Is Christianity Just a Way to Control People?
Updated: Dec 10, 2022
The 2nd in my series: The Top 10 Objections to Christianity Answered.
It is likely that when most people ask this question, they might think that the Creator of the Universe is controlling and uses brainwashing or that He is like a Machiavellian puppeteer pulling the collective strings of His foolishly faithful marionettes. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather than controlling, God’s true love is the key to unlock the door for intimacy with Him.
This article is a collaboration by Beth Harris, Holly MacDonald Younghans, and Dr. Mark Alan Williams.
NOTE: This article is the second in my series on The Top 10 Objections to Christianity Answered. The first article is 7 Amazing Ways God Reveals Himself to Us.
The answer to this question hangs, in part, on how one understands and defines the terminology. If we do not share an understanding of definitions, we cannot arrive at a shared conclusion.
Clear definitions are essential.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers this definition of “control:”
(1) to exercise restraining or directing influence, to regulate;
(2) to have power over;
(3) to reduce the incidence or severity of something;
(4) to check, test, or verify by evidence or experiments.
The answer further hangs on the understanding of the word “Christianity.” Biblical Christianity is understood to be the practice of believing in and receiving Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior (John 1:12; John 3:16), repenting from sin (Matthew 4:17; Luke 5:32;), and spending our lifetimes being transformed in our hearts, minds, and actions to more closely resemble the person of Jesus Christ through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9; Ephesians 4:22-24).
Insofar as we share this understanding of Christianity, the answer to the question posed above is most certainly a resounding NO!
Cults and twisting of Christianity.
Detractors have been quick to point to the various cults that have cropped up over the years, claiming to be “Christian” and ended up killing people. Such groups were never grounded in biblical Christianity and to cite them as evidence of Christianity controlling people is like identifying some bad apples and suggesting the entire orchard is rotten.
It is the same logic applied by people plagued by blatant racism: someone of a particular race does XYZ thing or looks or acts a specific way; therefore, all people from that race are painted with the same brush. All are equally guilty, equally condemned, and judged. We do not accept such illogic regarding racism, nor should we accept it regarding the question above.
Biblical Christianity is all about relationship, not religion. Jesus was very clear that He came to set people free (John 8:34-36; Luke 4:18), not establish a new religion. Setting people free is the practical and logical opposite of controlling them. Biblical Christianity, as modeled by Jesus and the apostles, is something altogether different from religion. It is fundamentally rooted in people's capacity to make a free choice to enter into a relationship with someone they have chosen to love and follow.
Our problem began in a garden.
Adam and Eve had absolute perfection in a garden that gave them everything they could ever need. God had ONE rule: don’t eat of a particular tree. The first human couple decided that being like God was more appealing than maintaining their perfect lifestyle and preserving their intimate relationship with God.
If ever God was going to control the situation, that would have been the moment when there were only two people, the moment before it all got out of hand. He did not. He set them free to follow their own path, and the world has been paying for it ever since. This begs the question, “Why?”
It all comes down to love. To willfully regulate, restrain, or direct the response of someone else
in an effort to prompt a positive emotional reaction is not love, nor does it ultimately create the desired authentic response. The only responses generally provoked by such control are fear, subservience, anger, hostility, and a false sense of attachment that shatters at the first sign of true freedom.
True love does not seek to control. Love not freely given is not love. Anyone who has studied the dynamics of domestic violence understands this. Anyone who has studied history and its plethora of examples of rulers leveraging force to win the public’s “love” understands this. Anyone who has ever been in love themselves or wished someone else loved them back understands this. Attempting to force someone to care about or for you makes you, at best, a bully, and, at worst, a puppet master tugging on the strings of your marionettes. That’s not how God works.
True love is inviting; it is sacrificial; it is centered on others. It is compelling precisely because it does not seek to harm or control others for its own sake. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13; see also Romans 5:7-8). Its appeal is the opposite of controlling: it is patient, it is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, rude, self-seeking, or easily angered. It does not hold grudges, nor does it delight in anything evil. It always seeks the truth, always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. True love never fails. (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
There is no other faith in the history of the world that defines love this way. No other individual upon whom a religion has been built can demonstrate through a perfect and resurrected life that they are worth trusting, loving, and following. None of the gods of this world’s religions can show they ever lived according to the definition above. That is the material difference!
Other religions are either a set of guidelines whose intent is for you to figure it out and hope you get there, a bunch of brutally harsh requirements that manage your every waking moment, or something in between.
In Biblical Christianity, Jesus says, “I love you so much; I want to spend eternity enjoying a long-term loving relationship with you. For that to be possible, I’ve got to clear away the single biggest barrier to us being together: your sin. You can’t do that yourself, so I’m going to take care of it for you by dying in your place. It’s my gift to you. All you have to do is believe it, receive it, and spend the rest of your life getting to know me.”
Other religions say, “do, do, do, and maybe you’ll make it… or not.” Jesus Christ says, “It is done.” NO other religion had its god prove his love like that. There is no valid argument that can call that controlling.
Manipulators vs. genuine Christ-followers.
“But wait,” you say, “what about all the rules in the Bible and church that tell people what to do
or not do; how to think, dress, talk, eat, sit, stand and live? Isn’t that controlling people?” In the wrong hands, with the wrong understanding, it has undoubtedly been used in that way.
We need to forthrightly address the myriad ways disingenuous leaders have endeavored to leverage the Bible's words to control people…because they have, and there is no disputing that. Church history is full of terrible examples of human beings who called themselves Christians while at the same time engaging in numerous behaviors that undoubtedly break God’s heart: slavery, abuse of women or children, the elderly and the poor, marketing a prosperity gospel, denominational division, bigotry, bias, prejudice, injustice, “holy wars,” and the list goes on.
Author John Ortberg, in his best-selling book, Who is This Man? wonders how Jesus has survived His followers:
The Inquisition and witch hunts and Crusades and defense of slavery and imperialism and resistance to science and wars of religion come and go and return. Judgmentalism and intolerance and bigotry infect continents and centuries, scandals of money and sex among church leaders never seem to cease, and Jesus’ followers cause him far more trouble than his enemies.
As this quote points out, human beings, men and women, made and continue to make those terrible choices of their own accord. That is not the faith Jesus modeled and taught. It is frighteningly reminiscent of our first human ancestors, the ones who had “one rule.”
The impact of faithful Christ-followers.
Followers of Jesus Christ, too, have essentially one rule as well: LOVE. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love everyone else as you love yourselves; everything else hangs on these two actions.” (Matthew 22:37-40, loosely quoted). To the extent that we adhere to this command to love so completely, we are voluntarily surrendering our rights to ourselves and yielding our words, thoughts, actions, and resources to benefit others.
In a way, such a choice is a form of control: it is self-control. No external set of rules has the power to sustain that level of control over willful, wayward human beings. Our history is evidence of that!
We must choose love. We must choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19; John 14:6). We must choose to follow the only excellent example there ever was of this kind of selflessness. Only our voluntary relinquishment of our understanding of how things “ought to be” will allow the wisdom and justice, and love of God to prevail (Proverbs 3:5-6).
The problem is, humanity, including some Christians, has perpetuated the original wrong choice: sacrificing an intimate relationship with God for the sake of maintaining the illusion that we have his power and wisdom. We do not.
John Ortberg, Who is this Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), locations 172 – 186, Kindle Edition.
That is not how our relationship with God was or is supposed to work. The God we claim to serve says He knows the best way, and we must choose to believe Him. That is not controlling. That is trust. That is a renouncement of our limited perspective, abandoning our finite understanding, in favor of Someone who holds the bigger view and has sovereign oversight over all He has made. These are the hallmarks of a changed heart, an internal reflection, and an honest admission that says, “my thoughts, God, are nothing like your thoughts; my ways, God, are not as good as yours” (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9).
The impact of faithful Christ-followers.
Following God’s ways and pursuing God’s thoughts about making this world a better place has led to some powerful, permanent improvements. We would be remiss if we only document our failings and ignore the good that has come out of choosing love, choosing to live and serve like Jesus.
Examples include, but are by no means limited to:
Early followers of Jesus, having taken His words to heart about caring for widows, orphans, the poor, the sick and imprisoned, launched efforts resulting in today's armada of hospitals, orphanages, and other places of care (e.g., leprosariums).
Christianity is responsible for humane prison reform, the Red Cross, eradicating slavery in England and America.
Christianity is responsible for bringing clean water, food, and medical programs into third-world countries worldwide, sponsored by thousands of faith-based non-profit organizations.
And so on.
Mark wrote an entire blog on this topic, “What if Jesus Had Never Been Born,” based on a book by the same title.
Do Christians hold the market on compassion? Of course not. But, frankly, until Jesus Christ came along, the leaders and thinkers of the world thought slavery was natural, children were property, and the weak were to be disposed of so as not to be a burden. Governments and religions (often blended) were profoundly controlling, and failure to obey typically resulted in death.
If Christianity was only a way to control people, don’t you think God would have us in a better place by now? Don’t you imagine there would be less of all the bad things and more of all the good things?
Jesus calls us in His love.
Jesus did not come to establish a religion or control people—we made that part up. We legalized what he said and added our own spin on stuff. He came to invite each person into a relationship and into a transformational process that starts with our own hearts and spills over to the world around us.
The only control he requests – but does not impose – is self-control: of our thoughts, words, deeds, how we spend our time, talent, and the resources we have. He asks us to choose him, choose love, choose life, and choose to put others before ourselves.
Knowing we’d be mostly incapable of managing that level of self-control on our own, He sent the Holy Spirit to be our encourager, our conscience, our help in time of need. Love finds a foothold in His nature, and Jesus invites us to become like Him.
That is about as far from controlling as one can get.
Our world is broken because the Author of Love has taken a risk. C. S. Lewis, as Screwtape says, “The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His ‘free’ lovers and servants [or] ‘sons.’”
With significant risk comes significant loss and great reward. Some choose to join Him; others do not. In The Great Divorce, Lewis observed this:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
2: C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, locations 776-780, Kindle Edition
3: C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, locations 105-106, Kindle Edition
4: C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (C. S. Lewis Pte Ltd., 1946; ebook by HarperOne), 29, Kindle Edition.
Is Christianity just a way to control people? Ask, seek, knock, find, choose, love, serve… you will discover for yourself.
How God's true love is the key to unlock the door for intimacy with Him
True love is so much more than romance or sentiment. It is love that is known for its actions. True love would never force someone to love them back, and it is the same way with God. He is a perfect gentleman, and as such, He patiently stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, waiting for us to answer (Revelation 3:20). God’s steadfast love graciously offers an invitation for people to have forgiveness and eternal life to anyone who will believe and receive His Son, Jesus Christ, as their personal Lord and Savior (John 1:12; 3:16).
The requirement for this is for one to repent from their sins (Matthew 4:17; Luke 5:32) and spend a lifetime being transformed in their heart, mind, and actions to more closely resemble Jesus Christ. He is the best example of true love out of everyone who has ever lived. Then believers are changed through the Holy Spirit's indwelling power, and this is all with the person’s consent. That is the least controlling type of scenario that one could imagine.
The story of the love of God.
We learn about God’s love from the Bible. It is one long story of God pursuing His people to come into a relationship with Him and their refusal and rebellion.
In the most remarkable display of true love, God sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to show people who He was. In the New Testament, Jesus was very clear that He came to set people free, not hold them captive. Setting people free is the opposite of controlling them.
Biblical Christianity, as modeled by Jesus and the apostles, is something altogether different from religion. It is fundamentally rooted in people's capacity to make a free choice to enter into a relationship with someone they have chosen to love and follow.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” (John 8:34-36 NLT)
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come. Luke 4:18-19 (NLT)
What true love is not.
In summary, true love is not willfully regulating, restraining, or directing someone else's response to prompt a positive emotional reaction. That doesn’t work and ultimately creates fear, subservience, anger, hostility, or a false sense of attachment that shatters at the first sign of true freedom.
True love is not seeking to control others or withholding love. History shows us that rulers, who use force to win the public’s love, ultimately fail. Attempting to force someone to care about you is bullying. That’s not how God works.
True love does not control people with slavery, abuse, oppression, false teaching, greed, denominational division, bigotry, bias, prejudice, injustice, and holy wars. These are terrible examples of people who were Christians in name only.
But that is not the example of Jesus Christ. His followers have one rule to love God and others. (Matthew 22:37-40). To the degree that we adhere, we voluntarily surrender our rights to ourselves and yield our words, thoughts, actions, and resources to benefit others.
What true love is.
True love is inviting and sacrificial, and it is others-centered. It is compelling because it does not seek to harm or control others. True love is the opposite of controlling.
1 John 4:10 says, “This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” (NLT)
Romans 5:8 says, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” (NLT)
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 says, “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” (NLT)
God loves us so much that He wants to spend eternity with us in a loving, intimate relationship. For that to be possible, He had to clear away the most significant barrier, which is our sin. He did this by sending Jesus to earth to die on the cross in our place. It’s a gift that comes by grace through faith. Other religions say, “do, do, do, and maybe you’ll make it… or not.” Christ says, “It is done.”
No other god or religion but Jesus Christ has demonstrated true love.
The truth is that God does want control of our lives, but He loves us too much to force us into submission. However, when a person understands that the One who knows and loves them best also has the wisdom and power to direct their life for their ultimate good, they are willing to surrender to Him.
Are you ready to believe and receive God’s true love through Jesus Christ?
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God’s true love, as displayed through Jesus Christ, opens the door for intimacy with Him, and blessings in this life and the one to come.
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