Identifying Spiritual Manipulation and Abuse 

 What is spiritual manipulation and abuse?  Spiritual manipulation is a technique used by abusive churches, cults and individuals to control and acquire gain, all the while giving the impression that their teachings and actions are based on the Bible and approved by God. These people will usually twist Scripture to keep others under their control who genuinely fear the Lord.

A characteristic of spiritual abusive is that a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded, whether by a husband, wife, pastor, relative, church, friend, etc. This is not about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a person or organization. This is accomplished by setting up a system where disloyalty or disagreement with the manipulator is construed as disloyalty to God.

 Means of spiritual manipulation and abuse

  Legalism – control every aspect of life

  Demands for obedience/ Unquestioning submission

  Emphasis on performance

  Exclusivism (we alone are faithful, and everybody else is unfaithful)

  Isolation (refusal to associate with anyone but those who support manipulator)

  Humiliation of the “disobedient” or questioner

  Manipulation of emotions by claiming spiritual experience

  Using God for personal gain – if you donate to us, God will give you…

  Lack of empathy from manipulator

  Overemphasis on you feeling guilty

  Manipulation of emotions by oratory or music

  Spiritual abuse in the Bible

 Ezek 34:1-4    The word of the Lord came to me:  “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.

 Jer. 5:30&31  An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?

 Matt 23   For they preach, but do not practice.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger… So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

 Gal 6:12&13  It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.

 Jude 12&13  These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

 I Cor. 2:1  And I, when I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.

 Identifying spiritual manipulation in preaching

 I.  Definition – Seeking to change the perception or behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or even abusive tactics instead of teaching the Scriptures.

 John MacArthur:  “He (Paul) didn’t use techniques that excite and stir, and move people’s emotions to achieve results. He preached the Scriptures (listen to this) to the mind! Many preachers today are good at the art of persuasion — they know how to move people to respond without the Scripture being the issue. They can manipulate their listeners emotionally. But frankly, that kind of approach really prostitutes the preacher’s stewardship because it makes him no different then a secular persuader. Probably, you have experienced a sermon like that. The preacher began by getting your attention. Then there was a certain amount of comprehension, and then they started talking about your need to surrender, your need to yield. They started to play the organ, the mood music began. Maybe you have been in a meeting where they “played and they played” and they kept telling people to raise their hands or ”come down the aisle.” And they tried to force or manipulate the YIELDING, and not with clarifying truth, but with sounds and sights. They use peer-pressure, guilt-tripping, and ambience to evoke a response or a decision. But that is sheer manipulation!”

 “Motivation becomes manipulation when we’ve limited the listener’s capacity to choose how she or he will answer to what it is they are hearing… Preachers manipulate by magnifying guilt, pressing fear, or hyping an idea beyond what it was built to bear. In each case, the listener is emotively pushed beyond what would be reasonable or what the listener would normally choose for him or herself.” (anon)

 James McConnell, (psychologist): “The time has come when if you give me any normal human being and a couple of weeks … I can change his behavior from what it is now to whatever you want it to be, if it’s physically possible. I can’t make him fly by flapping his wings, but I can turn him from a Christian into a Communist and vice versa”

 II.  Types of manipulation in preaching

    A.  Topics chosen that benefit preacher or organization over hearers

   B.  Addressing personal beefs from the pulpit

   C.  Whipping up peoples’ emotions for a desired response (staged passion)

   D.  Ignoring Scripture context to misuse it to fit agenda   

   E.  Plagiarism

 II.  Danger of manipulation

    1.  Glory in men instead of God 

    2.  Decisions that ignore the mind and will thus are short-lived

    3.  Decisions not done out of a thankful heart for the gospel are not Christian decisions

 II Tim 4:1-4  I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound[a] teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

 Identifying Spiritual Manipulation and Abuse concerning money

 1.   Means for manipulating Christians for money

     A.   “Sowing a seed” for material gain, or specific spiritual benefit

     B.   Exaggerating spiritual fruit for support

     C.   Attributing spiritual fruit to an organization more than to Christ

     D.   Guilt, fear, different treatment for givers

     E.   “The Lord told me,” build this addition; start this new ministry, etc.

     F.   Fabricate a miracle as proof of divine blessing

     G.   Peddling the Word of God for money

   2.  The Bible and giving

     A.     Giving starts with the local church (and her missions)

       1.)  I Cor. 9:14  In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

       2.)  I Tim. 5:3,9  Honor widows who are truly widows…Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age…

    B.  Special offerings for special needs  II Cor. 8:1-4for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints

    C.    The Bible does not teach a mandatory 10% tithe – The OC tithe normally consisted of crops and flocks three times a year. The Apostles never once mention a tithe. 

    D.   Amount of giving is voluntary     

        Acts 5:4  While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?

       II Cor. 9:7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

     E.  The amount of giving is proportional II Cor. 8:12-14  For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.

     F.  Giving is always an offering of thanksgiving, not a means of obtaining. 

 Identifying spiritual manipulation and Abuse – Evangelism

 1.  Definition – Using gimmicks, false promises, or insincere words to get people to make a decision for Christ, or attend your church

 2.  Examples

     A.  Easy believism – salvation without repentance, or sanctification

        1.)  Luke 24:45-47 Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

       2.)  Luke 14:27  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

 “In our own presentation of Christ’s gospel, therefore, we need to lay a similar stress on the cost of following Christ, and make sinners face it soberly before we urge them to respond to the message of free forgiveness. In common honesty, we must not conceal the fact that free forgiveness, in one sense, will cost everything; or else our evangelizing becomes a sort of confidence trick.” (J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God)

    B.  Bribery

    C.  Manipulation of emotions

     Example –   Charles Finney    There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing else. the object of our measures is to gain attention and you must have something new “lectures on revivals of religion.” 

 John MacArthur    “You know as well as I know that I could manipulate people with stories. I mean, you could tell a tear-jerking story and effect emotional trauma on people. You can move people with things other than the Scriptures, but you are working on their feelings and not on their mind. If the message is Scripture and the preacher is to preach the message he has to preach the Scripture; and preaching the Scripture means you must exposit the Word. The preacher’s job is not to force his people to yield through some manipulative process. His job is to make them comprehend the Word of God, which will save them, sanctify them, and strengthen them.”

    D.  Promise of success – testimonies of successful people

  Flavil Yeakley, a social scientist, (Why Churches Grow, 1979), studied 720 “converts, drop-outs, and non-converts” – three primary ways these people were taught and/or perceived the approach by which they were taught.

    Information Transmission: The Christian sees himself as a teacher imparting information

    Manipulative Monologue: The Christian sees himself as a salesman selling a product.

    Non-Manipulative Dialogue: The Christian sees himself as a friend discussing with a friend a matter of mutual interest.

 Information Transmission – of 249 people who perceived were taught by IT, 41 baptized, 36 dropped out, 208 did not believe.

 Manipulative Monologue – of the 290 who were taught by MM, 268 were baptized, 203 dropped out, a 76% dropout rate.

 Non-manipulative Dialogue – 181 people perceived the Christian as a friend discussing a matter of mutual interest, 171 were baptized, one dropped out, and ten not baptized.

  E.  Insincerity  

     1.) People as objects

     2.) Contempt, lack of willingness to befriend, know and listen to non-Christians

 The Big Kahuna – “as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore, it’s a pitch.  And you’re not a human being, you’re a marketing rep.”

 3.   Biblical Principles

    A.  God does the savingJohn 1:12&13  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

    B.  The gospel does the persuading I Cor 1:18For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

    C.  The gospel does not need gimmicks or adornment   I Cor 2:1&2  And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

   D.  Care for people, pray to be a witness, pray for openness. Avoid agendas and conversation manipulation. Be yourself.


Counseling victims of spiritual manipulation

I.  Overview

     A. Definition of manipulation: emotional blackmail, a manipulator knows how to twist words, play on emotions and manage a situation to get what he wants.

     B. Influence vs. Manipulation

      1.  Influence: open, honest, direct communication – purpose is to serve the recipient’s best interest and purpose is made clear to recipient

      2.  Phil 2:3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

      3.  Manipulation: indirect, devious – goal – to reward manipulator regardless of effect on you

 II.  Where does manipulation come from?

      A. Gen 3:16 And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.

      B.  After the fall, women will use men, men will use women. Manipulation is how people will regard others

 III.  How manipulation becomes a lifestyle:

      A. A process over a prolonged period of time

      B. How people learn to seek happiness, reward

      C. How people learn to deal with threat of loss

      D. How people learn to avoid the undesirable

      E. How people feed the constant need for attention/praise  

 IV.  Effects of manipulation on others    Confusion, resentfulness, helplessness, anger, guilt, depression, etc. – these are feelings, not facts

 V.  Who manipulators tend to target

     A.  Those who have a need to please others

     B.  Those who fear conflict and negative emotions

     C.  Those who lack self-confidence

     D.  Those who struggle with trusting God to take care of them  

 VII.  How do you spot a manipulator?

     A. Pay attention to actions, not just words – Prov. 14:23 In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.

     B.  Manipulators are either the heroes or victims in any situation

     C.  Lack of genuine empathy toward others

     D.  When you confront them, they make you feel guilty

     E.  Discussions are almost always about them

     F.   You feel pressured to say/do things you really do not want to do

     G.   Some people become master manipulators; and they use religion

         1.  Forgiveness becomes a shield to continue behavior

         2.  Bible knowledge used to show off

         3.  Manipulators look for positions in churches where they can be admired.

         4.  Manipulators choose public displays of humility over private repentance     

 VIII.  Tactics of manipulators

     A.  They conveniently forget what you told them in the past

     B.  They play the victim card

     C.  They point out your weaknesses to avoid dealing with theirs

     D.  They give the silent treatment/pout

     E.  They use charm to avoid accountability

     F.  They coerce you into doing what you do not want to do

 IX.  How to help your people resist manipulators

     A.  Identify the problem – why they always feel this way around this person

     B.  Pray to God for strength – confrontation will not be easy. Speak to others for advice

     C.  Realize that enabling the manipulator only worsens the problem  – In Scripture, respecting does not mean enabling sinful behavior.

     D.   Encourage them to be honest – don’t give in

     E.   Let them know it is okay to halt relationship until the manipulator stops behavior (obviously in marriage this is more complicated)

     F.    Teach them to set boundaries   

     G.   The need is courage and trust.  Courage to confront manipulator and trust that God will take care of you as the manipulator responds in anger.

     H.   Prov. 29:25   The fear of man brings a snare, but he who trusts in the LORD will be exalted.   

 X.  How to avoid manipulating others

     A.  If you know the Lord, the Holy Spirit will convict you when you use people

     B.  Respond by repentance, confession to the person if appropriate

     C.  Keep learning about Christ and his self-sacrificing love toward us. Ask God to make you more Christ-like.



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