I have been challenged a few times for using the term “narcissist.” The concern comes not from the fact that I am not a board-certified psychologist but from the fact that I am a Christian. Christians aren’t supposed to categorize people, I am told. There are only people who know Jesus and people who do not, some suggest. To categorize people further than this just gets in the way of the real concern.
In a way, I understand. Theologically, there is a very simplistic sense to the concern. However, the error exhibited by the concern isn’t quite as simple. The error suggests that behavior reveals inner truth. Again, there is a simplistic rightness to that, but not all behavior is overt. In other words, the behavior you and I see may not be consistent with what lives inside.
If you turned over the rocks and looked behind the locked doors, I think you could find almost any sin in church or among church members. Active sin with willing participants. Some find that hard to believe. All of us find that hard to accept.
Nine years ago the congregation of Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita learned that their church president had a terrible secret. Dennis Rader, whom they had known for many years, was the BTK murderer. For nearly twenty years, he had terrorized the community. The people never knew if or when they might be his victims. The fact that the police couldn’t seem to catch him made it possible for him to bring so much fear. Even when the killings stopped, no one knew if he was still out there watching his next victims. They certainly didn’t think that he was living among them as a trusted church leader.
BTK (bind, torture, kill), the nickname used to identify the murderer, has been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder. ASPD is similar to narcissism in many ways with the additional factor of almost habitual illegal activity. It involves lying, grandiose ideas, lack of empathy, difficulty in personal relationships, and more in common with narcissism. And at least one active church member, a church leader, exhibited it.
My point is that we really should not be surprised that these folks can be found in church. There are many reasons. Maybe some of them actually feel some guilt over their sin and hope that association with the church will help. Maybe some of them find the church to be a great hiding place or a feeding ground. And because of their willingness to play the games, people with personality disorders are often trusted in positions of leadership.
This is also true in any other organization. Dennis Rader (BTK) was an active scout leader. You find them in clubs and organizations, neighborhood associations, and political groups. Many seem drawn to public gatherings, perhaps for the affirmations or even for the contacts. The church is not more susceptible to the wiles of these people than other groups, but certainly not immune from them either.
So how do we deal with these people in the church? Should we ignore the truth about them as we embrace them in fellowship because of Jesus? Do we have to determine their doctrine before we can deal with their sin? In other words, if they believe the right things and act right when they are with us, should we overlook concerns and reject labels? I don’t think so.
Matthew 18:17 shows us that it is possible for an abuser to be dealt with as an abuser, apart from consideration of his personal faith. There is a point where the behavior has to be confronted as it is, not as it ought to be. Matthew 18 shows us that there are limits to the “breaks” someone might get because of an expression of Christian faith or church involvement.
Another helpful passage is 1 Timothy 5:8, where we are told that a man who will not provide for his own household is outside the faith and worse than an unbeliever. In other words, it doesn’t matter what he says he believes. What we have to look at is his behavior.
So let me be blunt.
- Abusers should be treated as abusers. Murderers should be treated as murderers. Narcissists should be treated as narcissists.
God may accept them because of Jesus if they cry out to Him, but society has a right and a responsibility to deal with their “personality disorders” and sins without regard to their faith. And the church should support society’s involvement.
That means we do not cover up the sins of church people any more than we would want to cover the sins of school teachers or scout leaders. We call the police and let the justice system do its job. We help the victims and listen to their stories. We understand that there may well be predators and abusers even among us. And we teach people to identify these disorders.
All my previous cautions about using labels still stand, but naming a behavior is different from calling a person a name. Not only is it right for us to discern and label behaviors and attitudes like narcissism and ASPD, it may be very important . . . in the church.