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Has Church Abuse Activism Taken a Wrong Turn?
A few more thoughts on narcissism and therapy culture
My review of When Narcissism Comes to Church generated some of the more pointed pushback I’ve ever received from those I would consider generally in my theological/political tribe. My friend John Starke thought I mis-characterized the book. Mike Cosper agreed with this, and went further to explain why the book is valuable even at those points where my description might hold up. In one interesting section, Cosper offers a scenario where Chuck DeGroat’s framework could be helpfully applied:
If you confront a narcissist and say, “You’re prideful, abusive, and manipulative of others,” you’ll likely get one of two responses. You might hear them say, “That’s simply not true — I’m deeply insecure and I’m surrounded by people who tell me they don’t think I’m abusive and confront me when they think I’m wrong.” In this case, that’s likely all true! The confrontation fails to consider the way the individual’s pathology makes them profoundly blind to their own sins and motivations, and it fails to account for the way modern society incentivizes others to attach themselves to narcissists. The outcome is often a mealy-mouthed, “I’m sorry for the way my behavior made you feel” apology.
On the other hand, you might hear them address the accusation directly, saying, “I struggle deeply with pride, tell me who I’ve sinned against and I’ll apologize.” In this case if there is a kind of narcissistic pathology at work, they can easily perform these tasks again and again. Critics might continue to say, “They’re abusive,” but co-leaders can point to the acts of repentance and attempts at reconciliation as evidence of a malleable heart. That’s all the more likely within a system that’s benefitting from a narcissist’s charisma and energy.
DeGroat’s framework challenges us to consider the more complex interaction between sin and suffering at the heart of the behavior. By understanding narcissism as a psychological defense, a built-in response to internalized trauma and grief, we see a different kind of inroad for caring for the soul of a narcissist. They can be confronted with their sin and its impact on a community while also being shown connections between that behavior and their deeper wounds. It does nothing to diminish the power of sin and the need for the cross to do so. In fact, it expands the way we can see its power — addressing not only the sins that we might have committed, but the power of sin to malform us.
Now, what I think is particularly instructive about what Cosper writes here is that he’s offered a mini-case study of confronting an abusive leader, and in this case study, there is no question that the accusation of narcissism and abuse is valid. Cosper’s case study envisions two endings to such a confrontation: either the leader will blame-shift, or they will try to pacify the accuser by appearing to “repent.” In either case, Cosper’s illustration presumes that the person being confronted really is a genuine narcissist, and with this assurance and using DeGroat’s ideas, the accuser can be equipped to see through even an apparent confession and apology. In other words, Cosper is saying that we need DeGroat’s book in order to really hold narcissistic leaders accountable, because otherwise we might be fooled by their apologies and their apparent contrition. Without doing the thick psychoanalytical work—identifying past traumas, naming one’s insecurities, perhaps even taking the Enneagram—we are at the mercy of having to take a narcissist at his word.
In the very beginning of my review, however, I offered a much different hypothetical scenario:
You are approached by two people in your church, both people that you know, love, and trust with equal measure. Person A needs to tell you something about Person B. Person B, according to Person A, has been spiritually abusing them. Person B has been using their leadership and influence to convince other people that Person A’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. Moreover, according to A, Person B has persisted in a pattern of manipulation toward A: saying things to belittle, minimize, or ignore A. Person A feels incredibly victimized by Person B, and does not know how they can persevere at this church while Person B remains.
Person B, meanwhile, believes that Person A is being disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. Person B tells you that Person A has been going around different groups and individuals in the church, spreading false information about Person B because the two simply don’t agree or get along. Person A, according to Person B, is angry that they’re not more influential in the church, and they blame Person B for that. Person B says that Person A wants to steamroll over several policies and even people in the church in order to get their way, but has thus far been prevented. This is why, according to Person B, Person A has now accused Person B of being a spiritual abuser, and B feels very strongly that A needs to be sharply rebuked for dishonest and misleading behavior.
My criticism of DeGroat’s book was that it failed to give Christians, leaders and non-leaders alike, a sufficient vision for how to navigate the above scenario. Someone might respond that such a task was not the goal of the book. But it was! When DeGroat offers a case study of a husband who tries to be cheerful and patient through times of suffering, and unequivocally labels him a narcissist who’s insensitive to the needs of his grieving wife, DeGroat is absolutely advancing a way of determining who is narcissistic and who is not. The decision that DeGroat made to emphasize psycho-therapeutic categories and marginalize concepts like sin and repentance is consistent with the framework he establishes, wherein the definition of a narcissistic, abusive person is highly contextual and depends mostly on how the people around that person feel about him.
This dynamic is evident throughout the broader Christian subcultures that have embraced a more activist approach to church abuse.
Within the circles that seem to promote most heavily books like When Narcissism Comes to Church, there is a pretty obvious expansion currently of the definition of words like “spiritual abuse.” Here is one example, a response to Tim Keller’s comment that regular Bible reading is essential to the Christian life:
I would hope that most evangelicals would see this sentiment as a gross overreaction at best. Yet I’m not sure. If you click to see the “Likes” on this tweet, you’ll find some pretty prominent exvangelical accounts: Kevin Max (formerly of dc Talk) and JOHNNYSWIM to name a couple. Do left-of-center evangelicals, those who mention church abuse when asked why they deconstructed or left their former faith, believe that saying “regular Bible reading is important” is (or at least smacks of) spiritual abuse? It’s hard to say. But there does seem to be a continuity here between a psychologized approach to institutional abuse and an ever-expanding understanding of what such abuse entails.
If I try to read my Bible but am disgusted by the Old Testament and do not wish to read it, is someone who tells me I should read it anyway guilty of spiritual abuse? How would you determine that? More to the point: how would you adjudicate between a claim of spiritual abuse on one hand, and a claim that the Bible is objectively good and true and worthy of reading and believing on the other? The latter is a theological claim. How do you answer a theological claim with a psychological one? They need not always conflict, but if they do, where do you go from there?
I suspect that we’re seeing a pathologizing of personal discomfort and an intuitive self-care worldview that assumes a posture of distrust toward anything that causes or even correlates with discomfort. This pretty much summarizes most of what can be found in online therapy culture, for example, where the word “toxic” is often deliberately weightless but definitive. When these trends show up in Christian contexts, the biggest target in the room is clearly the institutional church. And of course, there are genuinely evil things that happen within and because of churches! So why do so few people want to say “evil” and so many more seem to say “toxic”? Because the word “evil” evokes moral absolutes, whereas the word “toxic” is impression-coded. An evil regime merits opposition, even sacrificial opposition. A toxic culture merits quiet quitting and self-care afterwards.
This is why it’s impossible nowadays to say “Christians should go to church” on Twitter without being flooded with dozens of replies like, “So you’re saying I should be OK if a church harms me??” Part of this silliness is just the epistemological habitat of social media. But another part of it is how successful the notion of toxicity has been in programming our instincts. You say “belong,” I hear “be abused.” You say “go,” I hear “get run over.” That personal suffering can leave impressions that shape us is absolutely true and serious. But it should not be controversial to believe that part of healing from that suffering means to eventually stop hearing the voices of wicked people in your head. This might be a lifelong struggle. But the therapeutic worldview of much activist culture denies that you should even struggle.
The point I tried to make in my DeGroat review is that this dynamic is good news for abusers and narcissists. The people who benefit from category confusion are the people who don’t want hard questions to be asked; they just want their way or the highway. I fear that this watchdog culture, while understandable in its aims and origin, is going to isolate people rather than renew them. The whole reason to call out church abuse wherever it happens is because the church is beautiful and valuable and immortal, and Satan, the master abuser, wants church to look more like him instead. To the degree that abuse awareness hands people a mirror and tells them they can only be truly safe at home, it surrenders the whole game to the enemy himself.