The Dynamics of Narcissistic Spiritual Abuse
This article is a distillation of observations drawn from our experience of abuse combined with wisdom from other victims and professionals that have been there and seen it all before us.
The New Testament Pharisees, berated by Jesus for their hypocrisy, were the spiritual abusers of their day. There are excellent studies in print about their methods and are mentioned in our links page. However, it was the story of an Old Testament character, well known for his narcissism, that has yielded an astoundingly accurate account of the dynamics of spiritual abuse in the Church … or secular organisations and governments, alike.
It took quite a long time to start seeing our ex-pastor in a very different light, having over the years, made excuses to ourselves for the inconsistencies, the ’odd’ things, the lack of lasting fruit, the disappearance of established members, with no reason given. Yet he seemed to have such wisdom and a genuine passion for God, an anointed pastoral gift helping families from very disadvantaged backgrounds with a plethora of problems, absolutely adored by his closest members and held in high esteem by the local community. A jovial, huggable father figure. How could he possibly be capable of abuse? Was there just a dysfunctional mental perception connected with his dyslexia? Or something else? How much was driven sub-consciously by hidden vulnerabilities? How much of it was that he was genuinely deceived? How much was deliberate? Was he just the puppet of the Foe? For how much should he take full responsibility if he’s not in his right mind?
Yet we are told “not to judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgement (assessment)” (Jn 7:24) and Paul said in I Tim 5:24 “some men’s sins are obvious from the outset, others become evident later.” ( my paraphrase). Also, “Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. (I Cor 4:5)
Not all hurtful church experience is spiritual abuse, nor does every hurtful pastor have full-blown narcissistic personality disorder - some only have tendencies in that direction. Others just have underlying vulnerabilities or insecurities or just plain bad people skills that cause some heavy handedness. They may be approached gently and wisely, “entreating them as a father” (I Tim 5:1) according to the guidelines in Matthew 18:15-17. Two or three witness are required before someone who has responsibility for them should ”hear an accusation against an elder” (I Tim 5:19). Usually, there is good hope for conciliation and godly readjustment. Otherwise, they agree to disagree, agreeably!
Narcissistic pastors (NPs) are different. They insulate themselves from accountability and valid criticism. They are aptly described in Proverbs 18:1 (NKJV). “He who isolates himself seeks his own desire, He rages against all sound judgement”. This verse encapsulates the twin tenets of the nature of narcissism, which is such that the narcissist’s autonomy (isolation) and ‘infallibility’ (unreceptiveness to correction) become the foundation stones of the network of co-dependency he creates…..and ruthlessly defends!
A couple of months after our escape, we reread the 2700 year old events in King Nebuchadnezzar’s reign recorded in Daniel chapter three and realised what a treasury of insight they are to help us make sense of the experience. We can also see how much the Holy Spirit instructed, strengthened and protected us throughout. We hope it will help you too.
Nebuchadnezzar, the Narcissistic Spiritual Abuser
The Image of Gold
1 Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its width six cubits. He set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.
Because a narcissist’s sense of self is only in the image he projects, he measures his success and value entirely by how people respond to it. NPs therefore present an impressive image, usually of a hero they emulate. All the while, hiding behind it, there is invariably an abused individual with the development of his own perceptions of the world around and his emotional responses to it stunted at the age when he had control taken away from himself. It is wise to remember this, that essentially, your NP is still emotionally a small child who bribes, threatens and throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way and bristles when he is threatened. He could be quite harmless - just making a lot of false impressions …. like the Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, this child is wielding a loaded gun and not afraid to use it!
At all costs he cannot let his vulnerable true self be exposed and suffer abuse again, so he goes to great lengths to create a kingdom he controls alone, in which he feels safe, respected, needed … even worshipped. All narcissists are noted for being driven and ambitious, usually getting into top leadership positions in their organisation, whether workplace or street gang, from where to exercise the desired autonomy. It appears that they have accepted the Tempter’s offer of having a kingdom, glory and riches, but in the process let their soul become ensnared in the Devil’s web of deceit and it is that which becomes the modus operandi.
The dimensions of the image of sixty by six cubits hold significance to the Bible numerologist, six being the number of ‘man’ and ten being the number of ‘law’.
The Co-dependents (CDs)
2 And King Nebuchadnezzar sent word to gather together the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
3 So the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered together for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
These are the people wooed and bribed by ‘love-bombing’ who benefit from and have come to need the king. He is described in chapter 4:11-12 as a beautiful tree with abundant fruit, food, protection and a home for all his subjects. There is mutual need - a co-dependency - because while they facilitate the running of his kingdom, keeping his world together, he pays them with attention, advice and kindnesses - and sometimes money as well. These are happy, loyal cooperators recruited, ostensibly for the Great Commission (but actually to fulfil the NP’s dream). Believing it to be part of God’s purposes, they give of themselves (and their finances) generously to the ‘vision’ and person of their marvellous pastor. They willingly allow him to shape their understanding of God, the Church and the World. They are dedicated to the image!
They offer blind allegiance to the NP pastor, enabling him and protecting him at all costs, thus insulating him further from accountability. An explanation of the nature of such co-dependent relationships can be found here.
Call to worship - the Music
4 Then a herald cried aloud: “To you it is commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, 5 that at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, you shall fall down and worship the gold image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up;
NPs are usually eloquent, charismatic speakers. Like music to the ears, they unfold the scriptures with harmonic ease and when their interpretations occasionally sound a discordant note, it is promoted as part of the dynamics of a more accurate, more original score not found in the run-of-the-mill churches. For those who are not erudite in the Word, education is mocked as only giving head knowledge of God. Theirs is a tune of intimacy with the Holy Spirit, of fresh revelations of God and His ways and their own ability to understand and ‘move in the prophetic’. In both extremes, Truth is manipulated and also trumped by loyalty to God’s interpreter in the pulpit.
Call to Worship - the Threat
6 and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.”
The NP’s charisma may not be quite all-captivating enough, so he makes it known that if his ways are not adhered to, there will be hurtful consequences. They might come through:-
- The church eg. removal of trust, demotion from responsibilities, etc
- The devil eg. vulnerability to spiritual attack or sickness. Because the Pastor is ‘infallible’, questioning him proves your own deception. You are helping evil spirits to attack the church, etc
- God eg. Criticism against the Lord’s anointed is sinful. He can’t bless the disobedient. He will discipline you for rebellion, etc
Of course, a very strict no-talking rule is applied, so that there can be no ‘party spirit’ or threat of an ‘Absalom’ winning sympathisers against the pastor. No one wants to catch Miriam’s leprosy or have the Earth swallow the ‘Korahs’ alive, neither to be Satan’s mouthpiece as Peter was to pull Jesus, aka NP, off track nor to end up face down and be carried out ‘feet first’ for trying to deceive the Holy Spirit (who speaks through the pastor).
If anyone does brave challenging the Grand Master of Table Turning, he invariably finds his questions deftly deflected as accusations back at himself, leaving him feeling manipulated, the rug pulled from beneath, confused and powerless to make his point. Nobody gets the better of the NP! They do not even have specks in their eyes! (They may be eloquent in sessions of public ‘repentance’, but it is always over intangible, spiritual, generalised short-comings, mere hollow posturing, tantamount to showing off how wretchedly humble they are!)
Conforming to the Image
7 So at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the horn, flute, harp, and lyre, in symphony with all kinds of music, all the people, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the gold image which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
The NP’s utopian dream is to achieve easily controlled uniformity, all in complete harmony with himself. Everywhere he looks, he wants to see the image of what he likes to think he is, reflected back in a sea of adoring faces and eager agreement. To that end, they frequently insist on the people ‘amen-ing’, to every other phrase he speaks - not dissimilar to “Sir, yes Sir” with the same aim - “don’t even think you can think differently to me!!!” Some even go as far as telling their flock how they should feel about a matter and in some churches, their choices in the affairs of life need his approval.. dress code, entertainment, children’s discipline, marital partner, style of worship etc. He can not tolerate independence in his co-dependents. So essentially, his words impinge on every freedom: of speech: of thought: of feeling: of will: of conscience. He is trying to get his CDs to give them all up and ‘conform to HIS image’. It sounds rather melodramatic, but that IS his dream! And it is the basis of the abuse.
In response to the ‘Siren call’ to the blessings of obedience to ‘those who have the rule over you, being submissive.’ (Heb 13:17), a strange and dangerous process goes on in our brothers and sisters that end up bowing down. Every one of us has a God-given knowing of right and wrong, and the ‘anointing from above’ but in CDs these voices of disquiet are hushed by the CDs who prefer to make generous allowances for the one who is ‘Christ’s example’ to them, a readiness to doubt themselves rather than believe there is something wrong in the one they depend on. After all, believing he is a sure guide is essential, otherwise everyone is going to end up in the ditch!
The ‘herd mentality’ also comes into force: “Everyone else seems to agree, so it must be OK.” And you are not allowed to discuss it to find out that that’s exactly what many of them have been thinking too! Voicing disagreement is criticism, gossip, slander or sedition and no-one wants to be guilty of that! Honouring your leaders and loyalty are exalted above honesty and conviction until their is a compliant and muzzled herd getting squeezed into his mould.
8 Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and accused the Jews.
9 They spoke and said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! 10 You, O king, have made a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, shall fall down and worship the gold image;11 and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.
You are being watched for non-compliance, for whispers or looks of dissent or unease, people ‘under probation’ you associate with, any lack of enthusiasm and amen-ing, decreasing attendance, flaunting of petty rules instituted by the NP, etc, etc. This will all be taken down and reported back by more loyal CDs, eager to stay in pastor’s good books and used in evidence against you in a subsequent trial should you not repent of your rebellion.
12 There are certain Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego; these men, O king, have not paid due regard to you. They do not serve your gods or worship the gold image which you have set up.”
In all good conscience, we can not serve his gods because he does not preach about the same God of Grace we know. By his twists of scripture, all the while he is preaching about the Father of Lights, the NP actually promotes the Father of Lies!. We can discern the subtle shift from Grace to Legalism: from resting by faith in the finished work of Christ, to striving to perform better: from living out of the New Birth, to bemoaning our sinfulness. The lack of evidence of the Holy Spirit working in our midst is blamed on our lack of devotion and ‘holiness’ - a favourite subject. We are berated for our unbelief, but never fed the Living Word, by which faith comes. Although cloaked in spiritual sounding sermons, we can discern the voice of the Thief, the Accuser of the Brethren, the Twister (Leviathan).
It is ironic and so despicable that NPs in their paranoia and self-preservation, will gleefully use this Leviathan teaching against innocent questioners, while all along, every single point actually describes themselves!! How deceived can they be!
No! We will not serve his gods that enslave with fear and sin-consciousness! Neither will we bow to the image he has set up because we have begun to see it for the sham it is; there are too many inconsistencies, manipulations, side-stepping, self-justification, accusations, hidden agendas and such like. He is unmasked and we “do not pay due regard to” him when he is contradicting our God.
13 Then Nebuchadnezzar, in rage and fury, gave the command to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. So they brought these men before the king.
Narcissistic rage is well documented. He is furious that there is a defiant source of ripples that mars the reflection of himself when he looks in the pond. He is desperate to feel safe and whole again. The perfect image must be restored! He rants about these rebels in front of his staff, who must also be reminded to stay in line. They have learnt to tiptoe around him, trying not to anger him with incompetence or disagreement. They witness his displeasure more often than the congregation and dare not voice any sympathy with the ‘wrong-doers’. Sadly, fear usually overrides conscience and they co-operate with his purge.
14 Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the gold image which I have set up?
15 Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?”
The NP lets all dissenters know that he is not going to change: they are wrong and he’s giving them time to repent. “If you are ready”, he will test them again. He would much rather have dissenters recant their stand, stifle their misgivings and fall back into line. It is far less messy than them leaving - with all the ensuing damage limitation required to prevent the potential fallout of others being disaffected and influenced to leave as well.
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. 18 But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”
We identify with these three who stand “grounded and steadfast, not easily moved from the hope of the gospel” (Col 1:19) We know how to “stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, not being entangled (ensnared) again in a yoke of (legalistic) bondage (Gal 5:1). We know we have access by faith alone “into this Grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:2). There is only One to whose Image will we be gladly conformed ( Rom 8:29). He is our Strong Deliverer, mighty to save! We will not be disloyal to him, no matter what happens!
Heating the Furnace
19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury, and the expression on his face changed toward Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. He spoke and commanded that they heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated
The following equation holds:-
Ferocity of Furnace is directly proportional to Rank of Victim
A newcomer that gives up is barely noticed, whereas a key staff member or previously faithful, respected member, a CD of the inner circle, gets the full works and the full force of the infamous ‘narcissistic rage’!
20 And he commanded certain mighty men of valor who were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, and cast them into the burning fiery furnace.
The NPs “mighty men of valour”, the closest CDs, his ‘yes men’, the enablers can sometimes willingly
assist in the persecution, either out of fear, stifling any misgivings of theirs or they have swallowed the whole hook, wholeheartedly agreeing that firm discipline is required to bring them to repentance so that they can be free of deceiving spirits that have led them to criticise the leadership.
21 Then these men were bound in their coats, their trousers, their turbans, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.
To maximise the pressure, everything concerned with the target is now legitimate fuel for the fire. Sadly, innocent family members, can not always avoid the firestorm, neither can his sphere of responsibility in the church, his close friends, his associates nor even his business in some cases.
Accomplices in Danger
22 Therefore, because the king’s command was urgent, and the furnace exceedingly hot, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego.
Of course we do not wish their actual deaths, but it can be asked how much does the willing co-operation of the enablers with the works of darkness and the repeated stifling of the voice of their own conscience affect their spiritual health?
Falling in the Fire
23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.
The betrayal of years of loyalty, the false public insinuations, outright lies, manipulations, intimidations, character assassinations, having spears thrown at us in every meeting, having no voice, no defence, having the pastor paint himself as the righteous one under persecution, the church being under spiritual attack from divisive spirits and on and on! IT HURTS!!!
All of this is said anonymously from the security of the pulpit - never by any seeking out in private for genuine reconciliation for several reasons:-
He’s a cowardly bully:
Now that he knows you are getting wise to him, he does not actually want godly reconciliation - just compliance and you will never be trusted again until your loyalty is thoroughly tested:
The rest of the CDs need educating that there is danger about, thus making them both close ranks, (nervous sheep are easier to herd) and to encourage them all to look out with suspicion to identify the guilty party:
He needs to plant a neat defamation of our character in the minds of the CDs, ready to be confirmed, should we leave!
IT HURTS!!! There is such emotional pressure to react badly!!
Walking with Jesus in the Fire
24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?”
They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.”
25 “Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
Jesus meets us in His Word. Jesus is right there in the flames, instructing, protecting, comforting and changing us so that we can walk with Him in the spirit of forgiveness. How naively we used to sing of ‘the refiners fire’! Funny how all those verses we safely applied only to christians persecuted under hostile foreign governments, suddenly take on a new significance! Passages like 1 Pet 2:19-23 (also sections between 3:8 and 5:1), 2 Cor 4:3-5, Jas 1:2-5 (what? joy?!!!) and many others can now become a huge source of reassurance and strength! There are also plenty more like Ps 109 where it is quite OK with God to vent our anger! His grace is truly sufficient in our weakness. Our faithful Saviour can not forsake us and He is able to keep us in a place with Himself where the only thing that is destroyed, is our bondage.
26 Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire. 27 And the satraps, administrators, governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together, and they saw these men on whose bodies the fire had no power; the hair of their head was not singed nor were their garments affected, and the smell of fire was not on them.
Does anyone know of a NP who relented because he saw whose side God was on? Please say if you do!!
More often than not, the time comes when we just have to leave.
Then comes the pain of the shunning. But it would only be the poisonous damage-limitation tactics already described, not our friends that are to blame. That is why they can be so easily turned. Why can’t they just distance themselves and ask themselves the right questions? That is the power of deception and the skill of the deceiver to have created such a snare for his sheep - most of whom have no idea, whatsoever that they are being abused and manipulated, but simply accept everything as normal.
A Happy Ending?
28 Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, who sent His Angel and delivered His servants who trusted in Him, and they have frustrated the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they should not serve nor worship any god except their own God! 29 Therefore I make a decree that any people, nation, or language which speaks anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made an ash heap; because there is no other God who can deliver like this.”
30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in the province of Babylon.
For the escapees: It takes time to ‘detox’ from the NPs poison, to grieve the separation, to reassess values and move on. God still has a good plan for our lives! Because of our testimony, He may “promote” us to a position of helping others - whether that is in the context of a new church or not. Who knows?
For the CDs: all we can do is trust that by whatever means, God is able to get through to them, as he did to us …. and be prepared to do our part, if needed.
For the NP: Would that Nebuchadnezzar’s remarkable about face were true for every NP! Sadly, this is where the parallels diverge in the vast majority of cases. It seems as if something dramatically miraculous is required to change them. We can trust the Righteous Judge to take up our cause, even if we have to wait until His return.
Something amazing about our God is that He is “not willing that any (not even the NPs) should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) That is the reason for the painful course through insanity in Daniel chapter 4, that God took Nebuchadnezzar to set him really free. “God, perhaps will grant our and your Narcissistic ex-pastor repentance, so that he may know the truth, and that he may come to his senses and ESCAPE THE SNARE of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” (2 Tim 2:25-26)