If you’ve missed parts 1 and 2 of The Abusive Church series, you can catch up here:

The Abusive Church – Introduction
The Abusive Church – The Control Factor (When the Pastor Becomes Their God)

In this third installment of The Abusive Church series, we will discuss manipulation. Manipulation is the skillful and deliberate use of external forces to get others to do what someone else wants them to do or to suit one’s purpose or advantage. In the church, it is often used by the powerless to get trusting people to submit to the leadership of the church, to bestow unearned honor on unscrupulous leaders, to increase their financial support of the ministry, to commit ungodly sexual acts or unlawful acts, or to isolate certain individuals or groups from others. Manipulative tactics can include the use of false promises, guilt, peer pressure, intimidation, and misuse of scripture to threaten divine judgment from God for disobedience. Manipulative pastors and church leaders tend to prey on those who are naive, depressed, have low self-esteem, are isolated from their families, or are brainwashed into believing false teachings that promote deifying men and women of God.

Manipulation in the Bible

In Churches That Abuse, Dr. Ron Enroth reminds us that church abuse isn’t new to our generation, or even to our century. He goes back to the early 1920s and tells the story of a controlling, manipulative leader and the people he abused. But a look at III John lets us know that manipulative leaders were present in the church since its beginning.

I have written briefly to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to take the lead among them and put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority and refuses to accept my suggestions or to listen to me.

So when I arrive, I will call attention to what he is doing, his boiling over and casting malicious reflections upon us with insinuating language. And not satisfied with that, he refuses to receive and welcome the [missionary] brethren himself, and also interferes with and forbids those who would welcome them, and tries to expel (excommunicate) them from the church.” (III John v9-10)

The King James version says that Diotrephes loved to have “preeminence,” which in the original Greek is philoproteuo, meaning that he loved to be first. People who share Diotrephes’ attitude want all the attention, power and authority for themselves; they don’t want to share the spotlight or yield control of their members by allowing them to fellowship with anyone outside of the local congregation. Not only would Diotrephes resist visits from key leaders in the body of Christ, he would try to excommunicate (or kick out) any members who showed these guests any hospitality. Dude was a master manipulator.

Today’s Masters of Manipulation

In the 1900+ years since Diotrephes’ day, manipulation in the church has flourished and gone far beyond just isolating members from the freedom that comes with hearing the truth.

In today’s church, members are more likely to be manipulated into giving more than they want to or can afford to, or into having extra-marital or pre-marital sexual relations. There are few active churchgoers who don’t know of a pastor who engaged in an ungodly relationship with another woman, man, or teen. The news is filled daily with reports of pastors who impregnated their members or face criminal charges for some other sexual indiscretions. They get caught with the joint in their mouths, the prostitute in the car, the stolen cash in their gym bags, coming out of hotels, etc. and will still lie bold-faced and say it wasn’t them. And the manipulated members will believe and defend them. Many have been manipulated into stealing money to pay overdue church bills or line the pastor’s pockets. Many have been manipulated into keeping secret something that should’ve been reported. And how many of us have never been taken on the Offering Guilt Trip? I’ve even been in services where they have locked the doors, declaring “nobody is moving until we meet this goal!

How to raise a good offering

Recently, a friend shared with me some of the tips he was taught for raising a “good offering.” Included in his list were:

  1. timing,
  2. association with a theme,
  3. prophetic encouragement, and
  4. aiming high.

He explained that the key is to have good timing, even if that means stopping in the middle of a sermon while emotions are high. Sometimes, you have to tune up even when the sermon didn’t call for it, just to “take them there” emotionally, so they’ll give. He went on to explain that you can associate the amount requested with a scripture number, a date, a number from the text, or even a current event. He said that if you prophesy to people, they will give, so start the line with a high amount and begin to prophesy and watch others join the line (especially if the people in front of them are falling out). *blank stare* He also said not to be afraid to ask for an outrageous amount because you never know who is there and what they have. If the congregation is sparse or appears to be poor, you can assign each pew to raise a certain amount. His last “tactic” was to use lines like “a desperate need calls for a desperate offering” and “sow a seed into your breakthrough;” and we all know the ever-popular “NAME YOUR SEED,” where the congregation is told to name their seed after the blessing they need from God. Often promises are added like “the more you give, the faster He’ll move for you,” or “you’ve got to give until it hurts so He can see that you’re serious about this seed.” Sometimes, my friend said, people will give just because they feel bad for you standing up there so long, or they want to hurry up and get this over with so they can leave. So, take your time and don’t rush.

Those are all manipulative, unBiblical tactics. I know I just lost a lot of pastors, but that’s okay. Wrong is wrong.

What are some of the signs you’re being manipulated?

1. You’re made to feel guilty or troublesome for asking questions about teachings, doctrine, rules, or decisions. If there is no clear scriptural reference, and the rules or decisions cost you, but benefit the church, it is possible you’re being manipulated.

2. If you are a tither and you’re encouraged to give money that you don’t have or money that is designated for a bill, or you’re made to feel guilty for not giving enough, you are being manipulated. First of all, in most states, it’s illegal to write a check for an amount that is not in your account. Secondly, if you owe anyone (mother, co-worker, credit card company, landlord, bank, or any other lender), that money belongs to the person you owe, not the church – you are giving the church stolen money.

3. If you are made to feel guilty about anything other than outright sin and/or wrongdoing, you are being manipulated.

4. If there are benefits associated with giving (prophetic word, better seat, position/title, public acknowledgement), you’re being manipulated.

5. If you are underage and you are sexually involved with any one who is over 21 and is not your spouse, you are probably being manipulated. If you are sexually involved with your pastor or any other leader who is not your spouse, you are probably being manipulated.

6. If you are told that you shouldn’t fellowship with a certain person, group of people or a certain church, denomination, or organization, it’s possible that you’re being isolated and controlled, which is a form of manipulation.

7. If your pastor uses scripture irresponsibly to threaten you (like the pastor who once threatened his congregation saying that “God will stroke your mouth!” from Proverbs 18:6 – yeah, I rolled my eyes on that one, too), it is possible that you’re being manipulated. In fact, any intentional misuse of scripture is manipulative.

8. If you are encouraged or asked to do anything unlawful or ungodly, you are probably being manipulated.

9. If your pastor knowingly lives a lifestyle of sin, and you aren’t sure whether you should leave, you are possibly being manipulated (unless you’re living in sin yourself so you take comfort in his sin).

10. If you are being mistreated, but you are afraid to leave due to reasonable or unreasonable fears, you are probably being manipulated.

11. If your pastor is telling you one thing and telling everyone else (or anyone else) something different, it is possible that you’re being manipulated.

12. If you receive “prophetic” words that contradict what (a) the Bible says, (b) God said to you, or (c) you know to be right, you are being manipulated. The same is true if you receive “prophetic words” that don’t come to pass or come with financial strings attached. And God takes this very seriously, too. Deuteronomy 18:20 says “but the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.

13. If you are frequently leaving church feeling good but never convicted or urged to change or improve your ways; if the preached Word wasn’t actually Word at all, or if you have no idea what the message was, but you know it sounded good and felt good – it’s possible you’re being emotionally manipulated.

Get out

If you are in a manipulative church, I strongly urge you to get out. I don’t advise you to pause to pray about it, because it is not the will of God for you to be manipulated by someone claiming to be His servant. You don’t need confirmation on that one; it’s just not the will of God.

God WILL take care of those who abuse His sheep. Click here to read His warning to the shepherds who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, and His promise to the sheep.