Has Church Abuse Activism Taken a Wrong Turn?

Has Church Abuse Activism Taken a Wrong Turn?

Written by Samuel D. James |
Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The whole reason to call out church abuse wherever it happens is because the church is beautiful and valuable and immortal, and Satan, the master abuser, wants church to look more like him instead. To the degree that abuse awareness hands people a mirror and tells them they can only be truly safe at home, it surrenders the whole game to the enemy himself.

My review of When Narcissism Comes to Church generated some of the more pointed pushback I’ve ever received from those I would consider generally in my theological/political tribe. My friend John Starke thought I mis-characterized the book. Mike Cosper agreed with this, and went further to explain why the book is valuable even at those points where my description might hold up. In one interesting section, Cosper offers a scenario where Chuck DeGroat’s framework could be helpfully applied:

If you confront a narcissist and say, “You’re prideful, abusive, and manipulative of others,” you’ll likely get one of two responses. You might hear them say, “That’s simply not true — I’m deeply insecure and I’m surrounded by people who tell me they don’t think I’m abusive and confront me when they think I’m wrong.” In this case, that’s likely all true! The confrontation fails to consider the way the individual’s pathology makes them profoundly blind to their own sins and motivations, and it fails to account for the way modern society incentivizes others to attach themselves to narcissists. The outcome is often a mealy-mouthed, “I’m sorry for the way my behavior made you feel” apology.

On the other hand, you might hear them address the accusation directly, saying, “I struggle deeply with pride, tell me who I’ve sinned against and I’ll apologize.” In this case if there is a kind of narcissistic pathology at work, they can easily perform these tasks again and again. Critics might continue to say, “They’re abusive,” but co-leaders can point to the acts of repentance and attempts at reconciliation as evidence of a malleable heart. That’s all the more likely within a system that’s benefitting from a narcissist’s charisma and energy.

DeGroat’s framework challenges us to consider the more complex interaction between sin and suffering at the heart of the behavior. By understanding narcissism as a psychological defense, a built-in response to internalized trauma and grief, we see a different kind of inroad for caring for the soul of a narcissist. They can be confronted with their sin and its impact on a community while also being shown connections between that behavior and their deeper wounds. It does nothing to diminish the power of sin and the need for the cross to do so. In fact, it expands the way we can see its power — addressing not only the sins that we might have committed, but the power of sin to malform us.

Now, what I think is particularly instructive about what Cosper writes here is that he’s offered a mini-case study of confronting an abusive leader, and in this case study, there is no question that the accusation of narcissism and abuse is valid. Cosper’s case study envisions two endings to such a confrontation: either the leader will blame-shift, or they will try to pacify the accuser by appearing to “repent.” In either case, Cosper’s illustration presumes that the person being confronted really is a genuine narcissist, and with this assurance and using DeGroat’s ideas, the accuser can be equipped to see through even an apparent confession and apology. In other words, Cosper is saying that we need DeGroat’s book in order to really hold narcissistic leaders accountable, because otherwise we might be fooled by their apologies and their apparent contrition. Without doing the thick psychoanalytical work—identifying past traumas, naming one’s insecurities, perhaps even taking the Enneagram—we are at the mercy of having to take a narcissist at his word.

In the very beginning of my review, however, I offered a much different hypothetical scenario:

You are approached by two people in your church, both people that you know, love, and trust with equal measure. Person A needs to tell you something about Person B. Person B, according to Person A, has been spiritually abusing them. Person B has been using their leadership and influence to convince other people that Person A’s beliefs and opinions are wrong. Moreover, according to A, Person B has persisted in a pattern of manipulation toward A: saying things to belittle, minimize, or ignore A. Person A feels incredibly victimized by Person B, and does not know how they can persevere at this church while Person B remains.

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