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September 22, 2010

Playing the 'God Card'

Have you ever thrown down the God Card? Playing the God Card happens whenever one uses “God told me” as the ultimate justification for a decision that requires group consensus. Picture a meeting about budget allocation or using space in the building or ministry direction, and someone goes “all-in.” They might say: “I really feel like God wants this to be happening.” Or: “God told me we should make my announcement first on Sunday morning.” At best, the God Card is an expression of passion and heart having a difficult time explaining itself. At worst, it’s a manipulative tool, a power play to get one’s way.

I think people use the God Card too much, ministry or not. And yes, God told me to say that. (God Card Alert!)

Making difficult decisions in the church is nothing new. The entire book of Acts is devoted to the development and spread of the early church. Acts is about explosive growth of the church, the Spirit showing up with many miraculous signs and wonders, and people converted faster than Paul and his crew could baptize them. I imagine the folks in leadership meetings could hardly keep up.

Can you relate?

Ever felt overwhelmed by your responsibilities, unsure how to move forward, and tentative in your leadership decisions? So did the early church. Ever been in a situation where people drop the God Card to get their way? So was Paul. We read in Acts 15 that some leaders were teaching that circumcision (one of the many laws of the Old Testament) was necessary for salvation. These leaders were confident that it was the way the Church had to proceed. They were “all-in.”

But Paul and Barnabas disagreed with those leaders, and we get a ringside seat to the first of many heart-wrangling decisions about how to interpret the law in light of grace. So what can we learn from their struggles?

• They debated. They had it out, they argued, they disagreed. They held their ground on what they thought was important.

• They respected each other. When all parties decided to travel to be together over this question of circumcision, the Scriptures report that Paul and Barnabas were welcomed. They were received and embraced with love and respect.

• They were persuasive with facts and stories about God’s evidence, not just God’s “voice.” Nobody threw the God Card in this meeting. Each side presented information: stories about what they had seen God doing and why they felt strongly about their argument.

• They searched the Scripture for understanding. They showed forethought and preparation in their argument. They wrestled with understanding scripture as a basis for their decision.

• They compromised. I doubt the final decision was what either side fully wanted, but it was what they could agree upon. And that had to be enough.

• They were tentative and humble. In Acts 15:28, the council comes to a decision and sends a letter back to the churches, saying “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” “It seemed” was all they could muster. They didn’t say “God told us” or “God has said” or “This is law.” It was not an audible voice or handwriting in stone. It was imperfect people working together to find a compromise, to move forward in unity so that the gospel could be preached effectively.

I love the idea that the final decision was only as strong as “it seemed good.” There’s no reason to throw a God Card, because with hard work, we can work together toward decisions that make sense.

Do you agree with the argument against the “God Card?” Have you struggled with decisions on “this is what God told me?” How do you handle it?


Great post! I like how you essentially move through the steps of rebuttal. The study of rhetoric is so useful in dealing with controversy. When people pull out the "God card," I have to listen, summarize, find common ground, expose any logical weaknesses with a gentle analogy, and state my position. I'm not afraid of the "God card" like I used to be. It's just a way to claim authority that needs to be handled with care.

This is not going to be a very eloquent response: Quite frankly, I don't get why people say these things in those instances. Have I had guidance from the Holy Spirit on how I should treat people based on scripture or maybe in the quiet, a direction to take in life? Sure. But never this specifically. "God told me to [do, say, be X]." Often I've wondered if this is truly what is going on or whether, like you said, it's only a way to perpetuate a personal motive under the guise of God's blessing. That is a horrible way to misuse God and certainly not a God-centered way to interact in the body of Christ.

We are all still growing in wisdom and grace. There are still christians who have not let go of manipulation and will use "the God card" and any other card to promote their own agenda. The bible teaches us to "...pray for those who despitefully use you" Matt 5:44. We can remember to ask the Holy Spirit to give us insight and wisdom when someone is being manipulative, and then pray for that fellow christian who may or may not be aware of their harmful behavior. Let's not forget that no matter what, God is still in control.

Well said. Thank you. Great passage to draw from as well. I'm afraid that what passes as "God told me" is often done out of fear, manipulation, or simply not wanting to think through the issue more clearly. I remember we hired someone on our church staff because "God told me" and even though I totally disagreed with the hire I backed down because the trump card "God told me" had been played.

I wonder if there is a way to draw people out when they drop the God-card. Something like, "I know you feel strongly about this...let's talk about it more." I do sense, like many of you, that what often happens is the receiver of the message feels manipulated and controlled, which is certainly not what God would intend.

I don't hear the "God card" all that much. But I do hear the "Just read your bible" card. As in, "we disagree on this issue, but you are wrong because it's OBVIOUS in scripture that I'm right about the sunday announcements and you must be an idiot or biblically illiterate to even question my interpretation of such and such." It's condescending. It's rude. It's presumptuous. And it immediately shuts down all discourse. I know whenever someone says that that it's not even worth discussion because they are not going to hear a word I say.

Playing "The God Card" seems like the last refuge of a televangelist or the person losing a debate or a decision-based discussion. That person would come across as extremely haughty - as if, "God only spoke to me and clearly you were left out of the conversation."

Instead, we discern, pray and wrestle.

Thom, interesting way of seeing it...I find it used in a much more subtle way, which I actually find more difficult to answer. Sort of a "I feel passionately, God has led me this way, God told me..." pleading that is very hard to argue with. But I believe an openness of our own hearts can help to continue that conversation, as hard as it might be.

Great topic, some good points have been made in the article.
While I would not claim to be in a position to judge the motivation of those playing the "God told me" card, I think that in short, the issue is much simpler than the article seems to indicate.

"God told me" is special revelation, that God gave to/through the prophets and apostles and a scant few others in History before the closing of the Canon.

God "tells" us things through His Word, which differentiates us from the apostles (who did not have the complete Bible at the time, and had special promises from Jesus), so a 1-to-1 parallel can not be drawn.

Now God uses His finished revelation to communicate to us - the Bible - , and His Spirit to guide us to an understanding of His Word.

In short: we need not point out that the apostles didn't play the God card.
1.) they sometimes did, and did so even in declaring their writings as being from God.
2.) we are not apostles, but thankfully have God's full inspired Word and His Spirit to guide us to understanding, so we CAN know what God tells us (and should be able to show it in the Bible)

Hebrews 12:14-15
Pursue peace, See to it that no on comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;

My son (15 y/o) and I had a discussion about alack of obedience on his part. Clearly, our discussion wasn't going anywhere and so I pulled the "God Card" after he disagrees that he needs to obey his God given authority. Was that inappropriate?

The issue that we had a debate on was whether he should obey his dad and not toilet paper his friend's house. His father was against it but without giving any reasonable answer.

I finally pulled the "God Card" simply because my son just had to comply, like it or not.

Does Jesus pull the God card when He didn't want to answer either Pilate of Herod? Instead his response was that the unbelievers have no authority over Him unless given by God. To put it bluntly, was He pulling that card?

CJ Tam -

Jesus has the right to pull the God card since He is God!

One thing you and your husband might consider is actually sharing your reason with your son. I have 3 grown sons and one thing they have thanked my husband and me for is that when they were older we would share our reasoning with them.
In the case of not allowing your son to TP someone's house, you might tell him why that concerns you. You fear that it may be misconstrued as mischief rather than fun, that he might get into trouble with neighbors or even the law, that you don't want him out that late at night. My experience is that older children appreciate solid reasons and boundaries. This is just from my experience. I hope it helps you.

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