False Gospel Gaslighting: How Manipulation Is Dividing the Church

“It isn’t unusual today to hear progressive Christians calling conservative Christians ‘extreme’ or ‘crazy’, and this is especially true when politicians get involved in the church.”

Most Christians are probably aware that false teachers and false messages exist since the Bible warns us to be looking out for them. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve gotten so comfortable with the prevalence of “grace-only” churches and sermons that sound more like self-help motivational seminars that we have allowed unbiblical ideas and beliefs to slip right past us without even noticing.

A 2020 survey conducted by the Cultural Research Center in Arizona found that only 35% of American adults “continue to embrace the traditional biblical view that salvation comes through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ”. What is even more concerning, however, is their findings within the church

“[H]uge proportions of people who attend churches whose official doctrine says eternal salvation comes only from embracing Jesus Christ as Savior nonetheless believe that a person can qualify for Heaven by being or doing good. That includes close to half of all adults associated with Pentecostal (46%), mainline Protestant (44%), and evangelical (41%) churches.”

There has been a significant shift within the church over the last several decades. With the emergence of progressive Christianity came an even heavier emphasis on syncretism, universalism, and a whole host of other unbiblical concepts. It is one thing for non-believers to accept such views, but it is something entirely different for those who profess to be followers of Jesus to accept and promote beliefs that are completely contradictory to an accurate and true understanding of the Bible.

So would most people know a false gospel message when they hear it? It may not be as obvious as we might think. Those who are deceived may unknowingly spread false messages, and those who wish to deceive are often masters of manipulation and gaslighting. It isn’t unusual today to hear progressive Christians calling conservative Christians “extreme” or “crazy”, and this is especially true when politicians get involved in the church.

The term gospel comes from the Greek word for “good news”, and while Christians associate it with salvation through Jesus Christ and the books of the Bible that speak about Jesus’ life (Gospel of Matthew, etc.), there are those who wish to spread their own “good news” message that distorts biblical truth. This counterfeit “good news” can come in many different forms, but it all distracts from the actual good news of the true gospel message and the entirety of God’s Word from Genesis to Revelation.

Often the most convincing lies include a sprinkle of truth. In the New Testament, Paul tells the church that there are false apostles who disguise themselves as “apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13). As he explains, this is not a surprise to him, because “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” and therefore Satan’s servants also disguise themselves as “servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14–15). Both then and now, there have been countless false “apostles of Christ” manipulating Christians and non-believers into believing their fake “good news” instead of the real gospel as it is presented in the Bible.

False Prophets and False Messages

Just as in 2 Corinthians, there are other sections of Scripture in which God warns us to be watching for false prophets and false messages (e.g. 1 Timothy 4:1–2; 1 John 4:1–3; Matthew 24:23–24). This is especially true of the end times, but it is clear throughout history that there have been many false prophets and messages around the world, so we should not be so quick to discount this warning as solely relevant to the Tribulation times. Just as we have seen throughout the centuries that came before us, we are not exempt from false prophets and false messages in our age today.

We may or may not be in the time that Christians refer to as the end times. No one knows the day or the hour except God (Mark 13:32). But one thing is for certain, every day that goes by is one-day closer, so we can’t become complacent. The New Testament warns us that even the elect is capable of being deceived (Matthew 24:24), so we must be diligent in looking beyond the obvious and examine the subtle messages that have begun seeping into the church at an ever increasing rate.

If you’re not certain if we are experiencing manipulation and or gaslighting in the church right now, consider this example of a now-viral speech recently delivered by New York governor Kathy Hochul at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn:

“God let you survive this pandemic because he wants you to do great things someday. He let you live through this when so many other people did not and that is also your responsibility… I wear my ‘vaccinated’ necklace all the time to say I’m vaccinated. All of you, yes, I know you’re vaccinated, you’re the smart ones, but you know there’s people out there who aren’t listening to God and what God wants. You know who they are.I need you to be my apostles. I need you to go out and talk about it and say, we owe this to each other. We love each other. Jesus taught us to love one another and how do you show that love but to care about each other enough to say, please get the vaccine because I love you and I want you to live, I want our kids to be safe when they’re in schools, I want to be safe when you go to a doctor’s office or to a hospital and are treated by somebody, you don’t want to get the virus from them.”

To put it bluntly, this is not a speech that belongs in the church. Notice the common manipulation tactics that Hochul employs – flattery (“you’re the smart ones”), emotional appeals (“God let you survive this pandemic”/“We owe this to each other”/ We love each other”), generalization (“people… who aren’t listening to God and what God wants”), using fear to influence others (“you don’t want to get the virus from them”), and recruiting others to help with the manipulation (“that is also your responsibility”/“I need you to be my apostles”). It is obvious that Hochul’s speech is steeped in subtle manipulation and a cult-like twisting of religious ideas.

Worst of all is her replacement of Jesus and His teachings with her own. Most people recognize that Christians wear cross necklaces to signify their faith in Jesus Christ and His resurrection. For Hochul to boast about her “vaxxed” necklace as a sign to others should at least raise some eyebrows. We can’t fully know Hochul’s motives, but I don’t believe it is beyond reason to consider such an act as idolatrous. Add to this her “I need you to be my apostles” statement and it would certainly appear that Hochul is setting herself up in a place that only belongs to Jesus.

If we revisit the survey cited above that finds that a significant amount of Christians believe in a false gospel message of Jesus plus “good works”, then Hochul’s speech becomes even more dangerous since she is inferring that “good” Christians who “listen to God” will get vaccinated.

This helps sow the seeds that pit Christians against each other, separating us into those who Hochul apparently sees as the “good Christians” who do what is “right” (according to her) versus the “bad Christians” who she claims “aren’t listening to God”.

Now I am certainly not saying that Kathy Hochul is a false prophet or a false messiah. I’m also not saying that she isn’t a Christian – it is not my place to make a judgement call on her salvation. However, it is very telling that when defending her use of “my apostles” she merely states that she believes in a “higher power”. In my research, I found it was actually quite difficult to pinpoint Hochul’s exact beliefs, which should be a major red flag to Christians, and this brings me to my next point.

Using the Name of Jesus

Just because someone invokes the name of Jesus does not necessarily mean that they are saved or that they are presenting a true message. Recall Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 11 about false apostles who disguise themselves as “apostles of Christ”. There are times when people attempt to use religion as a means to an end in order to manipulate true followers or to command some sort of perceived power. We actually see an example of the latter in Acts 19:13-15 –

“Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists attempted to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I command you by the Jesus that Paul preaches!’ Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. The evil spirit answered them, ‘I know Jesus, and I recognize Paul—but who are you?’

Holman Christian Standard Bible, emphasis added

In this case, the Jewish exorcists thought that they could have the power and authority given by God to the apostles by using the name Jesus in their command to the evil spirits. Note how they say their command – “I command you by the Jesus that Paul preaches!” The wording indicates that they had no relationship with Jesus themselves. As many Bible translations state, they spoke of Christ as “the” Jesus that “Paul” preached.

The evil spirit calls them out by stating that he knows Jesus and is aware of Paul, but he questions the Jewish exorcists (perhaps almost in a mocking sense), “who are you?” Though they attempted to use Jesus’ name in their command, it is clear that these exorcists had no real authority and weren’t true followers of Jesus.

Another example comes as a warning from Jesus Himself –

On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’”

Matthew 7:22–23, emphasis added

Taking Jesus’ own words into account, there are people like these who will claim (and may even truly believe) that they are followers of God, but they are not. Jesus’ response is eye-opening – “I never knew you”. Whether these people are deceived by others or are deceivers themselves, they are not true followers of Christ and we must be wary of them and their messages.

You Will Recognize Them By Their Fruit

So how can we know when we can trust a person’s message when they claim to be Christian? We can’t fully determine whether or not a person is actually saved since only God knows their heart, but God does tell us that there are certain signs that we can look for to know if someone is leading others astray. One of these ways is to examine the fruit that they produce.

We see this warning both in the gospels of Matthew and Luke –

“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit… every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit…”

Matthew 7:15-20

“‘A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit…’Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say?”

Luke 6:43-46

Again using Kathy Hochul as an example, she appears to be a self-professing Catholic (she thanked her “big Irish Catholic” family in her swear-in speech, including her husband and children), but she is also pro-abortion to the extreme.

New York just passed the “Reproductive Health Act” which codifies Roe v. Wade into state law, and Hochul has even petitioned Facebook to “mitigate the spread of abortion misinformation online” and “to take new action to combat misinformation about abortion laws, regulations, and availability.”

I wonder if “misinformation” to Hochul would include the Pope calling abortion “homicide”? Or maybe it would include Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s statement regarding the pro-abortion Women’s Health Protection Act, calling it something you would “expect from a Satanist, not a Catholic”.

I am not even Catholic and I recognize that Hochul is defying the Catholic church’s own teaching regarding the value and sanctity of life. Regardless of what non-Christians believe about abortion, true Bible-believing Christians – whether Catholic or Protestant – should be able to agree that Hochul is showcasing fruit that stands in opposition to God and His Word, and abortion isn’t the only subject in which this is the case.

Is she aware that her beliefs contradict the Bible and the majority of church teachings throughout history? I’m not sure how she couldn’t be at this point. When one considers how she twists the idea of “loving your neighbor” out of context to fit her own definition, as well as the seemingly patronizing tone she takes throughout her speech, it would appear that she is highly aware of her manipulation of God’s Word and Christians.

But even if we give her the benefit of the doubt and accept the possibility that she could just be deceived and manipulated into believing unbiblical ideas and teachings herself, it is still incredibly dangerous. All people make mistakes and we must give them grace, but at the same time, grace does not mean supporting the perpetuation of ideas and actions that are in opposition to God’s Word and commands.

The Biblical Case for Addressing Falsehoods

Many Christians today shun the idea of admonishing others, mostly based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of “do not judge” (Matthew 7). But there is a biblical standard for appropriate judgement and correction.

Take for example Galatians 2:11–14 when the apostle Paul publicly confronts Peter, another apostle:

“But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. Then the rest of the Jews joined his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel, I told Cephas [Peter] in front of everyone, “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?”

In this case, Paul boldly condemns Peter’s hypocritical actions in order to correct his misstep. Interestingly, Peter had succumbed to a type of peer pressure out of fear and led others astray, separating believers based on their status and an identifying factor that was inconsequential to the gospel. In a way, this is similar to what we are witnessing today.

If Paul was confident in rebuking Peter’s stance regarding a previous practice actually commanded by God, it is logical to conclude that Christians today should take issue with the proposal that the COVID-19 vaccine is some kind of  “good works” obligation for Christians. There is no biblical basis for such a proposal unless one does a lot of proof-texting and twisting of Scripture, but there is a biblical basis for opposing the infusion of irrelevant ideas and requirements into the gospel.

Any time a Christian equates anything with salvation or a level of “worthiness” in their faith that isn’t a part of the biblical message, it showcases that they do not have a correct understanding of the gospel to begin with.

This situation between Paul and Peter isn’t the only instance in the Bible in which Christians are encouraged to correct falsehoods and hypocrisy. Also, consider 1 Timothy 4:6-7 and the often misunderstood “do not judge” passage in Matthew 7:3–5.

When one examines only these few of the many examples in the Bible, it is obvious that the idea that Christians should never judge or correct others is unfounded. Instead, we are expected to hold fast to biblical teachings and speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and that is what we must do. We must not fall in line with an unbiblical culture because it is popular and accepted, or because it makes us feel more comfortable and less afraid.

As Christians, we should be aware of the manipulation that is running rampant in the church and not allow ourselves to be gaslit into believing we are “crazy” or “don’t understand the Bible” when many progressive Christians in the church act as if they have somehow acquired a gnostic-like understanding of God, the gospel, and reality. Let us instead remember the words of Paul as a guide to navigating the current divide of the church and as an encouragement for how to respond to the world around us –

“Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”

Romans 12:2

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