Codependent Churches – a Major Barrier to Change

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People who grow up with an alcoholic parent know there is a problem but no one is allowed to talk about it. The elephant is in the room but no one can name it. Everyone dances around it. When visitors come by we have tremendous pressure to make the unhealthy things look healthy and put the best face on it. They tidy up, put away the beer bottles, hide things under the bed, until the guest leaves. Then everything goes back to “normal” which isn’t a good thing. The reality is things weren’t as tranquil as you pretend they are when the guests are around. But it would be too painful to let them in on reality.

It is time to put the big issue on the table. Hang with me because it isn’t going to feel good but it has to be said. I say this out of love. Buckle up, walk away for a minute if you have to but hear me out.

There are a lot of similarities between alcoholic homes and many of our churches. We know there is a problem but we aren’t allowed to name it. But until we do actually name it we will never escape it or be free of our deepest issues.

What is the addiction?

Our addiction is the addiction to our own rightness and righteousness and the exclusion of others from being in that circle.

Our addiction to being right is the root cause of our inability to embrace change. Please think on that for a few minutes before reading further and tell me if I am wrong on this.

We have codependent churches. Codepencies is someone who is not okay unless the other person is okay. So the alcoholic is not okay without the alcohol and everyone else tiptoes around to make sure they are okay or else they will rage out to keep things they way the alcoholic is comfortable with. Everyone orbits around the person and their issue.

Codependent churches are afraid to offend anyone.

Codependent churches don’t challenge people.

Codependent churches are places where people aren’t allowed to question anything: scripture or tradition (because even the tradition is the only way to do it and our take on scripture is a lock on the truth).

People aren’t allowed to question the doctrine, even though questions are healthy and part of the learning process. It creates suspicion, in my opinion that there is something else going on under the surface that no one is saying out loud. If you are new to Churches of Christ it is like being the guest in the alcoholic house and picking up that something isn’t right but you can’t quite put your finger on it. If you have grown up here it is like being the child of an alcoholic and this is all you have known and assume it is like this everywhere else. It isn’t.

There is our codependence. Don’t talk about it. Maintain the status quo. Don’t question it. If your friends come to your house, don’t let them see the bottles in dad’s office. Shut the door, tidy up and then let them in…then back to life as usual when your friend leaves (which isn’t always as pleasant as you made it look).

Have you ever wanted to invite a friend to church but were too worried over what might be preached or taught to actually invite someone? But then never questioned those things that are so offensive or challenged them? You are codependent with your church culture.

The inability to be questioned really makes our doctrine seem frail, not robust if we are so worried about scrutiny. (I like our doctrine in its best form, that is why I am still here – just so you know where I am coming from).

There is an elephant in the room and no one is allowed to talk about it. The system is maintained, just like in an alcoholic home, that if you bring up making things better people explode in rage. You have seen people do it. Maybe you have done it.

Maybe you are doing it right now! Are you?

There is an old story line of the villain who is to remain nameless (Monstro from Pinocchio, Voldemort from Harry Potter, etc). The name is spoken only in dread. But until we man up and speak the name we remain in the grip of the issue. That means you have to be willing to have people rage on you in order to put your finger on the problem, put it in the open and find resolution and reconciliation over it.

You have seen this:

Pass communion from the back? How dare you.

Leave out a scripture reading? Get ready for an explosion and people walking out the door.

Don’t do the invitation? We might miss someone, even though no one ever comes forward. Now we aren’t “sound.”

You get the point.

Our rage keeps the system in place because we have been told this is the only system that makes God happy. We are right, those with other systems are wrong. Keep the system going or go to hell. How much more justified can you be in your rage, right? Keeping the system in place is keeping us going to heaven – so change is akin to being lost because we are addicted to the idea of our own rightness, which inoculates us from change, which keeps us from being healthy, which keeps us from freedom in Christ.

This is a huge problem.

This has everything to do with discipleship.

We can’t do it because Boston did it and look what happened there.

We can’t do it because we tried that before (sermon series) and nothing changed.

We can’t do that because the denominations do that.

On and on…keep the system in place. Don’t name the elephant. Challenge this and face rage. Lose your job. It has to change.

It will never change until we name the elephant and repent of keeping it alive so long.

There is power in naming our problems. Like Jesus asking for the demons’ name, Legion, we need to name these things openly. Repent of them. Find a better, more biblical way forward.

I even hesitate to write this because these things aren’t to be named and it puts me at risk to say it. But it needs to be said. We can’t and won’t move forward with effective discipling until we address this. Sure we can teach on it. We can preach on it. We can mentor people – but this nameless thing will still loom over us.

So your choice is do you take up stones against me or lay them down and acknowledge our complicity in this, if you have been truly complicit. I know I have been.

This post is part of a series:
Co-dependent Churches – A Major Barrier to Change
Church Co-dependency & Naming the Elephants: Tradition
Church Co-dependency & Naming the Elephants: Fellowship
Church Co-dependency Characteristics


18 Responses

  1. You are correct, it is easy to see that alcoholism is destroying everything around you, except when you are drunk, in the case of self-righteousness you believe you have God on your side, drunk on power, and it actually appears to be a blessing and everyone else is on the path destruction. The bigger delusion is thinking that as a church you are righteous, but as an individual you are not and thinking thst because you go to the right church, you are righteous. We believe that we deserve grace through our church.

  2. Thank you, Matt for the love & courage to name the problem/issue. Jesus is bigger than what we call the church of Christ, though I love what I call the church of Christ! I need to love Jesus much more than the church of Christ. He is bigger than any religion, including Christianity, because He is our Lord, our God. Thank you for re-focusing us on Him, and Him alone!

  3. Say the words. I appreciate Peter, for having the courage (or what we interpret sometimes as lack of judgement) when he sometimes asked ‘stupid questions’ – but at least he was asking, engaging, interacting, following actively. Even when he realized his awfulness in the post rooster crow interaction with the risen Jesus, he was at least present. Jesus is always approachable. Am I? Is ‘my’ door open? Am I out talking with people who some won’t even see? Did I invite Judas to my table with the party of others? I can risk it (but – will I? Jesus help me.)

    1. Missy and I were in a restaurant in downtown St. Pete and one of the customers said bye to one of the servers and called her the wrong name. He apologized profusely for getting it wrong. I thought, wow, how many people even try to call people by their first name? Get it wrong…but you tried because you cared!

  4. It is because we can only see two approaches to any issue, it is either hot or cold, sheep or goats. Nadab and Abihu and Uzzah are our poster children for how we have to be absolutely correct on everything or we risk destruction. If we suggest that there is leeway on any matter then we are no longer the true children of God. I have heard sermons that I would be embarrassed to have my neighbors hear, I have been called into meetings with the elders for daring to ask the wrong question, I have been unfriended because I “liked” a post on Wineskins. I have heard I Corinthians referred to as “Paul’s letter to the church of Christ at Corinth.” The mindset is that we are part of an unbroken chain going back to the apostles, we have always been faithful and to question anything now is to sacrifice losing that connection.

  5. You are absolutely right, and although I learned about codependency at Celebrate Recovery, which is hosted at our congregation on Thursday evenings, I had never made that connection to the tendency of many churches to cling to what are merely traditions of the church rather than what God says in scripture. Yes, I remember the Boston movement, and even had someone tell me years ago that we shouldn’t use PowerPoint presentations because the churches that went into the Boston movement often used that technology. What a shame that that individual has such a narrow view of the right and wrong way to teach others in a group setting. Technology isn’t going away, and can be used to teach God’s word effectively. It’s just a tool. It’s pretty much a modern adaptation of the flannel graph lessons I saw as a child. BTWwe no longer attend that congregation.

    1. Part of our issue is our idea about authorization – what is and isn’t authorized and why. Thank you for sharing some of your story!

  6. You are accurate. You also were expected to keep the old fights going. Newer generations don’t really want to fight old battles for another 30 years. We saw the amount of energy expended by earlier generations, the large number of sermons wasted, the hours spent discussing the fight, the friendships lost over the issue, and merely chose not to go there. Then we got criticized for not wanting to continue what got us here in the first place.

  7. I am 64 years old and have been in the church for 34 years. Your article mirrors many others that speak in generic terms, but is void of specifics; unless you consider your remarks regarding worship order or when to serve communion, which, in my opinion are quite trivial. Those comments do not serve to enhance your message. I doubt that people are reluctant to invite others to their church because of those things. Now, on the other hand, it may be true in some instances that what is taught may cause members to be reluctant to invite. Hence, specifics. I would like to hear from your followers and/or yourself just what kind of messaging is in play here. Why would someone who attends a particular house of worship continue to do so when they would not consider inviting anyone from their family or social circle. Let’s get into the weeds instead of hovering over it.

    1. Tony, praise God you have to ask. Here are a couple examples: denominational bashing and claiming , “If you are not a member of The Church of Christ you are going to hell.” You can attend my church but I can’t attend your church with you because I would be supporting “error.” (If you have never heard this or experienced this, you are a blessed man.)

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