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Manipulation or Ministry - Part I

It should really come as no surprise that in seasons of renewal, revival, and increased activity of the Holy Spirit, one of the most frequently voiced criticisms is that manipulation is occurring. Identifying manipulation and avoiding it is therefore of crucial importance. Webster's defines the verb manipulate as follows: "to manage or control artfully or by shrewd use of influence, especially in an unfair or fraudulent way."


But what does it mean to say a minister or preacher or teacher is manipulative? We must be careful how we answer that question, because to accuse someone of being manipulative is to raise doubts about their intent in ministry. To say someone is being manipulative brings into question both their character and sincerity. This is an issue that goes beyond merely an analysis of differing "styles" of how to conduct a religious service. It is an issue that deals directly with the heart. As we will see in a moment, manipulation is more concerned with one's motives than with one's methods. It isn't so much how you conduct a service but why.


We are repeatedly warned in Scripture about the dangers of unrighteous judgmentalism and a critical spirit. So, needless to say, I approach this subject with great caution. I do not want to be guilty of impugning the integrity of someone simply because I am uncomfortable with their methods or am offended by idiosyncrasies in their personality or am of a different opinion on some secondary theological concept.


Nevertheless, having said this, we can't escape the fact that, in seasons of spiritual renewal and heightened zeal, charlatans appear suddenly on the scene. We often hear that someone was pushed over, rather than falling under the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit. Others speak of the loud and often flamboyant tactics of certain "ministers" whose style of preaching or praying draws more attention to themselves than to God and His glory. Who will ever forget the exposure of one TV evangelist who received "words of knowledge" about his audience by means of a radio transmitter that he passed off as a hearing aid!


The apostle Paul talks about integrity of ministry in his second letter to the Corinthians. "Since we have this ministry," Paul writes, "we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:1-2). We must be diligent to be good stewards of the grace and gospel of God. We must strive to serve and minister and preach and pray in a way that is characterized by integrity, sincerity, and above all a desire that Jesus Christ be center-stage. In a word, we must strive by God's grace to avoid even the semblance of manipulation. I hope the comments that follow will help all of us identify and avoid that sort of so-called "ministry" that will bring reproach on the name of Christ Jesus.


Characteristics of Manipulation


I want to begin by identifying 15 characteristics of manipulation. An important factor to keep in mind is that often times there is a very fine line between human manipulation and the work of the Holy Spirit. The line is so fine that it may be difficult to know precisely when one crosses the boundary into the other. I certainly don't presume to be enough of an expert to know in each instance when someone is being manipulative. Neither do I profess to be able to know the motives and intents of the human heart. All I can do is observe how ministry is conducted and test it by the standard of Holy Scripture.


My desire is not to create fear in your heart about being manipulative, far less to say or do anything that might quench the Spirit's work. My goal is simply to articulate some principles that I trust will increase and sharpen our spiritual discernment. 

1.            Manipulation is the attempt to covertly lure a person to forego the reasons or suspend the arguments they have for not doing something which they believe is wrong or suspect. There is certainly nothing wrong or manipulative in seeking to convince a person that such reasons or arguments are incorrect. But when one deliberately circumvents such arguments in order to undermine their influence in the decision-making process of the person who embraces them, the action is manipulative. Indeed, it may even be termed malicious.


For example, someone leading a service may sarcastically denounce people who disagree with him/her as being "religious" or in bondage to "tradition". Of course, there is always the possibility they may be right! But a minister can make that point without the use of ridicule or that condescending tone of voice which intimidates people into suspending the use of the Bible or sanctified wisdom in assessing what is being said.


I have in mind one particular TV personality who adopts an easy-going, down-home style, together with what appears to be a feigned misuse of grammar and pronunciation, all with a view to convincing his audience that he speaks from "simple faith in Jesus" while his opponents are overly-educated Pharisees whose only desire is to undermine the faith of "plain folk like you and me."


2.            Manipulation is the attempt to persuade someone to attribute to God an experience which is in fact the work of the flesh. In doing so the leader hopes to eliminate what would otherwise be legitimate resistance to his ministry.


Be it noted that there need not be malicious or deceitful intent on the part of the leader. He/she may truly believe that a work of the flesh is, in point of fact, the work of God. In their sincere and passionate desire to see people blessed, they may go overboard, as it were, in labeling something the work of God that under careful and more deliberate scrutiny would prove to be human hysteria or fleshly indulgence. Thus their own lack of discernment can open them to the charge of being manipulative.


3.            Manipulation is the attempt to produce in someone an experience or behavior, the result or effect of which will bring more benefit to the leader than to the person himself. Manipulation is when a minister exploits for personal gain the sincere need and desire for God of another Christian.


We are all too painfully familiar with the scandals that rocked the church in America in recent years. The result is an increased sensitivity among most people to anyone who even remotely appears to draw attention to himself/herself. This has put all of us in a difficult situation. On the one hand, we don't want to be duped by a self-serving charlatan. On the other hand, we want to avoid that sort of hyper-critical, self-righteous judgment that has the potential to tear down the body of Christ.


It is also important to remember that a leader may receive considerable praise and public notoriety, not because he is a self-seeking shyster or a wolf in sheep's clothing, but because of the anointing of the Spirit in their ministry. Billy Graham is an articulate and world-famous evangelist. But I dare say no one would accuse him of pursuing his ministry for personal gain above the glory of God.


Another related point is the tendency some have to draw attention to the manifestations of the Spirit in order to prove they are anointed. The effect on a congregation is to make them feel as if the absence of such manifestations in their own lives is an indication of a spiritual defect or a lack of faith.


4.            Manipulation is the use of illegitimate means to achieve a legitimate end. The minister tends to think: "If I can get them to God, how I do it is of secondary importance." Often this reduces to pure pragmatism, the philosophy which measures truth by results. "If it works," reasons the pragmatist, "it must be true." Religious pragmatism says, "If it works, it must be God!"


Furthermore, those whose livelihood depends on the quantity and intensity of physical manifestations (the presence of which often being the criterion for success), are especially tempted to do whatever is most effective in producing them.


If the leader assumes that "God didn't show up" because the manifestations were minimal, he creates an atmosphere in which he will unconsciously employ tactics that in any other setting he would never use. We must be careful in our evaluation of the alleged success or failure of meetings. Success is never to be measured by the presence or absence of physical phenomena. Success is achieved when the Lord Jesus Christ is magnified and His people are ignited with a burning passion for Him and holiness. Frequently such transformation is attended with powerful and bizarre physical manifestations. But the absence of the latter does not prove the absence of the former. Nor does the presence of the former demand the presence of the latter.


5.            Manipulation is when one takes advantage of human weakness, insecurity, or timidity to achieve an effect. In seasons of renewal or revival, many come to church with heightened and often unbiblical expectations, and thus are more easily swayed by emotionally charged religious tactics than they would be under normal circumstances.


This is not to say that we should never seek to increase godly expectations or desires in other believers. If the Word of God makes a promise (e.g., Luke 11:13), it is certainly proper to take steps in ministry that will enlarge a person's expectation of its fulfillment.


6.         One may easily become manipulative if he believes in a mechanical, cause-and-effect relationship between a certain ministry style and the release of the Holy Spirit. Believing that certain formulas guarantee the manifestation of spiritual power opens one to the charge of being manipulative. This is especially the case if the teacher is successful in persuading the congregation of the biblical legitimacy of his chosen formula.


While I believe that God often suspends His activity and the release of His power on the prayers of His people (see, e.g, Isa. 30:18-19; Jer. 29:12-13; James 4:2), we must always affirm the sovereignty of the Spirit. He will not be tamed or domesticated by our methods. Any attempt to eliminate the mystery from God's ways by reducing His activity to certain so-called "divine laws" will ultimately lead to false guilt and shame in those who supposedly "missed out". If doing "X" always results in blessing "Y", the absence of "Y" can only be due to my failure or sin or lack of faith in regard to "X". People who think in those terms are primed and ready for the manipulative tactics of unscrupulous and ill-taught "ministers".


7.         A leader is being manipulative when he/she uses techniques that supercede the volitional input of the congregation. Manipulation makes people feel as if they have no choice, as if they have been led to do or believe something under subtle coercion.


Unfortunately, music has often been exploited to achieve this effect. I believe in the power of music. I believe such power is God-given. Music has the potential to shape our thinking as well as stir our passions. God loves music and has ordained that we praise and worship Him by means of it. But music, much like doctrinal truths found in Scripture, can be used (abused) to create an atmosphere that is so emotionally charged and intense that people are induced to say and do things that in any other context they would find objectionable. I'm not suggesting that we are purely rational beings. I believe God created and redeemed our emotions no less than our minds. But nowhere do I read in Scripture that music was created to persuade us to ignore or violate what our minds have learned from the Bible concerning truth and falsehood, good and evil. I've actually heard people say, "I was so caught up in the mood of the moment and the flow of the music that I found myself agreeing with what was happening in the meeting before I could even think about whether or not it was biblical." When music is used in this way it has become dangerously manipulative.


8.         It is manipulative when a person is put on public display and made to feel as if the lack of a physical response will embarrass or in some way reflect adversely on the leader. The use of this form of social and emotional pressure to elicit a response is undeniably manipulative. Although the leader may have good and holy intentions, the person who is the object of such focused and concentrated attention is subjected to an unnatural constraint to conform to the expectations of those present.


On the other hand, being witness to a legitimate touch of God on a person's life can be a tremendous encouragement. In his book, Prepare for Revival, Rob Warner refers to the practice of the Airport Vineyard in Toronto in which two or three people are invited to the front to give testimonies of what God has done in their lives. This may be viewed as "lighting new fires from warm coals, building faith in the congregation by a verbal witness and visible demonstration of the powerful presence of God" (4). So here we are faced again with a very difficult question: "What is the dividing line between legitimate, God-glorifying, encouraging ministry, on the one hand, and illegitimate, man-centered manipulation, on the other?"


9.         It is manipulative to suggest that every bodily sensation or physical impulse is a touch of God. It creates a false interpretation of what is happening and a false expectation of what should happen.


A related thought is the mistaken assumption that God wants everyone to experience physical or bodily manifestations. Certainly God wants everyone to receive His presence and His power through the infilling of the Holy Spirit. But it is unbiblical to assume that receiving the Spirit necessarily entails physical phenomena. A powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit may yield the quiet fruit of holiness and humility, instead of the overt display of signs and wonders. 

An excellent example of this is what the apostle Paul says in Romans 15. When we read about the "power of the Holy Spirit" in Scripture we mistakenly assume that the result will always be an overt, miraculous, somewhat sensational manifestation of divine energy. Often times that is precisely what occurs. In Romans 15:18-19 Paul talks about his ministry to the Gentiles which took place "in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit." But the "power of the Holy Spirit" is no less in operation when Christians are enabled to love one another and to treat one another with kindness and humility. If in Romans 15:18-19 Paul attributes signs and wonders to the power of the Holy Spirit, in Romans 15:13 he attributes joy, peace, and hope to the same divine power. There we read, "Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."


10.       It is manipulative when a leader says or does something that leads people to think they are sub-spiritual if a phenomenon does not occur, or that they are spiritual or the recipient of God's favor if a certain phenomenon does occur.


There is a tendency to refer to people who do not experience powerful and visible physical manifestation as "HTRs", that is to say, people who find it "Hard to Receive". I want to suggest a slight change in terminology and refer to them as "HTMs", people who find it "Hard to Manifest". Most likely, these people are very open to receive from God. Their hearts are repentant, humble, and hungry for the presence and sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit. If such is true, they will most certainly "receive" a "touch" from God. But that doesn't mean they must "manifest" physical phenomena. They may, but if they don't it isn't necessarily because they are closed to what God is doing. I would classify myself as an "HTM". But I am certainly open to receiving everything God has made available. God wants all His people to receive. But He doesn't necessarily want all His people to manifest. They may, and if they do, praise God. But they may not, and if they don't, praise God!


Continued in Part Two . . .