Are Christians Susceptible to Psychological Manipulation?

Excerpts from the Assembly bulletin board thread The Lucifer Factor about Dr. Zimbardo's famous experiment.

Mark Campbell, June 13: "What does this Lucifer factor have to do with the Assembly?", some will surely ask. The Assembly had no prison walls, guards, or any other physical restraints---- and 'people were free to come and go as they chose.'

"And besides all that, the Assembly was made up of good Bible-believing servants of God who were maybe just a little bit misguided," some still say to this very day! "We weren't un-regenerated college kids, or even just regular religious people, and as such were not subject to the same kind of psychological reactions as the unspiritual folks in this study!"

What do you think?

Tom Maddux, June 14:  Mark, Zimbardo's point in his new book is that this sort of thing has been happening all through history. The prison experiment and Abu Ghraib are extreme cases, but the tendency is there in all of us. Parents of the "prisoners" in the Stanford experiment came in on visiting day and behaved as if their kids were in a real prison. When the bogus officials told them their kids were ok, they just believed it and went along. After all, a designated authority figure had told them so. Only a few subjects or parents ever really kicked up a fuss.

Anyone who has been subjected to the brutal humiliation tactics that the Assembly leadership practiced..."gang bang" confrontations, preaching against people without naming them when everyone knew who was being targeted, and more, will understand just how much pressure a person was under.

In addition, one knew that everyone would go along with the leadership's position, and even publicly back them up if asked. You were in a hopeless bind and there was no one to appeal to. It was submit or leave. No other alternatives were available. You were not physically restrained, but if you had been indoctrinated sufficiently into GG's "church truth" and "Heavenly Vision" you believed there was no where else to go. So the bonds were mental, but effective nonetheless.

One example: A brother whom GG decided should be suppressed was attacked and criticized publicly and privately for a couple of years. Soon he began showing the signs of stress induced illnesses. Depression, general weakness and lack of energy, rashes, sleep problems, on and on. He went out of the Assembly the same way I did later on. He dragged his depressed, broken-hearted, discouraged, sick butt out the back door by withdrawing from contact with 'the saints" until he finally just quit showing up.

The attacks on his character had worked so well that he spent many years feeling that it was his fault! I had had sweet fellowship with this brother before I ever heard of George Geftakys. When he heard GG had been exposed it finally dawned on him that it was not his fault, and he is making a good recovery.

The prison was mental....but very real.

Chuck Miller, June 23, 2007:  I read in amazement, these posts concerning the experiment conducted by Phillip Zimbardo, president of the American Psychological Association. I was not unduly surprised by the results of the experiment. I was, however, somewhat taken back by your failure to recognize the protection that a follower of Christ has against succumbing to such Satanic activity. As Brian stated, “It’s almost impossible to get interesting results without the risk of damaging the subjects.” That is certainly true for unbelievers, for they are without the protection of the Holy Spirit and become prey to the wiles of Satan who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5). However, we are told, “We are of God, little children, and have overcome them [the spirit of the antichrist]; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4)....

Mark Campbell, June 23, 2007:  Chuck, I think that your "amazement" re. this psychological experiment and rejection of any analogy re. former members of GG's group is understandable----how can any truly regenerated person fall into this kind of psychological manipulation? We have the Holy Spirit in us, and the promises from God that we are victors over the World, Flesh, and the Devil!

There is a classic misunderstanding among many bible believing Christians called "triumphalism" that assumes our new birth somehow turns us into a super-person that is no longer subject to "psychological" influences. Followers of GG would call this achieving the status of "Overcomer".

While having the Holy Spirit does give us a resource the unsaved do not have: Rom. 8--- in this life we still struggle in our minds re. our fallen humanity, Rom 7:13,"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do." This demonstrates that within the Apostle Paul there was a psychological conflict and it is this human weakness that allows for the kind of failure that many of us experienced in the Assembly.

Peter demonstrated this weakness (Gal. 2) after Pentecost when he succumbed to the pressure he felt from the big guns from Jerusalem that visited the church at Antioch. Surely Peter had the Holy Spirit in him and should have been able to respond to the promptings of God vs. the psychological pressures of men---- but, he failed!

You can call it failure of faith vs. failure of mind, but in Rom. 7 and here (as well as many other places in the NT) it is described as just ol' human weakness that all sinners own, including those saved by grace! Maybe that is why Jesus mentions the verses you quoted above in warning that leaders in the church not "lord it over" the members as he recognized this harmful social dynamic and it's ability to manipulate our thinking and deceive us.

I do not believe that the Holy Spirit takes control over our inner lives (psyche) via some hidden power and eradicates all of our human sinful dispositions. The fact that we know what is right, but we find ourselves failing to do what is right works into us probably the most important component of godliness and that is humility. We learn the truth that, "My grace is sufficient for you".

As an Assembly member I was very proud of the group, and myself, for I considered myself the opposite of "a nominal believer" who had achieved a higher status than your normal run-of-the-mill church-goer. One very big lesson that is an advantage for all former members is learning that this is Laodicean in nature and thoroughly repugnant to our Lord--it makes Jesus sick!. We, as believers, are just as human as the next guy, and just as subject to psychological manipulation as anyone else, if we come to it with an attitude of "triumphalism" that believes we are secure in our own higher victorious status that makes us immune to the perils of humanity.

"Stepping out in faith" is a development of character (read the life of Abraham) and is not some kind of magic possession of our inner life via regeneration that somehow skips the learning process that comes from Rom. 7 real-life failures.

Tom Maddux, June 24, 2007:  Chuck, you said, "I was somewhat taken back by your failure to recognize the protection that a follower of Christ has against succumbing to such Satanic activity." Actually, Satan's primary tool is deception. He is the inventor and grand master of deceiving men and women. George deceived you, me, and lots of other folks, and I do not consider myself or anyone else deception-proof.

Cult researchers strongly warn parents and journalists who wish to infiltrate cults to rescue kids or expose them not to do so. The reason is that even people who place themselves in the cult environment with full knowledge that it is destructive usually end up becoming part of it!

The reason for this is that the mind-control techniques used by cults are both powerful and subtle. Mind control techniques work, and many Christians have been captured by them. I do not know if Satan is behind the techniques. They are based on human nature, and work by activating people's deepest desires and most cherished values. These things are used as levers to move people into accepting things that go against reason. A Ronald Enroth noted in one of his books, it is amazing just how good Christians are at excusing the sinful behavior that they see in their abusive leaders.

You said, "For, a Christian with any measure of maturity would have recognized the foolhardiness of participating in any such psychological experiment, except for the purpose of demonstrating the power of Christ over the power of the antichrist. "

Which, of course is why George and every other cult leader does his recruiting among young, intelligent, idealistic people. This is why they focus their outreach on college campuses. I was 27 when I met GG, so I should have known better, I suppose. However, I already believed much of what GG taught from my having grown up in the Christian Church/Church of Christ movement, and then having been exposed to Plymouth Brethren teaching. I believed I had found a man who was sold out for Christ, committed to His word and will, and that I could learn from him.

You must have been around 40 or so when you met him. Fred Boyer was older than I was also. Almost everyone else was younger. How long did you stay?

You said, "When we first came under George’s tutelage I was extremely immature in my knowledge of scripture, but as I began to hear his teachings, it began to become more and more apparent that there was something wrong, particularly with his teaching on church leadership. Initially, it had been exciting to presume that he truly was “God’s man for this age,” but after being subjected to his teaching either directly or through his subordinates, I felt compelled to question his doctrine."

After a couple of years I began to question his doctrine as well. By that time, however, the influence of Deeper Life teaching on my thinking plus the subtle destruction of my trust in my own ability to discern the truth had made me susceptible to his influence.

I discussed my problems with his teachings with GG many times. His answer was always the same:" You are depressed and upset, Brother Tom, you are not rejoicing." (That was true.) "You have given way to the Devil and have opened your mind to his wiles. He always opposes the truth, and your are using your carnal mind to try to figure things out instead of allowing yourself to be broken by going the way of the cross so that the wonderful light of Christ can renew your mind." (Straight out of Watchman Nee's The Spiritual Man.)

That worked for years. I was not alone in my bondage to GG, and in that environment I, and we, were wide open to psychological manipulation.

Back to Top