The spiritually abusive leader creates an atmosphere of performance and law keeping that is beyond the reach of any Christian, even while publicly preaching and teaching the gospel of God’s grace. Although he does not hold himself to the same standard (the definition of hypocrisy!), those closest to him may begin to live in a state of fear, subconsciously afraid that they are condemned by the program they are supporting.
An elder and his wife have served faithfully for many years in a local church, but in recent years have felt a cloud of confusion and darkness. Although they hesitate to make the admission, a sense of inexplicable fear has crept into their Christian walk. Church life has been tumultuous with conflict and departures a steady theme, but they tell themselves that the principles and actions of the leadership have been the tough-love sort of faithfulness. Yet nagging questions arise.
This post is for those who may be on the inside of a leadership structure that has become spiritually abusive and do not recognize what they have become a part of. They are witnesses to dynamics that are hidden to the broader congregation, but they themselves cannot presently interpret them properly, though they may sense something is wrong. As Chuck DeGroat writes, Whole church systems and programs evolve within the waters of narcissism, and when it’s the water you swim in, it’s hard to see and even harder to confront.1
The distorting, deceiving power of a spiritually abusive leader is often underestimated. Such a leader is usually remarkably gifted for ministry in ways which impress many and seem to confirm his calling. To be close to such a leader and in his good graces can be a very positive environment, where individuals are made to feel that they are vital to the mission and loved deeply. The inner circle of leadership and staff will be constantly complimented as “the best.” And whatever events may transpire to expose the truth about underlying sin issues will be distorted and spun to maintain the narrative..
A key element of seeing through the smoke and mirrors is the issue of hypocrisy. Jesus said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). This alarm is sounded because leaven starts small and unobtrusively but it is deadly. There are brands of hypocrisy which are quite subtle, but nonetheless the hypocrisy eventually leavens the whole lump of the church. Every Christian in spiritual leadership must be on the lookout, knowing the deceptiveness of sin. In an abusive leadership structure, hypocrisy will unfailingly manifest itself. What follows are some key areas to watch carefully and important questions to ask.
Is a pastor or leader treated with greater deference and charity than others? Are reports about the harshness, anger, or bullying from the leader quickly rationalized, discredited, or ignored, regardless of the fact that there is a steady stream over time of such reports? When partiality is at work, these reports will be pre-judged as slanderous. They will be explained as a convenient way for unrepentant sinners to shift blame. If such reports come second hand, they will quickly be labeled “hearsay” and therefore dismissed without further investigation. Those in Christian leadership need to understand that in cases of alleged abuse, victims often cannot and should not directly confront the abusive leader. This does not mean that an impartial investigation cannot be conducted.
When a leader makes allegations or insinuations about others (and an abusive leader will do so repeatedly), are these accepted without questioning? Are other individuals instantly blacklisted if he criticizes them? Is his testimony elevated above that of others? While elders and pastors need to talk amongst themselves in the course of shepherding, the swift and extreme denouncements an abusive leader will make on the thinnest of grounds are far outside the pale of shepherding. The willingness of others in leadership allow this behavior and accept his judgments is an indicator of partiality. Giving such latitude to the leader while immediately bringing the hammer down on those who allege abuse is hypocrisy.
Are discussions of potential weaknesses or missteps of the leadership viewed as slanderous? Is asking questions suppressed and discouraged? If individuals feel they have been mistreated, are they punished for seeking other counsel? The ethical demand for confidentiality is first and foremost upon leaders entrusted with the care of souls. They are handling the information of people who are vulnerable as they open up their lives and talk about their sins. When leadership reverses this and demands that individuals under its authority remain silent about possible failings and abuses, or even demand that individuals remain silent about discussion of public actions, the leadership has hypocritically turned the principle of confidentiality on its head.
In a spiritually abusive system, when individuals do criticize the leadership, confidential issues in their lives will be brought forth to discredit them. Insinuations will be made about them from the pulpit and in conversations. The narcissistic leader will know no boundaries of confidentiality in order to neutralize the “threat.” This demand for confidentiality with respect to the failings of the leadership while at the same time breaching confidentiality when it comes to others is hypocrisy.
The Best Staff, the Worst Staff
What is the track record of staff relationships? Chuck DeGroat writes about how the narcissistic characteristics will manifest in a pastor’s relationship with his staff. His need to be special and grandiose is affirmed by his “talented” staff, who stay if they live in service of his ego and leave, often messily, if they do not. Is there a long line of staff departures with little explanation?
The hypocrisy is detectable in the fact that staff members will receive the highest praise, appear to be protected from outside criticisms, and be seemingly unable to do wrong in the leader’s eyes. But what will seem most of the time like a very positive relationship with the staff actually is understood by his drive for grandiosity and need for people around him to enable him. For staff, this can feel like working amid a hurricane. The dizzying array of ideas and visions may be explained away by the pastor as “creativity” or “passion,” but a pastor who doesn’t see the impact… on a staff will quickly find a tired, overwhelmed team…One reason for this phenomenon is that the narcissistic pastor must live in a constant state of ego inflation.2
The flattery of the leader clashes with his unreasonable demands; requests made at all hours; changes to major programming at the last minute; new initiatives to organize and launch when already plates are overflowing. But most revealingly is the steady stream of staff members over time who once received highest praise but were ultimately discredited or discarded due to the narcissistic patterns of broken relationships. This hypocrisy will take place time and again.
In some church settings, hierarchy is built into church government. But in many churches, particularly those functioning in a Presbyterian manner or similarly, governance is explicitly to be conducted with the parity (equality) of elders. The senior minister may be described as the “first among equals,” but the emphasis is on the “equals.” Each man around the table has one vote, and none are to set themselves above the others. If such is the expectation and standard of government, the question should be asked if that is actually taking place or has it become a hierarchy. Unfailingly, the abusive pastor will work to take full functional control of the leadership. This leads in the direction of not only hierarchy, but tyranny, hypocritically contradicting the church’s standards and the command of Christ (Matt 10:43).
This hierarchy will be evident in the near total deference to one man’s judgments on issues of significance. Other intelligent, godly men who once were able to think for themselves will essentially function like yes-men; sycophants. Is there a leader at the table that everyone knows is above criticism? Whoever holds such a position is controlling that body. Are there gradations on the elder board: unspoken tiers or influence and authority, with those closest to the narcissistic leader being at the highest level? Is there a pastor or leader who is highly critical of other leaders behind their backs, discrediting them – particularly those he perceives as a threat on some level? Perhaps he quietly tells others that certain elders who raise questions are just not mature enough to see issues clearly. Perhaps he makes quiet statements like, “that elder has utterly failed as a husband and father.” This is to strategically put other leaders on a lower spiritual tier, functionally undermining the parity of elders.
Another question to consider is whether there is tolerance of behaviors from a leader that would be unacceptable in others. Specifically, is a leader given freedom to express anger to a level that would be shocking if seen in others? All of these marks are symptoms that the leadership has become hierarchical, and at the top is a tyrant. This hypocrisy will be present in a spiritually abusive ministry.
Demonize with Standards for Thee, but not for Me
A final form of hypocrisy takes place in the process of discrediting or demonizing people, which will be a theme for a spiritually abusive pastor who is constantly viewing critics as adversaries and pushing them out. Is there a steady stream of criticism coming from a leader toward congregants and other leaders? As Michael Kruger puts it, “A key characteristic of an abusive leader is that they lead through fault-finding.”3 In order to demonize a perceived opponent, actual sins or suspected sins in people’s lives will be brought forth and embellished. At times they may be fabricated altogether, as the leader manipulates others to maintain his control. As he does this, however, he is creating an untenable ethical atmosphere. Sins that are common to all Christians such as lust, overeating, insecurity, worldliness, and many more, will be used to bring people’s integrity into question and discredit them to others. “I am so disappointed that this elder bought a Mercedes. He is so worldly.” “She asked for prayer about the weather for the wedding; how incredibly immature, and evidence of her husband’s poor spiritual leadership.” “He admitted to having a momentary mental fantasy about a woman in the church – he is not safe around anyone.” “Did you see the political posts she made on Facebook? I am ashamed to be in the same church as such a woman.” This tactic works: it is effective at discrediting and neutralizing the perceived “threat” since the leader carries the weight of his spiritual authority behind such accusations. But it also distorts the gospel and the grace of God.
The spiritually abusive leader creates an atmosphere of performance and law keeping that is beyond the reach of any Christian, even while publicly preaching and teaching the gospel of God’s grace. Although he does not hold himself to the same standard (the definition of hypocrisy!), those closest to him may begin to live in a state of fear, subconsciously afraid that they are condemned by the program they are supporting. This weakens the Christian in many ways and is an indicator that something is very wrong. The leaven of the Pharisees has been sown into the dough.
A Warning to Leaders
For Christian leaders connected to such leadership, complicity is the grave danger. Narcissistic leaders specialize in pushing out perceived adversaries and gathering loyal supporters to leadership. These supporters will be trained and deployed to carry out the program of the leader. Failing to recognize hypocrisy and call it what it is leads inevitably to enablement of the behaviors and participation. As Michael Kruger points out, the biblical record of God’s judgment on Eli for enabling the abusive behavior of his sons in the temple reveals “a critically important principle: God will hold accountable not only the bad shepherd but also those who protect and enable them. This is a weighty warning to all churches and the elder boards that lead them.”3
Participation in this sort of hypocrisy results in confusion, burden, and fear. Are such fruits present in the heart and mind? This is no fruit of the Spirit. Indeed, it is a bellwether indicating something is diabolically wrong. The deeper someone goes with such a leader, the more likely he or she will experience the rising sense of condemnation and fear as hypocrisy and legalism poison the well of grace found in the gospel alone. Confusion will enter as nothing and no one will be spared from being demonized and reality will be distorted. The soul will be burdened tremendously, for this person is serving a man and not Christ (Gal. 1:10).
If these marks and signs are present in the church, seek help and have nothing to do with such “leaven” of hypocrisy. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Steven Light is a member of a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation in Jacksonville, Fla.
1DeGroat, Chuck & Mouw, Richard, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse,. Intervarsity Press, 2020, Introduction.
2Ibid., ch 4.
3Kruger, Michael J., Bully Pulpit: confronting the problem of spiritual abuse in the church, Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2022, p 28.
4Ibid, p 48.