Controlling Personalities in the Church: Manipulation Techniques and Your Defenses

July 5, 2008 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Our own reader “High Church” sent me the link to a great article over at a site called Wittenburg Gate (not to be confused with the publication, Wittenburg Door, which is put out by the (now-we-discover) somewhat questionable Trinity Foundation).  You can read the full article here, but below are some very interesting excerpts:


Excerpt #1:  The best defense against being manipulated may be to recognize it as it happens and to have an idea ahead of time about what you will do. In this post I will write about some of the techniques that are used in manipulative and cult-like groups (including churches with orthodox Christian doctrine) and some suggestions you might try to resist them.


Excerpt #2:  This leads to another manipulation tool, pressuring you to hold loyalties to your church or your pastor above your loyalties to your spouse or your immediate or extended family. You have probably heard how cults will turn young people against their parents. Cult-like Christian groups sometimes do the same thing, though the pressure is often more subtle than a call for complete separation. Perhaps you will be encouraged to consider your family as unbelievers because they belong to another Christian denomination.  You may be discouraged from visiting family when doing so prevents you from attending services or keeps you from another church activity. Pressure to participate in a lot of mid-week activities may seriously cut into your family time.  Wives may be encouraged to pressure their husbands to a particular point of view, or to believe that their husbands are not leading the family adequately.


Excerpt #3:  It should also be noted that the controlling leader will confuse loyalty to himself or his ministry as faithfulness to God, though he will not likely state it explicitly. He will not, for example, suggest to a wife that her faithfulness to him should supersede her loyalty to her husband.  He will instead equate attending this church with loyalty to God, and imply that any other choice would be man-pleasing. The leader may also be spoken of in subtly messianic terms.  Perhaps faithfulness to the church will be spoken of as “following” this leader, or his “voice” will be equated with the voice of God, or his office one of special anointing.  Some use of such terms may actually be appropriate, but they should never imply that a man is anything more than a fallible man, nor should they be used to imply that any man is untouchable or that his ministry should be followed without question.


Excerpt #4:

Manipulators want to minimize all contrary influences, and so will seek to isolate you from others. You will be taught to mistrust certain authors, find fault in other churches, seek counsel from no one but your pastor, and to limit friendships with troublesome people (even if those troublesome people are a part of your church).  If you are feeling rebellious because you read a certain author, visit another church, or ask someone other than your pastor for advice, consider whether or not you are responding to pressure to isolate yourself and limit outside influences.

Spiritually abusive church leaders also encourage their members to believe that this particular church is  better than others, and perhaps the only acceptable church within hundreds of miles.  This plays into the isolation mentioned above, because members are discouraged from worshiping with or learning from other congregations, even within the same denomination.  Christians need to guard our hearts from pride in this regard, and resist thoughts that would lead us to exalt ourselves above other Christians.

This elitism is also used to control dissent.  Any actions that threaten your good standing in the only good church around may also be perceived as threatening your good standing with God.  After all, if you can’t cut it in the only acceptable church,  what does that make you?  If you must leave, where can you possibly go?

Black and White Pronouncements

Narcissistic personalities often cannot think other than in terms of black and white, and other kinds of controlling people may choose not to.  Manipulators will often present you with a false dichotomy: either you believe or do as I say or you deny God.  An example of this might be in evaluating a work of literature.  Rather than see the negative and redeeming aspects of the work and recognizing that some sincere Christians may wish to read it or allow their children to read it and others may not, a declaration is made, and anyone who disagrees is simply either wrong or wicked.

Does disagreeing with your leader make you feel disloyal or rebellious?  Do you check with the group when deciding how you should think about something or what choices you should make?  Do you conceal things about yourself, such as a movie you watched or hobby you pursue, until you figure out whether or not it is okay?  If so, you may be attempting to navigate the broad gray ship of Christian liberty in a narrow black and white sea.

Is It Unity or Is It Uniformity?
Black and white thinking will manifest itself with a uniformity among members who are submitting to the black and white mandates of the leader. This uniformity is often presented as unity, but it is a false unity, a unity of image only. Genuine unity among Christians should be Christ-centered and Gospel-centered. Unity based on works–even good works–is nothing more than worldly uniformity. The group uniformity will produce a silent group pressure for conformity. The manipulator will leverage this group pressure when someone begins to get out of line. Perhaps he will point out that all other members of the group do things in a certain way. Those who differ from group norms may find their roles in the church diminished, and those who conform will be rewarded with prominence and favorable treatment.


Controlling groups often have a group lingo, or special vocabulary that sounds foreign to outsiders.  The words are often not well-defined, but just as no one was willing to say the emperor had no clothes, no one is willing to admit that they do not understand the meaning of these words.  The result is a quiet confusion that is unsettling and causes you to see yourself as a follower in this group rather than a leader or even an equal contributor.  No person of average intelligence ought to feel he or she isn’t smart enough to contribute to discussion or understand the teaching in his or her church.

Some people in manipulative groups will also take on the role of guards, who protect the leader from dissenters by jumping in and defending the leader or the accepted doctrines whenever someone questions them.  These guards are most often not being consciously manipulative, but are responding out of their own anxiety about having the groupthink subjected to scrutiny.  (See Catez’s excellent post on Cognitive Dissonance at Allthings2all.)  Others in the group remain silent and their silence is interpreted as agreement.  This kind of group dynamic has been much studied by psychologists, and is known to squash dissonant thoughts and encourage conformity to the group.

Confusion also arises when a manipulator suggests that you said or did something or agreed to do something in the past.  “Didn’t you say you would be writing a letter of support for this project?” “Wasn’t this meeting your idea?”  He may also deny that he said or did something in the past.  Since we all know our own memories are not always completely reliable, we don’t feel we can say for sure that we did not do or say what is being claimed, even when we doubt it.

I think it is also important to note that the confusion and groupthink mentality can extend to a church council or session.  In that case, a controlling elder can manipulate the other elders, and it will appear that they are all working together equally.  In this way, the real authority of the church council can be manipulated to do the controller’s bidding.  (See an insightful article from the Chalcedon Foundation on the groupthink phenomenon in the church leadership.)

Shame on You!
Most healthy people are willing to admit their own imperfections, and when told they are in the wrong, they thoughtfully consider the criticism.  Manipulators take advantage of this, by causing you to be ashamed of your criticism of him or of your lack of cooperation with his dictates.  You may be told your “heart is not right” on this or that your intentions are bad.  Are you feeling guilty for things you shouldn’t?  Are you feeling vaguely guilty, but unable to say exactly what it is you are doing wrong?

I think it is important, when faced with inappropriate feelings of shame, to remember the difference between guilt and shame.  Guilt is an actual judgment for something that is objectively sinful.  I can be guilty of theft or bearing false witness.  Shame, however, is a feeling of being condemned by God or by others.  If you find yourself feeling shame, ask yourself if there is a sin you need to confess and repent of.  If so, do so, and know that Christ forgives repentant sinners and put away your shame and put on his grace.  If however, you are feeling shame for something that is not sinful, ask yourself if someone is manipulating you into feeling that way.  Again, turn to Christ and put away the bondage of men and put on the freedom that is bond service to Christ.

Beware especially when you find yourself feeling guilty for something simply because your leader would not like it.  If you feel guilty for maintaining your friendship with Suzy and look around the restaurant where you are meeting for lunch, hoping that the wrong people don’t see you, then perhaps you are being manipulated by shaming.  Likewise if you tuck away that book you’ve been reading or can’t let anyone know what curriculum you have chosen for you homeschooling.

Manipulators will also bring up your past sins to keep you in a place of shame, unwilling to assert yourself as an equal or consider yourself worthy of criticizing your manipulator or refusing his demands.  Again, if proper repentance has been made before God and men, Christ has removed that sin from you.  Christ’s forgiveness separates us from our sins like the east is separated from the west.  It does not remind us again and again of our unworthiness.  A Christian man who leads with the authority of Christ ought to be like Christ and forgive in this way.  (Read more on forgiveness here and here.)

It’s Not My Fault!
The manipulator will blame you or others for his bad behaviors.  Perhaps you drove him to it by your bad behavior.  Each person is responsible for his or her own actions, whether others are sinning or not.

Like shaming, this blame-shifting may cause you to begin to focus on your own real or alleged weaknesses and be diverted from expressing your concerns about the church or your leader.  Probably the best response to this kind of diversion is to agree to discuss that after you discuss what it is you came to talk about.  You can even start a list of these these diversions as they come up, and promise to discuss them later.

I Don’t Love You Anymore
A narcissistic person is convinced that his attention, approval and love are things to be coveted by all.  Sometimes he manages to convince others of this, too.  Once a person becomes dependent upon the approval and love of the manipulator (which is generally accomplished through flattery and elitism), it can be selectively withdrawn in order to encourage compliance.  As Christians, we must remember that it is our Father in heaven whom we should desire to please, and be willing, when necessary, to bear the disapproval of men.

In group form, this technique takes the form of shunning.  It may be understood that people leaving the church, even those who are not the subject of any discipline, are at fault and in sin, and must not be contacted or socialized with any longer.  In one church parents were pressured not to even allow their children to play with their friends from families that had left the church or families that were still in the church, but out of the favor of the controlling person.

Oh, Yeah? Well Your Mother’s Ugly!

Another tool of the manipulator is when being confronted or questioned, he will turn the tables or divert the conversation away from your concerns.  Very often the diversion will be in the form of an accusation against you.  Sometimes he will divert you with a pity play.  As in the case of blame-shifting, probably the most effective defense against this is to say, “Okay, we can get back to that in a minute, but I came here to talk to you about this subject.”

Don’t Listen to Him, He’s a Such-and-such!

Labeling is another technique used by a controlling person to shut down debate.  It can be surprisingly effective.  Perhaps you are quoting a book or the opinion of a well-known person who differs from the manipulator.  “He’s a dispensationalist (theonomist/evidentialist/Arminian/six-day creationist), you know.”

With one label the discussion is shut down.  Sometimes a person’s position on another issue does impact his views on another, but let it be explained why the given label is relevant to the discussion at hand.  Surely a such-and-such can have some good thoughts, can he not?  Rather than accept a label, insist that the labeler respond to the ideas.

The person expressing concerns may also be labeled as a means of deflecting those concerns.  Again, rather than focus on the label, focus on the ideas being expressed.

Of Course, That Doesn’t Apply in My Case!

Manipulators apply a different standard to others than what they apply to themselves.  You must submit to church authorities, but he will not because the authorities over him are corrupt.  You may not share bad information about him, because to do so violates Matthew 18; however, he must share bad information about others because he is “defending himself” or “holding people accountable”.  You share gossip; he shares “prayer concerns”.

A controlling personality will justify every action by twisting Scriptures, often absurd rationalizations, and by explaining why his circumstances are so different than any other.  Often the convolutions of his logic will be impossible to follow.  Perhaps the best response is to attempt to restate his case.  “So you are saying that because James allegedly told Peter that you lied about him, you are now required by the Scriptures to defend your reputation by telling me bad reports about James’ past?  Do I have that right?”

Everybody’s Talking About It!
A manipulator may suggest that several unnamed people agree with them.  Perhaps they join him in his criticism of you, or perhaps they agree that a certain course of action should be taken.  Sometimes these alleged supporters are respected or well-known people with whom the controlling person claims to have consulted.  If names are given, let your controller know you will check with that person to hear his point of view first hand.  If the people are unnamed, tell him you cannot regard any secondhand statements of what other people’s opinions are.  In my own experience, I found that every time I attempted to verify this kind of claim, the person quoted had no recollection of any such conversation and refused to identify themselves with the opinion expressed.  You must either totally disregard any such claims or check them out to clear up the doubts they create.  Otherwise, this sort of claim can distance you from people who have really done nothing to offend you.

Join My Crusade!
One of the ugliest and most destructive aspects of an abusive or controlling church situation are when these manipulative techniques all come together in covertly-aggressive and well-orchestrated attacks on people who are perceived as a threat to the abuser.  First, the manipulator uses gossip to invite people to take up his personal offenses and turn people against his target(s).  He uses flattery and pity plays to build a team and to keep his followers loyal.  He encourages his loyal followers to pressure, rebuke, and speak out against the targets.  He may claim that the aggression is actually being perpetrated against him by his targets.  Well away from the eyes of his loyal followers, he uses threats and intimidation, accusations and shaming to bully his target into compliance or silence.  He sets traps for the target that he then publicly walks into, and in the eyes of those who have listened to the gossip, his behavior seems to confirm the truth of it.  The target is eventually put out of the group and shunned.  I lampooned this sort of attack in my post, The Church Demolition Game, but it is not at all funny.  The targets of such aggression suffer from the trauma it causes.  The situation may result in depression, symptoms of extreme anxiety, or even suicidal thoughts or actions.