Role Playing in a Toxic Faith System

"Toxic faith exists when one or more dysfunctional systems provide false concepts of God, faith, and the individual."    Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton


Ever wonder what is the "glue" that holds toxic faith systems together so strongly?  It's actually quite simple.  According to Arterburn and Felton, "In a dysfunctional system, whether it be a family or a religious organization, roles evolve to support the system.  Each person must be willing to play the roles that become more keenly defined as addiction intensifies." (p. 161)


In toxic faith systems, each person becomes addicted to the system, along with its distinctive beliefs and behaviors.  In these dysfunctional organizations, God and faith are essentially removed and replaced by a set of rules and dictates.  As the book Toxic Faith explains:  "Any deviation from the respective role is taken as a sign of rebellion and is dealt with quickly through shaming and rejection."


There are FIVE ROLES in a toxic faith system:

(1)   Persecutor

(2)   Co-Conspirator

(3)   Enabler

(4)   Victim

(5)   Outcast   


In order to understand the dynamics of a toxic faith system, it's important to look at the roles various members play.  First, let's examine what I consider to be the most fascinating role — the persecutor.




The most dominant role in a toxic faith system is that of persecutor.  As Arterburn and Felton point out:  "Persecutors don't start out to victimize their followers or families.  They start out as unhealthy individuals who were deprived or smothered by their parents as children.  Rather than move beyond such a dysfunctional background, they compensate in ways that victimize others."  (p. 172)


Here's one of the saddest statements in Toxic Faith regarding the persecutor:  "These individuals need to defend against their own sense of brokenness and fallability, and they often do so through outrageous behavior.  They end up hurting many, especially those who possess a true faith and sincerely seek God's will for their lives."  (p. 172)


This will come as no surprise to those who have been held hostage in toxic faith systems — persecutors are usually great performers!  Often, those who become persecutors were rejected with they were younger.  In order to avoid rejection, they rely on their own abilities to find God's favor, instead of on God Himself.  "Their performance becomes everything, and they surround themselves with people willing to say that their performance is outstanding."  (p. 173)


Persecutors are compulsive.  "Their religion becomes an obsession, motivated by compulsion rather than conviction."   (p. 179) 


Persecutors need forgiveness.  When they get in a bind, they apologize and ask for forgiveness, appearing to be quite sincere.  The harsh reality is they are not sorry.  They seek forgiveness only when they cannot talk their way out of a jam.  "Tearful confessios usually do the trick to win back the doubting Thomases whose faith in the persecutor started to wane."  (p. 180)


Persecutors are caught up in a deadly and sinful condition called self-obsession.  Here's a dire warning in Toxic Faith:  "If they are allowed to continue in their ministries, they will go on victiimizing people until they run out of locations."  (p. 18)


Characteristics of the Persecutor (p. 182) 

* Frequently defends own problems

* Feels the need to embellish the truth and make things appear more grand than they really are

* Feels the need to be in control

* Seeks power and control

* Speaks boldly about sinful behavior, even when involved in that same behavior

* Projects own wrongs onto other people

* Sees things in terms of very black or very white

* Believes people are extremely wonderful or bad, usually depending on the amount of support offered to the persecutor

* Appears very angry with those involved in sin

* Often is motivated by greed

* Fears sexual inadequacy

* Was probably born into an abusive or neglectful home t hat appeared wonderful to those outside the family

* Feel owed something

* Feels persecuted

* Is extremely self-centered

* Lives in false world where person is convinced he or she is right

* Usually possesses special talents

* Contorts God's Word to fit own beliefs

* Surrounds self with people who are insecure and easily swayed

* Blames others for own failures

* Attempts to make others accept responsibility for own mistakes

* Feels disappointment in God, self, and others

* Usually is impressed with material goods and those who own them

* Is very angry

* Has compulsions in several areas

* Possesses an observable compulsion such as hard work that appears admirable to the world

* Possesses a hidden compulsion that would disgust most people if it were known

* Places great value on performance

* Deeply resents having to perform

* Is not involved in any accountable relationships

* Has no intimate relationships

* When in a bind will ask for forgiveness and appear sincere doing so

* Fears not measuring up or losing image

* Fears that if no longer able to perform for the masses will be useless to God

* Needs professional help



THE ROLE OF THE CO-CONSPIRATOR (aka "The Ultimate Team Player")

Where there is a persecutor in a toxic faith system, you can be certain there is at least one co-conspirator.  This individual "manipulates, plots, and plans to keep the persecutor in power and position."  (p. 183)


The persecutor and co-conspirator work together as a unit.  In larger organizations, there are often several co-conspirators who function as "yes-men".  These individuals will do anything and everything to protect the persecutor.  Arterburn and Felton explain that co-conspirators "feed into the persecutor's ego", further blinding him from reality. (p. 183)   If it were not for these "yes-men", the persecutor's empire would collapse.


The book explains that "In a toxic-faith system, these are the most dangerous followers.  They are as driven and misguided as the persecutor, and because they are close to power, people trust them.  Because they so deeply believe in the persecutor, many will continue to support that person when trouble, rumor, or admission of wrong surfaces."  (p. 184)


Characteristics of the Co-Conspirator (p. 189)

* Assumes the role of the ultimate team player

* Shows total dedication to the persecutor

* Always finds a way to support the position of the persecutor

* Feeds the persecutor's ego

* Is addicted to the power granted by the persecutor

* Keeps things going within the toxic-faith system

* Ensure that everything is taken care of responsibly

* Typically is a small person who feels big when in on the action

* Willingly deceives to maintain the persecutor's power

* Is good a lying

* Enjoys being rewarded for willingness to distort the truth

* Usually felt inferior as a child

* Ties personal feelings of value to another person rather than to God

* Protects sense of self-worth by protecting the persecutor

* Appears unassuming and grateful to be number two in the organization

* Enjoys material things

* Is sincerely deluded

* Feel weak

* Lacks the strong charisma and leadership abilities of the persecutor

* Feel extremely inadequate

* Works as a single unut with the persecutor

* Lives to be appreciated and recognized by the persecutor

* Needs to feel safe in work and relationships

* Is viewed by outsiders as trustworthy, conscientious, competent, mature, and reliable

* Needs professional help


As you can see, toxic faith systems are managed by both persecutors and co-conspirators who work together as a unit.  However, there are other individuals in dysfunctional faith systems who play critical roles — the enabler and the victim.   A toxic faith system WOULD NOT EXIST without these individuals simly because a leader cannot lead if he has no followers.    In our upcoming post, we will examine the roles of enabler and victim.

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