Identifying and Resisting the Tactics of Manipulation
One of the perennial tactics of the world is to use name-calling to steer Christians. Biblical names for this tactic include slandering, reviling, and maligning. The first step to resisting is learning how and why the tactic works.
Almost all people have a natural desire to be accepted and approved by others. We want to be thought well of, to be liked, and to have a good reputation. The Bible commends a form of this desire when it says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1). Leaders are expected to “be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:7).
Slander, reviling, and maligning seek to exploit this natural desire to have a good reputation by using insults and the threat of a bad reputation to manipulate Christians, and especially Christian leaders. The labels the world slaps on us are really steering wheels by which they hope to turn us wherever they please.
There are two basic kinds of steering wheels. There are ugly labels for true things, and there are ugly labels for false things. An example of the former is when Christians are called haters and bigots for condemning homosexuality. It’s true that Christians condemn homosexuality. The label is meant to mute such condemnation by appealing to our desire for approval and acceptance and our fear of ostracism and rejection.
An example of the latter is when the world misrepresents our beliefs and then slaps the ugly label on their misrepresentation, as when the Pharisees accused Jesus of being a drunkard and a glutton (which he wasn’t). In either case, the label becomes a steering wheel in light of one’s context, which means labels will necessarily vary from community to community.
Finally, this tactic frequently works by exploiting the Christian desire to be a good witness to the gospel. We want our light to shine before men so that they see our good deeds and give glory to God (Matthew 5:16). Christians will often police each other in order to maintain a good testimony. The world frequently counts on this (good) Christian impulse in order to steer Christians by means of other Christians. Slap the ugly label on someone, and other Christians will attempt to pressure them back in line. Such pressure is frequently harder to resist, since it comes, not from the unbelieving world directly, but from the world through God’s people.
So then, how do we grow in our ability to wisely and faithfully resist being steered? First, we calibrate our standards by the word of God. We define sin the way the Bible does, and not the way that the world does. The world will frequently seek to co-opt God’s standards by maximizing their offense at certain sins while completely ignoring other sins. It takes spiritual effort to resist adopting such worldly standards. It requires us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). So then, when you’re called a nasty name, ask whether God regards the substance of that name as sinful, and be alert lest you begin to internally flinch at things that the Bible teaches.
Second, learn your own pressure points. That is, what label makes you flinch? What name will you go to great lengths to avoid being called? And don’t limit yourself to obvious ones like “bigot.” Because steering labels vary by context, we must learn to be alert to the more subtle ones. “Racist,” “woke,” “Christian nationalist,” “fundamentalist,” “right-wing,” “left-wing, “coward,” “quarrelsome,” “compromiser”–any of these (and more) can become steering labels, depending on the community whose approval we seek.
Third, be willing to be called ugly names. More than that, rejoice when you are so slandered. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). In other words, we rejoice when slandered because we are in good company. As Jesus says elsewhere, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25). If they said Jesus was demonic, don’t be surprised when they say you are too.
Fourth, make sure the slanders are actually false. One temptation when slandered is to lean into the slander until it becomes true. “If I’m going to be hanged as a thief, I might as well steal something.” But notice that this is simply another form of being steered. There’s no virtue in becoming the ungodly thing that your enemies think you already are.
What’s more, Paul exhorts Christians to adorn the doctrine of our God and Savior (Titus 2:10), and to do what we can, within reason, to avoid giving our adversaries occasion for slander (1 Timothy 5:14). Evil men may utter falsehoods about us, but we ought not supply them with excess ammunition through our own foolish, immature, and reactive behavior. This is especially true of pastors and other Christian leaders, who ought to aim to be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:7).
Fifth, when you are slandered, resolve not to respond in kind. Christ is our model, and Peter exhorts us to follow in his steps. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Doing so requires us to distinguish between holy mockery of sinful folly and rebellion (which is lawful) and reactive derision flowing from contempt, anger, and other ungodly passions. For more on this distinction, consider the principles of a godly satirist that Doug Wilson identifies here.
Finally, root all of your resistance to being steered in a sincere and honest desire to please God. When Paul is slandered by the Judaizers, he has a clean conscience because he knows the one whose approval he seeks. “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
Elsewhere he says, “For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:3–4). Paul welcomes God’s testing and therefore can resist the pull of man-pleasing and man-fearing.
The apostle Peter devotes much of his first letter to building his reader’s resistance to being steered. He knows that the world will “speak against us as evildoers” (1 Peter 2:12). They will malign us because we refuse to join them in their debauchery (1 Peter 4:4). Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised by such trials and insults (1 Peter 4:12-14).
Echoing the words of Christ, Peter writes, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:14–16).
Attempts to steer us will come. The world will seek to wield names and labels against us in order to manipulate us and render us mute and impotent. But by God’s grace, we can resist the lure of people-pleasing and man-fearing and instead be steadfast and immovable, grounded in the gospel of the happy God and seeking his approval above all else.
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