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The Daughters of Patriarchy: Codependency

It is a term that implies that we are dependent upon one another. How is this necessarily harmful? Of course we need others in our lives; we need interaction and relationship, wisdom and discourse. However, when these things are rampant within unhealthy, imbalanced, and ungodly environments, potentially very grave problems are allowed to fester. Wounds develop, which only the light of Christ can illuminate and heal.

A deeply religious, extremely conservative lifestyle fosters codependency like no other. Closely identified with enmeshment, it has always been a vague expression uttered by those in the mental health industry which, as I am sure we all learned, is inherently "anti-christ." "Christian psychologist? Bah! No such thing."

I am going to present an exhaustive amount of material that comes from many different sources. A few things I ask that you remember are these:
  • Not every symptom will be manifested in every person or situation.
  • Some of these concepts are promoted by those who do not necessarily hold a Christian worldview. If there is anything here that you recognize, that seems familiar or strikes a chord, note that symptom and take it before the Father who loves and ask that truth be revealed to you.
  • I myself am not a doctor, mental health professional, or anything other than a woman who has embarked upon a journey of grace, seeking the healing of Jesus from deep emotional and spiritual pain. Learning balance and becoming aware of the issues I raise {in other words, discovering the truth of the situation} has been a key element in seeking wholeness. For many years I had vague unrest, knowing there were things that were wrong, but unable to place my finger upon the precise element that was troublesome. God showed me that there is wisdom to be found in the experiences of others, and He has used these things to help me immensely. Each of us have relationships with Him that are deeply personal. I believe that this is intentional on His part, for He wants us to know that He loves us and wants us, as an individual soul, and yearns that we know Him in a way that is intimate and for us alone. So, as in everything that I write and present, please weigh the information here according to the heart of Almighty God, and Scripture.

What is it, why is it harmful, and how do we overcome it?

A codependent person is defined by Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, as "one who has let another person's behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behavior." Some codependents have an inherent need to be controlled by others instead. Often, codependent people are preoccupied with the opinions of others, and are overly concerned with what others might think.

All About Life's Challenges features information on Codependency which goes into a little more detail.

[Codependents] often feel tremendous guilt, responsibility or need to "fix" by controlling the actions of others, especially the one who owns the original problem. The codependent develops intense feelings and will try anything to make the family or relationship survive.

It's very common to "cover up" the behavior of their loved one; this is called enabling. By enabling, they are allowing the behavior to continue and cause avoidance of natural consequences. Codependents don't want to "rock the boat." They therefore are willing to do most anything just to keep peace. This too is where other family members learn to function in this manner creating the all too common "dysfunctional family."

The codependent will often accept blame for the situation. For instance, in a dysfunctional relationship the codependent will either accept or proclaim that "It's entirely my fault; it's because of something I did wrong."

This fits the source of dysfunction or dependent just fine since the person looks for others to blame for their actions. The dependent is denying, floundering, and usually very capable of using whatever means of escape possible. They are not beyond threats, coercion, or manipulation to avoid taking responsibility.

We don't have to struggle alone. God has not left us alone in our troubles; He wants to come alongside us and within us to help. His Spirit will empower us. The secret to a changed life, our own and our loved ones, is to submit to His control and let Him work.

Symptoms of codependency/codependent behavior

From All About Counseling:
  • controlling behavior
  • distrust
  • perfectionism
  • avoidance of feelings
  • intimacy problems
  • caretaking behavior
  • hypervigilance (a heightened awareness for potential threat/danger)
  • physical illness related to stress

Melody Beattie writes:
Codependency involves a habitual system of thinking, feeling, and behaving toward ourselves and others that can cause pain. Codependent behaviors or habits are self-destructive.

The following are characteristics of codependent persons: (We started to do these things out of necessity to protect ourselves and meet our needs.)

Care Taking

Codependents may
1. Think and feel responsible for other people---for other people's feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being, lack of well-being, and ultimate destiny.
2. Feel anxiety, pity, and guilt when other people have a problem.
3. Feel compelled --almost forced -- to help that person solve the problem, such as offering unwanted advice, giving a rapid-fire series of suggestions, or fixing feelings.
4. Feel angry when their help isn't effective.
5. Anticipate other people's needs
6. Wonder why others don't do the same for them.
7. Don't really want to be doing, doing more than their fair share of the work, and doing things other people are capable of doing for themselves.
8. Not knowing what they want and need, or if they do, tell themselves what they want and need is not important.
9. Try to please others instead of themselves.
10. Find it easier to feel and express anger about injustices done to others rather than injustices done to themselves.
11. Feel safest when giving.
12. Feel insecure and guilty when somebody gives to them.
13. Feel sad because they spend their whole lives giving to other people and nobody gives to them.
14. Find themselves attracted to needy people.
15. Find needy people attracted to them.
16. Feel bored, empty, and worthless if they don't have a crisis in their lives, a problem to solve, or someone to help.
17. Abandon their routine to respond to or do something for somebody else.
18. Over commit themselves.
19. Feel harried and pressured.
20. Believe deep inside other people are somehow responsible for them.
21. Blame others for the spot the codependents are in.
22. Say other people make the codependents feel the way they do.
23. Believe other people are making them crazy.
24. Feel angry, victimized, unappreciated, and used.
25. Find other people become impatient or angry with them for all of the preceding characteristics.

Low Self Worth

Codependents tend to:
1. Come from troubled, repressed, or dysfunctional families.
2. Deny their family was troubled, repressed or dysfunctional.
3. Blame themselves for everything.
4. Pick on themselves for everything, including the way they think, feel, look, act, and behave.
5. Get angry, defensive, self-righteous, and indigent when others blame and criticize the codependents -- something codependents regularly do to themselves.
6. Reject compliments or praise
7. Get depressed from a lack of compliments and praise (stroke deprivation)
8. Feel different from the rest of the world.
9. Think they're not quite good enough.
10. Feel guilty about spending money on themselves or doing unnecessary or fun things for themselves.
11. Fear rejection.
12. Take things personally.
13. Have been victims of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, or alcoholism.
14. Feel like victims.
15. Tell themselves they can't do anything right.
16. Be afraid of making mistakes.
17. Wonder why they have a tough time making decisions.
18. Have a lot of "shoulds".
19. Feel a lot of guilt.
20. Feel ashamed of who they are.
21. Think their lives are not worth living.
22. Try to help other people live their lives instead.
23. Get artificial feelings of self-worth from helping others.
24. Get strong feelings of low self-worth ---embarrassment, failure, etc...from other people's failures and problems.
25. Wish good things would happen to them.
26. Believe good things never will happen.
27. Believe they don't deserve good things and happiness.
28. Wish others would like and love them.
29. Believe other people couldn't possibly like and love them.
30. Try to prove they're good enough for other people.
31. Settle for being needed.


Many Codependents:
1. Push their thoughts and feelings out of their awareness because of fear and guilt.
2. Become afraid to let themselves be who they are.
3. Appear rigid and controlled.


Codependents tend to:
1. Feel terribly anxious about problems and people.
2. Worry about the silliest things.
3. Think and talk a lot about other people.
4. Lose sleep over problems or other people's behavior.
5. Worry
6. Never Find answers.
7. Check on people.
8. Try to catch people in acts of misbehavior.
9. Feel unable to quit talking, thinking, and worrying about other people or problems.
10. Abandon their routine because they are so upset about somebody or something.
11. Focus all their energy on other people and problems.
12. Wonder why they never have any energy.
13. Wonder why they can't get things done.


Many codependents:
1. Have lived through events and with people that were out of control, causing the codependents sorrow and disappointment.
2. Become afraid to let other people be who they are and allow events to happen naturally.
3. Don't see or deal with their fear of loss of control.
4. Think they know best how things should turn out and how people should behave.
5. Try to control events and people through helplessness, guilt, coercion, threats, advice-giving, manipulation, or domination.
6. Eventually fail in their efforts or provoke people's anger.
7. Get frustrated and angry.
8. Feel controlled by events and people.


Codependents tend to:
1. Ignore problems or pretend they aren't happening.
2. Pretend circumstances aren't as bad as they are.
3. Tell themselves things will be better tomorrow.
4. Stay busy so they don't have to think about things.
5. Get confused.
6. Get depressed or sick.
7. Go to doctors and get tranquilizers.
8. Become workaholics.
9. Spend money compulsively.
10. Overeat.
11. Pretend those things aren't happening either.
12. Watch problems get worse.
13. Believe lies.
14. Lie to themselves.
15. Wonder why they feel like they're going crazy.


Many codependents:
1. Don't feel happy, content, or peaceful with themselves.
2. Look for happiness outside themselves.
3. Latch onto whoever or whatever they think can provide happiness.
4. Feel terribly threatened by the loss of any thing or person they think proves their happiness.
5. Didn't feel love and approval from their parents.
6. Don't love themselves.
7. Believe other people can't or don't love them.
8. Desperately seek love and approval.
9. Often seek love from people incapable of loving.
10. Believe other people are never there for them.
11. Equate love with pain.
12. Feel they need people more than they want them.
13. Try to prove they're good enough to be loved.
14. Don't take time to see if other people are good for them.
15. Worry whether other people love or like them.
16. Don't take time to figure out if they love or like other people.
17. Center their lives around other people.
18. Look for relationships to provide all their good feelings.
19. Lost interest in their own lives when they love.
20. Worry other people will leave them.
21. Don't believe they can take care of themselves.
22. Stay in relationships that don't work.
23. Tolerate abuse to keep people loving them.
24. Feel trapped in relationships.
25. Leave bad relationships and form new ones that don't work either.
26. Wonder if they will ever find love.

Poor Communication

Codependents frequently:
1. Blame
2. Threaten
3. Coerce
4. Beg
5. Bribe
6. Advise
7. Don't say what they mean.
8. Don't mean what they say.
9. Don't know what they mean.
10. Don't take themselves seriously.
11. Think other people don't take the codependents seriously.
12. Take themselves too seriously.
13. Ask for what they want and need indirectly --- sighing, for example.
14. Find it difficult to get to the point.
15. Aren't sure what the point is.
16. Gauge their words carefully to achieve a desired effect.
17. Try to say what they think will please people.
18. Try to say what they think will provoke people.
19. Try to say what they hop will make people do what they want them to do.
20. Eliminate the word NO from their vocabulary.
21. Talk too much.
22. Talk about other people.
23. Avoid talking about themselves, their problems, feelings, and thoughts.
24. Say everything is their fault.
25. Say nothing is their fault.
26. Believe their opinions don't matter.
27. Want to express their opinions until they know other people's opinions.
28. Lie to protect and cover up for people they love.
29. Have a difficult time asserting their rights.
30. Have a difficult time expressing their emotions honestly, openly, and appropriately.
31. Think most of what they have to say is unimportant.
32. Begin to talk in Cynical, self-degrading, or hostile ways.
33. Apologize for bothering people.

Weak Boundaries

Codependents frequently:
1. Say they won't tolerate certain behaviors from other people.
2. Gradually increase their tolerance until they can tolerate and do things they said they would never do.
3. Let others hurt them.
4. Keep letting others hurt them.
5. Wonder why they hurt so badly.
6. Complain, blame, and try to control while they continue to stand there.
7. Finally get angry.
8. Become totally intolerant.

Lack of Trust

1. Don't trust themselves.
2. Don't trust their feelings.
3. Don't trust their decisions.
4. Don't trust other people.
5. Try to trust untrustworthy people.
6. Think God has abandoned them.
7. Lose faith and trust in God.


Many Codependents:
1. Feel very scared, hurt, and angry
2. Live with people who are very scared, hurt, and angry.
3. Are afraid of their own anger.
4. Are frightened of other people's anger.
5. Think people will go away if anger enters the picture.
6. Feel controlled by other people's anger.
7. Repress their angry feelings.
8. Think other people make them feel angry.
9. Are afraid to make other people feel anger.
10. Cry a lot, get depressed, overact, get sick, do mean and nasty things to get even, act hostile, or have violent temper outbursts.
11. Punish other people for making the codependents angry.
12. Have been shamed for feeling angry.
13. Place guilt and shame on themselves for feeling angry.
14. Feel increasing amounts of anger, resentment, and bitterness.
15. Feel safer with their anger than hurt feelings.
16. Wonder if they'll ever not be angry.

Sex Problems.

Some codependents:
1. Are caretakers in the bedroom.
2. Have sex when they don't want to.
3. Have sex when they'd rather be held, nurtured, and loved.
4. Try to have sex when they're angry or hurt.
5. Refuse to enjoy sex because they're so angry at their partner
6. Are afraid of losing control.
7. Have a difficult time asking for what they need in bed.
8. Withdraw emotionally from their partner.
9. Feel sexual revulsion toward their partner.
10. Don't talk about it.
11. Force themselves to have sex, anyway.
12. Reduce sex to a technical act.
13. Wonder why they don't enjoy sex.
14. Lose interest in sex.
15. Make up reasons to abstain.
16. Wish their sex partner would die, go away, or sense the codependent's feelings.
17. Have strong sexual fantasies about other people.
18. Consider or have an extramarital affair.


Codependents tend to:
1. Be extremely responsible.
2. Be extremely irresponsible.
3. Become martyrs, sacrificing their happiness and that of others for causes that don't require sacrifice.
4. Find it difficult to feel close to people.
5. Find it difficult to have fun and be spontaneous.
6. Have an overall passive response to codependency -- crying, hurt, helplessness.
7. Have an overall aggressive response to codependency -- violence, anger, dominance.
8. Combine passive and aggressive responses.
9. Vacillate in decisions and emotions.
10. Laugh when they feel like crying.
11. Stay loyal to their compulsions and people even when it hurts.
12. Be ashamed about family, personal, or relationship problems.
13. Be confused about the nature of the problem.
14. Cover up, lie, and protect the problem.
15. Not seek help because they tell themselves the problem isn't bad enough, or they aren't important enough.
16. Wonder why the problem doesn't go away.


In the later stages of codependency, codependents may:
1. Feel lethargic.
2. Feel depressed.
3. Become withdrawn and isolated.
4. Experience a complete loss of daily routine and structure.
5. Abuse or neglect their children and other responsibilities.
6. Feel hopeless.
7. Begin to plan their escape from a relationship they feel trapped in.
8. Think about suicide.
9. Become violent.
10. Become seriously emotionally, mentally, or physically ill.
11. Experience an eating disorder (over- or under eating)
12. Become addicted to alcohol or other drugs.

In “Codependency And Family Rules: A Paradoxical Dependency,” Robert Subby and John Friel offer this definition:

Co-dependency is a dysfunctional pattern of living and problem-solving which is kept in place by a set of the rules within the family system. These rules make healthy growth and change very difficult.

These rules are described by Subby and Friel as follows:

1. It's not okay to talk about problems.

2. Feelings should not be expressed openly.

3. Communications is best if indirect, with one person acting as messenger between the other two (triangulation).

4. Be strong, good, right, perfect. Make us proud. (Unrealistic expectations.)

5. Don't be “selfish.”

6. Do as I say, not as I do.

7. It is not good to play or be playful.

8. Don't rock the boat.
The dangers of codependent behavior, and how to heal

I will use religious codependency here as an example, but the principles outlined can be applied to many different situations.

Jeff VanVonderen writes a fantastic article on religious codependency that reveals much about its nature.
If you find a leader who is a religious addict–whose mood depends not only on the amount of his or her own religious activity but also on the amount of religious activity performed by the members of the congregation [or family]–then you can be sure there are some religious codependents in the neighborhood. Religious codependents may believe that their behaviors are a simple matter of devotion to God, to God’s people and to the leadership that God has appointed, just as codependents to alcoholics often vigorously defend their behaviors. But the real motivations are often much more complex. If I feel good only when the leader feels good, if I feel bad only when the leader feels bad, it’s probably for a reason other than being “committed and dedicated.” It’s probably some form of religious codependency. This is especially true if my need to please a leader [or even a father] leads to compromises in my own integrity, peace, rest, and “that sense of blessing I once had.” [emphasis mine]

There is a curious phrase in Jeremiah 5:31: “The prophets prophesy lies,/the priests rule by their own authority,/and my people love it this way.”
My people love it this way? How can that be? Well, I suppose one reason could be that some people prefer to not think, and so they are happy to have someone else do all their thinking for them. It is more likely, however, that some people in religious circles are happy only when they can be in control of spiritual things, even if their authority is a figment of their religious addiction and is not from God. And for every religiously addicted leader there is almost always a group of religiously codependent followers. There are people who are happy only when their spiritual leader is happy. This is not just dedication and commitment, no matter how vigorously the dysfunction is defended.

In the example of religious codependency, we see evidence that followers, or offspring, are not self-controlled, or working out their own salvation . . . things necessary for our walk with the Lord, in righteousness and holiness.

VanVonderen continues:
A second, related form of religious codependency results from serving a codependent God. Suppose for a moment that God has poor boundaries. Or that God spends his days in a frenzy, trying to get us to make the right choices. Or that God’s mood is completely dependent on the choices we make: happy when we make good choices, but sad when we make bad choices. Or suppose that God is full of resentments because he is always the one who has to solve the world’s problems. Or suppose that God is manipulative, trying to get things to work his way by using indirect and dishonest means. If we serve a Higher Power with any of these characteristics, we are probably in for a very troubled relationship. It is possible to serve a codependent God, but it is physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting.
If we were raised in an environment where codependency was common, we may gravitate to a “God” of this kind. This form of religious codependency is typically learned early in life. As young children many of us were taught that God’s mood was dependent on our behavior. If we did certain things, God was happy. If we did other things, God was sad. We were, apparently, powerful enough to be in charge of God’s mood! Now, does it make sense for a six- or seven-year-old child to be in charge of God’s mood? Clearly not. And what does it say about God? Does God have such poor boundaries that his mood will swing in response to my behavior? In spite of how little sense this makes, this distorted image of God leads many of us to tip-toe through our Christian lives, trying to do everything possible to prevent God from having a negative mood-swing. Because, after all, you know what happens if we do something that puts God in a bad mood. We are in deep trouble and are going to pay the price one way or another. We need to get up in the morning and look to see what God’s little flip sign says today. Is it “Today God is happy,” or “Today God is sad”? If the answer to that question determines the things we have to try harder to do, or not do, in his name today, we can be pretty sure that some element of religious codependency is involved.
Most Christians, of course, understand that their relationship with God involves dependency. We depend upon God for our needs, for our identity, for life itself. This is not a problem that needs to be solved. We are dependent on God. Unfortunately, however, many Christians have a difficult time distinguishing between a healthy dependence on God and an unhealthy dependence, or codependency. And that inability to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships is the vulnerability that makes religious codependency possible.

Moving Beyond Religious Codependency

If you find yourself stuck in religious codependency, here are a few ways to move forward. First, if your higher power is a religious addict or a codependent god, fire him. These gods do not deserve your worship or service. They have become what the Bible calls idols. You don’t negotiate with idols. You don’t compromise or make deals. You don’t hope for improvement in the future. Instead, you clean house. That’s what has to happen first: house-cleaning of all idolatrous attachments. Easy to say but difficult to do.
Second, get help. Most of us can’t make the necessary changes by ourselves. Religious codependency usually has very deep roots; most of us learned it very early. That means that the changes we need to make must not be superficial changes. They require major surgery. For example, we need to develop healthy boundaries in our relationship with God. If that sounds strange, or just plain wrong, well, that’s a hint of how deep the problem goes and how deep the healing needs to be. That means it’s important to find a therapist, sponsor, pastor or friend who understands these issues. This also is easy to say but sometimes difficult to do.
Third, expect the healing process to take some time. It will take time to find the resources you need. It will take time to become the kind of person who is capable of being honest about these issues. It will take time to grieve over the losses, betrayals and neglect that have helped cultivate the codependency.
Last, and perhaps most important, believe that recovery from religious codependency is possible. Codependency is learned behavior. That means it can be unlearned. It’s not easy to unlearn it. But it is possible, because God also wants a healthy, noncompulsive relationship with us. And that is good news.
--Jeff VanVonderen


In my humble observations, codependency perpetuates both deception and denial. These things do not originate from the Father of Truth. Do you have trouble saying no? How many times have you said "yes" to someone, when you knew that "no" would have been a healthier response? Jesus says, "Let your yes be yes, and your no, no. For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." This links the issues of boundaries, which we will discuss again in the future.

Codependency leads to idolatry. Even unintentionally, when we elevate other people, servanthood, and works of righteousness to places designed for God alone, we reap the fruits of serving that which isn't God. We recognized the destructive fruits of this at the beginning of this article.

Remember that the yoke, or burden, of Jesus is gentle and light. It is good to lay down our lives for others but we must do so in submission to God, not in submission to our fears, the opinions of others, or the ungodly demands of others. We must be able to separate bone from marrow, identifying our core motivations. Do we keep family peace because we feel we should? Because we feel more comfortable? Because it makes things easier? In doing so, do we enable the sin of others? Do we trust that God is able to work mightily, with or without our efforts?

I know intimately the struggles, the tensions, the tears that drive us to practice what is considered codependency. God is merciful, and knows our hearts and the pain that we feel; He sees the abuse, the offense, the lack of true righteousness that affects us.

I believe that the root of our codependent behavior is fear.

Fear that others will think we are ungodly.
Fear that we will be disliked or branded with hurtful labels.
Fear of pain.
Fear of neglect or abandonment.
Fear of stress and exhaustion.
Fear that God will not intervene.
Fear that we will walk "in the flesh".
Fear that we will be "disobedient".
Fear of verbal abuse.

I believe that one of the biggest keys to overcoming codependency lies in 1 John 4.

17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love Him because He first loved us.

Are we not deeply acquainted with the fear which involves torment? We must seek to be made perfect in love. Note the words: because as He is, so are we in this world. What a fellowship to have! As you face the situations that foster codependency in your relationships, facing the fear, the weariness, the torment, remember that Jesus is with you and has endured all kinds of abuse and abandonment . . . from the religious leaders of the land, as well as those closest to Him in His hour of deepest need.

In addition to love, faith is the key to victory over the things of the world, which includes sin, and our struggles with our own nature and the sinfulness of others.

1 John 5 4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

As you journey and begin to recognize and seek healing from codependent behavior, cling to your Source for wisdom, strength, and the love that you need. Allow yourself the grace to make mistakes without berating yourself, for while mistakes are deeply disparaged in many families, they are not so with God. He is patient and kind, drawing us towards Him with tenderness and love. You will learn much about yourself as you recover; more importantly, you will grow in your walk and relationship with God. It is worth every agonizing step.

The Daughters of Patriarchy: Spiritual Abuse

When I refer to Patriarchy, or Biblical Patriarchy, I indicate the imbalanced, unhealthy practice of what is more accurately termed by Karen Campbell to be patriocentricity. My ministry is to women—primarily adult daughters—who reap the distressing harvest of destructive fruits, which are brought forth from aberrant religious movements and practices.

A latent factor of every anomalous fundamentalist group is the issue of religious abuse. In Christianity, the misapplication, misinterpretation, and mishandling of both the Word of God and the people of God produce serious ramifications.

Spiritual abuse has gained widespread awareness as an alarming element within many churches. When pastors and other authorities coerce, manipulate, and control, using God and religion to promote their purposes, ensure desired behavior or performance, and cultivate dependency, this is considered abuse. Here I discussed unfortunate characteristics of spiritual abuse in the family: when fathers and mothers attempt to use the Bible, God, and aspects of religion to secure the obedience, compliance, precise behavior, and control of their offspring.

Today I would like to examine the effects that abuse in the name of God has upon the heart, mind, body, and soul of women.

Imago Dei

Before we begin, we must have a preliminary understanding of who we are as women. For the purpose of this article, and to establish what I believe, women are created in the image of God and have value and worth as beings who bear His likeness and possess soul, intellect, emotion, will, and breath. I believe that there is no distinction in Christ between male nor female, and that we as Christian women have a direct relationship with God through our High Priest, Jesus,
who gave Himself as a sacrifice for us so that we might receive salvation and eternal life.

We are image-bearers of the Most High, responsible for seeking truth, maintaining our walk with Him, and working out our own salvation—which He has entrusted to us, for no other human is able to accept Christ on our behalf. This fact has inherent elements we cannot ignore:
  • the joy of intimacy with the Creator of our soul—a relationship in which we can know God, who teaches us truth, communicating with Him directly through the priesthood of His Son
  • our own proclamation of Jesus to the world around us through our lives, words, choices, and beliefs
  • the responsibility to discern what is righteous and true
  • the responsibility to actively pursue truth and righteousness
  • the upkeep and deepening of faith, for we cannot become apathetic believing that our works or the teachings of others save ourselves, or make us more holy
  • reverent fear, knowing that we answer to God alone for the choices we make and the way we live and believe; knowing He will hold us—not our pastor, parents, friends, mentors, teachers, leaders, husband, or children—accountable for our lives
Beloved, these things are both joyous gifts and solemn callings that God has bestowed upon us. May we be good stewards of such, and be found faithful and blameless at His coming.

The Aching Within

With an understanding of who we are as women of God, let us review some elements of spiritual abuse in the family, and how it effects us.

Spiritual abuse

According to David Henke, founder of Watchman Fellowship, typically an abusive religious system will have the following characteristics:

  • Undue Loyalty to Leaders - The leadership is held to be anointed by God and followers taught they should submit in anything it requires. It is taught that God will bless that submission even if the leader is wrong.
  • Authoritarian - The system is characterized by rules and a power structure that is unaccountable to those who follow.
  • Appearance is Everything - As Jeff VanVonderen says, "How things look is more important than what is real." (Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, page 130)
  • Perfectionistic - Works are necessary for salvation, to keep one's salvation, or to keep God's blessing.
  • Unbalanced - There is usually a majoring on minors that makes the group distinctive from others.
Drawing from the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Watchman suggests that spiritual abuse is inherently entwined with shame, which is another crippling, common factor within families who exhibit these traits—
In critiquing the ins and outs of spiritual abuse, one often finds that people have been hurt by legalism, authoritarian leadership, manipulation, excessive discipline, spiritual intimidation and much more.

Perhaps one could give a number of characteristics common to the problem and a lot of time given to the definition of "spiritual abuse," but instead of asking the WHAT questions, maybe a better understanding would come if the WHY questions are asked: Why do some people stay in abusive relationships? Or, why do they get into them in the first place? The authors of the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, suggest that people learn to be victimized, or are powerless by experiencing relationships that have either prepared them to be abused, or not prepared them to not be abused. Such relationships could be labeled as "shame-based" relationships.

"Shame-based relationships are relationships based on messages of shame: You are so weak and defective that you are nothing without this relationship. Shame becomes the glue that holds things together. It is the force that motivates people to refrain from certain behaviors and to do others" (p. 55).

If families, churches, or groups are shame-based, they are more than likely sending messages to their members that they are: "not loved and accepted; not even lovable or acceptable; only loved and accepted if, when, or because they perform well; not capable, valuable, or worthwhile; very alone, not really belonging anywhere, to anything, or with anyone" (p. 55).

On pages 56-59 of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, the authors list the following seven characteristics of shame-based relationships which will help explain why people are "caught up" in these abusive relationships:

1. OUT-LOUD SHAMING The dynamic: This is the "shame on you" that comes from belittling. It is any message communicated out loud that says, "Something is wrong with you."

The effects: Negative view of self, even self-hatred.

2. FOCUS ON PERFORMANCE The dynamic: How people act is more important than who they are. Love and acceptance are earned by doing or not doing certain things.

The effects: Perfectionism, or giving up without trying; view of God as more concerned with how you act than who you are; cannot ask for help; high need for the approval of others.

3. MANIPULATION The dynamic: Relationships and behaviors are manipulated by very powerful unspoken rules. Yet the unspoken rules communicate these and other shaming messages.

Coding: Messages are sent through a verbal code that others are supposed to decode. "Don't you think it would be better this way?" means, "I want you to do it this way."

Triangling: This means to send a message to someone through another person, instead of delivering it directly.

The effects: Great "radar" - the ability to pick up tension in situations and relationships; ability to decode messages; talking about people instead of to them; difficulty trusting people.

4. IDOLATRY The dynamic: The "god" served by the shame-based relationship system is an impossible-to-please judge. It is a god invented to enforce the performance standard.

The effects: Distorted image of God; high level of anxiety; high need to control thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others.

5. PREOCCUPATION WITH FAULT AND BLAME The dynamic: Reaction is swift and furious toward the one who fails to perform the way the system deems fit. Responsibility and accountability are not the issues here: Fault and blame are the issues.The shame-based system wants a confession in order to know whom to shame.

The effects: The sense that if something is wrong or someone is upset you must have caused it; a high need to be punished for or to pay for mistakes in order to feel good about yourself; difficulty forgiving self.

6. OBSCURED REALITY The dynamic: Members are to deny any thought that is different than those of people in authority. Anything that has the potential to shame those in authority is ignored or denied. Interaction with people and places outside the system threatens the order of things. Consequently, you can't find out what "normal" is. Problems are denied, and therefore they remain.

The effects: Out-of-touch with feelings, needs, thoughts; ignoring your "radar" because you are being "too critical;" feel like no one else understands you; threatened by opinions that differ from yours; suspicious or afraid of others.

7. UNBALANCED INTERRELATEDNESS The dynamic: Either under involved or over involved with each other. Consequently, rules take the place of people. There is no relationship structure in which to learn about behaviors and consequences. People find out about life alone and by accident.

The effects: Fear of being deserted; high need for structure; a sense that if there is a problem, you have to solve it; feeling selfish for having needs; putting up boundaries that keep safe people away; feelings of guilt when you haven't done anything wrong.

When evaluating the emotional foundation the shame-based systems create, it is clear that honesty and trust are undermined in the relationship. This can also hinder a person's maturing in a relationship with God. Codependence, or the dependence upon a person or group, can also grow in this type of shame-based system. Ultimately, a person can lose a correct perception of reality because the only reality that can be identified with is within a shame-based system.

The Family

When these components are present within the family structure—an institution that should be a place of spiritual safety, trust, and growth—it becomes morbidly toxic. No Greater Joy magazine recently printed an article describing some of the dangerous manifestations of patriarchal dysfunction (see page 2 of the article). When we compound these facets with spiritual abuse (as well as emotional, intellectual, and physical in many cases), we are left with a dizzying, chaotic, and deadly recipe for destruction.

As a reminder, I do not suggest ever that we do not need wise counsel, godly relationship, and input from those appointed by God to guide us. The ones I address have been abused by the misuse of authority—specifically, familial in nature. Lack of balance and humility, false representation of God and religious matters, and the fallen nature of mankind all gravely contribute to spiritual abuse. It is essential that we are surrounded by wise, balanced, and godly mentors and leaders who can help us to discern between truth and error, so that we can begin to seek healing for the hurts we sustain, and grow as Christians.

In the following excerpt from an article by Steven Lambert, ThD, note the terms I have added in brackets:
Exploitative abuse of authority occurring in groups [families] where these hyper-authoritarian systems of governance are instituted come in various shapes and shades, ranging from members [adult offspring] having to receive the approval (usually referred to as "witness") of their spiritual leaders [parents] to date and/or marry, to virtual sole dependence upon the supposed superior spirituality of group-gurus [father . . . sometimes described as prophet, priest, and king of the home within patriocentric circles] regarding every detail of their personal financial matters [daily lives, choices, beliefs, and futures] and requiring their leaders' [parents] approval for virtually every significant expenditure [choice, activity, plan]. Commonly, in these groups there is constant allusion to the members [adult children] as "dumb sheep"[unwise, not smart enough, still learning, easily deceived] who must be "led" [trained, controlled, restricted, guided] by the shepherds, [parents] ad nauseam. The definition of the term "led" in these groups is that the "dumb sheep" cannot trust their own judgment or ability to receive direction from the Lord for the important decisions of their lives, but must rely instead upon the transcendent wisdom and spiritual acumen of their "personal pastors"[fathers].

While it is tempting to argue that there cannot be accurate correlation between religious organizations and the individual family, I humbly submit that many who propagate the elements of this abuse believe—whether in word or in practice—that the institution of family is a complete, independent structure.

This leads us to the daughters of patriarchy.

Women and Spiritual Abuse

Daughters raised with parents who use God and the Bible to secure desired behavior will undoubtedly face myriad struggles until they are healed by the power of God. Everyone will respond differently to these issues; personality, birth order, degrees of influence outside the home, relationship with parents, and many other factors all contribute to the amplitude of obstacles and wounds.

Women brought up with patriocentric, dysfunctional and extra-biblical teachings will almost always encounter spiritual abuse. Moreover, it affects every element of her being. What I address are, in many instances, broad applications; please prayerfully seek the Lord and let His Spirit guide you into truth. If any of these matters impress you with a sting of familiarity or twinge of pain, pause to reflect and see if there is something the Lord wants you to discover. I am convinced that He wishes truth to be known by us so that we are able to heal from our afflictions, become whole, and live fully in Christ. Those of us who have long labored under the weight of our sorrows can come to Him for rest. His ministry is clear:

Luke 4:18

The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed.

Heart, mind, body, and soul

In an enlightening feature on domestic violence, the United States Department of Justice reveals the US government's position on abuses:
Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.

* Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair-pulling, biting, etc. Physical abuse also includes denying a partner medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use.

* Sexual Abuse: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner.

* Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual's sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one's abilities, name-calling, or damaging one's relationship with his or her children.

* Economic Abuse: Making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding one's access to money, or forbidding one's attendance at school or employment.

* Psychological Abuse: Causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, children, or partner's family or friends; destruction of pets and property; and forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work.

As followers of Christ, we should be exemplary in all things. If this is the standard of our government, shouldn't our own ideals be higher? For women, these devastating experiences inflict deep adverse impressions that can take a lifetime to overcome.


Jeremiah 17:9
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?

If you have been raised within a fundamentalist or extremely conservative home, it is quite likely that you have heard this verse used many times as a biblical way to disparage the expression of feeling and emotion. In this manner, spiritual abuse is inextricably linked to emotional abuse by using and proof-texting biblical passages to support extra-biblical concepts. To suggest that elements inherent to femininity are less spiritual and something to be disdained completely misrepresents Imago Dei.

I have written at some length regarding shame, here and here. Briefly, women with shame-based identities filter everything through a sieve of disgrace. They feel as though they never measure up, are never good enough. Wrought with shame, they see themselves utterly worthless, incapable of producing or being anything of value, beauty, or desire—to others or to God.

Spiritual abuse instills or reinforces these lies. For example, using religious means to accomplish their goals, perpetrators—in our case, parents—appeal to a daughter's desire to be pleasing and obedient by convincing her that God is only satisfied when she [insert behavior]. Or that she must keep trying and while she will never be perfect, she must never give up the effort.


Over time, those controlled by shaming methods become completely weary . . . often worn before life has truly begun. It takes copious levels of energy to maintain the struggle to fight the good fight while at the same time, endure depression, low-self-esteem, confusion, and every other negative by-product of shame, knowing all the while that God is displeased with the lack of [insert good emotion or practice].

Exhaustion and fatigue are common traits among many of the women I have consulted; spiritual exhaustion often naturally follows service to a demanding god peddled by those with misplaced faith. Remember: the True God is revealed through Jesus:
Matthew 11:25 At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. 26 Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. 27 All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. 28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

It is my contention that years and years of endless trying, labored effort, and the sense of never measuring up to established standards of biblical interpretation, family expectations, or the demanding requirements of a false or misjudged God, can contribute to the following concerns:
  • lack of motivation and/or drive
  • lethargy, apathy and malaise
  • chronic fatigue
  • depression
  • procrastination
  • poor follow through—whether with projects or plans, or relationships

Ironically, many women who have exhibited some of these traits are actually core perfectionists. Years of seeking love and approval from parents or God, through spiritual performance, has instilled a deep inner dissatisfaction with anything less than sublime.

Perfectionists are their own worst critics, knowing better than anyone their abhorrent flaws and inadequacies. These things pulse like a deafening roar in the ear, unabated until the savage drive is soothed—either by achieving excellence, which pacifies the unrelenting inner coercion, or through addiction, which numbs the compelling force within.

Addiction often materializes as zealous righteousness. Bible reading, prayer, dedication to church, and other disciplines can become acceptable drugs of choice within imbalanced lifestyles. Furthermore, many religious addicts become legalists and left unguarded, can begin to perpetuate the elements from their childhood home into their own.


As image-bearers of the Most High, we have been created to be in relationship with Him. This principle is within every soul; mankind will always have a need for peace and reconciliation with our heavenly Father, who formed us according to His likeness. When we are presented a false view of God, even unintentionally, I believe that our spirit will rage until we hearken—for the true God is a jealous God, who loves us and yearns that we may know Him fully. Some spend their lives placating this exigence with temporal things; others remain convinced that God does not exist at all. There are seekers who wander, yet never come home, and searchers who never finish their quest. This will continue for every soul who lacks unity with the Almighty.

A natural progression along the way of destruction is the slide into idolatry. An idol is anything from which we derive our source of life, other than God Himself. Just as satiating our inner needs with religious addiction becomes a form of mis-applied worship, so is serving any god who is not the Father of Jesus.

Spiritually abusive families tend to place emphasis on religious works, partiality, appearance, behavior, and the position of father as center. Preeminence is granted to biblical law and authoritarianism, rather than to relationship and grace. Women often bear the harshest brunt of this imbalance, for they are required in the name of godliness and biblical womanhood to assist in fulfilling the vision and worldview of their fathers. That topic is enough for another article, but incongruity is revealed as daughters are trained upon paths that lead not to life, but to death, not to freedom, but to burden, not to God, but to idols, not to grace, but to shame.

Co-dependency and fear

The mishandling of religion within the family fosters extreme enmeshment among individuals. Many patriocentrists frown bitterly upon autonomy, believing (due to rampant biblical proof-texting of verses like this, which promotes self-denial, or this, which teaches to hold others in high esteem) that it cultivates selfishness among one another. In actuality, Scripture teaches that we must be self-controlled; how can we be so, when our personal boundary lines are smudged, blurred, or non-existent?

Lack of boundaries, privacy, and proper training all generate dysfunction. When portions of the Bible are applied with an interpretation that cultivates fear, a child unwittingly becomes forced to depend even further upon her father. It literally becomes a matter of life or death when manipulation of behavior involves the use of God's name, for a daughter must essentially place her soul upon the line and trust in man. She must somehow trust that he who exerts control with authoritarian fervor is infallible enough to speak the language of eternity.

This may sound far-fetched, but subtle implications are readily apparent within many fundamentalist homes. Fear-based performance has little lasting, positive effect on the heart. Women can manifest extreme distrust of authority figures; worse, they can develop roots of bitterness towards God due to errant teachings. Daughters become convinced that they are not truly loved by their parents when daily messages are underscored with manipulative control tactics—missives designed, antithetically, to appeal to the very nature that is frequently belittled within austere families: the emotional element of womanhood.

Healing for the Aching

The portrait of our gracious Father—His nature, His heart, His will, and His love—defaced through abusive means carries no light sentence. He asks us to trust Him, and bids us to come, that we may have life. Our faith brings Him pleasure. Moreover, as we begin a journey towards grace, out of our pain and into His life, what better company to be in than with Christ, and the fellowship of His sufferings!

Romans 8:18
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

Take comfort, beloved. He who has come to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, is called Emmanuel—God with us.

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying,
"What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”
And He said to him,
“You have answered rightly;
do this and you will live.”

Stolen Years

John 10:10 The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.


Abundant life.

This is often marked within the world—the religious world, even—as prosperity and blessing. Many denominations preach that abundance is indicative of our status with God, that He has found favor with our actions . . . whether they be tithing, donating to charity, homeschooling, or ensuring that our left hand knows what our right is doing. Some believe that this life means we have found peace, that we can finally "relax" and enjoy the fruits of faithfulness. Others eschew this concept, believing that asceticism is the key to true holiness.

What is abundant life?
How many of us can truly say that we are hereby deeply refreshed?

I believe that we begin with our hearts genuinely in the right place—desiring to walk obediently to He who calls us by name. This desire sets our feet in motion and launches a quest for discovering what pleases our Lord. Sadly, it is all too easy to become swept away by the shackles of religion, becoming ensnared along the way.

"The thief," John says, "Comes to steal, kill and destroy."

This destruction is not unlike that of the swarming locusts, who can descend on a lush, ripe garden and in moments, strip away every tender leaf, each verdant tendril—leaving a brown, barren plot of earth in their wake. In a short instant, all of the careful nurture is gone to naught; months of planning and careful work, obliterated; a future of darkness and hunger looming with frightening reality.

Dear one, does this epitomize your heart? Do you feel stripped of the spring of life that should throb and course within? Do you feel as though your deepest feelings, hopes, dreams, and thoughts have been strangled by the crushing weight of bondage and oppression? Has your spirit become a dry wasteland and a lifeless wilderness? Does the hot, suffocating wind of annihilation steal away the refreshing gentle breeze of the breath of God?

I was born upon this path.

Many of you have written to ask for more of my personal story. Many of the particulars are included in my book, Quivering Daughters, which is still unfolding (hence any infrequency in blog posting—I am working diligently to get it wrapped up quickly!). However, today as we celebrate the resurrection of our Saviour, I am reminded just how miraculously He brought me back from death myself—rescuing me from the way of destruction and setting my feet upon the path of life. I praise Him with every breath for His grace and mercy!

The following is a portion of a letter I wrote recently.

My personal background was drenched in Scripture. I read and memorized the Bible on my own, daily, sometimes 2 or even 3 times a day—in addition to family Bible time. I am grateful for this, because the words are drilled into my core, which helps me now.

However, as I began to desire as an adult to truly grow and heal and question and wrestle with many of the things that occurred, experiencing loads of shame and guilt—not only hearing my father's voice while I read my Bible, but hearing his voice when others prayed, or seeing my mother's disapproving face, or hearing my own conscience speak to me in her voice—I became aware that this was very unhealthy enmeshment which I was desperate to overcome.

. . . The long-story-short version is that I stopped everything. I withdrew from society, from everyone really except for my husband and one or two trusted friends and mentors. I stopped reading my Bible. I know that this sounds blasphemous. However, I have discovered that when someone uses something inherently good—like the Bible—as a tool for abuse, it becomes essential to distance one's self from this and heal.

The truth is, I didn't want to view the Bible or God as abusive like I had been conditioned to believe; I still loved God with all my heart and knew that beneath it all, the god I thought I knew was not the true God . . . so for me, I had to in a sense, undergo a spiritual "de-tox". It is not unlike a de-programming regime for those who exit cultic groups.

During this time, which lasted nearly a year (some suggest that it can last usually up to 18 months), I determined that I wanted to decide what to believe for myself, and not because I was told that it was true (due to elements of religious abuse and mind control)—and was willing to let go of everything I had ever been taught. I still clung to Jesus and His work on the cross, for I knew deep within that He is the Way, Truth, and Life. Anything besides Him I shed off of me like a fur coat on a summer day.

This quest launched a journey that has literally changed my life. This has become the backdrop of my book, but let me fast-forward to say that as God healed me from my past, the hurts and religious abuse, the emotional wounds, everything—suddenly, honestly without me even trying, the Bible came alive to me again! I could read it freely, without pressure or hearing other voices in my head. I was understanding and seeing things I had never seen before, in light of God's transforming work in me. My Scriptural foundation proved to be a huge blessing because I was able to build upon it and not start from scratch. My biggest "rule" for myself was not to read it because I felt like I "had to". I chose not to listen to the accusing voice of false guilt if there was a day that went by and I didn't read it.

Slowly, a true relationship with God, based on my BEING and not DOING or TRYING began to blossom and I have truly fallen in love with Him in a way that is so personal and so far from "religion" that it saddens me to see so many oppressed by religious doings.

This journey also showed me God's nature—yes He is a jealous God, and judgment belongs to Him. However, for me, the key is balance. So many from fundamentalist backgrounds show a very imbalanced view of God. I had to re-learn everything; knowing His love was the hardest for me because as one of 11 children I could not understand how I could be loved in any special way that wasn't the same as everyone else. "God loves everyone" I would say and shrug like, so what?

If I were to suggest anything, I would recommend that you start simply with Jesus. He says, "No one comes to the Father except through Me." Start with Him—and He is the one who says, "Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." Matthew 11

If the god you serve does not fit this description—offering rest, who is gentle and humble, whose burdens are light—you are serving a false god who leads unto destruction. The enemy has come to kill, steal, and destroy—and how often does that truly describe how we feel? Is this life, that we truly live? "I have come that they may have life," Jesus said, "And that, more abundantly!"

It requires faith, certainly. But start with the Son of God, and let Him lead you to the Father.

This is what it means to have life, abundant—to live freely, knowing that God has accepted you and loves you as His child, created in His image, aside from the law and aside from the religious efforts that we put forth! Can you imagine life like this? To truly know what it is to be loved and accepted for who you are, not what you do? To be loved based on who you are, and not how well you perform? Or how "holy" you appear? To be wanted and desired, regardless of your mistakes and imperfections which torment you daily? To be able to lay aside every weight that hinders, to run with endurance knowing that your faith, even if it is a small as a tiny seed, pleases God?

Matthew 27:54 So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

I am humbled and in awe of the mercy, grace, and faithfulness of God who has brought me forth from the way of destruction and set my feet upon the path of life. It is here that I fall to my knees and say truly, this man is the Son of God!

Joel 2:25
“ So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, The crawling locust, The consuming locust, And the chewing locust, My great army which I sent among you.

It is here, in this place, that He has conquered death and restored the stolen years.

Our Lord has risen!
Glory to His Name!

Christian Families on the Edge by Rachel Ramer

Hillary's note: When I first began to question some of the things I was brought up to believe, and to address the confusion and hurts I struggled with daily, I found an article by the brilliant Rachel Ramer which was my first confirmation that there was validity to what I was thinking and feeling. Rachel is a passionate believer with keen insight into conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. This article was originally featured on equip.org. I hope that it blesses you as much as it did me.

Christian Families on the Edge:
Authoritarianism and Isolationism
Among Us

by Rachel D. Ramer

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 26, number 1 (2003). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


In response to antifamily trends in recent decades, there has been a resurgence within Christianity to restore family integrity and values. Christians may agree on the importance of these issues, but there are very different views of the role of family within Christianity and culture. Some Christian groups, who see culture as adversarial to Christianity, believe the role of family is to protect its members from culture. Family certainly is to be a place of security; however, the principles of authority and isolation these groups often recommend are problematic and result in the family becoming a legalistic subculture even within Christianity. These groups often promote principles of parental authority based on shame. Their application of ancient biblical laws and examples to contemporary family situations and lifestyle issues is also questionable. Authoritarianism and isolationism provide a false sense of security from the moral and spiritual evils of the world, and merely result in a subculture that fails to interact with and transform culture in a redeeming way.

In an age of deteriorating families, deadbeat dads, and disregard for traditional family boundaries and values, Christians have responded by “focusing on the family.” Many aberrant groups and cults, on the other hand, compel followers to forsake family, interrupting this natural and significant expression of God’s protection and love. There are also those who encourage forsaking nearly everything but family. In light of our sinful “secularized” times, can the value of family be overrated?

Some Christians see family as the focal point of Christianity, relying on the teachings of leaders such as R. J. Rushdoony. Considered the father of Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony has stated, “All the basic governmental powers in society, save one, the death penalty, have been given [by God] to the family, not to the state nor to the church.…A mark of anti-Christianity is the move to strip the family of these powers.”1 In response to this idea, voices such as Patriarch magazine promote “home education, home business, home church, home birth, family ministry, family health, family worship…courtship and betrothal, family-based welfare.”2 This view of the family may also include rejection of organized sports, church youth and singles’ groups, and neighborhood playmates.

Proponents portray this view as “balanced”3 and acknowledge that the home is under the authority of the church. In this paradigm, however, the church is a “home church” made up of like-minded families who isolate themselves from non-family-focused activities and from other Christians who do not share their particular view of family life and child-rearing values.

From within this structure, church leaders who let their wives work outside the home, use credit, limit family size, send their children to public schools, and so on, are viewed in a negative light. Concerning such leaders, Patriarch asks, “Can I remain under the authority of someone who so denies the Bible by his life? Can my family continue to maintain fellowship in a church whose leaders so disregard the clear teachings of God’s Word?”4 Patriarch further suggests that youth groups and Sunday school programs demonstrate a “failure of the church to teach the principles of parental responsibility for child training and to reinforce it in the church’s programs,” and that the use of these programs in a church “may well be a reason to leave.”5

Isolationist Jonathan Lindvall of Bold Christian Living tried to answer his critics by affirming: “Yes, I am sheltering my children! I am convinced this is what God calls me to do.”6 Most Christians would probably agree that children need a certain amount of sheltering. The concept of sheltering is not the issue, however; the extent of sheltering is the real issue. Sheltering is a legitimate concept, but isolationists’ rationale for sheltering often does not convey the idea of the extent or limitations to the practice.


Much good can be found within this parenting movement, and proponents do express concern for protecting children from harmful leadership and disciplinary tactics. The principles and techniques advocated throughout much of their material, however, convey mixed messages and therefore should be evaluated. Not everyone on the authoritarian/isolationist side of the debate agrees fully on the issues addressed in this article, but there are, nevertheless, some disturbing characteristics of this movement.

Authority or Authoritarianism?

Excessive authority is the primary issue when addressing the harmful characteristics of some child training/ education materials. Many authoritarians mimic Bill Gothard’s “chain of authority” or “chain of command” teachings.7 God certainly ordained an authority structure within the family, but demanding unquestioning obedience from children goes beyond what He instructed. In their article “Training Roseanna’s Flesh,” Michael and Debi Pearl, for example, argue that training a child properly is not a matter of focusing on any particular training issue itself, rather, “IT IS A MATTER OF ESTABLISHING AN UNDERSTANDING OF WHO IS IN CONTROL” (emphasis in original).8 They continue, “You must look for opportunities to demonstrate that you have the last word, that your authority is to be obeyed without question.…If, during the course of a day, no contest arises naturally, you should arrange one. Seek opportunity to thwart the child’s will, to cause him to submit to your command.”9

Kelly Crespin of the Eclectic Homeschool Association gave the Pearls’ book, To Train Up a Child, a less-than-glowing review: “They compare the training of a child to the training of a dog or mouse. I feel that many children who receive this type of ‘training’ grow up to fear their parents, or any adult figure.”10
Author Reb Bradley, however, echoes the Pearls: “Keep your objective in mind — subjection of their will.…Teach your children to obey without being told ‘why.’”11 Authors William and Colleen Dedrick also concur: “When your child disregards or disobeys your command, he breaks fellowship with you and offends you as his God-ordained authority.”12 Concerning permissiveness, lack of restraint, and neglect, the Dedricks state, “Every minute you spend with your child there is a battle in one or more of these areas.”13

Authoritarianism goes beyond healthy, positive discipline and demands absolute submission. From a biblical viewpoint, human authority is to be respected; yet, when the religious rulers were wrong, Peter and John disobeyed them (Acts 4:15–21). The Jewish midwives in Egypt also disobeyed authority for ethical reasons (Exod. 1:15–21). Parents who equate their authority with godlike sovereignty create confusion for a child. At some level, parents must become, for the child, models of humility instead of models of sovereignty. Parental overidentification with God’s authority confuses the child who eventually witnesses the parents’ imperfect/sinful humanity. This absolutizing of authority fails to recognize nuances and variables in human communication and situations and ignores possible emotional control issues and sinfulness within parents.

Some parenting books teach a calm, nonangry approach to asserting authority, while characterizing abuse as out-of-control reactions on the part of parents.14 Out-of-control anger is obviously a negative manipulation, but manipulation can happen without anger, and often does. A calm approach to subjugating a child’s will and leading him or her to equate the parent’s will with godliness on all issues is simply a more insidious form of abuse.

Some authoritarians redefine child abuse as a lack of authority: “Real child abuse is allowing a child to be overtaken by the destructive forces of sin and rebellion.”15 Not so! Real child abuse is the misuse or overuse of authority. This overuse of authority can also occur with older children, for example, when parents make decisions for them in areas such as vocation, as well as some cases of courtship/betrothal. Jonathan Lindvall’s Web site has an account of how one father micromanaged the relationship between his daughter and future son-in-law. He manipulated the couple emotionally into giving up their interest in each other, in order to test them, when he fully intended for them to marry.16 This deception in the name of authority carries harmful moral implications, since ends do not justify means in this case any more than in a case of physical abuse.

In his book, Imperative People: Those Who Must Be in Control, Christian psychotherapist Les Carter points out the result of excessive control: “Listen for the words should, supposed to, got to, have to, ought to, must, can’t.…Technically speaking, nothing is wrong in stating what should be done. After all, in a world that shuns absolutes, it’s refreshing to feel like you do stand for something.” He adds, however, that “you are in essence stating, ‘I’ll accept you only after you meet my conditions.’ And since each of us responds negatively to this kind of emotional blackmail, we become angry and tense” (emphases in original).17 Children who emerge from such an environment may carry with them a distorted concept of God as an emotional blackmailer interested only in behavior. Parents who assert excessive control are prone to exasperate their children (Eph. 6:4), as their wills are consistently suppressed and their desires thwarted.

In contrast to the concept of establishing unquestioning obedience, Christian counselor Jeff Van Vonderen states:

Though most Christian parents have been trained to balk at this concept, it is our job to help [children] develop a strong no. They are going to need a strong no when they are fourteen years old and someone wants to be sexually intimate with them, or shoves a bottle of alcohol in their hand. Our job is to recognize opportunities for them to exercise their no — not to strip them of their will in the name of maintaining authority as a parent.…In that light, actively look for opportunities to give them practice saying no, those times when a no would be an appropriate answer.18

Won’t sheltering prevent 14-year-olds from being in situations where they need to say no? Not entirely. Children will also need to say no to the errant religions and philosophies presented from “authorities” they will encounter later in life. The ability to say no comes not simply from learning correct behavior and doctrine but from living in a healthy emotional environment. Moral behavior and correct doctrine are often sacrificed because of emotional neediness.

Arguing for strong parental authority, author J. Richard Fugate states, “It should be no surprise that leaderless children respond to cults, such as the Moonies and the Jones groups.…These counterculture groups all have one thing in common — they demand followership. They each provide strong leadership, teach and enforce rules, and set a purpose for the life of the follower. Dare we as parents offer less?” (emphasis in original).19 Susceptibility to cults, however, can result not only from children being “leaderless” but also from being overled. Jesus contrasted authoritarianism with humble leadership: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:25–26 NIV). Humble leadership that is open to questioning and focused on relationship will provide emotional protection from cults; demanding leadership will not.

Head over Heart

Authoritarians tend to view all “heart issues” as sins, such as greed, rebellion, and lust. Blanket statements such as, “The loving parent will address the heart of the child through requiring confession”20 center on Scriptures such as, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9 KJV). The sin aspect of the heart is not the only aspect to which the Bible refers, however. Consider the use of the term “heart” in “did not our heart burn within us?” (Luke 24:32 KJV) and “let not your heart be troubled” (John 14:1 KJV). Authoritarians mistakenly believe that emotional issues are being adequately dealt with by addressing all heart issues as sin issues. Tedd Tripp, author of Shepherding a Child’s Heart, argues that addressing the heart’s sin issues should also include concern for the emotional health of the child. He suggests approaching a child’s heart issues by asking, “Help me understand what you are feeling.”21

VanVonderen explains that in shame-based families, emotions and feelings are minimized: “Talking about feelings or needs leaves you feeling ashamed for being so ‘selfish’.…The measuring stick becomes: how things look; what people think; religious behavior.…Children must learn to act like miniature adults in order to avoid shame…fault and blame are the order of the day.”22 The Pearls, for example, warn against expressing feelings, seeing them as selfishness: “For your childrens’ own good, teach them to maintain control of their emotions. If you do not want to produce a sissy who uses adversity as a chance to get attention, then don’t program them that way.”23

VanVonderen notes that families who devalue emotions are “strong on ‘head skills’” and “weak on ‘heart skills.’”24 He is not criticizing thinking skills; rather, he is suggesting the need for balance. The perception that feelings need to be conquered, denied, and shamed creates the kind of environment that one former Jehovah’s Witness likened to the dissonance he felt within the Watchtower structure. The head knows all the “right” answers, as defined by the system, but the repressed, controlled emotions leave a person susceptible to harm and error.25

Emotions, while not always accurate, can serve as an alarm, alerting one to distorted “truths.” A former Children of God member describes his release from the guilt he had experienced as a result of seeing nearly all feelings as sinful responses of the heart: “I had to come to the place where I regarded my feelings as friends rather than foes, that they weren’t moral acts which I was judged for, but gifts of God given to help test reality.”26

For many authoritarians, devaluing emotions also impacts the courtship/betrothal issue. John W. Thompson, for example, states, “Emotional romance, God says, is to be reserved for the betrothal stage of a relationship after a binding commitment to marry has been made, preventing the broken heart syndrome.”27 This approach, however, contributes to suppressed emotions, and, while it may prevent broken hearts before marriage, it does nothing to prevent broken hearts after marriage, and it may very well cause them.

Shaming the Parents

Authoritarians not only promote shaming children, but their teachings also have a shaming tone toward parents. If a parent does not teach a child to obey the first time a command is given, the child may be hit by a car or be bitten by a poisonous spider. This fear tactic insults both parent and child, who understand the difference of importance and tone between “Time for bed” and “STOP!” (The Pearls advocate no change in voice tones or emotion for different commands.) Now, the point is well taken that parents often give too many warnings, but this authoritarian approach becomes manipulation of another sort, where every command is a crisis by definition.

The Pearls also tell parents, “Fail to use the rod on [a disobedient, bullying child] and you are creating a ‘Nazi.’”28 Fear of producing a Nazi may compel parents to use a “rod” even when their intuition tells them there is a better option in a particular situation. The Dedricks shame parents with, “It is disgraceful to hear a grown man putting on his ‘I’m afraid you’re not going to like me’ voice when negotiating with a two-year-old.”29 They also state, “The parent who neglects or refuses to discipline his child [according to their idea of discipline] is himself undisciplined and disobedient to God.”30


Authoritarianism and isolationism are often married. Christian isolationism endorses a “godly” subculture, encouraging separation even from other Christians who do not conform to the ideals of that subculture. Isolationist Steve Schlissel states, “The naiveté of modern Christians concerning the religious character of the so-called Culture War is astonishing. Culture, Henry Van Til taught us, is simply religion externalized and made explicit.…We have been raised to believe that culture is religiously neutral rather than religiously determined.”31 Religion certainly does influence culture, but this all-or-nothing view sees nearly every expression of culture as a religious statement, either heathen or nonheathen.

There are, however, other approaches to understanding how Christians relate, or don’t relate, to the culture in which they find themselves. Professor and author Michael Horton draws from H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture to explain five different approaches: First, Christ against culture holds that “the world is evil, but the realm of the Spirit is good; earthly things are inherently sinful, while heavenly things are inherently virtuous.”32

Second, Christ of culture views Christianity as an extension of culture. Niebuhr states, “The movement that identifies obedience to Jesus Christ with the practices of prohibition, and with the maintenance of early American social organization, is a type of cultural Christianity… Christ is identified with what men conceive to be their finest ideals, their noblest institutions, and their best philosophy.”33

Third, Christ above culture “suggests neither antagonism nor assimilation.”34 This is an attempt at neutrality toward culture and is directly opposite Schlissel’s view.

Fourth, Christ and culture in paradox sees the kingdom of God and the kingdom of humankind as “different spheres with different purposes.…Culture can never be an avenue of finding God.…But neither can culture be an object of disgust, since culture never promises to save or redeem.”35 In this view, while not all pleasurable aspects of life are spiritual in the salvific or godly sense, God is still present in them.

Fifth, Christ the transformer of culture is distinct from the Christ against culture and the Christ of culture views by holding that, “The problem is not the world, but the willful opposition of the world to God and His Christ. This frees the believer to participate in the world as a full-fledged citizen and to view it not as inherently wicked [or as an expression of false religions], but as a theater in which both God’s glory and human sin are displayed.”36

Isolationists embrace the Christ against culture and also the Christ of culture views, and create their own culture, often based on ancient cultural practices found in the Bible. Horton explains that “there is great danger in mixing a ‘Christ against culture’ and a ‘Christ of culture’ paradigm…this mixture leads us to simply replace one culture with another and confuse the latter with God’s will and kingdom.”37 Christ against culture and Christ of culture are two sides of the same coin. A true transformer of culture does not seek to create a separate culture; rather, he seeks to transform the existing culture.

Biblical Support for Isolation?

A look at Old Testament theocracy shows how covenants between a ruler and his people found in ancient Near Eastern culture were used as a pattern for God’s covenant with Israel. Theologians Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart state, “God constructed the Old Testament law on the analogy of these ancient covenants.”38 Even the God-given Mosaic laws were not entirely divorced from the culture in which they were given.

Horton argues that, “Scripture admonishes us, [with Christ’s words ‘my kingdom is from another place’] to avoid either the tendency to confuse the kingdom of God with an earthly nation (Israel, America, etc.) or, on the other hand, to view citizenship in one kingdom as completely antithetical to citizenship and participation in the other.”39

There certainly are cultures that adopt God’s laws more closely than others, such as those that abolish slavery or ban the exploitation of children; nevertheless, like the once-godly Pharisee sect, there are dangers from within once we’ve “arrived.” Jesus neither endorsed, nor participated in, a separatist lifestyle (such as that of His contemporaries, the Essenes); rather, He took positive illustrations from, and participated in, His culture. His prayer to the Father for believers was “not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15 NIV).

Fee and Stuart argue that “there is no such thing as a divinely ordained culture; cultures are in fact different, not only from the first to the twentieth century, but in every conceivable way in the twentieth century itself.”40 They caution against applying a biblical passage to a present-day situation when particulars in the passage are not comparable to the present-day situation. Even if a biblical principle is evident, they counsel, “the ‘principle’ does not now become timeless to be applied at random on whim to any and every kind of situation. We would argue that it must be applied to genuinely comparable situations” (emphasis in original). 41

Isolationists’ belief that God has a particular culture in mind for His people influences how they interpret the Bible. Schlissel, for example, addresses the cultural craze over body piercing. He uses Leviticus 19:28 — “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you” (KJV) — to conclude that (male) body piercing is scripturally wrong. To apply this verse to today, however, would also mean we should not wear clothes made of two fabrics, since the same passage also instructs, “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (19:19 NIV).

Schissel also points to ancient practices of piercing slaves for subordination purposes (Exod. 21:6; Deut. 15:17) to argue that body piercing should not be practiced today. Mosaic laws concerning the treatment of slaves, however, fail as bases for transcultural principles about body piercing. Fee and Stuart address the pierced-slave passage (Deut. 15:12–17), calling it a casuistic law. “Such casuistic or case-by-case laws,” they say, “constitute a large portion of the more than six hundred commandments found in the Old Testament pentateuchal law.…Because such laws apply specifically to Israel’s civil, religious, and ethical life, they are by their very nature limited in their applicability and therefore unlikely to apply to the Christian.” Today, bondage is not in the piercing of a body part but in making such cultural issues absolutes. Paul warned regarding such bondage to the Mosaic Law, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1 NIV).

Isolationists also draw universal principles from biblical narratives. One area in which they do this is courtship/betrothal. From biblical accounts of betrothal Thompson concludes, “Biblical courtship isn’t simply an option, it’s an obligation.…God established the courtship approach to marriage as trans-cultural, and thus normative for all people in all cultures and in all times.”

Fee and Stuart, however, also sound a warning against drawing universal moral principles from each biblical narrative: “The fallacy of this approach is that it ignores the fact that the [biblical] narratives were written to show the progress of God’s history of redemption, not to illustrate principles. They are historical narratives, not illustrative narratives.”Confusion concerning what is or is not universal can result in creating a subculture based on ancient culture. The goal should rather be a transformed community acting as salt and light within the larger culture, based on the culturally transcendent principles of the Word of God (Rom. 12:2; cf. Matt. 5:13–16).

Finally, we might ask what was Jesus’ view concerning the role of the family. Consider His radical “anti-family” statements, such as: “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.…Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:35, 37 NIV). Jesus also said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50 NIV). Now, we understand that Jesus was using hyperbole to make His point and not discounting the value of family, but we can gather from these statements that He did not view the biological family as the center of Christianity, but rather Himself and His kingdom.

What about Homeschoolers?

Is homeschooling a form of isolationism? It is true that considerable questionable material is directed to homeschoolers, and isolationists often homeschool; yet, this does not make all homeschoolers isolationists. It would be inaccurate to view all homeschoolers, or even all Christian homeschoolers, as being on the same side of this issue. A growing segment of home educators question isolationist tendencies. Probably the most prominent evangelical homeschool curriculum company that rejects isolationism is Sonlight Curriculum Ltd. Sonlight’s general manager Wayne Griess states that their philosophy is “to educate, not indoctrinate. We wish to grow learners aware of the world around them.” Sonlight owner John Holzmann plainly states that parents may not want to purchase Sonlight materials if “they want to shield their children as much as possible from contact with the world and the world system.” Home education is a viable philosophy in its own right and is not necessarily an expression of isolationism.


The issues of authoritarianism and isolationism carry grave implications concerning evangelism. First, to what do they convert people? The yoke of Christ is easy and His burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30). Authoritarianism and isolationism create an environment that is heavy and burdensome.

Second, isolationism is not the agent for evangelism it may claim to be but is busy converting people from one culture to another. Lacking interaction with current culture, isolationism creates a closed system, where, as author John Fischer points out, “a separatist Christian monologue has replaced meaningful dialogue with the world around us.”

In contrast, viewing culture as a theater where God’s glory interacts with humanity, both sinful and needy, and where Jesus stepped into a broken world to eat, drink, and abide with us, is biblical (Luke 7:34; John 1:14). Fischer sums up an alternative to isolationism: “I would suggest that we as Christians need to learn to embrace the danger of living in a dangerous world and trust not a safe subculture to protect us, but a praying Savior.”



1. R. J. Rushdoony, Founders Foreword: Family and Government (paper presented at the California Home Educators Association meeting, Anaheim, CA, 1997), 1.

2. Is It Right to Be Family-Centered? Patriarch, 25 July 2001, http://www.patriarch.com/article.php? sid=19.

3. Ibid.

4. When Is It OK to Leave a Church? Patriarch, 30 July 2001, http://www.patriarch.com/article.php? sid=59.

5. Ibid.

6. Jonathan Lindvall, Sheltered Homeschoolers and Evangelism, Home School Digest 9, 3 (1998): 29.

7. Don Veinot, Joy Veinot, and Ron Henzel, A Matter of Basic Principles (Springfield, MO: 21st Century Press, 2002), 208.

8. Michael Pearl and Debi Pearl, Training Roseannas Flesh, No Greater Joy 4, 1: 1.

9. Ibid., 1, 2.

10. Kelly Crespin, review of To Train Up a Child, by Michael Pearl and Debi Pearl, Eclectic Homeschool Online, 2001, http://www.eho.org/reviews/individ ualprint.asp?revid=160.

11. Reb Bradley, Child Training Tips (Fair Oaks, CA: Family Ministries, 1995), 44.

12. William Dedrick and Colleen Dedrick, The Little Book of Christian Character and Manners, 1st ed. (Elkton, MD: Holly Hall, 1992), 54.

13. William Dedrick and Colleen Dedrick, The Little Book of Christian Character and Manners, 2d ed. (Port Angeles, WA: Christian Tutorial Books, 1993), 5.

14. Michael Pearl and Debi Pearl, To Train Up a Child (Pleasantville, TN: Pearl, 1994), 23. See also Bradley, 70.

15. Dedrick, 1st ed., 54.

16. Jonathan Lindvall, A True Romantic Betrothal Example, Bold Christian Living, 1997, http://www.boldchristianliving.com/articles/romance3.php.

17. Les Carter, Imperative People: Those Who Must Be in Control (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 2628.

18. Jeff VanVonderen, Families Where Grace Is in Place (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1992), 117.

19. J. Richard Fugate, What the Bible Says about Child Training (Tempe, AZ: Family Building Seminars, 1996), 50.

20. Ronald Kirk, Facing Sin in Education, Chalcedon Report, August 2002, 7.

21. Tedd Tripp, Foundational Concepts, the Centrality of the Heart in Parenting, Shepherding a Childs Heart: Video Series, Shepherd Press, n.d., videocassette 1.

22. VanVonderen, 13840.

23. Pearl, To Train, 85.

24. VanVonderen, 140.

25. Gary Busselman, Personality Disorders Caused from Physical and Emotional Abuse, www.freeminds.org/buss/disorder.htm.

26. Name withheld, e-mail to author, 13 September 2002.

27. John W. Thompson, Gods Design for Scriptural Romance, Part VII, Patriarch, 31 July 2001, http://www.patriarch.com/article.php?sid=90.

28. Pearl, To Train, 45.

29. Dedrick, 1st ed., 59.

30. Ibid., 20.

31. Steve M. Schlissel, Laws and Order (Part II), 1 November 2000, http://www.messiahnyc.org/ ArticlesDetail.asp?id=254.

32. Michael S. Horton, Where in the World Is the Church? (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2002), 43.

33. Ibid., 44.

34. Ibid., 45.

35. Ibid., 46.

36. Ibid., 48.

37. Ibid., 51.

38. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 151.

39. Horton, 40.

40. Fee and Stuart, 71.

41. Ibid., 68.