The most common advise for dealing with controlling and/or narcissistic personalities is to not deal with them, but to get yourself out of his or her sphere of control. Sometimes, however, complete elimination of contact is not possible, and as Christians, and as covenant members of the Church, we have other considerations besides our own well being or happiness. In this post I want to lay out what some of those considerations are, and yet because each situation is different, I do not want to presume to set down rules or definite answers that others should follow. My goal is simply to help you bring to mind some issues that are worthy of consideration as you decide whether to stay at or go out from your congregation. In the next post I will look at specific manipulation techniques and some strategies for dealing with them if you find yourself unable to cut off contact at this time.
Are We Called to be Doormats for Christ?
The world would tell us that our highest obligation is to ourselves and to our own comfort, well-being and happiness. This kind of thinking is often used to justify all kinds of unfaithfulness and selfishness, and most Christians who wish to think biblically will reject this sort of reasoning. Yet, we often swing that pendulum too far and suppose that the Bible teaches us that we are to be doormats for Christ, exposing ourselves to all sorts of abuse and wickedness without protecting ourselves or seeking help. It is an error to elevate suffering for no reason or purpose to the same status as suffering for the sake of Christ or His bride. We are not to walk about with a holy "Kick Me" sign taped to our backs.
The Apostle Paul, who demonstrated his willingness to suffer for Christ, was willing to appeal to his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid an unjust punishment and insist on a trial:
But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, "Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?" When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, "What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen." So the tribune came and said to him, "Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?" And he said, "Yes." The tribune answered, "I bought this citizenship for a large sum." Paul said, "But I am a citizen by birth." So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. (Acts 22:25-29)
Consider also, the large number of Scriptures that teach us to be watchful of, avoid, and beware of certain persons, such as the wicked, the scoffer, the fool, and especially false prophets and corrupt church leaders in order to protect ourselves from the harm they cause. Here are just a few examples of many:
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler. Proverbs 20:19
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Romans 16:17-20
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Matthew 7:15-20
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1
For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 2 Timothy 3:2-4
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. Titus 3:10-11
Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Proverbs 9:7-8
"Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you." Matthew 7:6
Our Highest Obligation
We can learn from these verses that we need not consider ourselves punching bags for the wicked, we must also realize that there are times when we should take risks and allow suffering if it serves the cause of Christ. A wise friend with whom I was discussing this issue encouraged me to think in terms of a hierarchy of vows and obligations. We have obligations to God, to our family, to our congregation, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ. There are times when these obligations may come into conflict.
Our highest obligation is, of course, to God Himself, and all other obligations are in subordination to that one. We should always prefer to suffer for Christ than to deny Him or disobey Him. It is at this level, however, that abusers often insist their supporters compromise. They are asked to lie in order to help the manipulator avoid exposure or accountability. They are asked to gossip, to be false witnesses, or to take aggressive action against people without proper cause. They are asked to participate in shady financial transactions or to overlook sexual sin. Our highest obligation is to God, and when we allow a relationship with any human being to cause us to sin against Him, we are practicing idolatry.
Our Obligation to Our Family
The next highest obligation is to our family. Heads of households are charged with the duty of protecting their family, of nurturing them in the Word, and of providing for their physical and spiritual needs. Protecting the family is not synonymous with seeing to it that they do not suffer at all, however, a head of a household must weigh the difficulties of remaining with a controlling church leader against the family's needs for spiritual guidance, teaching, worship, and fellowship. In the long run the costs of a decision to stay may have serious consequences on the Christian walk of family members. In the short run, the family may be strong enough to endure a time of struggle while other obligations are being met. Each head of household must weigh these factors according to his own situation.
Our Obligations to the Church and to Our Brother or Sister
There is also an obligation to the Church, and specifically to the congregation. Typically when we join a church we are asked to take vows to support the work and worship of the church, to submit ourselves to the discipline of the church, and to work for its peace and purity. A very important consideration here is the presence or absence of a system of biblical church discipline. We need to consider the obligation to use the system of church discipline that is in place in an attempt to deal with the problem, or, if that system is nonexistent or in the hands of the controller, that such a course would be impossible.
As we laymen are not qualified to diagnose personality disorders or psychopathy, I believe there is some obligation to at least try to reason with the controlling person before giving up on him. If he or she is a reasonably healthy person who has fallen into a controlling management style, there is some hope in helping him or her to see this and repent of it. Titus 3:10 instructs us to try twice to warn a divisive person, and then avoid them. Typically a disordered person will react to reproof in three ways: 1) He will find fault in the manner in which you stated your complaint, 2) He will turn the tables and attack and accuse you, and 3) He will lie and attempt to confuse you with diversions and convince you that you are mistaken about the facts. What he will not do is listen and attempt to understand your point of view. (A healthy person may seem to be reacting in some of these ways, too, but he is more likely to back down from it, or call you the next day and apologize for not handling the confrontation well.)
strength of this reaction is likely to be proportional to the degree of
threat the disordered person perceives from your rebuke. A quiet,
private rebuke or expression of concerns, carefully and gently given,
will probably be enough to see whether or not the reaction to it is
going to be appropriate, and is less likely to bring a severe
retaliatory response. Remember that an inability to see or understand
another person's point of view is a symptom of a personality disorder,
so beware of a person who displays this trait even in a low-key
Considering Church Discipline
Taking your concerns to a higher level could result in serious consequences, however, and we need to count the possible costs before taking such a course. The retaliation and attack of the truly personality disordered person can be vicious. One should expect rumor and gossip campaigns, attacks on your character and reputation, and possibly lawsuits, false accusations, and even physical threats. Is this a cost you are willing to pay?
Further, we must evaluate whether such a course is practical in terms of likely success. Is there a sufficiently strong system of discipline in place to which this person is accountable? Will you be able to give them enough hard evidence to act? (I pointed out in my last post how difficult it can be for an outsider to cut through all the diversions and lies to determine who is at fault, and who is telling the truth.) Is there any possibility of bringing in experts to help diagnose the problem or mediate the dispute?
Participating in a process that could potentially remove an abusive pastor or elder from a position from which he could harm others is keeping your vow to work for the purity of your church. If you are, yourself, an officer in the church, your obligation is probably much higher to attempt to do so if that sad duty falls to you. However, before doing so, you should count the cost and plan how to protect yourself and your family from the certain retaliation and counter-attack such a move will provoke.
Help for the Abuser and the Abused
We also need to face the sad truth that we will not be able to change or reform the truly disordered personality. Mental health professionals and professional counselors hold out little hope for correcting this problem that developed in early childhood. Some modification of behavior is sometimes possible after years of therapy, however the lack of early personality development is not thought to be correctable. As most people suffering from this problem refuse therapy or counseling unless they are coerced by the civil courts or an employer, it is difficult to achieve even behavior modification. Therefore, refusing to break away from an abusive relationship because we hold out hope of changing the abuser is foolish. We do better to remove ourselves from his sphere of influence and pray that God might bring about healing.
This brings us to the sad truth that abusive relationships can be strangely addicting for the abused person, and breaking away is often difficult or even traumatic. There is a mutual dependency that can develop, especially with those who work closely with the abuser and find themselves in a supporting role in a manipulative system. Also, victims of this kind of spiritual manipulation often need help sorting out the bad theology they have learned, especially as regards legalism, feelings of unworthiness, and a distorted view of the gospel. However, the prognosis for counseling for the abused person is quite good. If you find yourself struggling with breaking away or recovering from an abusive church situation, seek out a Christian counselor or pastor with experience dealing with spiritual abuse situations.