Manipulating Christians through Group Dynamics
by PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter
(See also Part One)
The following is a continuation of “Manipulating Christians through Group Dynamics, Part One,” in which we described some of the common elements that may be utilized in various group movements in both the world and the church. We discussed aspects of enticement vulnerabilities, emotion-based activities that can lead to cognitive dissonance, the appeal to belong, group influence techniques, group induction and identification, and the possibilities for entrapment. Here in Part Two we will look at various group movements and ways to guard against deceptions.
Groups that Entice and Bind
Many of the techniques described in Part One are simply natural occurrences in normal human interactions, but they can also be used in such as way as to draw people into different doctrines, theories, and practices, even to the extent of what some call “brain-washing.” Therefore, the wise Christian will be wary of them and turn to the Word of God with the help of the Holy Spirit to determine whether or not he is being psychologically manipulated, since many of these techniques are used by groups that entice and bind. What are some of the groups that use such techniques? We discuss only a few of the many groups here, because we cannot possibly cover all the group movements that are rising up and captivating the hearts and souls of believers.
The 1960s saw the rise of the encounter movement based on theories and techniques of group dynamics. Many Christians participated in the encounter movement at that time and learned the various techniques that can be used to influence individuals and groups. The encounter movement encompasses many forms of group therapies and approaches, including but not limited to T-groups, awareness groups, sensitivity training, and Gestalt. These kinds of groups have general characteristics, activities, and individual variations, depending on the person promoting and leading the activities. Some groups, like the early encounter groups, glorify the dynamic present experience; others emphasize sharing both past and present weaknesses and hurts. These group movements find their roots in social psychology, psychological personality theories, and psychotherapy. While their popularity has appeared to rise and fall during the last fifty years and while many are called by different names, the beliefs and practices of group encounter continue to spread their leaven throughout the church as they entice vulnerable individuals through explicit and implicit promises of spiritual benefit.
One of the basic assumptions of most encounter groups is that it is emotionally beneficial to be totally transparent and open. Self-exposure has become almost a therapeutic absolute in the encounter movement and influences all that is said and done. If a person in an encounter group is opposed to or resistant to acting out and speaking out, he is encouraged by the group “to go all the way.” If he resists too much he is rejected as up-tight, unreal, rigid, phony, and plastic.
One of the extreme forms of encounter is the marathon, during which a highly intensive experience lasts for many hours at a time over a period of two or three days. The theory behind the marathon is that, as the experience continues hour after hour, the emotions and normal defense system wear down until only the real person remains to be dealt with. We can hardly see how a tired, emotionally depleted and physically exhausted body represents the real person, but that is the theory behind this intensive form of madness.
Psychic casualties, including mental breakdowns, divorces, and suicides, as a result of encounter are known about but little publicized. Dr. Jerome Frank warns, “Thus, such groups can easily become exercises in mutual exploitation and can seriously damage some participants.”1 When we combine the potential danger of the encounter with the small possibility of success, one wonders why Christians would borrow so heavily from encounter techniques.
Sarah Leslie says “In the 1970s, some groups based their home churches on the encounter group model, emphasizing humanistic psychology rather than biblical authority.” She then quotes from a book titled The House Church:
The house church movement borrows whatever skills and insights from contemporary education, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and the human potential movement may serve its purpose, whatever will enable persons to work and love more freely and sensitively, less defensively, secretively, tensely.2 (Bold added.)
Notice how the cross of Christ, the Word of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit are supplemented by the wisdom of men.
Encounter is a synthetic and artificial experience. The hope is that a person will change in this special setting and then walk out into life a better worker, a better spouse, a better parent, a better person. However, aside from testimonials, the research simply does not support such a notion.
This is a sad state of affairs. The encounter movement not only has a morality that is not biblical, but it is a false substitute for the saving reality of the Bible and Christianity. This moving away from the mind to the senses, from reason to emotions, and from the spirit to the body and this glorification of self-disclosure and deification of direct experience have never proven to be an antidote for human ills. Anyone who leaves the Living Waters to drink out of the broken cisterns of encounter is like Esau who exchanged his birthright for a pot of beans.
We have already written extensively about Alcoholics Anonymous.3 The basis for fellowship in these groups is whatever addiction the members have in common. The focus is on personal testimony, but a Christian is not allowed to testify of the Lord Jesus Christ as “the way the truth, and the life” and that “no man cometh unto the Father,” but by Him (John 14:6). These groups have a common belief system stated in the Twelve Steps and also in Bill Wilson’s book Alcoholics Anonymous.4 This is not a Christian faith system, but rather a religion where each person has his own god.5 Wilson did not want to attach AA to any one faith. The official AA biography of Wilson declares:
Bill felt it would be unwise for AA as a fellowship to have an allegiance to any one religious sect. He felt AA’s usefulness was worldwide, and contained spiritual principles that members of any and every religion could accept, including the Eastern religions.6 (Bold added.)
All are made to feel welcome at AA meetings as long as they are struggling with addiction and as long as they abide by the rules. Once people have joined the AA system they fear to discontinue attending meetings, because they are told that they will always be an alcoholic and that the only way to stay sober is to attend AA meetings and work the 12 steps.
Even though AA meetings are often held in churches, alcoholics are often hypercritical of Christianity, especially organized churches and doctrines. They often criticize Christians for being hypocrites. Condemned by the Bible, they resist the Word of God, but are happy to believe selected sections that only talk about love (separated from the whole counsel of God with God’s righteous holiness and man’s filthy wretchedness). Rather than worshiping the Holy God of the Bible, they worship a god “understood” by them without any condemnation of sin.
Not all cell groups are equal. Some churches that have ordinary home Bible study groups may refer to these groups as “cell groups” even though they are not related to the wider movement. We are concerned about the cell-church system that “is designed both to control and to monitor church membership and to achieve the ultimate goal of the apostate religious empire: to bring planet earth under the government of the Global Church!”7 This cell-growth movement follows the church growth movement fathered by Donald McGavran and promoted by C. Peter Wagner, who readily admitted that this kind of church growth must be: “simultaneously a theological conviction and an applied science, striving to combine the eternal principles of God’s Word with the best insights of contemporary social and behavioral sciences.”8 (Bold added.)
Tricia Tillin has written a 5-part series titled “The Transforming Church” in which she describes doctrinal errors of the movement. She says:
The assumption here is that the Bible is insufficient to disciple converts and needs to be supplemented with “contemporary social and behavioral sciences.” But when psychology takes over from doctrine, we end up with a gospel of self-esteem.9
Moreover, we end up with a system of works in which Christians are under the control of men who wield power through authority, intimidation, and other psychological forms of group manipulation. Group members are expected to become increasingly dedicated to the group. They are kept very occupied with group activities (meetings, services, evangelism, retreats, etc.) to the extent that members spend a great portion of their “free time” with the group. The group soon usurps other relationships so that it becomes the member’s primary social network.
In the cell-church system, each member is under the authority and direction of the leader. In turn each group leader is a member of a group above him until you come to the very top of the pyramid. People are monitored and a system of records makes each person’s personal information and participation available through the line of authority right up to the top.
The G12 system is an example of the cell group structure. After visiting David Yongi Cho’s cell groups in Korea, Cesar Castellanos founded the G12 cell church system in Bogota, Colombia. From there the movement has spread to many other countries, including the United States and Great Britain.
The G12 vision is to multiply itself by turning members into leaders who are to form their own groups with members who will themselves become group leaders who form their own groups until a huge human pyramid is formed. As the groups grow and multiply more and more people are brought into the system. In addition to attending one’s own group, each person is also to attend the school of leaders every week for twelve weeks for each of three levels. Let Us Reason Ministries examined the G12 system and reports:
Essentially we are told the G12 is NOT about doctrine. It is about a method that they claim is based on the Bible. Their goal — every believer a leader. A leader of what? Of another group of 12. The fact remains, the biblical principle to disciple is a command. The way to disciple that is promoted by G12 is Not a biblical pattern of doing church at all.10
The “G12 — The Government of 12” report by Let Us Reason Ministries is an excellent analysis of the G12 system. Besides revealing the errors of the teachings and the authoritative structure, the report describes the various stages of encounter that each person must go through and says:
Submission to your authority (leader) comes naturally once you have accepted the vision. I have received many letters that say basically the same thing: people have been accused of things they have not done and told that if you don’t support the vision then you won’t grow in God. This manipulation seems to be inherent to the G12 model.
One of the most grievous aspects of cell groups is when leaders act as mediators between God and man and use their position of authority to speak as if they are speaking for God, both accusing and excusing. Anyone who takes that kind of authority over another person’s mind, soul, and spirit is not only usurping God’s authority, but also causing spiritual and emotional damage. Even those in the group (including leaders who are themselves in groups with leaders over them) who seem to thrive in the system are being deceived by such an authoritative structure. They are serving man while they think they are serving God.
Group Movement Lookalikes
The popularity of the men’s movement emphasizing leadership and accountability through a wounded warrior ethos inspired Promise Keepers with its stadium events and subsequent accountability groups, which we critiqued during its early years.11 Total Quality Management groups in the corporate world inspired such “Christian” look-alikes as C12 Groups (not to be confused with G12 Groups). AA has inspired numerous “Christian” look-alikes, such as Celebrate Recovery, Overcomers Anonymous, and Reformers Unanimous, all adapted for Christians. All of these look-alikes follow the facilitated process of transparency, group accountability, and group dependence, some with a degree of brainwashing.
Ecumenically Inspired Groups
There are numerous other groups that use similar techniques to draw in members and influence their beliefs. A number of these groups are not only ecumenical in themselves but work to draw Christians together into a One-World Church. Among these groups are: Cursillo, The Emmaus Walk, and the Alpha Course. In addition to having special weekend retreats they continue their work through local groups. Much that goes on sounds very biblical, but much of what goes on is designed to make everyone feel as though they are one and to feel good about themselves and each other. Although they may speak about Jesus and the Bible, doctrinal distinctions are avoided. After all, in such circumstances people are generally reluctant to offend anyone regarding their church affiliation. Thus, the cohesiveness of the groups is based on whatever the members have in common, either naturally or as a result of indoctrination. Absolute truth is substituted with consensus, and there comes a distinct confusion regarding faith and works.
Guard Against the Deception
Certainly believers are commanded to fellowship with one another. Small groups provide ways to get to know one another and to mutually care for one another in the Body of Christ. How might Christians guard themselves against the deceptions of psychological group dynamics? Christians need to heed the Apostle John’s admonition in 1 John 4:1: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”
Being familiar with the variety of psychological and social means to induce one into a belief or activity and to overcome or alter one’s faith may also alert one to possible danger. Here we list some things to consider in determining whether a group is biblically based or psychologically deceptive.
One: A Bible-based, biblically sound group will major on the Truth of Scripture. Whatever is done or said should meet the Berean test of searching “the scriptures daily whether these things were so.” The Bible uses rational communication of truth. While emotions play a part in every Christian’s life, they are to be under the control of the person’s will and rational mind. Proverbs 14:15 says: “The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going.” In other words, he thinks soberly, that is, he thinks carefully and prudently. 1 Peter 1:13 says: “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Two: A Bible-based, biblically sound group will be Christ-centered rather than man-centered. It will not major on sharing personal problems but rather on learning about and learning to trust Christ’s provisions through the Word, the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of the saints (not just those in the small group), and service in the Body of Christ.
Three: A Bible-based, biblically sound group will draw a person closer to Christ, whereas a man-centered group will bind the individual to the group or to the leader of the group. No one should ever come between a Christian and His Lord. Christ is the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). Even the idea of having an accountability partner can usurp Christ’s position as the only mediator. Remembering that God sees everything we do and can read our minds to the degree that He knows our thoughts even before we think them, what better “accountability” person than He? We cannot hide from the Lord! Psalm 139 is explicit about this. If someone thinks he needs an accountability partner to keep him on the right track, he should study Psalm 139 and meditate on it daily until he knows and walks according to that reality.
Four: A Bible-based, biblically sound group will include prayer for one another as the need arises, but it will not encourage “transparency” and personal sharing of members’ involvement in “unfruitful works of darkness.... For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret” (Eph. 5:11, 12).
Therefore, James 5:16 will not be used out of context to allow group exposure of personal sins or of gossip about other people directly or indirectly involved in such exposure. Believers may certainly make requests for prayer and share themselves as long as what they say honors the Lord and edifies the listeners. “Let no corrupt speech communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Eph. 4:29).
Five: A Bible-based, biblically sound group prays for one another with understanding according to the Word of God and the will of God. In other words, people will think as they pray and if someone else is praying for them, they should be thinking and understanding, not just receiving in a passive state. Beware of people who take authority over another person for whom they are praying and “pray-preach” over them.
Six: A Bible-based, biblically sound group will not encourage dishonoring parents, spouses, or others by participants complaining about them in the group. It will discourage gossip and talebearing. Group transparency in sharing usually leads people to say personal things about other people who are not present. That often involves talebearing—spreading gossip, secrets, and biased impressions about others who are not present. Any sharing that exposes sins, secrets, or private matters of others can rightly be considered talebearing. Therefore, if a man or woman talks about a spouse in a group, he/she may reveal private matters amounting to talebearing.
The Bible warns us about the evil of talebearing: “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly” (Proverbs 18:8; 26:22); “He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips” (Proverbs 20:19); “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth” (Proverbs 26:20). Moreover, the Lord commands His people not to act as talebearers: “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people” (Lev. 19:16).
If a believer needs support and encouragement, a fellow believer can draw alongside for support and encouragement without knowing the details. If information is needed for the purpose of biblical instruction and possible application, the situation can be stated without lurid details.
Seven: A Bible-based, biblically sound group will exercise mercy and truth, rather than appeal to emotion, with the idea that sound doctrine will lead to sound living, experienced through obedience to the Lord and with emotions consistent with the fruit of the spirit.
Eight: A Bible-based, biblically sound group will neither emphasize nor manipulate emotions. When emotions are the driving force in a group, a person’s reasoning powers will take a back seat. While there may be a slight tug saying, “This doesn’t make sense,” the emotional involvement in an emotion-driven group will often override a person’s normal rationality. A study that used brain scanning technology revealed that when people went along with the group in giving the same answers as those given by other people in the group (who were actually plants instructed to give wrong answers), “there was no activity in brain areas that make conscious decisions” in those individuals who conformed to the group.12
Nine: A Bible-based, biblically sound group will avoid manipulative means to get members to think or behave in a certain way or to believe according to the consensus of the group.
Ten: A Bible-based, biblically sound group will truly be studying the Bible. Rather than a free-for-all sharing of personal feelings and opinions, the focus will be on the Word of God: what the Word says, what it means, and ways the Holy Spirit applies that Word in people’s lives. In other words, there will be clear teaching with the understanding that all who hear are to judge what is being said according to the whole of Scripture. While one may teach, all are to be active students, attending to the Word, comparing Scripture with Scripture, obeying the Lord, and trusting the Word to do its perfect work.
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
The Body of Christ
The apostle Paul gives clear instruction of how the body of Christ is to function in Ephesians 4. All that goes on is to edify the body until all come to spiritual maturity, “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (vv. 11-13). Then He says:
That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.
After further describing the body’s growth in love, Paul warns believers not to follow the ways of the world.
This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart (Eph. 4:17-18).
Believers have been given all they need in Christ, in the Word, and in the Holy Spirit. They do not need to go the world to find out how to grow in Christ or how to function as a body of believers. In fact they are forbidden to do so. The Lord removed His gracious hand from Israel when they turned to the idols of their surrounding nations. Today He may very well be removing His gracious hand from those Christians who are turning to the ways of the world. But because of His faithfulness, He continues to call people away from the ways of the flesh and back to Himself where He enables them to walk according to the Spirit.
As small groups follow the forms presented in Scripture rather than from humanistic systems, they can participate in Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). A group leader would do well to search Scripture and seek the Lord in leading the group, rather than practice techniques that might reduce the whole process to a worldly methodology. The small group should be the visible expression of the Body of Christ and therefore operate according to His character and Word. Praying for one another in the group leads to concern and help as members become sensitive to one another’s needs. Believers begin loving each other, esteeming one another more than self, submitting to one another, encouraging each other, and rejoicing together as they come together for growth and change.
1 Jerome Frank, “An Overview of Psychotherapy” in Overview of the Psychotherapies, Gene Usdin, ed. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1975, p. 9.
2 Philip A. Anderson. The House Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1975, p. 33.
3 Martin and Deidre Bobgan. 12 Steps to Destruction. Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 1991. Also see related articles on AA and 12-step programs at www.psychoheresy-aware.org.
4 Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
5 Christian News, Jan 13, 1997, p. 2..
6 Pass It On. The story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. 1952, 1953, 1981, pp. 156, 275.
7 Tricia Tillin, “The Transforming Church, Part 1,” http://www.intotruth.org/apostasy/cell-church1.htm.
8 C. Peter Wagner, “Principles and Procedures of Church Growth,” Fuller Theological Seminary Seminar, 1978, p. 4.
9 Tricia Tillin, “The Transforming Church, Part 3,” http://www.intotruth.org/apostasy/cell-church3.htm.
10 “G12 - The Government of 12,” Let Us Reason Ministries, www.letusreason.org?Pent55.htm.
11 Martin and Deidre Bobgan, “Promise Keepers & PsychoHeresy,” 1997 position paper, www.psychoheresy-aware.org/pk&psych.html. Also see other articles about Promise Keepers at http://www.psychoheresy-aware.org.
12 Santa Barbara News-Press, July2, 2005, p. B-14.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, November-December 2006, Vol. 14, No. 6)