Jesse Ancona's Articles: The Humble Phony
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The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing:

The Deceptively Humble Man

by Jesse Ancona

      Recent experiences have led me to look back over things I have seen in the past, and I must say that there is a Satanic counterfeit to godly humility, as there is to almost any good thing God has ordained.

I was discussing this with a friend who has had many years experience in churches, and my friend and I could think of two Christian ministers who fit this style, and he also knew a third, whom I had not known. In each case, we'd been "taken in" by the outward appearance of humility, until we'd come to learn better. From these experiences, I've drawn up a little "character sketch" of the type (and contrasted it with people I've known well enough to know their humility was genuine).

My friend and I are considered discerning individuals by those who know us well, and I am considered downright suspicious, so the fact that these people got past our defenses shows how subtle they can be. If you've been taken in by a person like this, don't be too hard on yourself: they have spent a long time learning how to build trust and confidence in people. They are, in fact, one species of the "Confidence Man," who takes you in through trust. The fact that these men are posing as Christian ministers gives them more initial credibility. But just knowing the type exists, and what to look for, should help you to see if the person you are dealing with -- your minister, or a leader in your church -- is this kind of person.

Not Innocent Error: Deliberate Deception or Mental Illness

I have to warn you, though: this is not a matter of mere sin. These people are truly phony. I don't know their psychology, but I suspect it varies with the individual. Some few might be the "honest huckster," like the phony faith healer Steve Martin portrayed in the film, "Leap of Faith,"1 who are more like religious carnies: they know what they're doing, and their only rationalization is that anyone stupid enough to be suckered deserves what they get2.

More often, religious phonies know exactly what they are doing, but justify it on the level that the people don't know what's truly important, and need to be given something they can accept. This can rise to the level of a religious megalomania, where these leaders have an absurdly exaggerated sense of their own importance. I think, here, of a videotape of a prominent minister with a respectable massage therapist and nurse, who after a previous bad encounter with him, wanted proof of the situation before going to the law. The minister was attempting to commit unwanted sexual acts with her, explaining to her that he was so important to God's work that it didn't matter what sins he committed3.

With the smaller-potato phonies -- those who do not have sexual indiscretions or financial fraud to justify to their consciences -- I think many believe their own lies about themselves. This most recent example I have met may fall into this category: he desperately wanted to believe he was humble and had a merciful heart, when his actions screamed out the opposite, so he spent a great deal of time defending himself, even to the point of blaming me for his not visiting me during my illness4! His behaviour smacks of someone who has a mild mental illness. I think that self-deception on this level can only get in the way of someone with large ambitions. You might be able to build a church or two -- and get kicked out of a few, before you figure out how to prevent that -- but I don't think you can build an empire without wising up to exactly what it is you are doing.

I think the only way such a person could ever truly repent would be to leave the ministry, and get an honest job (not that true ministry is not honest, but I don't think such people should ever hold these positions again, if they are trying to recover from their addiction to spiritual power over others -- a drug far worse than anything that can be bought on the streets).

But enough of the armchair analysis. What are these men like to meet and deal with?

Profile of the Humble Phony

These are men whose outward appearance is soft, humble, and warm. They seem loving, caring, and concerned. They are often emotional, and seem genuinely concerned for the most lowly person in the church. They carry themselves often in an obviously-humble style, walking in a hesitant manner, speaking in a soft, less-forceful way, often casting their eyes downward. They seem childlike and appealing.

People genuinely like someone like this, because they are often friendly in their greetings, and think nothing of giving one a warm hug, and seem truly concerned for each and every person they meet. If you wanted to describe them, you would say, "lovable," "cuddly," "huggable," "sweet," "soft," "humble," "kind," and "merciful." If they are older, they seem "fatherly" or "grandfatherly." The phony ones, though, are "wolves in sheep's clothing."

I have known genuine-hearted men who seem like this, and ones to whom it is all an outward show. It is not easy to discern the difference, since the phony shepherds take great pains to protect their image. As a matter of fact, the easiest way to discern which is which (I don't recommend this, if one hasn't been offended, as it would be unkind to a truly humble man), is to attack the man's "caring." Since this is the heart and core of his vanity, he will use any weapons at his disposal to defend his image, and in so doing, he will reveal himself to be cruel, insensitive, and narcissistic. He will actually boast of his humility, and proclaim how he has a "merciful heart," and will moan and groan about how his sensitive feelings have been hurt.

A truly humble man will ignore himself, not bother to defend himself, and inquire more deeply as to where you are coming from, in the hopes of, at the very least, correcting any mistaken impression, but ultimately, towards clearing up any offense and moving towards reconciliation. But I wouldn't put it past a self-aware Confidence Man to know just how to play this game, either. It is only a test: it is not definitive. A man who passes it is either genuine, or is consciously playing the game. It raises the stakes, and you may find that he moves against you swiftly, before you can test him any further, which will answer your question nicely. But if he doesn't, is he genuine, or is he just waiting you out, in the hopes of confusing you with your own natural doubts? Why lose a faithful, tithe-paying member when patience brings so much reward?

Another sign is the obviousness of the man's humility -- you could trip over it in a brightly-lit ballroom. A really humble man doesn't seem quite so humble as the phonies, because he's not putting any effort into his image. The phony is like a gigolo, who needs to put up a charming front, since his charisma is his livelihood. The truly humble man has nothing to lose, since he is not trying to get anything out of you, or put anything over on you, so he doesn't need to put any effort into seeming to be something appealing.

Interestingly enough, most of the truly humble men I have met, who also had this humble style, were not outwardly religious, and certainly were not professional ministers. The only exception is a man who had another profession besides the ministry. Genuine ministers need to spend too much time taking care of their flock, and encouraging, teaching, and rebuking, to really come across as smooth as a Confidence Man. They're too busy doing their job to worry about their image.

Follow the Power

There is a saying in fraud cases, "follow the money." In this case, one must "follow the power." A phony shepherd will be ruling with a rod of iron, but will do it secretly: either he will have henchmen who do his "dirty work" for him, so he can seem to be "the only nice one," or he will be dictatorial only within the "inner circle," or towards those having any ministry. To work with a man like this is to get a glimpse that something is not right.

I've spoken to people who, when working with such people, were exposed to harshness, anger, and outright bullying: this is easy enough to spot, but by the time you've gotten this far into the "inner circle," you're usually too "hooked" to get out easily.

Also, look into the legalities of the organization. These men will have made sure to put excessive power into their own hands and those of their henchmen, and there will be no system of accountability. This is what I ran into recently, which helped me to "smell a rat."

The Physics of Emotion

My recent experience was very confusing. This phony shepherd had a manner that psychologists call passive-aggressive5. People like this always "forget" what you have told them, and then do the opposite, and act surprised and hurt when you call them on it. They always have a plausible excuse, and it's always such a "small matter." They have many ways of hindering anything you want to do.

I learned something when I was a teacher, and I was dealing with teaching teenagers. An experienced teacher told me that it is often difficult to tell exactly what is going on in a classroom. She advised us that the laws of emotion are like the laws of physics, "every action has an equal and opposite reaction." So, in order to figure out what is going on, ask yourself, "How do I feel?" and then you can discern what manipulations are going on.

Six years as a substitute teacher have proven to me that this is a "quick and dirty" method for getting to the true core of a confusing emotional situation.

This passive-aggressive phony-humble "shepherd" made people feel diminished, frustrated, angry, upset, tearful, and often thwarted to the point of feeling violent. Whenever I had contact with him, I ended up feeling confused and was left with a bad feeling. Having contact with him made me feel like Charlie Brown on the pitcher's mound: "My stomach hurts."

The Outward Actions

His actual actions themselves were thoughtless, rude, discourteous, and inconsiderate. Though he couched his contacts in a very pleasant, nice manner, what he was doing was not very nice. If you took away the pretty veneer, his actions were quite ruthless and vicious...but it was so hard to see, because he seemed so "nice" and "caring."

One of his defenses was to pretend not to remember things. He conveniently forgot anything that might help you do your job, or that might show consideration for you, but would never forget a single tiny thing that would be to his advantage. He even did it in such a way as to elicit a bit of condescending sympathy, which was a very good distraction: you can look back at any "Columbo" episode to see this at work.

Another thing he would do would be to test your will. I fell for this, several times. I'd set boundaries in terms of what work I would do when, and he would deliberately, the first time, break my rules, and see if I would let him "get away with it." Sometimes I stuck to my guns, but he would continue to test me, and if once I caved in, I would be flooded with things to do that I had explicitly said I would not. He had to try to "break your will," and make you do whatever it was you said you wouldn't do. Again, of course, he would claim innocence, and generally deny that he'd been informed of such a thing, though he might fall back into the "I forgot" excuse if you didn't buy it.

He often got his wife to fire his salvos for him, so she would be the one to snub people and put them in their place, or make his threats for him, and then he would gently demur, but not correct her, and let the threat stand, so you did not feel reassured. His elders were often harsh, cruel men who had no compassion, and thought nothing of treating the congregation like dirt. In some cases, they were guilty of treating their own families badly.

The net result was to make him look like "a rose among thorns," the only humble, loving one amongst unfortunately more fallible leaders. It was very cleverly done.

The Biblical Example

When you look at the men of the Bible, very few come across as "humble" in this way. Christ and many of his apostles, including Paul, were fiery individuals. Only John, and perhaps James and Luke, appeared to be more laid-back in their personality styles.

Humility, though, is not a personality style, it is a way of life and action. If one does for others, cares for others, and takes risks for others, without thought to one's own advantage or image, that is humility, not the self-serving PR of some smarmy soft-sounding phony.

Again, "By their fruits you shall know them." Matthew 7:16, 20.

Not only this one man I am thinking of, but the many others we have seen over the years, can be tested by this scripture. In many cases, their ministry is marked by neglect: the sick are not visited, funerals are not attended, the poor are not helped, the distressed are not counselled, and the Word of God is often not preached, because it too often conflicts with this kind of manís agenda.

The people in their congregations have a whipped-dog look: they have gotten used to the bad treatment, and their strategy is to try to avoid more. They have learned not to ask questions Ė least of all where their latest acquaintance has gone. Those who ask questions are often brought before a small circle of leaders and secretly disfellowshipped: the church is neither consulted nor informed.

Over time, you can watch the best people leaving. Those with spiritual gifts move on; those with discernment diminish their contact, and finally cease attending all together. People asked about the minister or the organization look wounded, and often do not want to talk about it.

The Biblical Response

How do you protect yourself from such men? Well, as usual, be diligent in your own Bible study, and donít rely on men to lead you into truth6. If you find errors, bring them to the attention of the minister: he may have good reason for not listening to you, and frankly, few ministers of any denomination will ever teach against their head church, whether you have pointed out something in the Bible or not, but most will trot out some defense about their denomination having studied this matter and come to a definitive conclusion. They wonít attack you or punish you. They wonít remove you from any minor ministry you may be helping with. They wonít pressure you to cave in to their teaching.

If they do these things, keep an eye out for them. Measure their actions against their demeanour. It is natural for an honest man to show some amount of temper or impatience when rebuking you: it is odd for someone to do so in a completely mild-mannered way. This may simply be the manís natural personality Ė time will tell here Ė but if it isnít, he is manipulating you.

Ultimately, you must ask yourself how you feel after contact with this man. If the predominant feeling is confusion, you know who is the author of that, and it is not God7, 8. Scott Peck, in his "People of the Lie" talks about how evil usually leaves people feeling confused9. Confusion is not extreme enough to set off most peopleís alarm bells, but if a man who claims to be a minister of God leaves a wake of confusion behind him, be on guard.

Then, you need to decide what to do. If he has infiltrated a generally-honest organization, and you think it is possible to limit the damage he does, pray about whether it is worthwhile pursuing with the church. Matthew 18 may or may not apply here: Christ was giving an example of a brother, not a leader. Christ condemned the religious leaders outright, because they were untouchable; later, Paul also did the same, condemning Alexander the coppersmith completely, without going through these steps, because when a man is in authority, he can make it impossible for anyone to follow these steps. You need to pray for guidance on this, and if it seems to be Godís will, you will know what offenses he should be charged with.

If you are not the one offended, you will need to find those who are, and encourage them to speak out. I would suggest, for safetyís sake, confronting the man first, then following through on the rest of Matthew 18, if it is at all possible. If the man himself has blocked this route, then it needs to be taken to the church however it can be. If the lower organization has been completely taken over by this man, it may be necessary to go to a higher level of authority in the church.

What if the organization itself has been built around this man, and the entire leadership consists of his hand-picked cronies? What if the church constitution and polity is such that he is untouchable? Then there is no choice: you have to leave. Staying for "the other people" is to encourage others to remain in bondage to someone who is using God to further his own ends, and nothing good can come of it. You will get to know more and more people who have put their trust in this man instead of God, and it will have its effect on you. It is dishonest, and staying will begin to interfere with your own relationship with God.

Ultimately, you are following God, not man, and cannot let yourself become loyal to someone who is not loyal to God, or you will one day -- and probably sooner than you think -- be faced with the choice of going this manís way, or Godís way. And presumably, that is a choice you have already made long ago, and do not want to throw away to follow dubious men, which is plain idolatry, and spiritually dangerous in the extreme.

©2002, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at No permission is required for fair use, which includes short quotations in other work with citation. For information on citation of Internet sources using the Harvard System, see Library - BRIDGES: Harvard System - Electronic Material.


1 The protagonist, played by Steve Martin, has no pretense, among his workers, of any religious faith: his game is a con, pure and simple, and is very cleverly done, with great sophistication, psychological cleverness, and showmanship. This is a hilarious movie, and it not only has fun with the fake circus-tent religious huckster, but actually, more seriously, raises some hard questions about the nature and power of innocent faith in God: this is a deeper film than one might be led to suspect.

Leap of Faith (1992), director: Richard Pearce. Cast: Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Lolita Davidovich. Synopsis: Jonas Nightengale, an evangelical huckster, decides to set up camp in Rustwater, Kansas, a small farming town hard-hit by drought, where one of his vans has broken down.

2 It is unfortunate that the nickname "Con Man" gives the illusion that it is short for "convict," or some word other than "confidence." It obscures the fact that trust is exactly what the confidence man most needs from you. For further information on confidence strategies, see One older book reported the results of studies of con men:

Blum, Richard H., January 1972. Deceivers and Deceived: Observations on Confidence Men and Their Victims, Informants and Their Quarry, Political and Industrial Spies and Ordinary Citizens, Charles C Thomas Publisher, Limited, ISBN: 0398022356.

      In a religious setting, there may be a few slight differences: while, sometimes, the victim, or "mark" may be led into doing something illegal or immoral, based on the theory that "the world is evil, and unbelievers deserve no special treatment", or that "the congregation doesn't understand the Will of God," often the person is simply lured into transferring his or her trust from God to the Confidence Man.
      Cult leaders are a particular subspecies of the Confidence Man, and they vary somewhat from strictly financial con men. Still, it is no coincidence that, generally, in cults, congregants are treated as marks, and money, time, and free work is squeezed from them. There are numbers of websites devoted to describing and explaining how religious cons work: technically, a cult is a "long con," in that the same mark can be milked for a protracted period of time. This involves more than short-term trust, but requires an entire mental shift towards what the cult leader wishes you to believe: this can't be done by simple trickery, but needs to involve brainwashing, also known as "mind control". One good reference about this can be found at; there are also a series of links related to cults at: Exit & Support Network. Not all "humble phonies" are knowledgable, systematic, or successful enough to become full-fledged cult leaders: many are simply wannabe's, but do damage all the same, even if less efficiently, and on a smaller scale.

3Transcript, Garner Ted Armstrong and Geraldo Rivera: Sex, Crimes and Videotape July 11, 1997, The Painful Truth website. Accessed May 7, 2002. In this transcript, it is evident that a powerful man who sees himself above the laws of man and God could treat a woman with such disrespect, thinking she would be cowed by his power and importance. This legitimate, medically-trained massage therapist was obviously afraid that she would not be believed because of the man's powerful connections, so, on her lawyer's advice, set up the video surveillance in order to pursue civil action.

4 One particular head of a congregation (I hesitate to call him a pastor) sent me an email full of attacks, blame, excuses, and innuendo about my character, after I had complained to him for not only neglecting to visit me, or even ask after my health, knowing I was very seriously ill, but also for sending me major work to do without asking if I were willing or able to do it. One example, regarding his not visiting me when I was ill:
"Your absence in the congregation because of your illness has made it difficult to maintain an ongoing relationship with you and I am sure that this has contributed to a number of your concerns." His explanation for why he refused to give me counselling when I asked for it was equally confused, that he felt it was wrong for a man to counsel a woman, when he had given me no reason at all, but simply refused. That many pastors do counsel women, and simply bring along an assistant, or their wife, to avoid any appearance of evil, appears to be something he had never heard of.
      The next week, he referred to this correspondence, which I had assumed to be confidential, by saying from the pulpit:
"This morning I want to begin my message by sharing an experience I had this past week. I want to be a bit transparent with you today. It was one of those wake up call weeks. Being a shepherd of a flock is not always easy. There are so many expectations placed upon you. You have to be all things to all people. At least that is the perception some people have. There is always the potential of disappointing someone and I have had my share of experiences over the years. We all fail from time to time in meeting the expectations of others. There was a person in our congregation who got very upset with me this week for not being more sensitive, and neglecting to do, what this person thought I should have done. Some very strong statements were made that cut very deeply. It was one of those knife in the heart feelings. I felt a lot of guilt and condemnation. Being the kind of person that I am of having a mercy heart as so many have said, I took this experience rather seriously."
      Notice how he never suggests that counselling congregants or visiting the sick -- or even phoning to find out how they are doing -- is actually his duty as a pastor, but is turned into someone's (unreasonable) expectations; he then turns this into a situation in which he has been deeply wounded, and deserving of sympathy. I quote from him in this case, because this is such an excellent example of how this kind of person can completely twist a situation around, and create confusion in people's minds.
      Several people easily guessed whom he was talking about, and called me and told me he'd referred to me, though he hadn't actually used my name; many, no doubt, believed I was as unreasonable as he characterized me to be, so not only had he breached what I had foolishly thought of as pastor-congregant confidentiality, but he was able to slander me in a forum in which I had no way of defending myself or setting the record straight. It is interesting to note that the revealing of confidential information in front of the congregation is typical of the actions of cult leaders. Respectable pastors do not play fast and loose with personal information about those in the congregation, hinting and letting people "guess who."

5 MedLine's definition of Passive-aggressive disorder: "Symptoms: Procrastination; Intentional inefficiency; Avoiding responsibility by claiming forgetfulness; Complaining; Blaming others; Resentment; Sullenness; Does not express hostility or anger openly; Fears authority; Resists suggestions from others.
      "The causes are unknown, but, like most personality disorders, a combination of genetic and environmental factors are probably responsible. People with this disorder resent responsibility, and show it through behaviors rather than through open expression of their feelings. Procrastination, inefficiency, and forgetfulness are behaviors used to avoid responsibility. The cause of this disorder is unknown. Biological or genetic factors do not appear to play a role."

6 the noble Bereans who "searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so"(Acts 17:11).

7 1 Corinthians 14:33
"God is not the author of confusion..." Confusion is a term used throughout the Old and New Testaments in conjunction with sin and evil, as in James 3:16, "...confusion and every evil work."

8 Matthew 7:16, 20
"By their fruits you shall know them."

9 Peck, M. Scott, December 1997. People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, Simon & Schuster (Paper); ISBN: 0684848597; 2nd edition (December 1997).
      Peck, a former military psychologist, involved in the investigation of the psychological causes of the My Lai Massacre, developed an interest in the elusive phenomenon of true evil in human beings. Elusive, because he found such people did not seek therapy, and avoided being interviewed, let alone studied. His experiences led him to believe that true evil in people is relatively rare, but could be traced by the trail of victims such people leave in their wake. He identifies them by their consistent use of deception and lies, and their unfailing tendency to create confusion in the minds of those around them.

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