The Epidemic of Codependent Christianity

There are two primary accusations brought against Christians today: hatred and hypocrisy. Over the past year, though, I’ve come to see the apparent hypocrisy and hatred (or bigotry, as many people put it) as occasional symptoms of a much deeper problem, a disease that is rotting out the heart of modern Christianity: codependency.

Codependency is when the center of gravity in someone’s life is unhealthily oriented towards another person or group of people. A codependent’s energy, sense of self, motivation, are no longer generated internally from an authentic and healthy place, but from their entanglement with someone else. Codependency can manifest itself in a variety of ways: it can be pitiful, whimpering, caught up in a rescue fantasy, or it can be domineering, unyielding, ruling over others with an iron fist. A codependent either tries to find a higher power in another person, or tries to be that other person’s higher power. Sometimes both. No matter how it manifests itself, though, the heart of codependency is always the same: a desperate obsession over another that blocks authentic self-care and growth, and an all-consuming need to control other people.

I know all this because I myself am a recovering, raging codependent and, as is the case with alcoholics, it takes one to know one. When I look at American Christianity, I no longer see the hateful, bigoted, hypocritical monsters we’re all told the church is. I see a church torn apart by codependency.

It starts early, I think. In a myriad of ways, codependency is intravenously fed to us from our first days in the Christian world. A common theme in the lives of codependents is not being free to be honest or authentic as a child. Many codependents were raised in settings where they had to control the environment, and themselves, in order to feel safe. This is particularly true for children like me, who had to hide our gay feelings to feel safe, but nearly everyone experiences this to a tremendous degree in church. Church is not safe for children to be the messy, sexual, confused, beautiful people they are, and that hiding can create a lifelong habit of controlling others.

We are also taught that there is a dangerous “other” (gays, progressives, liberals, feminists, whatnot) that threatens our world, and we must fight against this other, convert this other, or be destroyed. Soon, we are no longer defined by our own joy, passion, and love, but by our response to this “other”. As the old criticism goes, we are not known for what we are for, but what we are against, and this is because we, as a church, do not have a solid sense of self. We do not have an identity outside of the “other” that we are afraid of and are trying to control.

And then there is evangelism. I was a missionary in YWAM (Youth With a Mission) as a young adult, and the whole experience was an exercise in codependency. In this traditional, evangelical setting, all of our grief and joy was based on manipulating others to agree with our theological position in an effort to save their souls. There was little trust involved – little understanding that we can’t control what others believe, we cannot manipulate, we cannot cajole. There was no breaking of bread in peace because we are all children of God, unable to manipulate one another, but only free to trust God with each other’s lives. We children on the mission field failed to see that we could only work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, and then – and only then – speak from the authentic place built up in our hearts. But we had no authentic place in our hearts, because it was all built on saving others.

So now great swaths of the American Christian world is a codependent nightmare full of anxiety: a world where pastors try to control their congregation, from how to dress to how to vote, where Doctor Dobson teaches parents how to manipulate and control their children, where Tony Perkins and numerous others compel us to control the LGBT world and those who do not share our beliefs. We try to control governments, schools, “nonbelievers”, children, and one another. Our identity is built upon that need to control – without it we have very little sense of self, no mystical center. We have little trust in the God we profess to follow to care for us and the world we all share.

Codependency is different from genuine helping and caring. But, in this day and age, I don’t think the American church can tell the difference. The great tragedy here is twofold: the Christian world loses their sense of authentic self, and codependency ends up hurting everyone: those who wield it, and those who are victims of it. When it comes to codependency, nobody gets out alive.

The way forward, for me, has been to turn my gaze from the church and the world, and to myself. I cannot control others – I am powerless over them. I can only treat my own fear, and my need to control, and trust God with the rest. I can speak with truth and passion and conviction, but I cannot rebuild a broken church. I can, however, work with God to rebuild myself, and that might be the most important and redemptive step any of us can take.

 

  1. “Convert this other.” Yes. This.
    The problem with people who are different than me *must* be that they are not [true] Christians. If they were truly transformed by the Spirit, then they would think, believe, and act just like me…you know…a sincere Christian.

  2. Another thought-provoking & honest critique, Stephen. I appreciate & respect your writing & you. And, yes, I agree that the only salvation I can work on is my own. Unsolicited proselytizing often glides too close to judgment. Only God knows the hearts of men and women. And, actions speak louder than words.
    Keep writing!

  3. Two questions:

    1. What do you see as the difference between co-dependency and a genuine desire to help another person or situation? I have a friend who I have made a deep commitment to help which I can see that others might interpret as “co-dependency”, but I don’t see it that way. What do you think are the haw-marks of a genuine and wholesome commitment to another person and “co-dependency”?

    2. You seem to advocate a kind of retreat from the world. You seem to imply that we should not get involved with any external perceived threat, but only concern ourselves with the state of our own soul. Now Plato advocates something along these lines somewhere in Republic; but it is clear there that he proposes this not as a grand scheme or as a defence against some kind of psychic illness – “co-dependency” – but as a sorrowful recognition of the fact that politics is a forlorn enterprise. The adage “all that evil requires to triumph is that good men do nothing” comes to mind.

    Admitedly, I have given up advocating for a return to “Catholic Order” within the Church. My position now is that – as I have been providentially granted a comfortable spiritual and liturgical sinecure – the rest of the Church can “go hang”. I feel that I have done what I can to witness that – in the words of one of the Garabandal girls – “Many cardinals, bishops and priests are leading the fauithful to perdition” and now I must have a primary concern for the health of my own soul.

    1. These are very important questions – some that I’ve spent many hours thinking and talking about. I will try to give a brief outline of my thoughts.

      1. Codependancy is very hard to define sometimes, but for me it comes down to caretaking vs. caring and doing for others what they are only able to do for themselves. Sometimes, feeding themselves is not something others can do, so we must do it for them. Sometimes, working through horrible feelings is something people can’t do, and they need help.

      Caretaking is a very different enterprise. It involved not just caring but an obsessive controlling. It isn’t just meeting needs the person cannot meet, but doing so without boundaries and then trying to meet all the other needs as well. It involves not just meeting needs but failing to empower others to take care of themselves. It is also an inability to take care of one’s self at the expense of others.

      Changing someone’s mind, drug addiction, or behavior is not something we can do. We can speak our mind, do what we can, and then take care of ourselves. What it does not mean is to stop loving people or being present to them – it simply means understanding our limitations.

      2. I think I have quite the different approach – that the best way to deal with a perceived threat is to be as healthy as I can, and to seek first transformation within my own soul. Only within that process can I change the world. It is less about retreat, and more about engagement. Nor do I believe that this should happen in isolation – it must happen in the context of some sort of community. Mindful detachment is a paradox – I find that it helps us engage more deeply in the suffering of the world.

      I think you have summed it up well in your final paragraph. You have done what you can, will continue to do what you can, but cannot control others. All that’s left is to tend to your own soul.

  4. The organization we call church is broken. You are right, it does seem it is more about being against something rather than being for things that show the love of Christ. When we say church, whether we mean a religious organization, or what Church truly is, a community of people who love God and love others, we should see a group of people who are loving, accepting and caring. Yet in our world, we see so much arguing and disagreeing it is no wonder there are so many thousands of different denominations. We who follow Jesus, the Church, are to be known for our love for one another, not just people who believe alike, but for all people. Everyone should feel the love and acceptance of God. Everyone should be cared for and accepted no matter who they are or what they believe, and this should be genuine, not for the sake of manipulation and control.

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