All warfare is based on deception — Sun Tzu
Got a story to share of a manipulative or abusive spiritual leader? Email us at email@example.com . Warning: some examples in this article may be confronting to some people.
If you’ve spent enough time in church you would have no doubt either come across or heard of a manipulative leader. Christ warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). Paul echoed similar words (Acts 20:28–30) and warned Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14) while Revelation refers to the false prophet as appearing as a lamb but speaking like a dragon (Rev. 13:11).
Pastors play a key God given role in shepherding the Lord’s flock (1 Peter 5:1–4) and teaching the Word (1 Tim 4:10–13). Yet, their positions of authority give them an increased platform to manipulate others.
Much of what we are discussing today lies on a spectrum. We are all manipulative to some extent. We are fallen and need God’s grace to save, shape and transform us. Many people can show manipulative tendencies without actually having outright dark motives. Christ bore the brunt of human manipulation we inflicted on him. Conspired against by religious and political leaders, falsely slandered, turned on by the popular opinion of the time, betrayed by his own companions. Despite this, people with strong dark motives are in churches around the world so let’s look at how we can Biblically keep an eye out for them looking for 3 key traits:
(1) USE FLATTERY
2 Tim 4:3–4 warns false teachers appeal to people who have “itching ears” and wish to hear things which suit their desires. What do humans ultimately want most of the time? Money, sex, power, health, security, recognition. Manipulators will often tap into these desires and give you or pretend to give you what you want by listening to them. Paul warns of the savage wolves amongst the flock (Acts 20:29) but warns they will draw people after them (Acts 20:30). They flatter sometimes with eloquent wisdom (1 Cor 1:17). They are appealing.
Persuasion is important in ministry and teaching. Flattery and manipulation are a counterfeit. Persuasion can come from a good heart wanting good things for someone they are struggling to see, flattery in this context is selfish manipulation.
Leah, I have never heard anyone at church that sings quite like you. Can we go for coffee during the week to see how you can better serve the Lord?
Sarah, God has really blessed you as an entrepreneur. We’d love for you to partner with our church mission through giving.
James, I haven’t heard anyone preach like you with such conviction in my life (meanwhile tries to sleep with James’ wife).
A party of politician in the style of Hogarth Wellcome V0050364
(2) MOTIVATED BY GREED, POWER OR LUST
Greed involves more than just greed for money. Greed for attention. Greed for power. Manipulators love to be the centre of it all. Paul warns of people driven by greed for money through “senseless and harmful desires” (1 Tim 6:9) who “plunge people into ruin and destruction” (NRSV). These are false teachers, “their god is their belly.. with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:19 ESV). Their end is their own self interest. Jude alludes to false teachers as “following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage” (v 16 ESV) while 2 Peter refers to them as “irrational animals, creatures of instinct” (2 Peter 2:11) with “eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin.. hearts trained in greed” (2 Peter 2:14).
When confronted, manipulators love to guilt whoever is accusing them. Just think about it- Christ’s created creatures made him as guilty when he exposed their sin. This is what psychologists refer to as projection.
How sick of you Peter to ever think that I’d think that inappropriately of a woman in our congregation. You have an issue with lust, you need to repent.
Why do you mistrust me so much that you regularly ask for the receipts of my recent church conference trip. Haven’t I done enough for the church? You have eyes filled with greed to make everything about money.
If I preach whatever makes people happy, I will have more people attending my church and I can make more money and stay in a better hotel in Spain during the summer.
Just because you watch porn all the time Harry doesn’t mean you need to misinterpret my Google search I left open on the screen.
Nancy, I know you recently accused me of sexual abuse but we are going to have a look at your brother David’s excessive time spent with a teenage girl last weekend (made up story to deflect guilt to another).
Negging is a tactic manipulators can use to throw you off guard and make you feel insecure and thus more susceptible to their control. Negging involves making backhanded compliments in order that someone’s key strengths may be minimised.
Ralph, I know you know the Bible well but do you have many other gifts you can offer our church?
Lara, you’re obviously a pretty woman but I’m wondering growing up was there much else you were good at?
You’re either with me or against me. On everything. There is no grey area on any issue. Diotrephes of 3 John 9–10 who speaks “wicked nonsense” against the apostles, “refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.” There is no middle ground. Manipulators love to set their own path on everything. Follow my teachings 100% or be a distant alien. Issue is you’re a fallible human, not God.
Triangulation is a common emotional manipulation tactic used. Manipulators often love to bring God into the equation to suit their needs. They don’t like open discussions or honest questions being thrown at them.
We’re doing God’s work here, why ask so many questions about my sermon?
You’re working against the Holy Spirit leaving my church.
It’s ok if we bully this elder out of the church, he’s a pain and we’re leading people to Christ anyway.
I only watch porn because it helps me release tension and do my job better as a pastor. My wife is unwell at the moment and won’t have sex very often.
Or they could use a family member of yours.
Luke, I was just about to make you a deacon if you stayed. I’m worried if you’re leaving this church you’re not under my spiritual protection anymore. I’m going to have to tell your wife about all that dark violent porn you watched before you met her to spiritually protect her once you both move on from this church.
Another common tactic is benevolent manipulation to sow seeds of doubt in your mind about their dark intentions.
Diana, I took you food to eat when you were pregnant and now you’re going to tell my wife I accidentally touched you when I hugged you last week?
Gary, I spent so many hours counselling you last year, I care for you so much and now you’re raising concerns over my use of church funds with the treasurer and me touching your seven year old son? Do you really in your wildest dreams ever think I’d do something like that after everything good I’ve done for you?
It doesn’t end there, we could list many more but let’s end with guilt.
I poured out my heart for your family last year Lisa and now you’re going to tell my wife I yelled at you in my office? We all have bad days. Ministry is stressful, I do so much for the Lord.
You were the best youth leader I’ve ever seen, our church relied on you so much and now you’re going to leave us when I have no one else to help me?
THE WAY FORWARD
Does any of this relate to your experiences or stories you’ve heard? Unfortunately, given we live in a fallen world, manipulators can project their guilt on others. This means in our attempts to be discerning there can at times be cases where people are falsely slandered in church circles in order to achieve a particular outcome such as removing a disliked person from ministry.
The devices of the demonic are wide and varied- they operate as evil geniuses. There are dark forces at play and we don’t have the wisdom to handle the complexity of these issues in and of ourselves.
Stay vigilant. Stay prayerful. Show Christ’s love. Stand for his truth. We all lack wisdom. Let’s ask God for it in faith not doubting as a wave being tossed around and God will give us wisdom “generously and ungrudgingly” (James 1:5–7). The closer we are to our Shepherd, the more easily we will discern a wolf who is dangerous to the flock.