started losing the ability to keep things separate. And then the church was brought in. At that point, it became pretty clear what was going on behind closed doors when his two worlds collided. And one they knew what was going on, they became the target of his anger nearly as much as I was.
When he realized the church was going to hold him accountable, he immediately found another church. When that pastor spoke with our pastor about transferring my ex-husband’s membership, the pastor agreed that he would work with our church on healing and reconciliation. Unfortunately, that could not have been further from the truth.
Rather than working with our church on methods of healing, they wanted me to let him move back into our home so they could start helping us to work toward a healthy marriage. My church had had him removed about 6 months earlier, because of the toxicity of the household with him in it. And nothing had changed. In fact, my ex continued to manipulate the situation everywhere he went. So my church was staunchly against allowing him back into the home. They knew that most men who are allowed to return become even more abusive because they feel they have gotten away with the abuse.
Because the new church didn’t like that they could not manipulate him back into our home, my ex took even more advantage. He filed a request to be given grounds for marriage based on the fact that I was not fulfilling his sexual needs while we were separated. And they granted it on those grounds. There was never a dialog with our church on their decision. They chose to side with the abuser. This is not a rare occurrence in many churches, where men are given sole authority and women have no voice.
5. They Think You Should Give the Abuser a Break Because “They Aren’t That Bad”
This is such a heartbreaking point. It tells the victim to shut up and put up. Because the person saying it has generally only seen the narcissist’s “good side,” they have no idea the level of abuse that goes on behind closed doors. And when you don’t answer because you can’t explain years of abuse behind closed doors in one sentence, they walk away thinking they have given you great wisdom. And then they continue to support the narcissist as the “nice person who just needs you to cut them a break.”
This happened to me a couple of times. In one instance, my assigned elder at my church told me that. I did answer him with one of the abusive episodes that my ex did to one of my kids. He didn’t have an answer for me. He just stared at me speechless. And then he never talked to me again. But he does frequently like my ex’s fake facebook posts that lie about what a wonderful man of God he is and how much he loves his family that he is mostly estranged from. And when they get a chance to see each other in person, he has no problem hamming it up with my husband.
I think that he was trying to be neutral and supportive of both of us. What he (and people at large) don’t understand is that if you choose to be supportive and neutral, you are actually supporting the abuser. In his mind, he thinks you are supporting the abuse as acceptable. And the only option for the abused is to quietly walk away.
6. They Think Because They Haven’t Seen the Abuse That You are Making It Up
My ex-husband was an elder at our church of 26 years for probably 15 of those years. And during that time, he convinced many families that he was an amazing Christian and leader of his home. They never knew life was falling apart behind closed doors. And unfortunately, for many of those years, I was more than willing to keep up the facade.
When things went public, it got pretty crazy. The majority of people saw what was going on because he made it very public. Our church leadership pushed back a little bit to let the congregation know that they were supporting and protecting the kids and me through this and hoping to work toward reconciliation. But there were a few families in the church that were unwavering in their unilateral support of my ex, regardless of the proof that was given.
While I never really heard much gossip in the church and thought that meant it didn’t exist, I learned that gossip actually did exist and flourish in that church. Several of my friends would tell me what people had told them. The funny thing was that none of them had talked to the pastor or elders about it, even though the pastor strongly recommended it to help keep the gossip at bay.
But even more than the gossip, a couple of die-hard supporters of my ex made it their mission to give me dirty looks and walk away every time we were in the same room. Or even make snide comments and walk away. One thing that happened that really shook me was when a man from church walked up to me one day and said, “The reason my wife no longer comes to church is because she doesn’t like how the leadership handled your situation.”
How My Pastor Tried to Protect Us
I told the pastor about the events. I was telling him I would be attending another church because attending there had become unbearable. In his defense, he told me that not a single one of those people who did those things to me had talked to him to find out what the real story was. And he offered to personally go to each one and set them straight as to the circumstances as well as chastise them for making a difficult situation impossible.
I was grateful that he was willing to help in that way. But by that time I knew he was exhausted by the whole thing. And I also knew that it wouldn’t change the hearts of those people. It would only make them more careful about how they spread their poison around.
I moved on with the blessing of that pastor. He supported me going to a church that had a Divorce Care Ministry. That was a huge blessing from God. And today, not only have I been helped by that ministry and found great healing. I now lead the program at that church and help others who are now going through the anguish of divorce in the church.
The bottom line is that there will be people that will want to hold on to the false public persona that they will refuse to see the truth. Their perspective will be that “they’re so nice to me, I can’t believe they would do those things to you.” And honestly, there really isn’t anything we can do about that except to move on in our truth.
In the end, most of those people left the church even after I did. Where did they go? To the church that my ex attended that supported his abuse of his family.
7. We Just Need to Explain Things Better To Them
This remains one of the biggest ways the church helps narcissists abuse their victims. They control the narrative. I actually remember thinking this myself for many years. If someone could just explain it better, everything would be fine. I tried to explain it in every possible way. When I had been in counseling for some time, I thought that they did an amazing job of understanding me. And I knew they understood him. I thought maybe they could communicate in a way to him that I could not. They were experts! But that wasn’t the problem. My ex knew exactly what he was doing wrong. But as long as he pretended he didn’t, nobody could make him accountable.
This is a huge “strength” of narcissism. They communicate through chaos. And that prevents anyone from getting through to them in a productive way. As long as they keep changing the story, moving the goal posts, and manipulating the truth, they are untouchable.
The only thing that can be done is to remove them from being able to harm others. But usually the damage has already been done. They leave a mess in their wake. And they take good people down with them.
8. You Need to Work Harder on Your Marriage
This may be the number one way the church helps narcissists abuse their victims. Many women who have been married for 20, 30, even 40+ years decide they can’t do it anymore. When they leave, their church, friends, neighbors, extended family may very well say, “I am so sorry. Maybe there could have been just a little more you could have done to save the marriage.”
This becomes so incredibly harmful on so many levels. First, there are very few women that don’t try their very hardest when things get rough. They do whatever they can to get back on an even plane in their relationship. Most women want to make their relationships a haven. When things are uprooted, their whole world can feel uprooted. They continue to think if they could just be little better things may be okay.
And guess what happens when they do that? The spouse takes even more advantage. He will expect more, demand more. And she will continue to try more. It is a neverending cycle that brings the abused lower and lower. The abuser just keeps getting the upper hand. One woman described it as she existed just to serve him.
In a normal marriage, this is actually great advice. Once one partner starts trying harder, the other partner usually recognizes it and reciprocates. But when you are in a relationship with a narcissist, he doesn’t even see you as a person. He just sees what he can get. And that will destroy the woman who tries so hard.
Leslie Vernice wrote an amazing book that talks about this. It is called The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.
If you are struggling and need to get any book, this is the one! It clarifies so many things about how to handle life once you realize you are in a destructive marriage and not just a difficult one.
9. God Hates Divorce
This is one of the most common ways the church helps narcissists abuse their victims. It seems like the number one response when a victim finally feels brave enough to tell others what she is thinking.
So yes, God does hate divorce. But does that mean he expects us to stay with an abusive spouse? NO! He also hates a liar, people who cause dissention, and people who deal dishonestly, among many other things. Leslie Vernick says, “We often hear that God hates divorce but in the context of Malachi 2, God is rebuking an unloving,
unfaithful husband, not denouncing a desperate wife.” For more on her take on this, follow this link for a special PDF she created.
The truth is that God hates the things that bring about abuse. It is true that if you have done damage to the marriage, you have to repent of those things and move forward in godliness. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to repent to an abusive spouse, especially if it is going to bring you more harm.
And God provided divorce as a way to safety. He also provided divorce because men would send their wives away without reason and there would be no way for them to make a living for themselves. He provided a way for the downtrodden spouse because we live in an imperfect world.
10. Your Suffering is for Christ.
I have to admit I really wince at this way that the church helps narcissists abuse their victims. Churches exist that believe once you have married an abusive husband, it is now your lot in life to stay in that marriage. They say you are suffering for the sake of Christ. And they will even give you verses that supposedly back up their statements. But that is NOT what those verses are talking about!
When the Bible speaks about suffering for Christ, it is talking about the things people do to you because of your faith in Christ. They are not talking about abuse or persecution for any other reason. It is a cop out that makes the person saying it sound godly without having to help the person in distress.
Certainly, while we are going through abuse, we need to look to God for guidance and wisdom regarding how to handle our situation. We need to make sure we are responding in a godly way. We cannot respond to abuse with more abuse. But the Bible says nothing about continuing to be abused for the sake of forwarding the cause of Christ. It does say in many places to guard yourself from harm. And it gives instructions for the church body to come to the aid of those who are abused and oppressed.
Just know, Jesus does see you. He does want you to find peace and healing. And He wants you to find a place that will do that for you and interpret the Bible in the way He meant for it to be interpreted.
Unfortunately, this perspective does great disservice to the name of Christ. It allows abusers to keep on abusing. They are never brought to the truth. It tries to make the victims sound noble in their suffering. The damage is widespread. The true nobility is to claim escape and healing in the name of Christ!
11. It is Your Job to Submit, Regardless of What He Does to You
When I was just starting to emerge from my abusive marriage, I remember reading an article from the church denomination my ex had moved over to. It was actually a report on their national General Assembly gathering in June of that year–I believe it was around 2018. Interestingly, when I went back to find that article months later, it was gone. And I have never been able to find it since.
Anyway, the article covered the topic of the abuse of women in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It was speaking about how to handle reports of spousal abuse in the home. And the gist of the article was that women are not free to flee spousal abuse on their own. Or at all. They are expected to stay in the home and relate to the husband as though nothing is wrong. They are to continue to do all their “wifely duties.” That would include homemaking as well as meeting the physical and sexual needs of their husband.
As long as the wife is doing all of her part to be the “perfect wife,” the church will counsel the husband. They will speak to him about repentance of the abuse. And they will try to work with him to be a better husband. But what if he chooses not to do any of those things? The wife is still not excused from the marriage or even allowed to flee the home. She must continue to do her part in the marriage regardless of what the husband does. There is no shelter or protection.
The Rewards of Being a Godly Wife in Some Churches
This actually happened to me. Because my church had removed my ex from the home, his new church challenged me to let him back into the home so we could then “work on the marriage.” Even if I had said yes to this, my church and counselors would have been justifiably upset that I had thrown away so much of the work they had done to protect me and the kids.
Do you want to know how our story ended? My ex’s church refused to work with my church because we wouldn’t let him back into the house. Then the leadership of the OPC church said my husband had grounds to divorce me because I wasn’t meeting his sexual needs while we were separated. My ex was remarried 7 days after we received our divorce papers (yes, 7 DAYS). And he remains a member in good standing at his church while his family continues to try to heal from all of the destruction. This continues to be a critical way that his church helps narcissists abuse their victims. They have no voice or right to protect themselves.
12. Not Taking Sides is Siding With the Abuser
The church helps narcissists abuse their victims when people believe that they need to stay neutral between the parties of a divorce. They don’t want to be seen as supporting either side. They want to be supportive to everyone. This is actually not even exclusive to the church. We see it all around us. People want to be kind and gractious to everyone. But they don’t realize that abusers will use that kindness to continue to abuse their victims.
It sounds like people are taking the high road by doing this. They are going to be gracious to everyone involved. Unfortunately, it actually sides with the abuser.
Most abusers rationalize their abuse in strange ways. Especially in the case of narcissists, when a person still relates to them in a friendly and supportive way, he takes it as support for all he has done, even if he knows they don’t know about it. The narcissist’s super power is keeping everything compartmentalized. If he can keep everybody isolated, then he can abuse all the different pockets of people. And he gets away with it because nobody realizes he is doing it all over the place. They think they are the only ones and nobody will believe them if they come forward. And they feel like everybody else thinks he’s amazing.
The point of all of this is that if you know of allegations of abuse and continue to spend time with the abuser, you are justifiying their actions toward their spouse. This is true even though the abuser has not abused you. You continue to say that they are fine by not addressing the allegations of abuse with them, or by accepting whatever answer they give you and then moving on as though everything is okay.
The Myth of Neutrality
This behavior has a name: it goes by the name “the myth of neutrality.” Because there really is no such thing as neutrality. Abusers will always downplay their abuse and mistreatment. A hallmark of narcissism is lying. Narcissists also like to make themselves look like the victim and their victim look like the oppressor. So when you continue to associate with them in a friendly manner after they do this, you are saying that their behavior–abuse and lying–are okay with you.
His victim will acutely feel the pain of your misguided support. They will see that you choose his lies over their truth. And they will see that you value the abuser more than them. This is because in effect, you are turning the truth of the victim into a lie. And you are projecting the abuse they have received back onto them.
But that may not even be the worst thing. You are also giving the narcissist your blessing to keep on abusing. If they can get away with what they have already done, they can keep on doing it.
So this is a list of 12 ways that the church helps narcissists abuse their victims. Most of them I have experienced personally. I do want to reiterate that the people who helped my narcissist ex to abuse me further really didn’t understand what was going on. They truly thought they were helping.
Also, while I listed the most prominent ways the church helps narcissists abuse their victims, there are so many more. I know that people who have personally experienced narcissistic abuse in the church can list several additional ways. Please feel free to chime in about that in the comments!
Note: The following book was instrumental to me in understanding how the church helps narcissists abuse their victims, albeit unknowingly. I think every church needs a copy of this book! I even gave a copy to my pastor at the church that worked with us until our divorce. Also, I think it would make a great subject of a Sunday School class. If we all had the tools to combat the narcissist’s abuse tactics, the church would be so much stronger and not such a haven to them! Anyway, click on the book or title to look into it. You will be glad you did!
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