When the Therapeutic Replaces Sin

This book makes a monumental decision: a decision to put the Bible’s moral language to the side, to call a disorder what the Bible calls sin, to call self-actualization what the Bible calls repentance. This book’s aversion to biblical categories does not empower readers to confront spiritually abusive systems. It instead makes those systems harder to disrupt.

Imagine the following 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.

Person B, meanwhile, believes that Person A is being disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. Person B tells you that Person A has been going around different groups and individuals in the church, spreading false information about Person B because the two simply don’t agree or get along. Person A, according to Person B, is angry that they’re not more influential in the church, and they blame Person B for that. Person B says that Person A wants to steamroll over several policies and even people in the church in order to get their way, but has thus far been prevented. This is why, according to Person B, Person A has now accused Person B of being a spiritual abuser, and B feels very strongly that A needs to be sharply rebuked for dishonest and misleading behavior.

I would imagine that if you’re reading this and have any pastoral DNA in you, you’re sweating a bit. This is exactly the kind of scenario that church leaders dread with all their heart. And why is that? It’s not just because nobody likes being in the middle of two accusatory opponents. It’s also not just that this situation represents a significant use of your relational bandwidth. Part of the reason this scenario is so daunting is that you have to decide not only whom you believe, but what to even call this. Is this an issue of spiritual abuse? Is this an issue of colliding personalities? Is it sin? Is it rivalry? Is it schoolyard name calling? So much of how you proceed from this point on depends on what kind of situation you think you are dealing with.

When it comes to the topic of spiritual abuse in the church, conversations and debates so often get stonewalled because people decide that someone is “just trying to protect” a certain class. Conservative-leaning evangelicals are wary of victim advocates because they perceive a looseness with truth telling in the name of satisfying demands. Left-leaning evangelicals often express frustration with those who instinctively defend pastors or ask for evidence, intuiting that these deflections come from a desire to prop up the successful system at all costs, even the cost of trauma to real people.

My concern with Chuck DeGroat’s book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse is not that I think he takes the “wrong side.” In fact, I think he does a pretty good job for the most part of avoiding tropes and caricatures in either direction. My concern with the book is that I think it fails significantly on the question raised above. DeGroat’s book is good at tracing out a recognizable portrait of spiritual abuse and waving red flags at leaders and systems who may be trampling over people. But it is much less good at calling those things what they are. DeGroat seems to go out of his way to avoid calling spiritual abuse sin. He abandons the language of sin, repentance, and discipline in favor of therapeutic language like narcissism, vulnerability, and gaslighting. The problem is not that those words are fake or unreal. The problem is those words aren’t enough. They leave spiritual abuse in the realm of the psychological, not the moral.

Defining Spiritual Abuse Down

This is the first of several indications throughout the book that the primary mechanism for identifying narcissism is how people feel toward those who may be narcissistic. I know it may sound very pedantic or even callous to call out this opening illustration from DeGroat’s youth. I don’t doubt that he really did feel slighted and that this was tremendously disappointing. But the fact that a book with “emotional and spiritual abuse” in its subtitle begins with this kind of story is potentially telling. It raises the question of whether the discussion of spiritual abuse that follows will be tethered to realities above the psychological, or not. In fact, the book struggles to do this.

In chapter two, “Understanding Narcissism,” DeGroat defines narcissism by reproducing the diagnostic criteria from DSM-V. This is slightly overwhelming and takes up a page and a half. What’s more, the DSM’s language is clinical and describes behavior typical of narcissistic people; it does not define narcissism ethically or theologically. DeGroat comments on the DSM’s criteria, which clarifies how he will understand narcissism throughout the book. “Grandiosity and attention seeking” are there, which makes sense. The narcissistic person develops a “false self” and tends to use people and relationships to feed this identity. So far, so good. But importantly, DeGroat does not connect narcissism to the biblical problem of inflated self-regard. In fact, he explicitly rejects this. In one particular case study, DeGroat determines that “Gary” suffers from a lack of self-love. His “entitlement, his lack of empathy, his pattern of grandiosity” flow from shame and trauma from his own childhood.

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