A narcissist will claim to be your friend, then slander you behind your back to your real friends, telling them that you are a back-stabber, all the while oblivious that they are the one stabbing backs.Anonymous
What is a religious narcissist? In short, it is a narcissist who manipulates religious organizations, the Bible and even God’s name to ensure they receive a steady flow of narcissistic supply. Research indicates that up to ⅓ of religious leaders are narcissists.1 Just imagine how many more are congregation members, vying for a position of religious authority over others in order to use them to meet their narcissistic desires.
Religion is the perfect niche for a narcissist. Thus, is born the religious narcissist. They are present in almost every congregation. Religion presents a near perfect situation for them. It exempts them from any fault. It gives weight to their views being right all the time, and it eliminates any differing views, because they claim they are God’s views, not theirs. They can also justify verbal and other types of abuse as being necessary to save your soul.
A religious narcissist wants to run the show, be it a study group, church events, or even the entire congregation as the pastor. They will use their misinterpretations of God and the Bible to enforce this and keep people in line. Religious narcissists can exhibit some predictable traits. Some of the more common ones are: imperative thinking, a strong sense of certainty, being judgmental, and pervasive gaslighting.2
Some of their favorite words are must, should, have to, and can’t. Narcissists are drawn to imperative systems that have a rigid set of rules and strong authoritative structure. Religion provides such a system. The narcissist simply replaces the Bible with their own set of rules, while claiming it is still the Bible. They set themselves up as the authority figure who correctly interprets all these rules and will tell you how to live your life according to them. In reality, their twisted rules are designed to manipulate you into providing them with what they want: admiration, validation and control over others.
Strong Sense of Certainty
They know everything and they are always right. There is no room for divergence, mystery or complexity. The phrase “I know” is the starting point for the gaslighting that will follow (see below). The central theme here is that they have it all figured out. Differing perspectives are not allowed. Questioning them is not allowed. The right way is their way. This extends beyond religious doctrine into areas like raising your children, with whom you should associate, how you should spend your free time, your finances, and many other ancillary areas. The narcissist will, of course, frame this as being encompassed by the religion and therefore valid areas for them to speak into your life. They will also frame it as “loving” you enough to tell you these things.
They are not shy about pronouncing judgment on you when they feel you are wrong, which means any time your thoughts or action differ from theirs. They will do it in the name of God and claim it is biblical. They may or may not do it to your face, but they will certainly do it behind your back. No matter how much they frame it as being biblical, it boils down to being their own personal dogma. You may see them being hypocritical in the way they judge. For example, they will vilify you for not meeting with a Bible study group they lead, yet they themselves refuse to meet with other groups. Once again, they will frame all these judgments against you as coming from a position of love and care. Their words and actions however, will indicate the opposite is true.
They will gaslight the daylights out of you. Their stock in trade is claiming to or acting like they have greater spiritual gifts or knowledge than you, so they will reframe anything of yours that does not fit into their agenda as being biblically false or against God, thus creating a new reality for you. A chief gaslighting tactic is for them to loudly and frequently claim they are not forcing you to do anything, all the while passive-aggressively manipulating you and others to bend you to their will.
Another is claiming to love you while they are actually abusing and exploiting you. The huge cognitive disconnect here can be extremely stressful for the victim and can make them question their own thoughts and experiences … which is the goal of gaslighting. They can go so far as making you believe that you are ungrateful and that there is something wrong with you if you do not accept their abuse as loving care. If you feel uneasy being around someone and cannot figure out why, there is a chance it is because they are gaslighting you. It produces a cognitive dissonance within you that causes stress and confusion. The narcissist’s goal is for you to resolve this dissonance by altering your behavior into obeying them.
Narcissists have many manipulative tactics that they use to control others. Below are some common ones employed by the religious narcissist.
I’m Praying For You
Be very wary of this statement. Yes, prayer is good and we are commanded by God to pray. Yes, there are people who do so sincerely. However, this is an extremely potent manipulative tool in the hands of a religious narcissist. It sets you up in multiple ways to be controlled and manipulated.
- It implies there is something wrong with you. You need to be fixed. The way to be fixed is to obey (the narcissist). This announces to the world that there is something biblically or spiritually wrong with you. The narcissist often leaves exactly what is wrong vague, so that you and others can fill in the blanks.
- It places the narcissist in a position of superiority over you. They are deciding that you have a problem and they are the ones to solve it. The only role you have in this process is to obey. The narcissist will decide if and when you have been redeemed.
- It implies you now owe the narcissist for the favor of praying for you. This assumes that the narcissist has even prayed for you at all. It is not uncommon for them to just say this, without having done it. However, you now owe them, and re-payment is in the form or your loyalty and admiration.
- It portrays the narcissist as a kind, benevolent, sacrificial, highly religious person without them having to prove it in any way. As an added bonus, it is proclaimed for everyone to see, thus attesting to their piety and close connection with God. Consider what the Bible actually says about publicly proclaiming your prayers. And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. ~ Matthew 6:5-6
- It implies that the narcissist has God’s ear, and by inference you do not. So, you should listen to the narcissist and do what they tell you, for your own good. If you want to be right with God, you must first be right with the narcissist.
The narcissist will require you to prove your loyalty to them, and thereby God, by consistently participating in church activities that they deem necessary and required. They will volunteer you to assist other church members, thereby also indebting the people you help to the narcissist. If you do not attend the events or cheerfully provide the assistance, then you will be vilified as ungodly, selfish and unloving. Not attending or supporting one of their events or programs will be a cardinal sin in their eyes. Rest assured they will make you pay for your lack of loyalty.
The religious narcissist may quickly try to assume the role of your spiritual mentor and guide. The older ones may also state that they are doing so because they “love you” like a son or daughter. You may feel flattered and special, but this is simply over-the-top, religious love bombing. It is a common tactic of both narcissists and psychopaths to gain your trust early in the relationship, before you can discern who and what they really are. Giving them the role of your spiritual mentor gives them de facto control over your life. They will use that control to manipulate you into meeting their narcissistic needs, while tricking you into think you are doing it for God. One adult manipulating another is never an acceptable situation, no matter what reasons they state for doing so.
The narcissist will seek to cut you off from any persons or groups who might inhibit or break their control over you. They will tell you non-religious people are not of God and that even speaking with them is sinful. They have a special hatred of secular psychologists who might easily unmask their tactics and motives. Are you trusting in God, or in man? Religious people of other faiths are also apostates. They will even target people of the same faith if what they are telling or teaching you might convince you to go contrary to the narcissists wishes and plans. The narcissist will claim these people are twisting God’s word, even if the other person is completely accurate in their interpretation. It is most often the narcissist who is doing the twisting. The narcissist does not care about learning or teaching God’s word, only about manipulating it to control you into providing them with a continual stream of admiration, validation, veneration and obedience.
Shaming and Guilting You
Narcissists are masters of manipulation through guilt and shame. The religious narcissist adds an extra punch to this by guilting and shaming you in the name of God. You want to obey God, else you would not be in a religious group. They frame you not obeying and following them, as you not obeying and following God. You are not walking in Jesus’ teachings. The narcissist will not explain which teachings or how you are not walking in them. The most you will get is something like “not loving your brother.” The narcissist can spin your “lack of love” as anything that doesn’t align with their desires. The shaming or guilting will start out as subtle. We missed you at bible study. However, it will rapidly escalate if you do not toe the line. This is often when the narcissist will begin their slander campaign behind your back to try to get others to guilt and shame you by proxy. This is called triangulation, another narcissistic tactic. You will eventually be shamed directly to your face, especially when you say “no” to one of the narcissists suggestions or demands.
The religious narcissist will often engage in a subtle slander campaign against you, even when you are still loyal to them. They do this because 1) it makes them feel better about themselves to position you in a lower standing, and 2) it begins to marginalize you to others to make you look like the problem when the time comes that the narcissist no longer has any use for you and discards you.
The slander will not look like slander. It will be framed as “concern” or “help.”
I am worried about him. He was walking so well with God, but now he has become selfish and won’t attend church events. Please pray for him.
There is a good chance they are also slandering others to you in the same fashion. They weave a complex web of manipulation and deceit, slandering multiple people to multiple other people. A person speaking this type of “pious” slander might be an indicator that you are dealing with a religious narcissist. While all narcissists use slander as a tactic, the religious narcissist adds a pious and spiritual flavor to it. If you experience this, be very wary of the person doing it and share nothing with them.
Narcissists love to control others, and abuse is one of their tools to do so. The religious narcissist hides behind a façade of fake piety to abuse you in the name of love. They will claim that they love you so much that they will tell you the hard truths about where you are falling short in your walk with God. Of course, these “truths” perfectly match what they feel you should be doing to meet their narcissistic needs and desires. You need to be in their group, obey their teachings, associate with people they approve and live your life as they dictate. They claim this is God’s will for you and that they are taking great pains to love you enough to guide you in that direction.
If they get nasty with you, call you names, slander you, or abuse you in other ways … then it is simply your fault for “forcing” them to escalate things to the point where you would finally listen, for your own good. Nobody loves you like they do. If you don’t believe that, just ask them. They will confirm it over and over again. Framing their abuse of you as love gives them a blank check to intimidate, threaten and coerce you into doing whatever they want. You are not permitted to take offense or object, else you are being ungrateful and also defying God. Most people will comply, rather than face the abuse. In fact, many people will even believe they did something wrong to elicit such an angry response from the narcissist. Certainly, nobody would blow up like that without a valid reason. A narcissist would, with the invalid reason of intimidating you into obedience. Religion gives them a lever to do that without consequences. This segues perfectly into the next tactic of …
Reversing Victim and Abuser Roles
This tactic is one used by all narcissists, not just religious ones, but it ties in perfectly with their “loving abuse” tactic. After abusing you, they will accuse you of playing the victim. You need to stand up and be a man. Accept responsibility for your actions. This immediately deprives you of any ability to call them on their abuse, because they have already framed it as you not taking responsibility for your bad thoughts and actions. This is very cruel, like tying your hands behind your back before punching you in the face. They do it so often that it is very predictable. In reality, they are the one not “being a man,” because they abuse rather than protect. They manipulate rather than lead. They certainly never accept any responsibility for anything in their lives. It is always someone else’s fault, and this time it is your fault for playing the victim. You forced them to be nasty. This is another form of gaslighting, making you doubt reality and conform to their fiction.
Hypocrisy is not a tactic, but rather a common sign of a narcissist, religious or otherwise. Rules for thee, but not for me. With the religious narcissist, this will look like you having to scrupulously observe religious standards and doctrine, while they pick and choose. They will always have an excuse or explanation why it either does not apply to them or that the situation is different for them. Here are just a few examples of hypocrisy in the religious narcissist. There are many more.
- You must speak to them in a loving and respectful manner, but they are entitled to address you however they please.
- You must attend all church events and lend assistance to all church projects they deem important, but they pick which ones they attend or support.
- You must associate with all persons they deem are your “brother” or “sister” (usually people loyal and obedient to to the narcissist), but they can cut off people they don’t like.
- You must open your home to church events and meetings, while they will not let anyone in their front door.
Dynamics like this are a sign that you may be dealing with a narcissistic individual, or at least a disordered person with a high desire to control you. I find this characteristic to be one of the most disgusting and reprehensible, condemning and vilifying another person for doing exactly what they do.
If you suspect you might be dealing with a narcissist, religious or otherwise, try saying “no” to one of their requests or demands. Just say no without any explanation or excuse. If they respond with anger, shaming or guilt, you might be dealing with one. They may be outraged that you dare tell them no, responding with such intense venom that you might wonder if it is really them. They may remind you of all the things they have done for you and call you ungrateful or selfish for not reciprocating. Even a cursory examination of the things they claim to have done for you will reveal that they are exaggerated or fabricated outright. They may question your honor, integrity, faith, or intelligence. All of these are standard narcissistic manipulation tactics. Don’t bother trying to defend or explain yourself. It won’t even make a dent in their thick armor of arrogance and entitlement. In fact, they love it when you try to defend yourself because it proves they have you hooked and have successfully deflected the topic away from their own bad behavior. They are right and you are wrong. That is all there is to it. Your best move is to not engage and simply walk away.
After you split with them or they discard you, they will proceed to slander you even more to the rest of the congregation. They are never at fault for failed relationships. They will be very devious about how they do it. They will act like a pious, humble servant who tried their best to help you, but you were too angry, prideful, or nasty to accept their help. I tried my best to help him with all the problems he is having, but he just wouldn’t listen. He is walking away from God and being very prideful. Please pray for the poor man. They will purposely keep things vague, using words like attitude, walk, faith and problem to describe you and what you are allegedly doing. The purpose is two-fold. First, the listener to whom they are slandering you will paint in the offenses themselves and then feel more certain that they are real. Second, they can later claim you misunderstood what they said and dodge responsibility. Remember, nothing is ever the narcissist’s fault.
They may even tell other congregation members something like this. He asked me to tell everyone he doesn’t want contact with any of us anymore. I know that must be difficult to hear, after all we did for him. I cannot understand how a person who claims to follow God could act this way. Please pray for him. This enables them to isolate you further and destroy any support system you might have had at church. It works almost every time. Every once in a while, you will find a true friend who does not buy their slanderous garbage. If you are a congregation member on the receiving end of such false tales, show some discernment and open your eyes as to what is really going on. Perhaps even reach out and hear the other person’s side of things.
They will turn the tables to say you treated them exactly as they treated you, with abuse. They will paint you as an apostate who has turned his back on God. They will misrepresent the flimsiest of things to “prove” this, sometimes drawing on things you may have told them in confidence in the past and blowing them far out of proportion or purposely misrepresenting them. If there is nothing available, they will fabricate something outright. Most of the congregation will believe the narcissist. Those who don’t will avoid you anyway, just to avoid problems. Chances are slim you can remain at that church. You wouldn’t want to remain there anyway, considering how you will be treated from that point on.
Do You Really Want to Ride This Train?
The Bible states in Luke 12:10
To him who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven
Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is a spiritual capital offense, resulting in eternal death. What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? There are many opinions, but a prominent one is to misrepresent God’s spirit to declare something God never declared. The death penalty stated in Deuteronomy for a false prophet who goes against God supports this view. Even if it is not this severe, do you really want to claim God is saying things that He is not? Are you really so arrogant to believe that you know unequivocally what God wants and does not want? Enough so to tell other people how to live their lives? Do you really think God will just let it go?
Consider this statement, made to me by a person who shows many of the signs of narcissism, religious or otherwise. God showed me things you were doing and how it was going to hurt you seriously. I seriously doubt God showed him anything. He never mentioned any specific details on what I was doing that was against God. I simply was not doing what he told me to do in general. Attaching God to this dynamic was an attempt to guilt me, make me afraid, and start obeying him again. This is false use of God’s name to try to control others.
Even if speaking falsely for God is not blaspheming the Holy Spirit, it surely cannot be good. Anyone who follows God, and also possesses a conscience and a little self-awareness, would not dare tread there. Do you really want to ride this train? Apparently, many narcissists do, judging from what I have seen. They spend no time reflecting upon what they are doing or whether it is spiritually correct. They are only concerned with being right, being in charge and being admired. God is just one more vehicle for them to accomplish this. They are absolutely certain they should be dictating how you live your spiritual life, and your life in general.
Religious narcissists are arguably among the worst of the phony religious people. They can do real damage to your time, effort, finances and mental health. They will inject themselves into your life, whether you want them there or not. Only an outright psychopath is more dangerous. Religious narcissists are one of the prime reasons so many young people leave churches and turn away from God. They mistakenly associate God with people like the narcissist. I made the mistake of doing so for over three decades. These people do not represent God. They are the epitome of wolves in sheep’s clothing, miniature antichrists among us.
Why does a narcissist do these things? There are many theories, ranging from childhood abuse to being overly entitled little princes/princesses as children. In the final analysis, it does not matter. Would you try to reason with a rattlesnake about why it wants to bite you? Of course not. It would be both pointless and dangerous. Attempting to reason with or help a narcissist is also pointless and dangerous. Trained professionals are rarely able to help them or even get them to admit what they are doing, so what chance do you have? Save yourself years of misery and just walk away. You have far better things to do with your time than waste it on these foolish, juvenile games.
1Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors and What We Can Do About It, Darrell Puls
2How Religious Narcissists Will Gaslight You, Dr. Les Carter