Bullying, abuse and the problem of co-dependency

I’ve been writing a few articles in response to #MeToo #ChurchToo and recent high profile cases of abusive church leadership. Here I want to write a little more about abusive relationships and how they form.

First of all, two quotes from Hannah, or communities and families worker from our twitter account.

“Abusers are difficult to deal with because they do not see themselves as abusive -more often than not they are the heroes in their stories.”

“Abusers thrive because they m

anipulate those around them, frequently forming friendships with people who are weaker to gain personal credibility and strength. People are often afraid of them so they get away with things.”

Notice two things.  First of all, the problem of self-awareness. The abuser is often not aware that they are the villain in the story, they think they are the hero, rescuer, good-guy.  This is generally true of sin, like David after his sin against Bathsheba we need our prophet Nathan to come and tell us “You are the man/woman.”  We find it so easy to deceive ourselves.  True repentance must start with a complete awareness of our responsibility for our actions and their affect.  However, there is an additional factor here which is that whilst there are many people who start out in sin with malicious intent, caring only about themselves and being willing to harm and destroy for their own benefit, there are many people who do not.  The Old Testament recognises two types of sin, the first is high handed, malicious, intentional but there are also sins that are referred to as unintentional, sins of wandering, sins through neglect.  I think one of the problems we have as evangelical Christians is that we have not paid enough attention to the latter in our thinking and in our pastoral care. We divide the world into monsters/sinners and “good-guys.” If something goes wrong then we suspect people’s motives but also once we discover that their intention was good, we lose interest in the consequences of their actions and their continuing responsibility for them.   I intend to write a little more about this later.

Secondly, Hannah quite rightly highlights the way that the abuser relies on developing relationships and using their power and personality to bat away challenge and accountability.  Indeed, within an abusive relationship, abuser and victim may live in a story where they are alone in a world with enemies on the outside seeking to destroy their relationship. The very people who are concerned for the victim, want to help and are in a position to (family members, other church members, people in authority) are seen as enemies.

Put those things together, the power of relationships and the potential for things to become abusive, even when there wasn’t malicious intent at the start and we identify a particular problem to be alert to. That problem is  perhaps best described as “co-dependency.”

Technically, co-dependency is what happens when someone who is vulnerable, this may be due to a number of factors such as emotional health and addiction develops a relationship with someone else who continues to enable their dependency on their addiction. 

However, the relevance here is that when there is co-dependency, it also means that both parties in the relationship are dependent on one another in an unhealthy manner.  The weaker, vulnerable person is dependent upon the stronger party for help. This may include practical help including financial support, a roof over their head, food, clothing, lifts, work around the house etc.  It may also include spiritual help and guidance.  The problem for them is that they become solely dependent upon the helper. They do not learn to depend on Christ and cling to him. Furthermore, they are also disempowered becoming helpless and not being able to function and think for themselves.

At the same time, the stronger party is in fact dependent upon the weaker. They have took the role of rescuer but in fact they are looking to the vulnerable person to save them.  They may not need practical help or advice but they do need emotional sustenance and they get that from feeling needed and from the praise, thanks and trust they get from the other person.

This can happen in relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends. It can also happen in churches and particularly in churches where there is a belief that the church is divided into those who are competent (because of race, class, gender, Christian maturity) and those who are helpless. Leaders and senior church members come to see themselves as there to rescue others and those people become dependent on them.

How do we guard against this? Here are a few thoughts.

  1. We need genuinely plural leadership and accountability. I will return to this later.
  2. We need to be alert to our own weaknesses. It is important that we recognise that need to be needed and for praise from others in ourselves.  We need to encourage one another to cling to Christ and depend upon him for satisfaction and delight.
  3. I wonder if we need to pro-actively teach and train on friendships and relationship.  Dare I throw out the suggestion that we should be concerned about how many church leaders in evangelical circles admit that they struggle with relating to others?  Do we have a problem when leaders are selected on the basis of their book knowledge and their ability to hold the attention of a large audience? Have we paid enough attention to Paul’s essential qualifications for elders and deacons which start with their ability to relate to others in their family?
  4. Leaders need to learn to be receivers and learners. We are disciples and members of the body first. Again, I will write more on this later. However, I believe it is so important that we take time to sit and listen to others preach or hear the thoughts of others in our home groups, to let church members pray for us, to accept practical help, to enjoy when a church member discovers an article or podcast they think will be helpful for us. We need to be teachable and correctable.
  5. We need to rediscover “body ministry.” Help is best expressed through the whole body of Christ rather than one or two individuals.

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