Codependency is a term I first became familiar with in the 1980’s when discussing treatment of alcohol and drug addiction. In that context, it referred to a family member or spouse connected to someone with an active substance abuse problem.
The term “codependency” refers to the adjustment that a family member would make in their life to accommodate the addict’s dependency on substances. The two processes would be parallel: the addict’s life would deteriorate around their substance use and the codependent would over-function to compensate in some way for the addict’s bad behavior.Typically, the codependent would look like the hero, trying to save the poor addict from him/herself. I used to ask myself, “How can this be a bad thing?” As we will see in this paper, codependency robs the addict of important growth opportunities and leaves the codependent deceived about their motives for helping.
At their root, a codependent is addicted to control as much as the addict is addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Addiction to substances is an extreme problem that highlights the dynamic between the codependent and the addict. It can also give us great insight into understanding what healthy boundaries in the church look like. Within the church, the Bible teaches we are all addicts in some shape or form. The apostle Paul says in Romans 6:17, “though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.”
The church is composed of addicts who are learning to become slaves to the Holy Spirit, instead of their sinful natures. God’s plan to help people grow in a pattern outside of their former “addictions” is in the church relationship. The New Testament is full of “one another” direction aimed at God’s expectation that Christians help each other grow and mature in their faith. Some examples of the directions include: encouraging, restoring, teaching, training, rebuking, admonishing, and reminding. These are all great things if they result in a church member being more reliant on God versus a person.
When you look at a codependent church member’s life, you will find many socially appealing qualities. Hardworking, caring, dependable, and super responsible for the well-being of others. At face value, these seem like qualities we should see among all church members all the time. However, as Jesus taught, a tree is known by its fruit. I have seen ministry staff and lay leaders work themselves into stress-related illnesses showing everyone how much they care.
Jesus gets the heart of the matter of this issue in Matthew 25:9 in the Parable of the Ten Virgins. When the foolish ones run out of oil and try to get some from the wise ones, they reply, “No, there may not be enough for both of us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” The point being, Christians are ultimately responsible for getting their own oil and it has never been God’s expectation that another person serve as a source of fuel for someone’s faith. God would say the codependent who gives their oil away to someone who didn’t invest in preparing their life for Him is a fool.
Holy Spirit versus Depending on Flesh
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord’” (Jerimiah 17:5). This passage makes things clear. God wants to be the church’s primary dependency for strength, not a person.
An old saying about the Christian life amplifies this point as well: “The Christian life is just one beggar showing another beggar where to get some bread.” A good principle to decide if you are helping someone in their walk is to ask, “Am I trying to be their bread (strength) or just trying to show them where to get some?” A good follow up question would be, “Now that I have shown them, are they taking steps to feed themselves or are they depending on me?”
The apostle Paul says in Philippians 2:12, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” James says in James 1:2-3, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
James goes on to say in verse 5, “If any of you lacks wisdom (related to the trial), you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault.” These passages just give us a glimpse of the redemptive process that God orchestrates through trials that teach a person to seek Him out through difficulty. Sometimes it seems easier (and more gratifying) just to tell someone what to do.
Taking responsibility for doing the thinking for someone communicates the underlying message, “You’re too weak or stupid to figure things out yourself.” I am not saying there is not a time when people need to be corrected or instructed in the error of their ways. The issue is more of the helper’s attitude toward growth. Am I going to give this person a fish or teach them to fish?
Taking the extra time in counseling someone to seek God first in a trial could make the difference between a codependent relationship and a spiritual one. Asking questions like, “Have you prayed about this issue or would you like me to pray about this issue with you for wisdom?” “What does this passage of Scripture mean to you?” or “Have you searched the Scriptures for answers on this issue?” might be good faith-building questions to ask.
The goal of a healthy spiritual relationship in church is to encourage and inspire each to grow in Christ. Making oneself the lawgiver brings some inherent spiritual problems.
When Job’s friends could no longer handle the theological issues raised by Job’s struggles, they went from pointing him toward God to taking God’s place. They assumed the position of being able to judge sin by default, which was not their role. They did not understand what God was doing in the situation and assumed they knew best.
Codependency ultimately robs people of the experiences that they need to go through to learn how to depend on God.
Motives of the Codependent
“What a person desires is unfailing love; better to be poor than a liar.” – Proverbs 19:22
“One who is full loathes honey from the comb, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” – Proverbs 27:7
These Proverbs are some of my favorites because they deal with different ways people cover up their love hunger. The first one addresses our need for unfailing love (which doesn’t come from people) and how we might substitute it for something like money to be secure.
The next one talks about the person who does not have a sense of being “filled,” so they are more likely to subsist on a bad meal rather than something more sustaining. Both of these passages describe the motives of the codependent: covering up a hunger for love with something else and getting strength from something less than God provides.
Because we live in a fallen world, we all come from dysfunctional families in the sense that we don’t leave our families from childhood with all our love needs being met.
To a greater or lesser degree, our unmet love needs amount to an injury to our sense of worth and value. Individuals who are more prone to codependency are often looking for a predictable way to feel a sense of value that was lacking in their background.
Church can become the perfect environment to prove your worth. The church environment always has more work than workers, making the codependent outwardly a shining star. Being needed, having a position for people to admire them, and working tirelessly become the golden calf of self-worth.
To be a secure, mature adult I would argue that a person must experience “unearned” love that is not dependent on their performance. Ultimately, this is the atmosphere in which God envelops the church through Christ to help its members grow.
Codependency runs counter to true abiding in God’s unconditional love. It is an effort to control what others think or feel about us through rigorous engagement in socially acceptable “church” behaviors. The motives we bring to acts of service in church can either be fueled by a gratitude toward God or a hidden self-reliance to feel worthy.
When Jesus was questioned by His disciples about religious leaders who depended on outward behavior more than reliance on God’s love, He said, “Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). When we are fueled by a sense of God’s unconditional love we naturally stick to our sphere of influence, getting our worth from Him. We don’t try to usurp what God is doing in someone’s life by getting them to depend on a person for strength.
Church Culture: Dependency vs. Interdependency
A healthy church culture of interdependency is guaranteed by fixing its eyes on Jesus and His leading style, which did not foster codependency. Dozens of times throughout the Gospels, Jesus asked questions of His disciples and listeners.
To name just a few:
- Why are you so afraid? (Matthew 8:26)
- Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
- Who do you say I am? (Matthew 6:15)
- Why then is it written that the Son of man must suffer much and be rejected? (Mark 9:12)
- Do you want to get well? (John 5:6)
For a man with all the answers, He asked a lot of questions. This style of leading implied that Jesus encouraged others to search their minds, their thoughts, to understand their own perspective rather than be in a codependent relationship where Jesus does all the thinking and doing.
As we implement the “one another’s” of Scripture, we must remain focused on our roles to be resourceful, not the resource. Though Jesus came into the world to be the source of salvation, He called us to be resourceful by pointing people to a relationship with God. Our only dependent relationship should be vertical toward God, while our horizontal relationships should be interdependent as we all maintain our primary dependence on God.
In mentoring a young minister, an older minister gave this wise counsel: “The main thing you will give your congregation – just like the main thing you will give God – is the person you become.”
In recovery circles, we say “You can only do one recovery at a time…. your own.” This is a powerful principle. In becoming interdependent, we must remain fully aware of our own story, our own journey, and reflect to others what God is doing in our lives.
Another recovery principle used in addiction groups is the “I.” “me,” and “my” rule. To avoid people trying to codependently “fix” others and get out of touch with themselves, no one in the recovery process is allowed to lecture another or give away advice.
Instead the power of groups is their testimonies of what is working for them personally in their recovery. As Christians, this is a humbling and grounding principle to hold onto in our efforts to influence each other – that is, allowing our own spiritual stories to be that which serves and helps others embark on their own.
In conclusion, to be helpful is a natural, God-given ability that any human made in God’s image can possess. Yet, with all perfect gifts from God, we can use them to lift ourselves up instead of Him. In this way, the blessing ends up becoming a curse for both the messenger and the hearer. Healthy help has to be that which leads people back to their Creator God, not a created man.
Interdependency in the church means we need people to support, encourage, and train us to deepen our dependency on God. It can seem more expedient to just give people all your answers when they are seeking help. If Jesus Himself cultivated the attitude that He was not equal with God, how much more so should we be careful on the position we take when helping others in the church.
“Help,” courtesy of Cristian Newman, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Depend,” courtesy of Anita Peeples, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bicycle ride,” courtesy of Sabina Ciesielska, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Scripture,” courtesy of Aaron Burden, unsplash.com, CC0 License