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“The falseness of your heart may undo you.”
Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest

So, forgive my ironically narcissistic self-promotion. I have a new book being released in early 2020 – When Narcissism Comes to Church (IVP). If my previous book Wholeheartedness was aspirational, a vision of who we could be, then this one is, well, not that.

Somewhere in-between Wholeheartedness and When Narcissism Comes to Church is a common thread related to our spiritual integrity. Those who demonstrate spiritual integrity are called the “wholehearted,” “the pure of heart” (Matthew 5:8), those who “see God” because their eyes aren’t distracted by a thousand different diversions. The inside matches the outside. They are faithful and true.

Narcissism in the Church

If I’ve learned anything about narcissism in the church, it’s that narcissistic leaders (and systems) are not pictures of spiritual integrity. They are obsessed with their own grandiose visions, insensitive to and unconcerned with anyone or anything beyond their own narcissistically self-reflective pool. They come in all sorts of packages – evangelical, fundamentalist, progressive, Baptist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Republican, Libertarian, Democrat, plumber, baker, and candlestick maker.

However, we – the followers of Jesus – have demonstrated pretty clearly, I think, that we’ll elevate leaders like this to places of leadership in our churches and our highest political offices. And we are paying a steep price. Our churches are in decline. Our witness is suspect. Toxic leaders and toxic systems make for a toxic witness.

Why do we find such steep rates of narcissism among pastors? Why among church planters, in particular? Why have some of the most successful, evangelical leaders in recent years fallen amidst sexual infidelity, assault, and failures of spiritual integrity? Why do evangelical Christians, in particular, often poll lowest in compassion for the poor and immigrants? Who are we? What have we become? Have we gained the world only to lose our own souls?

In April, I wrote a piece on stewarding the death of the church, and if there is any hopeful way forward for us, it must begin with spiritual integrity. Narcissism’s main features – grandiosity and an absence of empathy – are not characteristics of a faithful follower of the crucified God, the one who humbled himself, even to the point of death. The recovery of character and virtue is crucial if we hope to be salt and light. Absent this, we’re just injecting more toxicity. We are “blind guides” (Matthew 23:24).

Examples from History

Early followers of Jesus got this. Recall that second century letter to Diognetus where Christians are said to look and dress and eat like everyone else in the Empire, yet “there is something extraordinary about their lives.” They live as citizens, but take on the disabilities of aliens. They have children, and do not abort them. They marry, but do not share their wives. They love all, and are persecuted for it. They choose poverty, but enrich many. They bless when attacked.

Recall the anger of pagan emperor Julian when he was unable to “inspire” people like Christians inspired people. He wrote, “I think that when the poor happened to be overlooked and neglected by the pagan priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence. They support not only their poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our poor lack aid from us.”

Recall the apologist Tatian’s account that all were included in the church despite “rank and outward appearance, wealth and education, age and sex.” Women flocked to the movement because of the dignity it afforded them. Christians not only condemned pagan practices of polygamy or abortion, but rescued babies (particularly little girls) thrown on trash heaps to be discarded, and made space for social outcasts. Indeed, fertility rates and mortality rates were higher among female Christians simply because they were treated with dignity.

Those followers of Christ gained the attention of a watching world. They were women and men of spiritual integrity. They were the wholehearted.

Three Features of Spiritual Integrity

I see at least three features or dispositions of spiritual integrity in this witness.

* I see humility. In her Interior Castle, St Teresa of Avila writes, “self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more than humility.” The humble are “poor in spirit,” well-acquainted with the dust and ashes of their limitations, relentlessly committed to rooting out egocentricity and living from their center in Jesus. Indeed, I don’t think there is anything more “attractional” than humility.

** I also see empathy. Narcissism is characterized by a lack of empathy. But I believe empathy – that capacity to be with another in the pain – is what Jesus calls mercy and compassion. When we are moved on behalf of another, many of the distinctions fall away. People of integrity can see the ‘other’ because they’re not blinded by ego. Often what keeps us from empathy are untreated wounds within ourselves which have not yet been tended to.

*** Finally, I see connection. Connection is my modern way of summarizing John 15. This deserves longer treatment, but so much of the pain I see between us today, to my mind, is rooted in trauma, attachment wounds, and early pain. We project on one another what we fail to face in ourselves. Our woundedness leads to faux-connection – co-dependency, trauma-bonding, tribalism – tentative bonds of unity which do not ultimately require real relational connection. Genuine community holds together amidst anxiety, moves toward connection even amidst uncertainty. I think people of spiritual integrity will be “wounded healers,” as Nouwen put it, facilitating connection and healing wherever they go.

After my previous piece on stewarding the death of the church, some asked for a positive way forward. My humble offering – let’s pursue humility, empathy, and connection as active participants of the life of Jesus in the world. Of course, we don’t do this neglecting other important matters. But, motivated by love and inclined to these dispositions, we’ve got a lot better chance of becoming the kind of community that offers salt and light.

Chuck DeGroat

Chuck teaches Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His sojourn as a pastor meandered through Orlando and out to San Francisco, where he started church counseling centers in both places. Chuck is a church consultant, a therapist, a spiritual director, and author of four books. He’s married to Sara and has two teenage daughters.

3 Comments

  • Thank you for this. It is something that we all need to hear.

  • This is a message we need to hear and discuss. Your most telling sentence: “…we – the followers of Jesus – have demonstrated pretty clearly, I think, that we’ll elevate leaders like this (narcissists) to places of leadership in our churches….” Why do we do that? Why do we like preachers who strut? There is a spiritual issue there that remains mostly unaddressed.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Chuck, for your insightful article, demonstrating the slow demise of the church. You may well be right concerning those who give leadership in the church and their contribution to the failing of the church today. I think also contributing to such demise in Western and more educated society is the religious nature of the church. It is founded on a theology that appeals more to the emotion than to the intellect. The historical (if you can call it that) elements of Christianity are as bazar as any other religion and has lost it appeal to the intellect. Certainly, this contributes to the demise of the church in our society.

    As to your “Three Features of Spiritual Integrity,” humility, empathy, and connection. These features are not features that belong or should belong solely to the church. I would dare say that other groupings have latched onto such a mentality, probably with greater effect than the Christian church. When such other groups display such features it draws attention to their philosophy or the reasons their core message is true, such as a message of love for neighbor. Other groups are more effectively displaying the three features of “human integrity.” If humans are the image bearers of God (as Christians claim) then such features are not unique to the church. The church no longer takes the lead in displaying your suggested features, in fact they are far back in the pack of other worthy causes. So Chuck, I don’t know if the Christian church will be able to do enough to reverse this path of demise that the church is on. It will certainly take more than simply displaying humility, empathy, and connection.

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