A Problem in Evangelicalism: Narcissistic Leaders

A Problem in Evangelicalism: Narcissistic Leaders

Guest post by electrical engineer Stephen Berger

I want to thank Dr. Olson for this opportunity to provide a guest blog.  It is an honor given in grace and kindness.

During the time I was drafting this blog, my wife and I visited some long time friends. I received an unintended rebuke from their daughter-in-law as she answered my question about their future plans.  She and her husband, a law school student, are equipping themselves to return to the mission field with the intention of ministering in one of the more conflict damaged areas of the world.  As she spoke of their plans, I was convicted of how wrong we are to forget the clear and obvious teachings of Scripture as we debate the obscure metaphysical issues.  We live in a world filled with conflict and damaged lives.  As Christians who owe our Lord and that world examples of how life can be different; how communities can have health and harmony while resolving necessary conflicts.  We can settle for nothing less than demonstrating, not just talking about, the life transforming power of the gospel.  So, by example, I was rebuked that I was not serving my Lord as well as I might.

What are these obvious teachings of Scripture? One comes from the tutelage of Hebrews 10:24:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.[1]

We will also want to be mindful that our debates advance Christ’s purposes as He gave them in John 13:34-35:

“A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” [2]

It is significant that in these verses Jesus gave to those outside the community of faith authority to judge the quality of the community of His followers.  “All men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  They will know our love when they see it and equally they will know when they don’t see it.  How will we know if our debate is resulting in an increase in love and good works?  Certainly a part of the answer will be an observable increase in the fruits of the Spirit in the lives of those involved:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. [3]

Rightly conducted, our wives, children, grandchildren and friends should be encouraging us to engage more deeply in these debates because we come back better for it and better as husbands, fathers, grandfathers and friends.  The secular world should be commenting on the unusual quality of our debates, that there is a unity, wholesomeness and winsomeness to the way Christians fight with each other.

It is a tragic and sinful error that many of the debates in the American Evangelical community lead to anything but a stimulation of love and good works in each other.  More than a few are simply mean spirited and divisive.

Conflict avoidance is not the answer, although this is a common, perhaps even dominant approach to conflict within our community.  Nothing is more to be expected than that there will be disagreements and strongly felt differences among Christians.  Our differences of background, experience and gifting insure that we will see things very differently.  The challenge Jesus has given us is to find ways to express those differences and have our debates in ways that result in advancing as many as possible, as quickly as possible, toward the formation of Christ’s character in their lives and the realization of Christ’s calling in their actions.  As a result of our interaction we should become more the person we were created by God to become and do better the tasks God placed us on this earth to perform.

There are two dynamics which create a very troubling pattern for how theological debates are conducted.  The first affects us all and arises from the typical threat response people exhibit.  When something we care about deeply is challenged we are quick to feel threatened.  Certainly we should care deeply about our faith and our leaders should be passionate about correct interpretation of Scripture.  Avoiding the feeling of something we value being threatened by not caring so much is not the answer. However, people who feel threatened tend to exhibit threat response in which the options tend to be seen as more extreme and positions become more rigid.  Once threat rigidity sets in, it is very hard for any of us to see middle ground or reasonable compromises.  When we are highly threatened we can go into a limbic state in which the ability to think clearly is gone.  “I was so mad I couldn’t think straight” has more literal truth to it that most understand.  Threat response is one of the reasons some very unfortunate things get said in debates, which can then lead to long lasting and entrenched divisions.  When threatened it becomes easy to attack our opponent rather than debate the issues.

The other dynamic is more far reaching and insidious: it is the dominant impact of narcissistic Christian leaders on the Evangelical agenda.  Narcissistic personality disorder and the less severe but more common condition of having strongly narcissistic elements in a personality are well understood and a recognized diagnosis in psychology but are generally misunderstood by the general public.  For the purposes of this discuss we might start with the recognition that narcissists are attracted to professions where they get a lot of recognition and are held in high regard.  The ministry is one of the most appealing professions for a narcissist.  Few other professions combine so much personal attention and high regard.  So a lot of narcissists become ministers.

It is widely believed that narcissists are easy to spot because they act in such self-serving ways.  However, just the opposite is true.  True narcissists tend to be very well thought of by the majority of people.  Generally they are highly respected, and among the most loved leaders.  It is very important to narcissists that others view them in ways that are consistent with their inflated self-image.  Generally the true narcissist works hard to win admiration and becomes very good at it.  The dysfunctional elements of narcissism are not seen until you look into their very closest relationships.  Narcissists are unable to build intimate relationships because they demand that everything focus on serving the narcissist.  Instead of relationships that are mutually loving and giving, bringing out the best in both parties, for the narcissist the only priority is that they are being served.

The general success in creating a favorable impression makes the narcissistic element among Evangelical leadership extremely influential.  They are the most loved preacher of the largest church.  The most commonly quoted author of the best selling books.  It is this characteristic that gives narcissists an inordinate impact on American Evangelicalism.  Narcissists generally put more energy into building their church or advancing their ministries, not because they want to impact the lives of people for Jesus, although that will be their claim, but rather because of their intense need for recognition and celebrity.

Two other characteristics of narcissism are particularly important for theological debate.  Narcissists have a strong tendency to see issues in black and white, all or nothing, terms.  Second, when challenged narcissists tend to react with a full and vicious attack.  You either agree with me or not only are you wrong, you aren’t even a Christian!  When narcissists frame a debate there is no middle ground, it is good verses evil, right verses wrong.  Of course, the narcissists always project that they and their followers are on the side that is completely right, good and holy.

People soon learn not to challenge a narcissistic leader because when you do you are very likely to suffer.  Any criticism will be attacked and the attack will typically be both vicious and without limits.  The Evangelical landscape is littered with black marks where a narcissistic leader scorched the earth attacking those who dared to challenge in the slightest way.  Other leaders soon learn not to challenge a narcissist, but it is a failure of leadership to turn the agenda over to them.  Sadly, it is not uncommon to talk to church staff or even seminary professors who live in fear they will fall out of favor and suffer the attack of a narcissistic leader.

When the agenda is controlled by the narcissistic element in our midst, and that element both exists and is powerfully influential, the issues will be taken to extremes and the tenor of the debate vicious.  You either agree with me and agree on every point or you not only are wrong but you aren’t even a Christian.  The contrast is the ability to say: “We disagree and I feel deeply that you are not only wrong but in this error there are important consequences.  However, I also recognize that you are a follower of Jesus Christ and we share much in common.   Moreover, it is likely that in other areas you are far more right than I am.  I may be right on this theological point but you may be a far better grandfather. While I truly believe you should learn from me on this point it is quite likely that I should be sitting at your feet to learn how to be a better husband.”  Simply put there is a mutual respect and appreciation, can we say love in Christ, that keeps the debate on the issue.  We can disagree and argue strongly about the issue but it does not become an attack on the person.  In fact, the way the debate is conducted has a positive impact on both the opponent and those who observe it.

One of the most damaging impacts of narcissism is in the way it determines how a theological debate is judged.  From a ministry perspective a critical criterion should be how well people are brought to emotional and spiritual wholeness and vitality.  In a fashion parallel to doctors debating the best treatments and coaches debating how to bring players to optimal performance, theologians and Christian leaders should be prayerfully, earnestly, and yes at time with passion and emotion, debating how to help people to be who Christ created them to be and do what Christ created them to do.  One size never fits all when it comes to people.  The same treatment does not cure all diseases.  The same approach to coaching does not best develop all players, let alone players in all sports.  Similarly how most quickly and effectively to assist people in all their varied spiritual journeys is a challenge worthy of many lifetimes of effort.

Narcissists, however, have little interest in how effectively the church is helping people.  So they make sure the basis of evaluation is never how well our churches minister to their flock.  Their focus is on the number attending, the size of the budget and other measures that inflate the narcissist ego.  Resources are pulled from where they are desperately needed. Efforts to advance the skill with which churches help people in their spiritual journeys are hindered.  Those precious resources are then wasted on pursuits that have no higher purpose that to bring more attention and acclaim to a few self-important Christian leaders.

Perhaps even greater damage is caused by the false security attending failure to reflect that is created.  Narcissists make people feel good.  They project confidence that they and their followers are on God’s side.  Hence, reflection and self-examination are not needed. If you know you are right you don’t need to reflect on your actions and motives.

Any important theological debate must be considered on two levels, the theological issue in question and the manner in which the debate is conducted.  It is not uncommon that finding resolution is impossible until the issues are separated and dealt with individually.  In the Arminian-Calvinist debate as it is currently being expressed in American Evangelicalism I would suggest that there are at least these two separate issues.  There is the theological and exegetical question to be sure.  There is however the largely unaddressed issue of how Christian theologians and leaders are allowing the debate to be conducted.

It is an old but true saying that having the right diagnosis doesn’t mean you have the right remedy.  You can be right on one but terribly wrong on the other.  So what is the right remedy?  Certainly the wrong remedy is to add one more witch-hunt or anger filled debate to the Evangelical landscape.  In contrast, what is needed first is a mass movement to evaluating churches and ministries by how well they bring people to spiritual and emotional health and then, take them on to peak performance.  Simply put, how well do they help people become who Jesus created them to be and to do what Jesus is calling them to do?  Using these metrics will be humbling and require ongoing reflection.  No church or ministry can possibly minister to the vast range found in the human condition with equal skill and insight.  We as individuals are very flawed and fail in many ways.  So do our organizations.  Good, Scripturally based metrics lead us to an accurate self-assessment and let us know both where our strengths are and what the next steps should be in our continued development.

Once the metrics are right, then the challenge will be to become skilled in applying them, diagnosing and correcting the reasons for shortcomings.  None of this is easy.  The opportunity for differences of viewpoint are legion.  Heated debates among leaders passionate about their calling will and should be held.  If those arguments result in both those participating and those observing being stimulated to love and good work, they are to be welcomed.  If we become more skilled at bringing people to realize the fruits of the Spirit in their lives, the effort and discomfort is a price well paid.


[1] Hebrews 10:24, NASV

[2] John 13:34-35, NASV

[3] Galatians 5:22, NASV


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