I recently came across this article by Albert Mohler on Ligonier Ministries site: Must Christians believe in the virgin birth? As a baby Christian (I have since left Christianity after 23+ years) I cut my reformed teeth on RC Sproul and his Ligionier conferences. If RC said it, I thought I could believe it. However, over the years, preferring not to continue with spoon feeding, I began studying the Bible for myself. In doing this I began to notice some repeating patterns of manipulation used in christian teachings.
7 Manipulation Techniques Identified
Let’s take a look at 7 of these common patterns of manipulation as illustrated in this Ligonier article…
1. The “them against us” defensive argument
Mohler writes that this article he wrote in the Christmas season is a response to the…
weekly news magazines and various editorialists engage in a collective gasp that so many Americans could believe such an unscientific, supernatural doctrine. For some, the belief that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin is nothing less than evidence of intellectual dimness.
It seems the author wants to reassure any Christians who may be reading these articles at Christmas time that they should not be concerned that their faith in the virgin birth somehow makes them “less intellectual” lest they be swayed by any of them. Essentially, this argument serves to inform the reader that anything written in secular news about Christianity lacks substance and would best be ignored. It begins to plant a mental boundary in the mind of the reader that there are “Christians” and then there are “people who write and edit media” who see their beliefs in the supernatural as being “less intellectual.” This creates a “them against us” mentality and likely an aversion to even considering any opposing view points on the virgin birth.
2. The “you are not good enough” argument
Next Mohler adds to his argument, a 2nd proposition that makes the stakes much higher than just being “less intellectual.”
The proposition now becomes something much more crucial, Mohler writes…
Can a true Christian deny the virgin birth, or is the doctrine an essential component of the Gospel revealed to us in Scripture? (emphasis added)
If I were a christian reading that article, I would no longer be worried about whether I’m simply “less intellectual” than the average secularist. Now I would become hyper-focused on this new proposition conveyed in the hidden message which is: to be a “true” christian, to be accepted by God, you have to believe in the virgin birth.
Mohler’s supposition, that a true Christian must believe in the virgin birth, is just a more palatable way of saying that, if you doubt or do not understand the doctrine of the virgin birth, just suspend your intellect and simply accept it “as gospel.” So what this argument at its root is saying is, that unless you think the right thoughts about the virgin birth you are not good enough to be a Christian, not good enough to be accepted by God.
3. The Christian pitted against Christian technique
Please take a moment to consider: Does the author define what it means to be a “true Christian” according to the Christian scriptures? His terminology alerts the reader that there may be people out there who think they are “true” Christians, but they are actually just deceived. Naturally, the reader should wonder, “Am I one of the deceived?” But the author never explains explicitly what he means by “true Christian” except to equate it with having to believe in the virgin birth.
Through this writing style, the author not only pits the Christian against the secularists, using the “them against us” defensive argument, he takes it a step further by effectively pitting the so called true Christians, i.e. those who believe in the virgin birth, against false Christians, i.e. those who do not believe in the virgin birth.
Remember, the author still has not defined his terms about what the Christian scriptures constitute is a true Christian – other than to suggest that one mark of a true christian is thinking that Mary the mother of Jesus was a virgin when she conceived him.
4. The “take it on my authority” technique
The author now explains some of the history behind the doctrine of the virgin birth writing:
The doctrine of the virgin birth was among the first to be questioned and then rejected after the rise of historical criticism and the undermining of biblical authority that inevitably followed. Critics claimed that since the doctrine is taught in “only” two of the four Gospels, it must be optional. The apostle Paul, they argued, did not mention it in his sermons in Acts, so he must not have believed it.
The author shares a few general facts about the doctrine of the virgin birth. This “intellectualizing” on the authors part serves to make the “less intellectual” lay person feel that they are being given the straight scoop, and quite possibly, because they inherently trust the authority of the author, they believe he has given them all they need to know about the history of this doctrine.
Again, please take note, that up until this point in the article very little is actually being written that “educates” or “elucidates” the readers mind about the topic at hand. Those topics being:
- Does belief in the virgin birth make Christians “less intellectual”
- Can a true Christian deny the virgin birth, or is the doctrine an essential component of the Gospel expressed in Christian scripture?
The author makes bold statements, which sound like fact, but really to this point only serve to pique the readers interest in whether being a “true christian” is somehow inextricably tied to “believing the virgin birth.”
5. The “ad hominem” defense
Now the author moves into one of the most over used, yet still exceptionally effective forms of manipulation. This defense actually serves to remove the readers attention from the meat of the argument itself and focuses the attention on real or imagined negative characteristics of the opponent.
Please note that an ad hominem is about the “least intellectual” argument a writer could impose. An ad hominem argument appeals not to the intellect, but to the emotions. This is highly significant because the writer now uses an emotional argument to bolster his case that the “true” christian who believes by faith in the virgin birth is not “less intellectual.” Thus continuing to appeal to the emotional side of the reader in what appears on the surface to be an intellectual argument from a man who drips with Christian authority.
In this case the writer now introduces his ad hominum attack against retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong about whom he states:
Modern heretics like retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong argue the doctrine was just evidence of the early church’s over-claiming of Christ’s deity. It is, Spong tells us, the “entrance myth” to go with the resurrection, the “exit myth.” If only Spong were a myth.
6. the coup de grace, “the heretic”argument
Rather than stick to history, scripture, scholarly arguments and such to prove his points Dr. Mohler introduces the red herring of not only sharing a very brief proof texting of what Spong says about the virgin birth, but the author punctuates his argument saying Spong is a “heretic” and uses sarcasm to further lower the reader’s opinion of Spong thus rendering him completely impotent as a source of any kind of serious christian theological ideas.
The use of the word heretic here further serves to lead the reader away from any “intellectual” arguments for the author’s proposition that to be a “true Christian” one has to believe in the virgin birth and now uses fear to control the reader. How, so you say?
Now that the word “heretic” is associated with discussing the veracity of the virgin birth, there are 4 not so subtle messages to the reader that filter into his consciousness and colors his ability to reason and think critically:
- First, it is not ok to question the doctrine of the virgin birth
- Second, if I were to see it differently, I would be considered a heretic
- Third, I would no longer belong to the in-crowd – the true Christians
- Fourth, I would go to Hell, because that’s where heretics and unbelievers go
Let’s face it there is no nastier label that a “true” Christian would want to be associated with than heretic. Well, because that would make them not a “true” christian…right. They might join the ranks of heretics like, you know, Joan of Arc, William Tyndale, Thomas Crammer, Michael Servatus and so many more.
7. The “you can’t be one of us” – or the “ultimate rejection”technique
Further the author makes it clear that, if one were even found to be among the ranks of the so called “revisionist evangelicals” they could not possibly be a “true” Christian if they denied the virgin birth.
Now, even some revisionist evangelicals claim that belief in the virgin birth is unnecessary. The meaning of the miracle is enduring, they argue, but the historical truth of the doctrine is not important…The real question is this: Can a Christian, once aware of the Bible’s teaching, reject the virgin birth? The answer must be no.
Webster’s dictionary defines heretic as “a dissenter from established religious dogma.” This obviously would only apply to people already within the religious system in question. People who dare to challenge the doctrines and dogma of the system to which they belong.
Salvation By What You Think
As pointed out above, there is very little teaching in this article, but there is a lot of “telling”. Telling the reader “what” they must think in order to belong to the one true group of Christians. The message the author makes in the excerpt below may seem to have some validity, but it comes with many, many assumptions…and one assumption is clear…you, lay person, do not have the intellect to read the Bible and reckon with the word yourself and decide what it means. But, thankfully, us scholars here at Ligonier (in this case) have your back, we will tell you what you should believe and it goes like this…
Even if the virgin birth was taught by only one biblical passage, that would be sufficient to obligate all Christians to the belief. We have no right to weigh the truthfulness of biblical teachings by their repetition in Scripture. We cannot claim to believe the Bible is the Word of God and then turn around and cast suspicion on its teaching.
The authors circular thinking is revealed by the last sentence above:
We cannot claim to believe the Bible is the Word of God and then turn around and cast suspicion on its teaching.
Let’s unravel this last sentence just a little bit before we wrap up. This statement is full of assumptions:
- The Bible is the Word of God – the problem with this argument is at least 2 fold: 1. this assumes the reader must accept, without any or very little information about the Christian scriptures themselves, it’s history, the letters and books that make it up, how other groups have understood these letters through out the ages, the literary devices used, the language of the manuscripts etc. etc. that somehow this group of Christians that Albert Mohler belongs to has the correct and only interpretation and understanding of the text and all others are invalid. And if they do not accept what this authority says, they cannot be a member and worse they very likely are going to hell.
- Secondly, it assumes that “believing the Bible is the word of God” is necessary for having a relationship with God, aka in Christian-ease salvation. Again, without defining what the “word of God” means or arguing from the scriptures.
- Believing the “Bible is the word of God” leaves no room for discussing any “non orthodox” doctrines of the faith. This binds the hands of the lay persons’ mind so to speak from being free to reckon with the bible, it’s history, contextual setting, language, meaning etc and come to one’s own intellectual conclusions without fear that they will go to Hell if they do not get it right.
Weighing men down with burdens hard to bear
In this way the church has become a master manipulator, choosing to bind the minds of men from learning and reckoning for themselves, i.e. encouraging the process of real intellectual study, arguing, struggling, researching, questioning, dialoguing, examining and most of all God leading and convicting. The fear in the church is too great…after all, some members of the flock might come to different conclusions, then what…well we’ll tell them all that if they don’t believe like we do, they are going to hell, don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, you cannot belong to the group anymore and you are not good enough to be accepted by God.
Like Jesus, who accused the experts of the law “For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear…” many a church has done much the same to its members.
By tying the intellectual hands of the mind, placing fear of heresy into the hearts of vulnerable sheep, by threatening to expunge, i.e. reject those who will not affirm the same doctrines of the faith in many denominations Christianity has been reduced to a religion of salvation by thought. The conclusion of the matter becomes:
- The sheep are instructed what they are to believe
- The sheep are instructed that if they do not believe the right things they will be rejected by God
- Intellectually, the church is asking the sheep to accept the conclusions their particular denomination has come to
- The sheep do very little reckoning and drawing their own conclusions based on true study (i.e. not just listening to sermons or reading the most popular pastor/teachers books)
- The average person does not have the means or inclination to reckon with all that it means to “believe” in certain doctrines thus placing a heavy burden on the person who in reality has placed his faith in the authority of the church not in God Himself.
- Most doctrines of the church are empirically unprovable, yet, the sheep are told they must believe these things like the virgin birth to be a “true” christian.
Friend, Set Yourself Free – Learn To Think For Yourself
Sadly, my impression of many Christian teachers of our day is that they may be wonderful orators, but they do little true teaching. Lacking in critical thinking and majoring in mind manipulation and clever arguments…they rarely get to a systematic, historical, cultural and intellectually honest approach to the scriptures. Because after all we all know, as Millard Erikson wrote:
If we do not hold to the virgin birth despite the fact that the Bible asserts it, then we have compromised the authority of the Bible and there is in principle no reason why we should hold to its other teachings. Thus, rejecting the virgin birth has implications reaching far beyond the doctrine itself.”
And that my friend is the bottom line…start pulling the thread of doctrine and sooner or later the entire tapestry unravels…
Rest in the words of Psalm 25 and Proverbs 2 …
Oh YHVH, let me know Your ways; teach me Your paths. Direct me with Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; I hope for You all day long.
Have you felt manipulated by religious teachers and teachings? What techniques have you identified? Leave your comments below.
Disclaimer: I have left Christianity to embrace the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob. My purpose in publishing this article which I began while I was still teetering on the edge of Christianity is to help my dear brothers and sisters to see the manipulation and mind control that is happening right before their very eyes.Very little real teaching is happening in the church, mostly people are being told what to believe. Praying for many to be released from the fowler’s snare.