For among My people are found wicked men;
They lie in wait as one who sets snares;
They set a trap;
They catch men.
As a cage is full of birds,
So their houses are full of deceit.
Therefore they have become great and grown rich.
They have grown fat, they are sleek;
Yes, they surpass the deeds of the wicked;
They do not plead the cause,
The cause of the powerless,
Yet they prosper,
And the right of the needy they do not defend,
"Shall I not punish them for these things?" says the LORD.
"Shall I not avenge Myself on such a nation as this?"
An astonishing and horrible thing
Has been committed in the land;
The prophets prophesy lies,
And the priests rule by their own authority;
And My people love to have it so.
But what will you do in the end?
My last post on this topic was written with optimistic goals. It was written with the hope that we can spot these problems early and not associate ourselves with a congregation in which the leadership style was controlling and manipulative. The truth is, most people are not able to pick up on the early warning signs unless they have already learned the hard way to watch for them.
There is also great difficulty for neutral third parties when, in an attempt to help solve conflicts, they look in on an abusive church situation. Because the aggression of the narcissist tends to be covert and subtle, it may be almost impossible for such a third party to even figure out that there is an aggressor, much less figure out who that aggressor is. There are probably several reasons for this, but I think the main one has to do with an inability for the rest of us to identify with a truly narcissistic personality.
I once was taking a Chemistry class in which I had proved myself a very mediocre student. There was a term paper involved in the class, and I saw this as my chance to redeem my grade. I put my heart into the term paper, and being a much better writer and researcher than I was a chemist, produced a paper that any teacher should have loved. If you had asked me, I would have humbly(?) told you the paper deserved an A plus. When the paper was returned to me, however, the only mark the teacher had left was a cryptic comment that implied that I had plagiarized the paper and a grade of C minus. Obviously the teacher thought my mediocrity extended to subjects beyond chemistry and assumed I could not have written the paper.
I was disappointed by the grade, but devastated by the implied charge of dishonesty. When I sought comfort from my mother, one of things she said was that she had observed that those who are not trustworthy themselves do not easily trust others, and, in fact, find accusing others of dishonesty very easy. She wasn't encouraging me to distrust my teacher, but she was using the experience to teach me the life lesson that there are people who may be quick to accuse, because the precise truth is not as important to them as it is to others. She was also teaching me not to be so quick to accuse others.
Mum was right, but the opposite can also be true. Most people, especially, I hope, those who are redeemed, are basically honest and sincere-hearted folks. Sure, we have our sins and our weaknesses, but overall we tend to deal with people in a straightforward way. We also know that we fail very often, and we tend to extend that grace to others, when their shortcomings are made manifest, that we hope we will receive when our failings are made known. We are not quick to point our finger and say, "Liar!"
Most of the time, this way of dealing with people is proper and good and promotes harmony. Straightforward. Slow to take offense or accuse. Willing to cover transgressions with love. Humbly submitting to authority and respecting personal boundaries. Thinking the best of everyone whenever possible. However, the same traits that make you agreeable to most people, can make you an easy victim of a person with a genuine personality disorder.
That is not to say that we should give up this way of dealing with people and become suspicious and accusing. In fact, losing the ability to trust others is part of the damage that abusive relationships can cause. The biblically astute reader will also see that list of positive traits and recall Scriptures that teach us that is the way we ought to behave toward our fellow men.
It is also true that most healthy people find it difficult to believe that someone else they know well is lying, scheming, or dealing with them in an unstraightforward way. It is especially difficult to come to this conclusion when the person in question holds a position with church authority. We tend to dismiss suspicions, push accusing thoughts aside, and even rebuke ourselves for even thinking it possible that the Rev. So-and-so might be lying, mismanaging church funds, or mistreating other church members.
When others are having difficulties with us and blaming us for the problem, we tend to take such criticism seriously. Even if we know we didn't do what we are accused of, we tend to look inward to find out what we did to create the misunderstanding, and figure out what we can do to make it better. When dealing with most people, this is a good thing to do.
The Scriptures do tell us though, that there are liars and schemers among men, and even among the leaders of the church. In fact, the group of people for whom Jesus had the most criticism were self-serving and dishonest ecclesiastical leaders. He sat down to eat with the dishonest tax collectors and drank from the cup of the idolatrous Samaritan woman, yet He granted no such familiarity to the scribes and Pharisees whom He likened to vipers and wolves and whitewashed tombs.
Likewise, the Scriptures do warn us that there are some people whom we must treat with more caution than we do others. We are warned that flatterers cannot be trusted and use flattery for their own ends. (See my previous post on flattery, with Scripture references, here .) We are told not to rebuke fools or scoffers, as the only result we can expect is a counter-attack (Proverbs 9:7 and others). In fact, this is exactly the reaction to rebuke you should expect from someone with a narcissistic personality disorder. Right after His warning to us not to judge one another and to avoid hypocrisy, Jesus tells us, "Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under your feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." Obviously, then, we are not being judgmental or hypocritical when we discern who these fools, flatterers, dogs, and scoffers are and learn to avoid the dangers they present. One theme of all these verses seems to be to keep away from such people because dealing with them will cause you harm. Rebuke most people, when necessary, and you have been a true friend. Rebuke these people, and you will likely become a victim.
Consider also how difficult it is for a third party to look in and figure out what is happening. When you hear that two people are having trouble getting along, don't you assume that the blame for the trouble can probably be rather equally assigned? Maybe Person A did something wrong, then Person B made too big a deal of it and was mean in making his complaint, then Person A reacted defensively and refused repent, then Person B pridefully refused to let the matter rest. This is the sort of thing that we see happen with normal sinful people all the time, and when we hear about interpersonal problems, it's usually a safe guess to assume this sort of dynamic is going on, and both people are at least partly to blame. Yet sometimes this is not the case. Sometimes a covertly aggressive person is attacking a person whom they see as a threat in a subtle and slick way designed to make detection by outsiders very difficult.
So let's say that a covertly aggressive person accuses you of something. If he questions your intentions, how will you prove to a third party what your real intentions were? If he claims you said something to him in private, how will you defend yourself against the claim? If he characterizes the way you acted, how will you prove otherwise? Even if what you did was done before witnesses, if the third party was not one of those witnesses, how will he know who is telling the truth? All a witness can say anyway is that they don't remember something happening. They can't swear that something they don't remember seeing happen didn't happen. Follow this link for a further explanation of how difficult it can be for an outsider to understand that a covert attack is taking place. (The article is difficult to follow, but worth some effort, as it illustrates this problem well.)
Considering how difficult it can be for a person to come to the realization that they are being victimized, and add to that the difficulty they will have in convincing a third party of the problem, one can see how hard it can be for a victim to get help. It can also be very difficult for authorities to untangle the lies and get to the truth so justice can be served.
One of the commenters to a previous post mentioned that this problem points out the need for denominational structure that holds pastors and elders accountable, because without such accountability, abusive leaders can flourish unabated. I am in total agreement with that assessment, and believe that that accountability is the only way, short of criminal prosecution when appropriate, for removing a manipulative or abusive pastor. However, even when that structure is in place, it is very difficult for those leaders to correctly identify the problem--and if they do, they will find they have a tiger by the tail.
They do not personally know the parties involved, especially the congregants. They will likely have a lot of experience with conflict resolution involving 'normal' sinners and relatively little dealing with pathological personalities. It will be even more difficult for them to believe that their colleague in the ministry is acting as wickedly as his victims claim as it was for those victims to come to that realization themselves. After all, what the victim knows to be true, because he witnessed it, the third party cannot know for sure. The typical manipulator will usually be able to convince his followers to testify on his behalf, sometimes knowingly lying, and at other times having been deceived themselves. The third party can only weigh conflicting testimony and attempt to find the truth--a process that can feel like trying to pin down a cloud.
Most of these church leaders have probably served as pastors and had to deal with congregants who are controlling and accusative. They know what it feels like to be an abused pastor, and when the pastor in a problem church is claiming that he is unfairly under attack, the story may seem familiar and believable. Even if they become personally convinced that the pastor is the problem, they may not feel they have the level of proof necessary to convict him of sin or remove him from church office.
The hope of dealing effectively with an abusive situation diminishes even more when you add to this confusion the fact that any denominational officers who are perceived by the narcissist as a threat are likely to find themselves coming under attack by the narcissist or his supporters and be distracted by the need to defend themselves, the pressure of dealing with threats of lawsuits and potential harm to their own reputations.
So what needs to be done about all this? In general, I think the Church lacks awareness of this problem, even though the Scriptures give us clear warnings about it. Awareness needs to come on two levels. I believe lay people need to be taught not only the verses which teach us how we should treat one another, but also those verses which warn us about people who use and abuse, even, unfortunately, when those abusers are church officers. We hear many sermons and read many devotionals on how we need to forgive one another and love one another, yet we hear few on protecting ourselves from flatterers, scoffers, and modern day Pharisees. It is not the nature of healthy people to be suspicious of these things in others. Just as we need to make our naturally trusting children aware of the dangers of trusting strangers, we need to make ourselves aware of the dangers of entanglements with manipulative and covertly aggressive people.
Second, I believe pastors, elders, and others who are in a position to hold other church officers accountable need to be trained to detect and deal with this problem. Perhaps a team of specialists is called for, as these people are well-known for hoodwinking their doctors and counselors as well as others. Yet a specialist cannot even attempt to diagnose this kind of problem unless the local church officers are trained to pick up on warning signs and call them in.
One resource I can recommend, especially to pastors and church officers, is an audio CD of a presentation by Ed Keinath at the 2004 Peacemaker's Conference. You can order a copy of Abuse of Authority: Dealing with Power Abuses by Church Leaders here. The presentation is only a brief introduction to the problem, but it touches on describing the problem, helping the victims recover spiritually, and helping pastors who are abusing their authority.
Let me end this otherwise depressing post with some encouragement. A manipulative person may successfully deceive men, but he will never deceive God. God may allow wickedness to escape the judgment of men, and He may allow His people to become victims of evil deeds. However, as in all things, God is sovereign and His will will be done. It is His will that all things will work out for the good of those who love Him and are the called according to His purpose. Therefore, we, the people of God, can trust that any trials that have come our way will be used for our good, as well as for the glory of God. Perhaps they will enable us to help others similarly afflicted. Perhaps they will strengthen our faith in God by shaking our faith in men or our faith in our works.
As with all of our troubles, our comfort is in the cross of Christ. God Himself has done for us all that we need. He is our salvation; He is our protection; He is our justice. We need to remember that these things are in His hands. When we remember that God holds all power to keep and to save, we can also know that our abuser has no power over us at all. Our abuser's words cannot condemn us when our Advocate is Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father and pleads our cause. If the God of All Creation finds our pitiful souls worth dying for, the opinion of a mere man can't alter His opinion. And God assures us in His Word that He will never turn away those who call upon His name. If you are willing to call upon Him it is because He has made you so, and He has made you so because it is His will to make you His own. No one whom He wills to make His own will be snatched from His hand by an abuser or anyone else. So let us stop trying to please men and serve appearances, and lay our sins and our weaknesses before God in repentance and in trust.