Philippians 4:13


Codependency in the church: the dysfunctional family of God

Author: Margie Y. Cash, B.B.A., M.S.

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 disorder.

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, either/or).

Friel and Subby (1984) list the rules that keep us stuck in a codependent pattern of living:

  1. It isn't okay to talk about problems.

  2. Feelings shouldn't be openly expressed.

  3. Communication is best if indirect, with one person acting as messenger between two others (triangulation).

  4. Unrealistic expectations:  be strong, good, right, perfect.  Make us proud of you.

  5. Don't be selfish.

  6. Do as I say, not as I do.

  7. It isn't okay to play or be playful.

  8. 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 closeness.

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 again experience.

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 can conveniently be swept under a proverbial carpet of denial and certainly should not to be discussed openly.

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 codependency.

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 that:

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 closely associated.

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).

Now 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 recovery:

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 more (pp. 209-214).  New York, NY:  Harper/Hazelden.

Berne, E.  (1964).  Games People Play.  New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Friel, J. C., & Friel, L. D.  (1988).  Adult children: The secrets of dysfunctional families.  Deerfield Beach, FL:  Health Communications.

Friel, J. & Subby, R.  (1984).  Co-Dependency.  Co-Dependency (pp. 31-45).  Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Rutland, M.  (1987).  Out into the deep.  Franklin Springs, GA: Advocate Press.

Schaef, A. W.  (1986).  Codependence: Misunderstood-Mistreated. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Subby, R.  (1984).  Inside the chemically dependent marriage. Co-Dependency (pp. 25-29).  Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

The Lockman Foundation (1977a).  The gospel according to John. New American standard Bible (The Open Bible ed., pp. 1010-1039).  New York, NY: Thomas Nelson.

The Lockman Foundation (1977b).  The epistle of Paul to the Ephesians.  New American standard Bible (The Open Bible ed., pp. 1129-1135).  New York, NY: Thomas Nelson.

The Lockman Foundation (1977c).  The epistle to the Hebrews.  New American standard Bible (The Open Bible ed., pp. 1169-1183).  New York, NY: Thomas Nelson.

Whitfield, C. L.  (1984).  Codependency: An emerging problem. Co-Dependency (pp. 47-57).  Deerfield Beach, FL: Health  Communications.