How To Tell If Your Minister, Priest Or Other Christian Leader Is Lying To You
By A.E.D. Pierce
Many, if not all, ministers, priests and other Christian leaders claim to be extremely trustworthy people whose job it is to communicate absolute truth to their followers with complete honesty. Although many of these people are indeed sincere, many others are not – they have secretly “lost their faith” but lack the common decency to tell anyone. These people have made a conscious decision to make substantial amounts of income from the faith of other people – a faith that they themselves have secretly decided cannot possibly be true.
If you support a church or other Christian organization, you owe it to yourself to figure out whether the leadership of that organization believes what they are telling you.
How do you know when someone is lying to you? Psychologists have been studying this important question for decades. Quick, easy solutions, such as the look in their eyes, body language, voice inflection, autonomic responses such as sweating, hyperventilating or salivating, etc., have yielded results that are, at best, not helpful.
Psychologists then asked for advice from people whose jobs require them to determine whether people are telling the truth, and to extract the truth from people even when they are being evasive and deceitful, i.e., Law Enforcement officers and people who work in Intelligence and Espionage. It is these dedicated professionals’ jobs to discover the truth in circumstances that are often too difficult for most of us to imagine.
The results were so definitive that many people consider this difficult question to be completely resolved. There are several fascinating articles on this subject. One good article is http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150906-the-best-and-worst-ways-to-spot-a-liar
In controlled studies, conducted in real airports with real passengers “seeded’ with carefully prepared “faux” passengers, these people were able to identify truthful and deceitful people with 90-100% accuracy.
How Did They Detect Deceit With Almost 100% Accuracy?
(1) Ask open-ended, probing questions.
Yes/no questions are too easy. You don’t try to trick them; you just ask questions that give them the opportunity to provide a lot of detail.
(2) Ask questions about their answers to #1.
Dig more deeply into their answers by asking them to explain parts of their answers more thoroughly. Ask similar questions in different ways. Try to fit different their answers together and ask them about it, and/or ask them how their answers to one question fit with their answers to another question. This should be specific, not just “how does your answer to X relate to your answer to Y”. A better way would be to ask, “Your answer to my question A was X, but your answer to my question B was Y. It looks to me like there is at least a partial contradiction, because [give details about why you feel there is a contradiction]”.
(3) Listen much more than you speak.
You are interested in their responses. So try to use short, well-focused questions and comments.
(4) Be non-confrontational.
If your behavior is threatening, even non-verbally, it will affect their responses.
(5) Pay close attention to details, in your questions and their answers.
Contradictory answers, even in minor details, are a red flag.
(6) Watch closely for changes in confidence and other behaviors.
Verbose people may start giving short answers, or vice versa. Confident people may become less confident and/or nervous. People with open, gregarious postures may change to a more defensive posture.
What To Do, And Not To Do, When Talking With Your Pastor, Priest or other Christian Leader
Obviously, there are enormous differences between an airport psychology research study and sitting down with your pastor, priest or other Christian leader to have a serious, in-depth discussion about beliefs that are very important to you and (hopefully) to him/her.
You don’t have to be an expert. A few well-placed questions, followed up by equally well-placed “drill down” questions which dissect their answers to the previous questions, will give you a high degree of confidence in your determination of whether your Christian leader is sincere or not. This is because Christianity is “a thousand miles wide and a thousandth of an inch deep”. By this, I mean that, although Christianity wields enormous power over billions of people, it is intellectually very shallow. Its many self-contradictions, unverifiable claims and demonstrably untrue beliefs will be blatantly obvious to any unbiased person who takes even a brief look at it.
In my experience, it’s extremely obvious whether they’re telling you the truth or not. The results of even asking a few probing questions have quickly and profoundly, “separated the sheep from the goats”. Honest people provided honest dialogue. Most liars behaved like trapped rabid dogs when “put on the spot” by pointed questioning, or simply fell apart. (A few were slick enough to maintain their composure, but hid behind doubletalk and theological jargon that made my bullshit detector scream.)
This does not mean that you can be unprepared. If finding the truth about your Christian leader is truly important to you, you must do your homework. There is no single way to do this. I would be doing you an injustice if I made it too easy by giving you some step-by-step instructions, but here are some guidelines.
(A) Set up a time when the two of you can be alone and uninterrupted, in a location where they are comfortable
There’s nothing wrong with asking some questions in a Bible study, Sunday school, or other group. But you don’t want to make them feel foolish in front of a lot of other people, so save your most difficult questions for a one-on-one meeting.
Arrange the meeting so that it is not easy for them to physically leave or end the conversation without answering your questions. I’m not suggesting any use of physical force or coercion. I’m simply saying that stopping them in the hallway, or shaking their hand while you are in line with everyone else who is leaving the worship service, is not the kind of situation that is going to put them in a position where they have to answer your questions or resort to some other behavior that will help you determine their sincerity. The ideal situation is a one-on-one meeting in their office. This is a place where they are (hopefully) comfortable, relaxed and have access to any reference materials that they may need.
(A1) Ask questions about some of the difficult or problematic Christian beliefs.
Examples might include errors or contradictions in the Bible, cruel things that God told people to do in the Bible, or God’s promises in the Bible that do not work like the Bible says they are supposed to, such as answers to prayer and miraculous healing. Or you can ask about beliefs that Christians disagree with each other about, such as gays, lesbians, abortion, divorce, or the roles and rights of women. Or you could ask questions about things that your church or denomination do that you believe are hypocritical.
Actually, your questions can be about anything that Christianity, the Bible or your Christian leader teaches or believes, that is important to you and is troubling you.
(B) Your questions must be about beliefs that are truly important to you
You must be sincere and honest. Don’t split theological hairs and don’t try to trick them. Nobody cares whether God can make a rock so big that He can’t pick it up or how many angels can stand on the point of a pin. There are many serious contradictions and problems with the Bible and Christianity. Pick several questions that genuinely interest you. You will do a much better job of preparing yourself if you are very interested in the subjects that you want to discuss.
(C) Do your homework before the meeting
Prepare thoroughly. Then prepare again. Then prepare some more. This is an important meeting, so you need to write down lots of notes and bring them to the meeting so that you will get the best possible answers.
Most professional Christians are taught specific, though usually trivial, answers to the most common questions like, “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers”, and “What happens to good non-Christians when they die”, “What about the obvious contradictions in the Bible”, etc. You need to know these answers in advance, be able to state specific reasons why these “answers” do not satisfy your mind and have some pointed follow-up questions ready in response.
Search the web to find the most common answers to your questions, then write these answers down and also write down why these answers are inadequate.
(D) Do NOT be confrontational. Be respectful and compassionate.
Your pastor or priest should be someone you care about and who should care about you. (If either of these is not true, you already have your answer. Go elsewhere.) This should be a friendly discussion, which you must approach in a spirit of humility. You also need to be aware that he/she may also be having doubts about their own faith, which they cannot discuss because they would lose their job if they did. So be gentle, while also being tenacious about trying to get answers to your questions.
(E) Ask very few, maybe zero, personal questions
You are most interested in the sincerity of their Christian beliefs. Questions that are too personal may make them uncomfortable for reasons unrelated to their theology or truthfulness.
(F) Your questions should be very specific, while still requiring open-ended answers
Questions like, “Do you believe that God answers prayer” are too narrow and allow for a yes/no answer. A much better question on the same topic would be, “I have five Bible verses here, and my notes from your sermon last week, that all say that God answers prayer. But a month ago, we all prayed that God would heal Mrs Z, and she died. I’m having trouble putting all of this together.”
(G) Follow up your initial questions with more questions about their answers.
This is necessary to get past the prefabricated answers that they learned in ministerial school. If you have done your homework, you will know many of the pre-planned answers in advance and you will have prepared follow-up questions that will dig down to find out what your preacher really thinks.
(H) Watch them closely when they answer, and write their reaction in your notes
Visual non-verbal behavior provides very valuable information. Changes in non-verbal behavior may provide even more valuable information.
You are concerned about how they respond, as much as the specifics of any particular answer. Honest people don’t mind being questioned. Insincere people duck and weave, obfuscate and evade (or worse). Anyone, no matter how sincere they are, can screw up a few questions. But if you ask enough questions, you will almost certainly notice a pattern.
Christian beliefs contain a multitude of overwhelming self-contradictions and a myriad of “absolute truths” that are actually quite easy to disprove. If someone does believe these, in spite of all of the obvious problems, that does not necessarily make them a liar, because humans have an amazing ability to hold large amounts of self-contradictory beliefs at the same time. How they respond when you point out these problems will provide important information that will help you evaluate their sincerity.
(I) Insist on explanations for any theological jargon
If they start using words like, “propitiation”, “presupposition”, “Christology”, “Dispensationalism” and hundreds of other terms that professional theologians use, insist that they define these terms for you in ways that are clear and easy to understand, then be sure that they explain how these terms help to provide answers to your questions.
Christian theological jargon is actually so simple that it is entirely unnecessary. This is very different from jargon in science and technology. Computer experts have to use terms like “integrated circuit” and “BIOS” (Basic Input Output System), scientists have to use terms like “quantum mechanics” and “mitochondrion”, because there is no other way to name the things that these terms refer to; a brief description would take several paragraphs. But Christian terms like “suzerainty covenant”, “intinction”, and hundreds of others, describe things that are so simple that just a few more words could easily eliminate the need for jargon.
(J) Take written notes
After preparation, this is the most important thing that you can do. This is something that you MUST do. It is easy to get confused, forget details, fail to “drill down” with more questions when the conversation moves to other topics. You might even allow yourself to be manipulated without realizing it. Taking detailed notes of the conversation is a very effective way for you to get the most out of the conversation.
(As a courtesy, I always asked their permission to take notes. They always said “yes”, although I got the impression that that some of them didn’t like it. Nowadays, people like to use recorders. I believe that using a mechanical recording device would increase the chances that they would feel threatened or uncomfortable, although I have never tried it.)
(K) “I don’t know” may be a good answer, within limits.
Nobody knows everything, and some things are not known. If you ask, “Where did Cain’s wife come from?”, then “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid answer.
But you should not accept “I don’t know” in a couple of areas:
(i) Things that a spiritual leader should know. One problem that I chronically had with various Christian leaders was just how little they knew about their own beliefs. How could a minister spend 3 years (or more) in seminary or Bible College, preach from the Bible every Sunday, lead Sunday School classes for years, and know less about the Bible than I did, when all I had done was study part time? If you pay a doctor for professional services, you have a right to expect them to have studied their textbooks in medical school. We hold similar expectations for lawyers, mechanics, plumbers and just about every other profession that we pay to do a job. I held my Christian leaders to the same standard.
(ii) The very important things, i.e., things that you really need to know. These are major issues that you are concerned about. On these issues, you have a right to get straight answers that satisfy your mind. If you have serious questions about a particular passage of Scripture, the claims that your spiritual leaders made in a recent speech, lesson or writing, etc., you deserve answers that satisfy you.
(L) Believing something that is obviously wrong is not the same as lying.
Your pastor may believe that vaccines cause autism, a trace of fluoride in drinking water is bad for you, almond extracts cure cancer or any of a multitude of other things that are clearly disproven by science. But if they sincerely believe these things, it does not mean they are being intentionally deceitful. Your Christian leaders may be so deeply in denial that no amount of logic or facts can change their beliefs, but that does not necessarily make them a liar.
(M) Review your notes, by yourself, after the meeting.
Evaluate your information privately, at a place and time when you can think it through very deeply. Con artists can be very charming and persuasive in person. Also, it is not unusual for sincere Christians to become uncomfortable when their beliefs are questioned, giving an impression that could be misinterpreted as lack of sincerity when it was merely nervousness. In addition, many sincerely religious people secretly have gnawing doubts about their beliefs. They may sincerely believe, but they are going through an internal crisis of faith that they are not ready to share with anyone.
(N) Watch carefully to see whether their attitude towards you changes after your meeting.
Christians who ask too many questions are often branded as “troublemakers”. If they do not treat you as well after your conversation, that is important information that you should use.
(O) Request another meeting(s) if you have more questions.
If you still don’t feel that you have enough evidence to be sure, repeat the above process with whatever questions/problems you have that are unresolved, and any new questions/problems that you are concerned about.
(P) Remember that you may be biased. Facts are your best defense against your own biases.
One problem that I had was that I didn’t want to believe what the facts were telling me. Usually, a single conversation would provide more than enough information to decide whether my spiritual leader was sincere.
But I genuinely loved some of the pastors and other men who were in leadership positions when I was a Christian. I did not want to believe that I was being lied to, manipulated and used. Sometimes, several conversations were necessary for me to believe what my eyes, ears and mind were telling me.
(Q) Multiple SMALL deceptions are probably hiding BIG lies.
If a person exhibits a pattern of frequent small deceptions, you can be certain that they will tell you some whoppers sooner or later. This is actually a Biblical principle, although its roots are much older than the New Testament. The Bible says that Jesus said, "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much" (Luke 16:10, New International Version).
Anyone who is willing to repeatedly deceive you about small things, will certainly be willing to deceive you about big things.
This probably isn’t everything, but hopefully it is a good start. If you are wondering whether your Christian leaders believe what they are telling you, this should give you some tools to use. Frankly, in my experience, it is extremely easy to expose many ministers, priests, youth directors, para-church group leaders, seminary professors and others as chronic liars and flaming hypocrites with just a few polite, respectful, well-informed questions from a sincere Christian who has done his/her homework.
It would be wrong, however, to say that all Christian leaders failed the test. I did find a few to be quite sincere. Although I disagree with their theology, I respect them as people. Sadly, however, they were a very tiny minority. Sincerity was extremely rare, at least among the Christian leaders I knew.
If you correctly identify that your Christian leader is lying, prepare for the shit to hit the fan. My advice is to leave the organization immediately and never EVER go back. You have done the spiritual equivalent of wounding a large, carnivorous, predatory wild animal and backing it into a corner. If they lie for a living and know that you know, you are a threat to their income, career and possibly much more. They haven’t been fighting fair for years and they sure aren’t going to start now.
Here are several examples, from my personal experience.
I – My college roommates and I were involved in a local chapter of a para-church group. The leader of our Bible study made us promise to study the Bible for an hour every day, so we did, which meant that we had lots of questions at every weekly Bible study. We were always respectful and deferential to his leadership. The leader of our Bible study was clearly uncomfortable with our questions, and made a conscious effort to shut us up and make us all feel unwelcome. We continued to go, although we stopped asking questions. At the last Bible study we attended for this group, the leader blocked our entry at the door, in front of the rest of the group (about 50 people), and shouted loudly that he would not let us in, that we had to leave, etc.
II – Later, I became involved in another para-church group. The leader of our weekly Bible studies answered my questions as best he could, in the group Bible study and in several one-on-one meetings. Even though he taught at a local conservative Christian seminary, his Bible knowledge was quite limited, so “I don’t know” was often his answer, but he was never evasive or deceitful. I kept in touch with him for several years after I graduated from college. During that time, he made enormous personal sacrifices for his faith, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind (including mine) that he was sincere.
III – After attending a liberal Christian church for several years, I wanted to join. I set up a one-on-one meeting with the minister, where I confided to him that I had some doubts about some things. These included important issues such as the deity of Christ, His resurrection, the accuracy of the Bible and even the very existence of God. The minister replied, “You don’t have to believe any of those things to join our church”.
IV – When I was in high school, I attended Bible studies that were led by a full-time, paid staff member for a local evangelistic ministry. My friends and I frequently asked questions, and he almost never knew how to answer, because he knew very little about his own beliefs. He was simply parroting the printed materials provided by his employer. He eventually left full time Christian work altogether.
V – During high school and college, I was a member of a mid-sized church that was associated with a large Evangelical Christian denomination. The Youth Director taught Sunday night youth training classes and could not answer any of our questions, even about the church’s own lessons for the classes, because he never read them before class. The church fired him and hired another Youth Director who had the same problem; eventually they fired him too.
VI – During the same time at the same church, my Sunday morning Sunday School teacher was a retired police officer. He didn’t know the Bible very well, but he was obviously sincere and responded as best he could to all of our questions. (Several teenage boys, including me, privately asked him some VERY pointed and difficult questions, which we could not ask our parents.) His sincerity and wisdom impressed all of us.
VI – When I was in seminary, one of my professors had a reputation for laughing at and ridiculing students’ questions in class, in front of dozens of other students, and in one-on-one meetings. Three years later, he committed suicide.
VII – In the same seminary, one of my professors (not the one in VI, above) did not allow students to ask questions in his class. Anyone who had a question had to go to his office during office hours, which was only 1 hour per week, even though he taught three different large classes. There were usually several students waiting, and we each had to “wait our turn”. If he did not have time to see everyone during that hour, the rest of us had to wait until the next week.
VIII – When I was in high school, attended a small church, located just outside the suburbs of my home town, for about 6 months. It was part of a small, conservative Christian denomination. The pastor was a young man, who had just graduated from seminary. He seemed very intelligent, open-minded, dynamic and sincere. We rapidly developed a close friendship, and got together for hikes, meals and a bike trip. I soon felt that God was leading me to become a member, so I made an appointment to meet with him in his office. I shared with him some of my doubts, and my reasons for doubting, and I asked him to help me strengthen my faith. He was completely overwhelmed by what I said. It was like deflating a balloon. This energetic, smart man suddenly became confused, sullen and withdrawn. After a few awkward minutes, I thanked him for his time and left. That was the end of our friendship. Even at church functions, he avoided me. I continued attending his church for several months, hoping for an improvement in our relationship. I eventually quit going to his church and never saw him again. Several decades later, I found him on the internet. He was no longer a minister.
IX – I grew up in a large church located in a large city in the Eastern United States. Although the people in the congregation were mostly conservative Christians, the denomination itself was relatively liberal. I was interested in learning the “reasons” for my faith, so I set up an appointment with the senior minister. We met in his office. I told him that I was interested in learning about the evidence for (1) the reliability of the Bible, (2) Jesus as a historical figure, (3) Jesus’ resurrection and (4) the existence of the Christian God. His response to each of these was, “There isn’t any evidence”.
X – I eventually decided to leave that church and find one that “preached the Bible”. For several months, I attended a megachurch which was associated with a major evangelical denomination. I wanted to join, but I had several questions. I called the church office twice and left a message with the secretary (this was before voice mail), asking if I could meet with the pastor or one of the assistant pastors to ask several questions. After a couple of weeks, my calls had not been returned, so I drove over to the church office one week day. As I was talking to one of the secretaries, the senior pastor walked in. I introduced myself and explained that I would like to join, but I had several questions. He replied that he did not have time to meet, but if I would send him a letter with my questions, he would “try to get some answers”.
I went home and typed a short, polite letter with three questions. The first one asked him to briefly explain the differences – in beliefs and practices - between his denomination and the denomination of my former church. The second asked what percentage of the church’s budget was spent outside of the church, i.e., on home and foreign missions and charity. The third one was a simple question about the Resurrection story in the Gospel of Mark. I addressed the envelope to the senior pastor and mailed it.
About a week later, I received a response to my letter in the mail. The response consisted of my letter, with handwritten comments in the margins. It was unsigned, but it had been mailed in a church stationery envelope with the church's name and return address pre-printed in the upper left corner. These comments included, “We do what God tells us to!!”, “Let theologians worry about this!”, “Arrogant!!”, “Sin of Pride!!” and “You have a lot to learn about humility, my boy!”.
XI – When I was a college senior, I was a member of a fundamentalist megachurch (not the same one as in X, above). I had several questions, so I stopped by the church office and asked to make an appointment with one of the pastoral staff. When the church secretary found out that I was a college senior, she said, “The head pastor wants to meet with every college senior”, and she made an appointment for me to see him.
When we met, he avoided answering any of my questions, and spent a half-hour trying to pressure me into enrolling as a full-time ministerial student in the denominational seminary which was sponsored by, and physically located at, his church. I later learned, from a friend whose father was on the church’s Compensation Committee, that the head pastor received a financial bonus for every church member who enrolled in the seminary.