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Will the Church Support Divorcing a Narcissist?

Reviewed by Karis A. Williams, MSMHC, LPC,   December 1, 2023

For devout Christians, the issue of divorce is a very serious one.  The church doesn’t support divorce just because a couple no longer wants to be married.  And the Bible has a few very specific things to say regarding when divorce is appropriate and when it isn’t.

So, with those thoughts in mind, will the church support divorcing a narcissist?  Historically, the answer would be no, in spite of the fact that the Bible does not indicate that divorcing a narcissist would be wrong.  The problem lies in the fact that many churches don’t understand the insidious nature of narcissism, or the damage that is done to a spouse, whether the husband or wife.  Churches are now starting to understand the incredibly toxic culture the narcissist brings into the home.  And fortunately, many churches are now in support of the divorce of a narcissist, for the safety of the spouse as well as the children.

My Experience With My Narcissistic Husband and the Church

I was married for 2 months shy of 31 years to my narcissistic husband.  We spent 26 of those years in one church.  Because our extended family didn’t live nearby, the church was like family to us.  But they had no idea what happened in our home behind closed doors.  And for that reason, I felt there was nobody I could confide in regarding my struggles.  All they knew was that my husband was one of the most spiritual and godly men in the church.  Because that was what he showed them publicly.

We had been married for 20 years when I hit my breaking point.  I knew I could no longer pretend everything was fine.  I told my ex this.  And it didn’t go well.  He was very angry that I would no longer be making him the center of my world.  But I would still be his wife and serve him as though we were together because as a devout Christian I never thought that I would have good reason according to the church to divorce him.  He had not committed adultery (that I knew of at the time) and he had not deserted me in the traditional sense.

Even though I was not brave enough to go look for support and healing, my husband was dissatisfied enough with my “performance” as his wife to start turning me in to pastors to make me obey and submit to him in the way he saw fit. I thought I was going down hard.  But what I didn’t realize was that a whole new world of healing was about to open up to me.

Before I go on with my story, let me share with you the problems of spiritual narcissism, what I learned about God’s perspective on being married to a narcissist and how it plays out in the church body.

Why is it a Problem to Live With a Spiritual Narcissist?

The biggest problem with living with a narcissist spouse is that they have no empathy and cannot see you as a person.  There is no partnership, no teamwork, really no relationship.  And there is no picture of Christ and the church as seen in Ephesians 5:22-23: “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.”

But the problem goes so much deeper than this, because the narcissist isn’t just uninvolved in a personal way with his/her spouse.  Once they no longer see their spouse as perfect, they develop a need to actually destroy their spouse.  The abuse commences, but in very bizarre forms, especially for the covert narcissist.  Because they need to be seen as good to everyone else (you cannot be seen as a Christian if people don’t see you as a good person), their abuse will happen in roundabout ways.

This double life that the spiritual narcissist lives is actually more harmful and insidious than a more overt narcissist.  Because at first glance he seems so kind and loving, nobody would ever suspect what is happening behind closed doors.  The abused hide in fear, thinking that because the narcissist has such a sparkling public reputation, nobody would ever believe what is really happening.

will the church support divorcing a narcissist

Some Examples of the Covert Behavior of a Spiritual Narcissist

While the covert behaviors of spiritual narcissists are quite varied, the root behaviors are the same.  It is generally just the circumstances that change.  Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • They go waaaay out of their way to look sacrificial so people can’t help but notice how kind, and concerned they are, while being overly demanding and brutal with you behind closed doors.
  • They isolate those they abuse, even family members, so that you feel alone in your experiences.  They say and do very cruel things when nobody else is nearby.  They manipulate their words to you in a confusing way so that you think you are misunderstanding them.  In return, you give them grace, thinking they couldn’t possibly have said and done the things they did intentionally.
  • They deny your reality when you approach them about something they said or did.  For example, if you ask them why they moved your keys into a room that you never go into, they will deny they did it, even though they were the only other person in the house.  They will hold on to that lie, no matter what.  Then you end up questioning your own reality.  Maybe you did go into that room and just don’t remember.  Even though you never do and would certainly remember if you did.  This is called gaslighting and is done by a covert narcissist way more than an overt narcissist.
  • When you try to talk to them about being hurt by something they said or did, they get very offended that you would think that about them. Then they explain why the thing they did was actually kind and loving.  Again, this is gaslighting–turning your reality upside down.  They are taking advantage of your desire to see the good in them.

God’s Perspective on Spiritual Narcissism

The first thing I want to say regarding this is that God knows all of our hearts.  There is no hiding from Him.  But I don’t think that narcissists are fully convinced of this.  I think they believe that they can even manipulate God because that is the way they deal with everything.  If they can convince God that they are sincere, they can fool even Him.  All they have to do is convince themselves first that they are doing the work of God.

That is exactly how narcissists think.  They change the facts in their head because they cannot face them as they are.  So if they change them to what they want them to be, they can live with themselves more easily.  I think that because they do this so often they do come to think that the new reality is the actual reality.  And in that vein God will believe them because they “made it all ok.”

Unfortunately for them, God’s perspective does not change based on what they think in their head and how they manipulate things to make them better in their own eyes.  God sees what they are doing, to themselves and to others.  And while God certainly does hate divorce, he hates even more when His Children are destroyed by others.  And the Bible makes it clear that the protection of His own is more valuable than staying in an unsafe place.  The covenant of marriage was already broken by the spiritual narcissist, so divorce is not off the table in God’s eyes.

What God’s Word Says to Victims of Spiritual Narcissism

Does he have sympathy for the narcissist’s self-imposed predicament?  Maybe.  I can’t answer for someone else’s heart and condition before God.  But I also know that God says He will not be mocked and that people who try to fool God will reap what they sow.  Galatians 6:7-8

God also sees those that are being slowly destroyed on the inside by the spiritual narcissist.  And He cares for them and loves them.  Psalm 10:14 says, “But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand.  The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.”

There are literally hundreds of other verses that show us that God sees those that are oppressed.  You can do a Google search for those.  But there is one book that was instrumental in helping me to see that God was there for me during this time.  It was The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick.

Not only did it help me to see that God was there, it helped me to see exactly what the harmful patterns were that I had been missing for so many years.  And it gave me life changing strategies to grow to be emotionally healthy.  If you could only get one book to help you on your journey to healing, this would be the one!

What Spiritual Narcissism Looks Like in the Church Body

This is a very tough road.  The church body is full of humans.  And we are all flawed in our understanding and how we handle life.  But that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to do their best in their own sphere.

I was very fortunate that my church leadership protected me and our children.  When things inevitably went public, they stood up for me publicly.  They let our congregation know that I had done everything I could.  But when my ex refused to work with us toward healing, they, along with our counselors, had him removed from our home.  This included the kids and me being placed in hiding for nearly two weeks before being able to return safely to our home.

In spite of the church leadership visibly supporting our family, there were people that were still so fooled by my ex husband’s public persona that they were actually angry with me and the church leadership for thinking less than stellar things about my husband.  This was after the leadership told the congregation that they had witnessed abusive behavior and tried all other avenues of healing before this.  Unfortunately, those few people were much louder about their lack of support for us than the vast majority who were supportive.

While my experience was tough, I had the support of my church leadership, although they stopped short of the church supporting divorcing my narcissist.  There are many victims of narcissism that are not supported by their church at all.  Because narcissistic abuse doesn’t leave visible bruises, the church sometimes refuses to acknowledge it as abuse.  There is so much more to say about this, and you can read more about it here.

But the takeaway here is that sometimes the church will not support divorcing a narcissist because they simply don’t understand the nature of the abuse.

Can a Spiritual Narcissist Be a Christian?

The truth is, we cannot say for sure whether another person is a believer or not.  We can’t see what is actually in their heart.  But we can get an idea of what is in their heart.  Luke 6:45 says, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.”

God does expect us to be discerning regarding those that are not behaving as Christians.  That does not mean we can go around judging Christians for everything they do that we don’t like!  But what it does mean is that we come alongside in love and share with them the issue that we have rather than harboring bitterness and judgment in our heart.

Galatians 6:1-5 speaks beautifully about how we do this in an encouraging way and not in a tone of superiority.  It says, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one will bear his own load.”

We Cannot Force Healing

We also need to realize that we can’t expect someone to change just because we speak to them about it.  We are responsible for our own healing and growth.  And they are responsible for theirs.

But it also shows us that if our spouse does not repent and follow the path of healing, that they can’t also profess to be a Christian. And the Bible does have a provision in it for an unsaved spouse who does not want to stay with a believing spouse.  In that case, the believing spouse is free to leave.  And in which case here, the church would support divorcing a narcissist.

will the church support divorcing a narcissist

When Does the Church Support Divorce?

Most mainstream protestant churches will support divorce in three instances:  in the case of adultery, desertion of the other spouse, and when an unbeliever no longer wants to stay married to a believer.  So will the church support divorcing a narcissist when this is the only criteria mentioned in the Bible?

When I was working with the my church leadership regarding what to do when it was clear my husband was not going to work toward healing, they considered his refusal to heal desertion of his family.  Unfortunately, that is very subjective from one church body to another.  I have a friend who was going through exactly the same marital issues I was.  She pleaded with her church leadership several times for help.  And instead of helping her overcome the abuse of her husband, they excommunicated her and said they were praying for her eventual salvation.  They literally heaped more abuse on her.

So what is the answer to this?  I think the first answer is to pray for the church to gain more wisdom regarding abuse and how to help families experiencing it.  One of the problems I have seen is that church leadership says they can only justify divorce for things that were specifically spoken of in the Bible, which were adultery and desertion.  But what if the Bible didn’t specifically mention divorce because it was a given?  The Bible doesn’t say attempted murder is a just cause for divorce.  Does that mean that a spouse who was nearly killed is in obligation to stay with that dangerous person?

The second answer is to kindly and gently initiate a discourse that will allow growth in this area in the church.  Let me share with you how my story played out.

How My Church Came to Support Me Divorcing a Narcissist

I am going to start by saying support is a generous word.  They do believe they supported me wholeheartedly.  But they didn’t quite go as far as they needed to.  They said that the church could not outright support me divorcing a narcissist.  But they would support my situation and not enforce church discipline if I chose to divorce him.

My ex husband and I were told we needed to go to counseling because the pastors and elders were not equipped to handle the severity of our issues.  I fully agreed with that.  My husband set up counseling for us, thinking that they would put me in my place and he could have his throne restored in our home.  That did not happen.

It didn’t take long before the counselors could see the abuse, even with his public persona (mask) being very tightly guarded.  But as soon as they started to push back on it, he quickly derailed.  He couldn’t keep his two worlds of abuse vs. most holy Christian separate anymore.  And when they collided, the fireworks flew.

But once they realized what was really going on, the church didn’t follow suit very quickly or easily.  I remember going to several sessions where my counselor was so frustrated that she couldn’t advocate for me effectively.  She and my pastor got into several heated conversations because he couldn’t understand how emotional and narcissistic abuse could be more harmful than physical abuse.

But the day came that he did understand!  And when he did, he apologized profusely for a long time after he realized the harm that he had allowed to perpetuate.  I am grateful to this day for that.

Not Quite There Yet

Unfortunately, he stopped short of validating my divorce as biblical, but said that he understood why I would need to be divorced and if I filed, the church would not hold it against me or seek church discipline for it.  It didn’t really matter because my husband filed.  But there has to be a better way to support than to say, “I guess you can do it and we won’t hold it against you but we won’t advocate for it.”

I hope that in the near future, women can count on full support from the church that is pledged to protect them.

Protecting Yourself From the Spiritual Narcissist

While in just about every other relationship the golden rule applies (treat others the way you want to be treated), narcissism is a totally different creature.  Doing so will only make things much worse and you will heap even more abuse on yourself.  You must be able to protect yourself!

Here are the most important things you can do:

  • Set boundaries.  The narcissistic husband especially will fight back on this.  They don’t believe you should have any boundaries as their spouse.  They believe they have full control over you.  This took me a very long time to learn to do and many counseling sessions.  Thank God for my counselor’s amazing patience!
  • Don’t engage when they start dragging you along.  That is very hard to do at first, but soon you will feel the strength of not having to defend yourself when the narcissist starts attacking.  You will realize that taking a step back and not engaging will diffuse the situation much better than getting caught up in the battle.
  • Keep your communication in writing.  This sounds odd especially for a married couple, but once this started becoming the rule for us, he couldn’t gaslight me or change the facts up to suit his story anymore.  For me this wasn’t a difficult transition.  I had stopped talking conversationally some time before (at least a couple of years) because he would deny the truth of literally everything I said to him.  And once I stopped talking he actually preferred the quiet to hearing me say anything.

Again, I would fully recommend the book I talked about above by Leslie Vernick.  Her book along with the excellent counseling I got were instrumental in my growth and healing.

And with that I would also recommend in closing that you find a counselor who understands narcissism as well as church dynamics.  I was fortunate to have that from the start before I even realized what it was I was supposed to be looking for.

At the end of the day, whether your church supports divorcing a narcissist or not, you NEED to do what is healthy for you.  It may be wiser to start looking for a church that will keep you and your family safe and value you as a child of God equal to other believers.

If you liked this article, I think you will love the following articles as well:

Are Narcissists Demon Possessed?

What Does the Bible Say About Narcissism?

Can a Spiritual Narcissist Heal?

Can a Narcissist Be a Christian?

What is Spiritual Narcissism?

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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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