Are you in a codependent church? Would you even know it if you were? In this type of church, individual boundaries and personal responsibility threaten the power of the group. These churches can be large or small; however, many small churches are run by one extended family. The dysfunction of that family can make the codependent small church particularly dangerous to both pastor and church member.
What Is a Codependent Church?
Codependency is excessive spiritual, emotional, or psychological reliance on a person or group. A codependent church typically moves in one of two directions: either over-reliance on the pastor or controlling behavior by a person or small group. In the latter scenario, the person or group may or may not have positional power, but they have the ability to manipulate or intimidate others to get what they want.
“Codependency occurs when we don’t have an awareness of our boundaries and behaviors, and we allow someone else’s needs to control and take over our lives.”
– Henry Cloud
Codependency in the church can be subtle. Finding the hallmarks of codependence in a group takes insight into how healthy groups function. Only then can we see the dysfunction of codependent churches. Here are four signs of codependent churches along with four signs of a healthy church.
Codependent Churches Expect Extreme Sacrifices
In a healthy church, relationships add value and encourage the health of both the individual and the group. They respect a person’s right to make their own choices, and even when there is disagreement this right is maintained. A healthy church allows each person to determine for themselves what they will or won’t do.
In a codependent church there is a long-term high cost to relationships. The longer the relationship continues, the more individuals are expected to sacrifice. Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In a healthy church this is an individual choice. Each person decides for themselves what they will give and how they will help others. In a codependent church, these verses are used to manipulate people into giving up their freedom and to demand more and more sacrifice. They become a tool for shame instead of an act of love.
Loss of Freedom
In a codependent church, Christian freedom is something that is always surrendered for the supposed good of others. There are strict rules or covenants about food, alcohol,
In a healthy church, the individual is encouraged to care for their personal, emotional, and spiritual needs so that they can be free to help others. This isn’t selfish; it is actually a humble and selfless act to ensure that I am healthy enough to give myself for the care of others. In a codependent church, people are encouraged to deny their own needs in order to serve the interests of the controlling party – whether that is the pastor or the group. This type of church is marked by how difficult they make it for people to say no to demands on time and energy. It is controlling.
Codependent Churches Have Controlling Behaviors
Healthy churches are more concerned with pleasing Christ than other people (Romans 12:1-2). When the opinions of others become the determining factor in what is right or wrong, the church is serving an idol and not serving God. This leads people to feel trapped in their roles because they aren’t allowed disappoint others. One sign of a codependent church is that they don’t let people leave well. Whether it’s leaving the church, leaving a ministry, or leaving behind the wishes of others in order to serve God, when someone leaves, others get upset.
Over-responsibility is another hallmark of the codependent church. People who are over-responsible will see the sinful or foolish behaviors of others and respond in one of three ways. They will either judge the person, try to rescue them, or cover up the problem. These people may be well-intentioned, but these are ultimately unsuccessful helping behaviors. A healthy church recognizes that each person is responsible for themselves. They only intervene when the other person wants to change but can’t do it on their own. The healthy church is about restoration and recovery, not judgment, rescue, or cover-up.
“You may be inclined to jump in and “save the world” or “be the hero.” But there are better things you can do for that individual that will improve their quality of life and spare you from the toxicity of a codependent relationship.”
– Henry Cloud
Healthy churches allow people to give of themselves freely. In a codependent church, manipulation is the way to get something done. In this type of church, giving money is not a free act of worship but a demand and a standard by which holiness is measured. People are shamed into serving, and the atmosphere maintains low self-esteem among those being manipulated. Criticism, not inspiration, becomes the normal way of creating change. Pastors are just as likely to be the victims of such an atmosphere as they are to be the perpetrators. A pastor who desires to serve people can be manipulated by powerful families in the church through shame and criticism. People in the church can be manipulated by their pastor because they respect his office. In both cases, the Lord is not the one being served. People-pleasing behavior empowers the manipulator and serves that person in place of the Lord.
Codependent Churches Hide Conflict
Healthy churches encourage people to express their feelings even if it leads to conflict. Healthy churches recognize that working through conflict will lead to greater health as long as the bond of unity in Christ is maintained. Codependent churches encourage people to deny their feelings. Instead of seeing anger or sadness as warning signs, they see them as sinful, prideful, or selfish. Codependent churches encourage people to avoid conflict in order to maintain a delicate but false sense of unity. If this doesn’t work, codependents will use conflict to manipulate people and get them back in line with the group in power.
Codependent Churches Lack Intimacy
In a healthy church, people share deeply in one another’s lives. They are open with their pain, hurts, burdens, and struggles because they know they will be accepted and loved in Christ. This doesn’t mean that sin will be excused. It means that sin will be addressed in an understanding and helpful way instead of with judgment.
In a codependent church, people will keep one another at arm’s length. Aaron Summers says, “They cannot get close. They stay reserved.” People will not open up because of shame or fear of judgment. Often the pastor will hear people complain that he doesn’t visit them enough even though these same people keep him at a distance. They do not allow the pastor to get close to them and then blame him for it. Codependent churches will not risk intimacy with God, with their pastor, or with one another. They are often marked by very reserved and controlled worship services.”
If you are still unsure whether you are in a codependent church, use the list below to review 20 signs of codependency. Ask yourself, “Are these true about me, my pastor, or groups of people in our church?” What would it take for your church to be more respectful of the individual people in the church? How can your church better encourage individual responsibility before God? How can your church respect the pastor’s (or elders’) authority under God without giving in to controlling behaviors?
Pastor, look over this list and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal any codependent attitudes in your heart. What boundaries do you need to establish to be free of the controlling people in your church? What do you need to do to allow others the freedom to be responsible for themselves? How can you fight over-responsibility by relying on the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives?
- Low self-esteem
- Low levels of narcissism
- Familial dysfunction
- Low emotional expressivity
- Having a hard time saying no
- Having poor boundaries
- Emotional reactivity
- Always feeling compelled to take care of people
- A need for control, especially over others
- Trouble communicating honestly
- Fixating on mistakes
- A need to be liked by everyone
- A need to always be in a relationship
- Denying one’s own needs, thoughts, and feelings
- Intimacy issues
- Confusing love and pity
- Fear of abandonment