Church Discipline and the Psychopath
When we consider the number of auto mechanics who openly express their opinion about teachers and their classrooms, or the number of school teachers who shamelessly comment on the way the architects designed the school building, or the number of housewives who have something to say about the Sunday Sermon Series, then we should have no problem if a Pastor comments on an issue normally reserved for Professional Shrinks.
No, I am not a trained psychologist. I’ve read books writteny by psychologists, particularly on predators and that sort of thing. But reading an expert never made anyone an expert. So, by no means should you consider this to be “expert” material. Consider this post to be a small piece of pastoral advice for those who discover that a Psychopath is at work in their midst.
We’ve experienced this sort of thing firsthand. It ain’t pretty, believe me. Probably the most frustrating thing a Pastor will ever have to deal with is the Psychopath. For, when the Psychopath has finished, the world goes topsy-turvy, the Pastor struggles to make heads or tails out of the situation, and the church finds itself groping in the dark for the truth. Psychopaths have the unique ability to turn brother against brother, and somehow to be the only one who emerges from the pile unscathed. Churches have split and Pastors been destroyed at the hands of a Psychopath. And in the end, the only winner is the Psychopath himself. Or so it seems.
The Psychopath: A Description
Psychopaths are liars, first and foremost. But they are not just any kind of liars. People lie for many reasons. Often, people lie because they fear getting caught. People lie in order to preserve their reputation or status. Men sometimes lie in order to keep the peace (“No dear, that dress doesn’t make you look fat.”) The lie might be a sin of omission (i.e., the husband who leaves out the next statement: “being fat makes you look fat.”) Sometimes we lie because we are embarrassed about the truth. Sometimes a lie is meant to do damage. If we summarized all the motives for lying, they would fall under one of two heads: those lies told for self-preservation, and those lies told for malicious purposes, in order to cause harm.The Bible teaches us that the lying tongue hateth those that are afflicted by it. Never is this more true than in the case of a Psychopath.
One reason that the Psychopath’s lies are so dangerous, and in the end so damaging, is because they lie without conscience. “Normal” people will feel guilty about telling lies. In fact, we rely on their guilt to give them away when they lie. But the Psychopath feels no guilt, no remorse, not even a twinge of conscience. They lie as naturally as they breath. To compound the issue, they get a thrill – Anna Salter called it “duping delight” – out of telling lies. They lie in order to fool people, and they fool people, not necessarily because it gains them any real advantage, but because they enjoy fooling people. It is pleasant to get away with things, and we find narrow escapes to be especially pleasant. And the Psychopath finds a special thrill in telling lies — lies that you will believe.
The Psychopath uses two things against you in order to tell his lies: first, your confidence in yourself, and secondly, your confidence in humanity. He uses your confidence in yourself against you first. You believe that you can detect a lie. You believe that you know, that you can tell when someone is lying to you. You know all the signs of lying. But he knows all those same signs as well, and he has learned to tell his lies without any of the body language, facial expressions, stammering, watery eyes, dry mouth, and so forth that you believe always accompany a lie. He tells very believable lies, and tells them in ways that are undetectable. And often, he tells lies that would require you to question his integrity in order to discover the lies. He knows that you don’t want to do that. He understands that if he can persuade you that he is not lying, even that he wouldn’t lie, then he can persuade you of what he is saying. That is the first thing.
The Psychopath also uses your expectations against you. You expect people to tell you the truth, especially adults. Society doesn’t work very well if we can’t expect people to tell the truth about the little things in life. We just naturally expect that people will tell us the truth. We are naturally trusting and charitable, giving people the benefit of the doubt. The Psychopath knows this too, and takes full advantage of it.
You should understand that the Psychopath is first and foremost a confidence man. He cons for the fun of it. He gets a special pleasure out of duping those around him. And since that has become the main event for him, there are several things that a Psychopath will almost always do. First, he will almost always work his way into the good graces of the key people in the church. Psychopaths carefully cultivate their relationships with pastoral leadership, as well as with key people in the church.
Psychopaths are betrayers. I had a friend in college (we’ll call him Chad) who bragged that he had something on every person in the college, and that if anyone ever tried to “turn him in,” he would unload the truck on them. I saw him do it, too. These were not empty words. His “best friend” (and the reader should understand that a Psychopath doesn’t ever have a ‘best’ friend) happened to mention some concerns about him during a reference interview. “Chad” did not get the job. But in return, he did succeed in damaging that so-called ‘best friend’s’ reputation. Chad told me later, and I now know that he intended for me to get the message as well, that if he goes down, he is taking everyone with him. I watched him set people up, so that he could get dirt on them. We picked up a friend from work to give him a ride home, and on the way home, Chad turned on some music that would get us all in trouble if we were caught. If Chad could get our friend (and me) to listen without protest, then he had us. As I think back now, Chad was setting me up as well. We worked in the same place, and one day at the beginning of work, he asked me to turn on one of the TV’s in the shop for him. When I turned it on, a pornagraphic video was playing… He of course had no idea how that happened. And since our boss bragged about watching that sort of thing, Chad speculated that it must have been left on when the boss left the shop. I think I know better now. Chad always had something on you, but he always wanted something more.
I haven’t seen or heard from Chad in many years, but I have no doubt that he has impressed many people, that he has made many very loyal friends, and that he has destroyed many lives. And, quite possibly, churches too.
You see, Psychopaths cultivate very loyal followings on purpose. At the end of the day, when the chickens come home to roost, and the piper comes around to collect his pay, the Psychopath must ensure that he wins the day. He betrays whomever he must in order to come out ahead. I saw a bumper sticker on a very nice convertible recently. It said, “As a matter of fact, it is all about me.” That is the Psychopath’s motto. The Psychopath has just one loyalty, and that is to himself.
The Psychopath’s gregariousness makes him easy to like, and hard not to trust implicitely. What most people don’t understand is that this is a part of the game for him. You are not a person or even a friend. You are a challenge. You are an opportunity. You are a conquest, a competitor. He wants a concession out of you. Any small concession will do. But he wants one. And when he gets that concession, he knows that he can win with you. You might consider that a strange way to look at friendship. You are honest and straightforward, and when you extend yourself to someone, it is out of an honest desire to be a friend, to help that person, to be a blessing. But not so with the Psychopath. He will seem very genuine in all that he does, and from the surface, you really can’t see a difference in him. But in reality, beneath all the kindness and sympathy, is a desire to prevail. He wants you to trust him. That is important. The rest is only possible when he gains a little of your trust.
In her book Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists, & Other Sex Offenders, Anna Salter makes a comparison between the Psychopath’s approach to life and friendship and the way a football player approaches a football game. The opposing quarterback doesn’t feel bad that he tricked the defense. That was his purpose. When he scores, whether it is a five yard gain, a first down, or a touchdown, he accomplished his purpose, and this is a delight for him. Most people don’t think this way, which is why they are so vulnerable to the onslaughts of a Psychopath. For the most part, we want to do our part to help, and so we don’t view life as a competition. We want to be a friend. But to the Psychopath, life is all about competing and winning. Friendship isn’t about friendship, it is about gaining the advantage.
When the Psychopath’s ways begin to catch up with him, that is when the real danger begins. I doubt that there is any real research on this, but I would speculate that the majority of “church splits” have a Psychopath somewhere in the mix, probably as the ringleader, although never apparantly so. And why is his leadership not always apparant? One reason is that if the Psychopath can stir up the hot-heads in the church, then he doesn’t have to stick his own beloved neck out. He can sit back, watch to see where the chips fall, and then take sides with the winners. Anytime that the Psychopath can avoid exposure, he will. He is the one who will play both sides of the fence as necessary. The Pastor might even believe that the Psychopath is on his side, and at the same time, the opposition might also believe this same person to be on their side. He will keep it that way as long as necessary.
Dealing with the Psychopath: A Prescription
In dealing with a Psychopath, it is absolutely essential that the Pastor and the church follow Scripture scrupulously, and that they conduct themselves with true Christian maturity. The Psychopath relies on the emotional aspects of friendship to win the day for him. We had a Psychopath in our church a number of years ago. I was amazed to find that even though church members knew what he had done — and he had done some truly horrible things — they still took his side and felt that the church was mistreating him. Emotion won the day with those people. But we must understand that the Psychopath expects this. He preys on the emotions of people.
This is why I stress the importance of dealing with such things in Christian maturity. When a church exposes sin and disciplines that sin according to Scripture, it is not because that church dislikes the person. For one thing, finding a church that will actually practice church discipline according to the Word of God is a challenge. Not many churches still do what God says in this. Churches don’t practice Scriptural church discipline in order to win friends and influence people. You won’t find a chapter in the hottest new Church Growth Handbook entitled “Faithful Church Discipline.” When a church deals with sin publicly in accordance with Scripture, it is a painful thing. Mature Christians understand this.
But that won’t keep the Psychopath from attempting to cloud the waters and stir up the mud from the bottom. Having been through this sort of thing, the best recommendation that can be offered is for churches to teach through the passages on church discipline during the times when none is needed. And a second recommendation would be to faithfully preach God’s Word — every part of it, so that your people will be accustomed to having the Bible dictate what our response should be.
Probably the biggest difficulty in dealing with the Psychopath comes, not in exposing and rebuking the sin, but in how to deal with his repentance. Pastors and churches must understand that in dealing with a Psychopath, you are dealing with a different kind of sinner. I say that cautiously. A sinner is a sinner is a sinner, as we all know. And yet, in dealing with sinners, we still have a set of expectations about how they will respond to rebuke. A hardened sinner will rebuff the rebuke and will continue in his sin. That kind of sinner makes discipline very cut-and-dried. A weak-willed sinner will repent and be genuinely sorry, but will slip and fall later. In his case, patience will be necessary, along with a good accountablity program. Some sinners, when rebuked, will repent and will return to that sin no more. These are the cases that every pastor wishes were the rule rather than the exception.
But the Psychopath does something that we might not have expected. The Psychopath repents. He repents immediately — as quickly as he is caught. He repents in sackcloth and ashes. And he doesn’t mean a word of it. Not one of his tears comes from a sincere heart. Repentence for him is a part of the game, and he delights in duping the pastor and church leadership once again.
And that gives the godly pastor his greatest challenge. He sees the Biblical commands to “restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.” He understands that if his neighbor trespasses against him 70 times in a day, he is to forgive him 70 times that day. But what do we do with the man who openly repents, and his repentence is an intentional lie? What then?
A Pastor-friend of mine contacted me a few years ago. A man in his church was having an affair. The Pastor rebuked the man and demanded that he separate from the woman. At first the man refused, and the Pastor began the proceedings for church discipline. At the last moment, the man called my Pastor friend to tell him that he had repented, and that he wanted to meet with the Pastor and deacons. The Pastor and deacons drove over to his house and met with the man. In tears, the man told the Pastor that he had sinned against God and against the church, told them how sorry he was, cried and sobbed and asked them to pray for him and help him. The man told his Pastor and Deacons that he had separated from the woman, and promised to cut off all contact with her. This Pastor prayed with the man, laid out the terms of discipline, and rejoiced as he departed.
Two weeks later, the woman called my Pastor friend and told him that on the night when this man was crying and confessing and repenting and forsaking, during all the time that he was doing this, that she had been at the house the entire time. This man, the adulterer, had his cell phone turned on in his shirt pocket, and the woman sat in the back yard listening to the entire conversation. When my Pastor friend and the deacons left the house, this woman confessed that she came back in the house and spent the night with this man once again before finally separating.
My Pastor friend wanted to know what he should do. When he confronted the man about the lies he told, he immedietely acknowledged that he had in fact done this, and that it was wrong, and once again begged for forgiveness. So, what now?
We need to understand the difference between genuine, godly sorrrow that works repentance, and the sorrow of the world that works death. And one of the first things we need to understand is that the sorrow of the world is not repentance at all, though it often masquerades as repentence. True repentence can be identified easily enough — it is marked by a full and uncoerced confession of sin, by a volunteering of information that would not and sometimes could not be known otherwise. The man who is truly repentent wants to come clean. When a man only tells what he cannot escape telling, when he conceals what information he can conceal until he is forced to confess it, when he withholds information in order to enable himself to continue in his sin, that man is not truly repentent.
In cases where there is not genuine repentence, the church has full authority to pursue discipline. In the case of the Psychopath, the church must understand that they will be required to pursue that discipline in the face of withering opposition and vehement protests. But they must remain firm. The Bible has another name for the Psychopath. The Bible calls it a “reprobate mind.” The church cannot afford to keep such a person.
The Psychopath has the ability to destroy a church. And in cases when the Psychopath fails to destroy the church, he will always leave a scar. In order to deal with such a man, the church and particularly the Pastor will need a godly resolve, a fortitude, and a courageous spirit. May God grant us discernment, wisdom, and boldness in such cases.