The Obsessive Personality

I was reading a journal article on the obsessive personality recently. The author’s theory is that parents create the obsessive personality disorder in their child. The obsessive is someone who is extremely conscientious, wanting to keep every rule possible, but the obsessive also tends to get lost in the rules: the rules become more important than the principle behind the rules. The obsessive also becomes judgmental, shaming those who do not keep the rules as rigidly as the obsessive does. The obsessive is extremely obedient, but with an underbelly of anger–there is a passive-aggressive quality to the obedience. “Yes, Mom, I’ll chew my food thoroughly, every single bite. Just watch me take two hours to finish supper.”

The author’s theory, that parents create the obsessive personality in their children, is an interesting one. The author observed in his caseload, and in the literature he read on the topic, that obsessives had parents who tended to change the rules as they went along, keeping their children mystified. Yet the parents insisted they were not changing the rules, and they insisted that each new rule was the result of some spiritual or moral principle, with book, chapter and verse to prove it. Thus none of the new rules could be questioned by the child. The new rules always seemed to make the parents the winners and the child the loser, such that the child became an adult who constantly berated him/herself in his mind, calling himself names and making himself feel guilty and ashamed much of the time. The obsessive doubts his/her own opinion and emotions, always consulting a recognized authority for a decision or judgment: “Brother Smith believes that Divorce and Remarriage for the cause of fornication is justifiable.”

Wow! Doesn’t this describe the hardline Churches of Christ I grew up in? One of the unwritten rules was: NEVER BE SURE YOU ARE SAVED. This was voiced in teenage Bible class in 1972 in the Church of Christ in Plainfield, Indiana. The Bible class was led by Brother Welliver, one of the elders. The conclusion was that one was not to be arrogant in being sure of one’s salvation, but always humble in looking for ways that one might be sinning. (Contrary to every book in the Bible, which describe a confident relationship with God.)

Sinning in the churches of Christ usually referred to DENOMINATIONALISM: using a piano, organ or guitar in church, not taking communion every Sunday, not being baptized for the right reason (for the remission of sins into the church), having a denominational headquarters on earth, calling your church after a human being, attending any church other than the Church of Christ, etc.. Though the list also included the big personal sins: Sex, Lying, Stealing, and Skipping Wednesday night Bible Study. Nobody ever killed anyone in lower middle class white suburban Indiana, so Murder was never seriously included in the list.

I was also talking to a friend yesterday about Preachers’ Kids. He said they were the worst in his experience: always snorting the most cocaine and partying the hardest at the strip bars. My friend is an Elder’s Son, so he wasn’t one of the worst, he was second worst. My conclusion is that preachers’ kids and elders’ kids get tired of the manipulative guilt and shame, and give up. But not all. Some become obsessive. They become the Keepers of the Tradition. They perpetuate their painful childhood by reenacting the constant barrage of rules on every person they meet.

And Christian colleges are populated by two camps of students, deeply divided: 1. the obsessives, who compete to see who can be the holiest, by coming up with the most obscure rules, or by being the most rigid about keeping the accepted rules, and 2. the anti-obsessives, who have largely given up on any kind of relationship with God or fellow Christians, but who are not independent enough yet to say to their parents: “I will not attend a religious college.”

I remember bringing up the issue of Instrumental Music as I began questioning the doctrines of the churches of Christ. “Well, you need to be safe,” was the most often used comment by my friends in the churches of Christ, after I had gone through all the verses and discussed the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Safe from what? From a mystifying God who hides his rules in a book that chronicles the early church’s actions (The book of Acts)? Safe from a God who tricks us (just like our parents did), hiding the rules while we weren’t looking, then insisting the rules were always the same? When we use the term “safe” what are we really saying about God? And are we sure we’re not insulting Him when we do that?

Obsessives tend to be superstitious, emotionally unaware, mean-spirited, and immature (making emotional decisions like a ten year old might). The worst obsessives tend to have marriages that last about two years, then descend into bickering that often ends in divorce, which comes as a total surprise to the obsessive, and plunges the obsessive into deep anxiety.

Which brings me to the point of this article: It is almost impossible to talk to anyone in the Churches of Christ as you are leaving the Churches of Christ. Every statement has been rehearsed for generations to manipulate your guilt and shame into staying within the safe confines of the fold. Many crumble under the burden and passive-aggressively continue to attend the churches of Christ, angrier and angrier as they figure out ways to occupy their minds instead of listening to the lessons. When they finally break free, they tend to never go to church again, because no matter where they go, they have been programmed to hear guilt and shame, obsessively.

It is interesting to note that Jesus’ arguments as recorded in the gospels were mostly with obsessives, and He found a way to have a relationship with God even after He was kicked out of all the synagogues.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
This entry was posted in Faith and Works, Grace, Manipulation, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Obsessive Personality

  1. Kenny G says:

    Very insightful article. Nice work.

  2. Neffs says:

    Really well written, and bravo to you for this blog. There are a lot more of us than you might think.

  3. Bill in Tennessee says:

    Despite the nonsense and the trauma (to family) of leaving the denomination-that-denies-being-a-denomination, I am actually glad I was raised in such a nutty, legalistic, mean-spirited church as the Church of Christ. Had I been in a more moderate (but equally superstitious) environment like the Methodists, for instance, I might not have finally gotten to where I needed to be — an atheist.

  4. Happy in my church says:

    I love my church and it is not The Church of Christ. I left the church 22 years ago. It was a long process of understanding that I am not going to Hell if I am not part of The Church of Christ. I have grown in my faith in a different denomination. Once every ten years I will go to a Church of Christ Function only for my mom. Today was one of those days, and can you believe a member asked “When are you coming back to the church?” I politely said “never, I am happy in a healthy church that my family attends.” I asked her if she would like to come to my church. She declined. I am so glad my children do not have to live in this legalistic world.

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