Codependency in the church: the dysfunctional
family of God
Author: Margie Y. Cash, B.B.A.,
Since 1979, American society has
developed an increasing awareness of
codependency. Bookstore shelves are lined with
self-help books, which have acquainted the
general public with the concept and significance
of codependency, and therapists around the
country have formed support groups for an
assortment of "adult children" who bear the
painful scars of this widespread, emotional
As a student of counseling psychology and a
recovering codependent myself, I have found the
literature intriguing and have spent much time
researching the topic for my personal
edification. Growing up in the home of an
alcoholic father, I'm all too familiar with the
dysfunctional patterns that emerge amid the
tortures of a chemically dependent parent.
Learning to break free of a multitude of
negative and unhealthy coping styles has become
a major challenge and focus of my adult life.
During the time that I was initially introduced
to the concept of codependency, I was a
part-time, paid staff member with a large
metropolitan church and had been actively
involved in church work for about eight years.
As a professing Christian and a born-again
believer, I consider myself to be a member of
the large, but nuclear, family of God; and this
belief is based upon Biblical teachings to which
I, personally, subscribe.
As I recognized myself in the descriptions of
various codependent writings, I naturally
extrapolated and drew parallels in my mind
concerning the more global impact of
codependency on society. In acknowledging this
larger context, Robert Subby (1984) has stated
that codependence "is an emotional,
psychological, and behavioral pattern of coping
that is born of the rules of a family and not as
a result of alcoholism" (p. 26). Later, Friel
and Subby (1984) defined codependence as a
"dysfunctional pattern of living and
problem-solving which is nurtured by a set of
rules within the family system" (p. 32). Charles
Whitfield (1984) has said that codependence
"affects not only individuals, but families,
communities, businesses, and other institutions,
and states, and countries" (p. 47).
In my personal search for wholeness, I began to
notice circumstances and situations that seemed
to trigger codependent reactions in me. Schaef
(1986) stated that recovery from codependency
involves a systematic shift, from the addictive
system of origin to the living process system of
mental health. As the process of recovery
continues, codependents develop a heightened
sense of clarity and operate more out of the
living process system, thereafter becoming more
acutely aware of when they are slipping back
into the disease of codependency. Schaef (1986)
goes on to list potential triggering mechanisms,
which include: being dishonest; talking about
others behind their backs for the purpose of
building up allies or justifying oneself; being
obsessed with a person or situation; controlling
or manipulating others; interpreting another
person and assuming more knowledge about the
person than they have about themselves;
self-neglect; comparisons of self with others;
blaming others and/or not taking responsibility
for oneself; jealousy; and dualistic thinking or
thinking in poles (good/bad, right/wrong,
Friel and Subby (1984) list the
rules that keep us stuck in a codependent
pattern of living:
It isn't okay to talk about
Feelings shouldn't be openly
Communication is best if
indirect, with one person acting as
messenger between two others
be strong, good, right, perfect. Make
us proud of you.
Don't be selfish.
Do as I say, not as I do.
It isn't okay to play or be
Don't rock the boat.
As we look closely at
these rules, we begin to see that
they have something to do with
protecting or isolating us from
others by not risking genuine
As I began to make a conscious
effort toward a systematic shift
from my family of origin's additive
system to a living process system of
personal, mental health, I began to
notice familiar patterns of
dysfunctionality in my more recently
acquired church family. This
revelation did not come about as a
result of cognitive mind-games, but
after many years of experiencing
intense, gut-level, psychic pain and
negative emotional reactions, which
seemed to well up in me
uncontrollably and without warning,
to a religious and political system
that bore all too many similarities
to my own, dysfunctional, family of
origin. When this cognitive "light
bulb" illuminated in my mind, it was
as though a tremendous weight had
been lifted from me. Whereas, I had
tended to accept my role as
something of a family of God
scapegoat, with an accompanying
sense of guilt and frustration, I
suddenly began to realize that,
perhaps, there were larger dynamics
at work, and maybe I had falsely
condemned myself into a
stereotypical, codependent role that
my religious family was,
unhealthily, dependent upon.
In carrying this analogy a step
further, it is probably helpful to examine the
aforementioned rules, which characterize a
codependent pattern of living. The first rule
is that it is not okay to talk about problems.
In a church setting, this rule takes on
paradoxical significance. Whereas, the first
duty of every new Christian is to confess their
sins and accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord,
the second duty of every Christian, who has been
thus "born again," is to live a life of true
righteousness and holiness through the
indwelling power of God's Holy Spirit (The
Lockman Foundation [TLF], 1977a). Once a person
has become a sincere Christian saved by the
grace of God, there remains no more sacrifice
for willful sin and disobedience to the word of
God (TLF, 1977c). Since talking about one's
problems is often equated in the church to
justifying or rationalizing one's unrepented
sin, then it is best to squelch such
discussions. Otherwise, one's sincerity and
commitment as a Christian might be questioned,
not to mention the authenticity of one's born
The second rule is that one's
feelings shouldn't be expressed openly. This
rule also embodies paradoxical contradictions.
Although the initial conversion experience is
often wrought with spiritual and emotional
catharsis, there is a very definite, unwritten
rule in churches, which says, "express your
feelings and perceptions only if church
officials will not be damaged or embarrassed by
your expression." This truth of this rule is
probably best demonstrated by the demise of Jim Bakker and his PTL empire. Although many of the
leadership and staff of the PTL ministries had
observed its fraudulent and deliberate
mismanagement for years, there were very few who
were willing to go out on a limb to expose the
problems for fear of losing their jobs. If
they had, they probably would have been
systematically scapegoated, not only through
their firing, but also by becoming the victims
of a more personally devastating rejection by
their fellow Christians and coworkers. Even
though Jim Bakker was convicted and sentenced to
a lengthy prison term by the federal courts, and
in spite of the recurring, incriminating
testimony of numerous PTL executives and board
members, there remain many avid PTL supporters
and followers, who simply will not accept the
fact that Bakker was guilty of any wrong-doing.
The third rule, which adheres to
the principle that communication is best if
indirect, is also paradoxical. Whereas,
Scripture is specific in its urgings to speak
the truth in love and despite its assurances
that the truth shall set you free, the church
encourages a more metaphorical approach (TLF,
1977a, 1977b). In my observations as a staff
member, I saw rampant triangulation,
particularly in the area of personnel matters.
If a staff member became a problem or a threat
in some way to the status quo, this was rarely
dealt with directly by the pastor, but
was more often handled by way of other staff
members applying pressure to conform or by
involving the ministry elders in a similar,
witch-hunt fashion. Padding
expense accounts with personal expenses,
falsifying cash receipts for tax purposes, or
getting financial kickbacks on construction projects are the kinds of details that
conveniently be swept under a proverbial carpet
of denial and certainly should not to be discussed
The fourth rule, that of
unrealistic expectations of being strong, good,
right, perfect, and something to be proud of, is
a trap many church-goers fall into, head first.
Not only do they idealize the qualities of their
pastor, who is often fantasized to be an
irreproachable general in the army of
Almighty God, but also, they look to him to fulfill
their deepest needs for the strong and perfect
father-figure they never had. Consequently, the
all-too-human pastor takes on larger than life
qualities and enthrones himself upon a pedestal
of glass, that eventually collapses under the
enormous weight of unbridled, human ego. Too
soon, pastors burn out and grow bitter from the
struggle to fulfill a humanly unfulfillable void
in the shattered lives of their parishioners;
and too soon, parishioners turn away from their
faith in the eternal and ever-sufficient God,
because some mortal misfit failed to measure up
to their childish projections and
anticipations. On the flip side of this
perfect-pastor illusion is the unduly harsh
expectations that Christians project upon each
other. Rather than simply accepting each other
as fallible brothers and sisters in Christ, too
often the army of God shoots its own wounded in
a maniacal and cold-blooded execution of rampant
hypocrisy and self-righteous blood lust.
The fifth rule, stated simply,
says that one should not be selfish. This is
probably one of the most used and abused lines
in the church. Again, the approach here is
often metaphorical, and the unsuspecting "fisher
of men" falls for it hook, line, and sinker!
And so, while a paid staff member incompetently ignores the responsibilities of
his job, a volunteer, who also works a full-time
job, is "suckered" into dedicating his free time
to "help the church" by doing the work of the
paid staff member, who then "lays on the
positive strokes" for the volunteer's hard
work. Such lines as, "he's worked above-and-beyond the call of duty;" "she has a real
servant's heart;" "commitment like hers is
rare;" and "he's a real champion for the cause
of Christ," are carefully administered to the
tireless and somewhat mindless volunteer.
However, when such a volunteer finally falls
flat on his or her face from exhaustion, dares
to voice awareness of the inequity of the
situation, and begins to say "No!", then the
strokes grow coldly negative: "She has a
spiritual problem;" "its because of what she's
been through;" "we need to pray for him;" or
"she's under satanic attack." Many and varied
are the array of strokes for either selfish or
unselfish behavior; unfortunately, those rules
which apply to the clergy are often vastly
different from those that apply to the laity.
"Do as I say, and not as I do" is
the sixth rule of codependency and is also
present in the dynamics of the church family;
however, no one ever admits that this rule is
really there, except as it relates to someone
else. Oftentimes, this rule is best
demonstrated by self-righteous indignation, in
which a person is outraged by the hypocrisy of
the clergy or the insincerity of the laity.
Rarely does the person realize that his own
behavior and actions invoke as much indignation
in other people as do their alleged offenses to
him. So, a perpetual cycle of judgementalism
and unforgiveness is set in motion, where the
person "lips" adherence to the principle of
forgiveness, but acts out a judgemental and
intolerant attitude, and one that is certainly
not to be tolerated from others!
The eighth rule says that it's
not okay to play. This is a primary personality
trait of a codependent person, or the adaptive
child in the terminology of transactional
analysis (Berne, 1964). This is a very large
rule in the church, because the church
oftentimes assumes the role of a critical
parent, in spite of the fact that the Bible
depicts God as a nurturing and loving Father,
who sent His Son, Jesus, to die on a cross for
the sins of the world (TLF, 1977a). Therefore,
many in the church, think it is their
responsibility to bayonet sinners into the
Kingdom of God, and those who don't take this
role seriously are acting immaturely and
childishly (natural child, that is!). So, there
is all too often a puritanical harshness that
prevails in even the most relaxed settings.
Taking oneself and others too seriously is a
trap that even the most compassionate Christian
can fall into if he or she is not careful.
There are times when it is, indeed, appropriate
to "let one's hair down," and enjoy God's
infinite provision, without the guilt of
All of these rules of the church
pale in comparison to the eighth rule of
codependency, or "don't rock the boat". The
following statement made by Mark Rutland (1987),
an internationally known Methodist evangelist
and pastor, emphasizes the point:
The modern, American, denominational church
is a highly sophisticated corporate
structure, replete with 'presidents,' 'vice
presidents,' and 'star salesmen.' There are
also significant and obvious rewards for
advancement. This is a heady intoxicant for
a young preacher. The pecking order is
clearly defined and the method of
advancement is, though unstated, orderly and
understood. Sam Rayburn said of the
congress, 'If you want to get along, go
along.' That's about it.
The one great 'sin' which the structure will
not tolerate is not adultery. With a
repentant posture and some time for the
storm to blow over, that can be weathered.
And it certainly is not ambition or greed.
Hardly! The one unforgivable, intolerable
transgression against the structure is
boat-rocking. Cause a stir, trouble the
waters, challenge the status quo, and wear
the Scarlet Letter (Rutland, 1987, p. 21).
My own observations of the
consequences of boat-rocking in the church are
in complete agreement with Dr. Rutland's
analysis, and there is, to my great
disappointment, an enormous amount of
Machiavellian politics involved in the
day-to-day operation of churches.
Constructive criticism, no matter how gingerly
it is presented, is systematically rejected and
scorned as an attack on Scriptural authority. Scapegoating is the painful consequence for many
who rock the boat. Friel and Friel (1988) state
The scapegoat gets to act out all of the
family's dysfunction and therefore takes the
blame and "the heat" for the family. He
gets drug addicted or steals, is the "black
sheep," gets in lots of fights, acts out
sexually, etc.. The family then gets to
say, "if little brother weren't such a
delinquent, we'd be a healthy family." The
cost to the scapegoat is obvious (p. 56).
When I was working in the church,
I was in a position of managerial accountability
and responsibility. In many respects, I greatly
enjoyed the work; but in many other respects, I
found the execution of simple tasks enormously
exhausting and depleting. At those times, I
tended to confront and rock the boat in ways
that were not appreciated by the powers of the
church. If someone was being irresponsible
about their job, I'd indulge them only so long;
then I'd get them into a face-to-face
confrontation that attracted a lot of negative
attention. Whether I was right or not was
usually irrelevant in the eyes of the senior
staff; the fact was, I was not "going along." Normal
assertiveness was considered subversive;
appropriate peer pressure was viewed as an
attempt to "take over the church;" and
complaints of any kind were sternly dismissed as insubordination.
In utter exasperation, I finally
decided that I had to take a stand when a very
unpleasant situation presented itself;
subsequently, I resigned my position in protest over the
firing of a fellow staff member and half of the
affected department went with me (their choice,
not mine!). Very quickly, "the Scarlet Letter"
was etched onto my, heretofore, only mildly
tarnished reputation, and I promptly fell to the
bottom of the church's negative-stroke barrel.
A year later, the minister who did the firing
resigned and moved out of state. Subsequently,
those of us who had left were invited to return
as volunteers, but our reception was cooled by
the lingering memory of our former disloyalty.
Now, many years later, "the Scarlet Letter"
proceeds me wherever I go in my church; I am a
political "hot potato," and one with whom no
truly astute staff member would dare become too
In my decision to resign, I
recognized and embraced the consequences of my
actions. I had already read Rutland's (1987)
description of "the unpardonable sin," and I
knew that I would be branded a traitor.
However, there was a freedom and a release that
came from knowing that I was doing the right
thing for me, and I was at peace within my soul
over the decision. In a
sense, I surrendered my official role within the
church out of a heightened sense of awareness
that I was powerless to change the system, and
that I was under no compulsion to remain a party
to actions that I did not support. Friel
and Friel (1988) put it this way:
Recovery of our spirituality
begins when we are truly able to say that we are
powerless over our addictions, symptoms or our
family systems. The paradox here is that at the
very moment that we surrender, we gain back some
of our true power. Rather than being left more
vulnerable and defenseless by this surrender, we
actually become less vulnerable, because now we
are not operating according to a self-defeating,
destructive logic that depletes all of our
energies trying to control things over which we
have no control.
We are also less vulnerable
because we are living in truth and reality
instead of in denial and defensiveness. Without
the denial, we can use that energy to make
positive decisions about our life in areas in
which we do have a choice (p. 187).
that I am no longer enmeshed in the politics of
the church system, I can stand back and see more
clearly the effects that it had on me. Since my emancipation, I have
learned to take better care of myself. I have
learned to say "no" and not feel guilty. Melody
Beattie (1987) said the following about
Much of recovery is finding and maintaining
balance in all areas of our lives. We need
to watch the scales so they do not tip too
far to either side as we measure our
responsibilities to ourselves and to
others. We need to balance our emotional
needs with our physical, mental, and
spiritual needs. We need to balance giving
and receiving; we need to find the dividing
line between letting go and doing our part.
We need to find a balance between solving
problems and learning to live with unsolved
problems. Much of our anguish comes from
having to live with the grief of unsolved
problems, and having things not go the way
we hoped and expected. We need to find a
balance between letting go of our
expectations and remembering we are
important, valuable people who deserve to
live decent lives (p. 211).
Much anguish can also come from
having to live with the grief that comes from
accepting reality as it is, rather than as we'd
like for it to be. My association with my
church has been the best and worst thing that
ever happened to me; and I suppose this is the
paradox of all dysfunctional families: they are
responsible, ironically, for shaping the best
and the worst that is in us.
Beattie, M. (1987).
Learning to live and love again. Codependent no
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(1964). Games People Play. New York,
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Friel, J. & Subby, R.
(1984). Co-Dependency. Co-Dependency
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Out into the deep. Franklin Springs, GA:
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Subby, R. (1984).
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The Lockman Foundation (1977a).
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