I can tell you anything. No one understands me like you do.
I don’t know what I would do without you.
I’m so glad we struggle with the same sins. It makes me know that I’m not alone.
Perhaps some trace of these statements sounds familiar to all of us, but when they characterize the tenor of our relationships, we have a problem. Codependency stems from an epidemic — a crisis that has quietly crept into our churches. Rosaria Butterfield calls it the “crisis of loneliness.”
I interviewed Rosaria Butterfield, author of The Gospel Comes with a House Key, on the topic of codependency. Many have responded to the rise of codependency by encouraging various boundaries in friendships, but Rosaria believes the problem (and solution) is at a deeper level. “Idols serve something; they plug a hole,” says Rosaria. “They are born because people are tragically and dangerously lonely.” This crisis is “not about boundaries.” Boundaries perpetuate our hearts’ petting of idols and enable a “culture of infancy” to flourish in our churches. She tells us, we must “deal with the crisis of loneliness” by filling the hole with more than just each other.
Am I in a Codependent Friendship?
According to Rosaria, we form a codependent relationship — “make an idol out of a friend” — when we: “(1) ask that person to be something more than she should, and (2) ask that person to love me more than she should, to see me as a kind of savior.” An idol is born, Rosaria warns, from “not mediating that relationship through Jesus Christ.” When we “desire for a person something that God does not desire for her, or desire for that person to see us in a way that God does not want us to be elevated,” we have crossed the threshold from brotherly affection to worship distortion.
Rosaria directs us beyond changes in the structure of our churches and families to identify and eliminate underlying, distorted views of ourselves and of Christ. We need a mental shift for healthy relationships in the church in four key areas: sin, identity, discipleship, and repentance.
Friendships Built Around Sin
Three problems regarding our understanding of sin feed the codependency wildfire: our ignorance of our own sin, our world’s perception of sin, and our “sin in common” mentality.
“Sin is predatory. I don’t think Christians really think about that. They think, ‘I’ve got it under control,’” Rosaria says. But we need to know the way “Adam thumbprinted us,” and if we don’t know what that is, we must rely on our brothers and sisters in Christ to tell us where we need to watch out for temptation. And feelings — the “precursor for our actions” — are not immune to temptation. Feelings can often subtly birth a codependent relationship because we do not check them against the word of God to filter their fleshly origin.
We also need to acknowledge how Satan fans the flame of codependency to potentially become a “homosexual outworking of idolatry.” In a sexually charged world, “homosexuality has now even become iconographic of progressiveness,” rendering tamer forms of codependency acceptable. But if we are mindful of how homosexuality has been normalized in our world, we can remember the Bible’s taboo against it is there not to harm or hinder us, but to protect us — for our good and for God’s glory.
And sin should not bond believers. That role belongs to Christ. Rosaria warns,
Maturity is not having a bunch of people who gather together because of a particular imprint of Adam on them. That is not maturity. That is anti-maturity. Maturity is where we know each other’s sin patterns well enough that part of being our brother’s keeper is that we watch over people in that way. We make sure that there’s a healthy distance. We don’t set people up to fail, and then walk away from them when they do.
When we suggest that sin marks our commonality, we are easily leading ourselves to be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13) — we defer to an “everybody does it” mentality. But we shouldn’t settle for common sin. We rejoice in our common Savior. God calls us to exhort one another in Christ (Hebrews 3:13). We serve the Lord together and have hard conversations. We don’t get comfortable with our sin because our brothers and sisters “do it too.” We exhort another, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we kill it. Together.
Identity in Christ, Not Each Other
Do we place our identity in someone other than Christ, whether self or one another?
“The more we are clear that our primary relationship is to the Lord, we are less likely to ask other people to either see us as their savior or see them as our savior.” Rosaria reminds us, “We’re all to look to Jesus. We have union with Christ.” The Bible teaches we are indeed all sons of God through faith, all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27–28). Christ lives in us and our lives are an outpouring of that identity and reality (Galatians 2:20). When we substitute the Savior with mini-saviors, we have unknowingly dragged others with us into an identity crisis.
We need to be watchful too, Rosaria warns, that we aren’t using our identities as opportunities to live in false freedom. “One of the most dangerous things is for believers to enter into anything and simply presume that because you’re a believer, you’re being Christ-centered about what you’re doing.” We must be mindful that we are walking in true Christian liberty, which Rosaria describes as “a liberty to not sin.” It is indeed “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), to cause us to “live as people who are free” (1 Peter 2:16), walking in our Christian identity.
Discipleship as a Family
A skewed concept of discipleship also perpetuates codependency. Rosaria advocates for continued discipleship in the church, but encourages us to understand its true purposes and parameters.
Discipleship serves to fulfill “a specific task” centered on building the church, to “walk in strength and liberty in the Lord, to be free of idols and patterns of sin.” Its purpose is “not to create dependence, drafting off of other people’s spiritual lives, but to help people launch.” So we “proclaim [Christ], warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
Rosaria challenges us to question, or at a minimum, cautiously enter into, one-on-one discipleship relationships because of their potential to replace the object of our affections and endanger our identity in Christ. She provides a grave warning to explain why. “A discipling relationship can be claustrophobic,” Rosaria says. “It can court a sense that I can tell X anything, but only X. That breeds the problem [of codependency].” She advocates for anchoring discipleship instead in our family devotions. In her mind, we either “use family devotions as a way to mark the family of God, to create intimacy that is safe, to encourage sanctified relationships,” or our church will have to “do a great deal of counseling on the other end of idolatry.”
One-on-one relationships — under elder oversight and for a specific reason — do not necessarily translate into codependent ones, but Rosaria suggests that “discipling comes as a natural outgrowth of how the Christian family functions.” Christian family life is the heartbeat of discipleship:
We need to do something about the culture of discipling. When people ask me, “How many women are you discipling?” you know what the answer is? Zero. I disciple my children. And then there are a number of men and women at our table at night. And there’s a mutual discipling that goes on. And from there, I have occasions when we are going to talk because something is up and someone can help with this.
The Bible is about communal relationships — “I see Titus 2 communally. I see older women and younger women working things out communally, not one on one.” She also references Jesus with his disciples. “There are one-on-one moments, but even they have a kind of group setting to them.”
Have we created a problem in the church by emphasizing one-off discipleship? Perhaps. But as we grow in how we operate as a family of God, our ability to disciple one another will flourish. And as Rosaria aptly notes, we should constantly pray “that all of our friendships would be sanctified.”
Is Repentance Necessary?
Rosaria’s counsel formed a number of questions to help us assess the health of our relationships and determine if repentance is necessary:
- Are all of our interactions with our friend one on one?
- Does our friend have community apart from us?
- Does our friend suggest we are the only one who knows X about him or her? Or make comments like, “You are the only one I can talk to or that can understand me”?
- Do others in the church — including church leaders — know about our discipling relationships, especially those that may tend in a codependent direction?
- What are our own sin temptations? Are they similar to our friend’s temptations?
- Is flattery a regular part of what we hear from our friend? If so, how do we respond? Are we easily elevated by words of affirmation or flattery?
- Are we aware of a desire to be seen by our friend in a particular way God does not want us to be seen or elevated?
When we assess a relationship as codependent, Rosaria offers us hope: “Nothing sanctifies a friendship better than repentance.” We “[turn] to God from idols” (1 Thessalonians 1:9) — we repent. And Rosaria tells us to seek forgiveness from our friends — we confess to them that we have used our friendship to “fuel our pride,” and we “have tried to make ourselves indispensable to them,” disregarding our Savior and his blood. Repentance must be the first step. And then, in the power of the Spirit, we change.
The Real Cure
There is someone who understands us like no one else. There is a model we cannot live without. There is someone who never leaves nor forsakes us. There is someone who treasures us beyond our comprehension.
If idols plug holes, as Rosaria explains, let’s fill the holes. Boundaries will not cure codependency. But Christ can. By his power, if we begin to dig in to the hidden illness of misplaced identities and misunderstandings of sin, discipleship, and repentance, codependency will no longer enable the crisis of loneliness to plague our churches.