Science in Christian Perspective



The Neurotic Christian: 
Ecclesiogenic Neurosis

University of Albertaa
Alberta, Canada

From: JASA 33 (December 1981): 215-219.

Paper presented at the Thirty-fourth Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, Stanford University, August 13, 1979. 
a Now at Houghton College, Houghton, New York 14744.

Why are there neuroses among church members? Does being raised in a Christian family contribute to the development of neurosis?

The problem of the neurotic Christian is discussed from a psychological standpoint. Empirical investigations and actuarial predictions are discussed in an attempt to find an explanation of the problem, and the question of the Church producing, developing or drawing neurotic individuals is addressed. Some speculation about causes and cures is offered.

Why are there neurotic Christians? Does the Church produce, develop or attract people with neurotic symptoms? How can neurotic Christians be helped?

The presence of neurotic symptoms in the general population is a societally-recognized problem. Neurotic symptoms interfere with productivity in the work force, affect interpersonal relations, contribute to political instability and produce great unhappiness in individuals and families. Societal institutions are most concerned with neurotic symptoms when they actually disrupt social function. While paying some lip-service to the pursuit of individual happiness and adjustment, society generally leaves the responsibility for treatment of non-disruptive symptoms with the suffering individual or his or her family.

The Church, however, takes a different view. The Church focusses on the individual: on individual salvation, on individual happiness, on individual relations with God. Similarly, the Church's emphasis on collective unity again requires optimal health and adjustment for each of the members of the body. So the presence of neurotic symptoms among her members must be cause for great concern.

What are neurotic symptoms? They are behaviors, or introspective reports of emotion-states, which interfere with the individual's optimal performance and adjustment to the environment. The disruptive influence may be more or less severe, but neurotic symptoms by definition do not interfere with behaviour to the extent that the individual is totally unable to cope with environmental demands.

While the aetiology for neurotic symptoms is diverse, the present theoretical approach will focus on two areas of causality: stress, or chronic diffuse emotional strain, and guilt.


Stress-induced neurotic symptoms, including many of the psychosomatic disorders, result when the perceived demands of the environmental situation exceed the individual's perceived ability to perform. This occurs, for example, when the demands of the work situation demand more time investment or decision-making capacity than the worker is willing or able to give. The perceived discrepancy is stressful, assuming that the individual wants to perform well, and the resultant emotional stress, or anxiety, affects various organ systems. If the suffering individual is unable to dissipate this anxiety, he or she may experience a breakdown in a given organ system, resulting in a psychosomatic disorder such as a duodenal ulcer. Alternatively, the in
dividual may develop behaviors which serve to dissipate the excessive emotional energy: long walks, running, reading, hobby activities. To the extent that such activities serve to dissipate anxiety without interfering with general performance and interpersonal adjustment, they are certainly adaptive. Frequently, anxiety-reducing activities become functionally autonomous, and continue even when their stress relieving value is no longer necessary.

In some cases, the dissipation of emotional energy is so rewarding or so marginally effective that the behavior becomes compulsive: engaged in repetitively as if for its own sake, interfering with other behavior and adjustment. When this occurs, the behavior is no longer adaptive, but neurotic. Typically, this is apparent where extreme investments of time are made in the symptomatic behavior, where it dominates the individual's conversation, or is the focus of all interpersonal activities. Some people are compulsive runners or joggers, for example. The original motivating factor of concern for one's health fades in importance, and running becomes an end in itself. Other people are compulsive church-workers. The stress of family interactions, and concern over raising the family in a good Christian home in the face of perceived personal inadequacy leads some people to devote excessive amounts of time to church work, to the detriment of the family. Such people are engaging in a motherhood, America and apple pie behavior-beyond criticism-and are thus able to reduce anxiety. Further, since they are serving God so faithfully, they tend to project on Him the responsibility for ensuring that the family grows up right rather than doing the job themselves.


Guilt, the other main causal agent in neurosis, is of more direct concern to the Church. Similar in its action to stress, and itself producing stress, guilt is nonetheless different because it arises specifically from the evaluative function in the individual.

As Lewis (1971) observed, a relationship between superego-induced guilt and neurotic symptoms was hypothesized by Freud in 1923. Others have concurred with the hypothesis that unresolved guilt produces neurotic complaints, from psychosomatic upsets to obsessive-compulsive disorders (Tournier, 1962, 1965). Classic literature gives such excellent examples as Lady Macbeth. Freud's postulated relationship between unresolved guilt and neurotic symptoms centers on the individual's self-concept, lowering it drastically. Thus, with such a poor opinion of the self, "the patient must not be healthy, he must remain ill, for he deserves no better" (1938). Whence comes this guilt?

"Guilt may be conceptualized as a special kind of negative self-evaluation which occurs when an individual acknowledges that his behavior is at variance with a giveit moral value to which he feels obligated to conform" (Ausubel, 1955). As an individual grows and develoM moral values and principles are internalized: they are learned and remembered. The child is taught moral precepts by command and by example, through training and through modelling. This process proceeds rapidly, and is relatively complete at an early age. The child acquires a conscience, or an active superego, or a readily-accessible set of moral values.

Unfortunately, the development of matching behaviour does not keep pace, and for most people it lags behind throughout life, St. Paul has not been alone in his admssion that "the good that I would, I do not. . ." When behavior does not conform to moral standards, and as the individual becomes aware of this, the resultant is guilt (Ausubel, 1955). And unresolved guilt induces anxiety and stress, which may then be revealed in neurotic symptoms.

The presence of neurotic symptoms in the general population, then, is not surprising. More problematic is the high incidence of neurotic symptoms among adherents to the Christian faith, which, as Freud pointed out, claims to save mankind from a sense of guilt (1930).

There are a number of potential explanations for this phenomenon. First, it may be postulated that guilt is not the precursor to the development of neurotic symptoms among Christians. That is, stress may induce these symptoms of neurosis. If this were true, it would not be expected that Christians should be symptom-free even if they were guilt-free. Such a postulate negates the earlier, still unproven, hypothesis that unresolved guilt underlies the bulk of neurotic symptomatologies, even among Christians * Many practitioners, among them Dr. Paul Tournier, have found strong evidence to support the direct-relationship hypothesis. Its summary dismissal, without convincing contradictory evidence, seems unwarranted at this time. It must be remembered, however, that causes other than unresolved guilt may lie behind neurosis, and these causes may be found among church members.

A second potential explanation is that Christian faith, in fact, does not save mankind from a sense of guilt. If this were true, we would not expect Christians to be any more symptom-free than the general population, simply on the basis of their being Christians.

This is a most challenging postulation, one that is contradicted by many writers who have claimed freedom from guilt through Christian faith: St. Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley. The postulate remains, however: some Christians may be neurotic because their faith has not saved them from a sense of guilt. Many neurotic Christians exist because their sense of guilt has not been relieved.

It should not be assumed in such cases that the sense of guilt cannot or will not be relieved; it is stated that it simply has not. That guilt can be and is relieved by Christian faith is attested to not only by personal testimony, as alluded to earlier, but also by empirical investigation.

Barton and Vaughan (1976) conducted a longitudinal study relating church membership and personality, as assessed by Cattell's 16PF questionnaire. They found that the church member group scored significantly higher on guilt proneness than the non-member control group at the first of the study. This finding supports the hypothesis that individuals espousing Christians faith are not thereby free of guilt. Further, Cattell's guilt proneness has a salient loading on the second-order questionnaire factor, anxiety, which, as has been seen, is an important variable in neurosis. 

In a five-year followup, however, Barton and Vaughan (1976) found that the church-member group had fallen dramatically on guilt proneness, and were now statistically equivalent to the non-member group. Similarly, as would be expected given the factor loadings, the church-member group fell below the non-member group on the secondorder anxiety factor. Barton and Vaughan conclude by suggesting that "although the church may attract active members who originally tend to be anxious and guilt-prone, the effects of membership are to allow a decrease in both these factors and hence generally a more peaceable state of mind."

To suggest that Christian faith was effective in lowering guilt proneness and anxiety would support the hypothesis that Christian faith can and does relieve a sense of guilt, but the alternative hypothesis, that simply membership in a cohesive, supportive organization produced the personality change is an equally valid explanation of the Barton and Vaughan findings. While further investigation and correlational research is necessary to differentially verify these alternative hypotheses, it is sufficient for the moment to take Barton and Vaughan's findings as supportive of the hypothesis that Christian faith can and does decrease a sense of guilt. Whether the effect is due directly to the act of faith or indirectly through concomitant church affiliation is an open question.

Why Are There Guilty and Neurotic Christians?

If Christian faith can reduce a sense of guilt or guilt proneness, why are there guilty-and neurotic-Christians? Allport (1955) suggests a few sources-the arresting forces of training, producing infantile, self-serving and superstitious religious belief; religious insecurity, leading to compulsive rituals of reassurance; and extremely rigid training in home or church. It will be helpful to classify potential reasons into six areas: ecclesiogenic neurosis, inadequate understanding, convoluted thinking, inferiority feelings, attraction of neurotics, and actuarial explanation.

I . Ecclesiogenic Neurosis. The German psychiatrist Klaus Thomas coined the term ecclesiogenic neurosis (1965) to describe the induction of neurotic symptoms in individuals who are expected to live up to moral standards of the Church without having or before gaining the necessary saving faith (Harnik, 1978). The unreasonable-at a particular point in time-demands of the Church, or of a moralistic Christian family, may set the behavior ideal so high above behavior potential that the individual despairs of ever measuring up. Sin abounds, guilt abounds, and where grace does not intervene through saving faith, the result is neurosis.

Thomas's postulation centers around the development of neurosis in the child, but it is likewise applicable to the adolescent or adult individual. Even with saving faith, an individual Christian may have ethical standards or moral values set far beyond his or her ability to equal behaviorally. The recognized disparity then produces dissatisfaction and anxiety, if not actual guilt. A conscious sense of guilt may be precluded in some individuals through cognitive acceptance of forgiveness, without concomitant anxiety reduction. Where the acceptance of forgiveness does not extend to the point of accepting the failure and moving to better efforts, the sense of guilt is simply repressed as cognitively and logically dissonant. The repressed guilt then continues to contribute to free-floating anxiety, producing neurotic symptoms.

Examples of ecclesiogenic neurotic symptoms in adults may be found among ascetic mystics, extreme penitents, and the mediaeval flagellants. It is also possible that St. Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was a psychosomatic ailment induced by feelings of anxiety over his pre-Damascus treatment of the Christians-forgiven, but not forgotten, as evidenced by his later sermons.

Paul Young is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Houghton College, a Christian college of liberal arts associated with the Wesleyan Church. His BA degree was from Houghton College, and his MA from the University of Alberta, where he is currently a candidate for PhD. His research interests are directed at the interaction of biopsychology and personality.

A second, more reprehensible form of ecclesiogenic neurosis is that produced by the haranguing preacher
who, in an attempt to shore up his or her own feelings of inadequacy or insecurity-neurotic symptoms-subjects 
his or her congregation to moral diatribes to which many are susceptible. Few have passed the preceding
week without error, and some preachers, sharing the same lot, work out their own guilt by projecting it upon
the all-too-receptive congregation. Many members, having the wickedness of their failings thus pointed out to
them week after week, develop a sense of personal in adequacy and worthlessness which may lead to the
development of neurotic symptoms.

Accusations that one has behaved wrongly, has per formed inadequately, or has failed miserably levelled by
a respected individual such as a member of the clergy, go a long way toward countermanding realistic self-evaluation. It is thus that the Church, through her ministers, can directly induce neurotic symptoms among her

2. Inadequate Understanding. Inadequate understanding of Christian principles of behavior, rather than actual 
demands of the Church, is responsible for many cases of neurosis among Christians. 

Many Christians, following Christ's admonition, "Be ye perfect, even as I also am perfect," set a standard of  
absolute perfection against which to measure their behavior. While such a belief set may be theologically
debatable, it does not in itself produce neurotic symp toms. When individuals espouse such a belief set with an 
inadequate understanding of what to do when their be havior is not in line, they must either experience guilt or
deny the non-conforming nature of the behavior. Both results occur-witness the story of the gentleman who
thanked the Lord that he had not sinned in over 20 years-and both induce neurotic symptoms. Denial it
self represents a loss of reality contact, and is as such a neurotic symptom.

3. Convoluted Thinking. This is a more extreme form of inadequate understanding. Many people in history have
been convinced that matter separates us from God, hence matter and even our material body are evil. Some
of these ascetics have gone to extremes, believing for ex ample that sexual relations, even in marriage, are intrin sically evil. Such convoluted thinking pervades much of modern Christian practice, often on a subtle level. Ex
amine the lyrics of some contemporary gospel music for expressions of a desire to be "set free from this earthly
prison," where "bars of bone hold my soul."

Convoluted thinking may also produce deviant beha vior in the name of Christian faith. Where individuals
establish themselves as special emissaries of God, claim ing a unique revelation from Him (symptomatic of a
psychotic delusional state), they may then gather neur otically subjugated converts to their new sects. Using
repressive techniques and paranoiac harangues, such in dividuals may impress their convoluted thinking onto
their followers, inducing at least a massive set of folid a deux, and at worst a pseudo-psychotic organization.

4.  Inferiority Feelings. Humility, one of the virtues of the Christian faith, induces behavior which is in many ways undifferentiable from that produced by feelings of inferiority. Preference for another over oneself, recognition of one's sinful nature, perception of the distance between self and God, all are aspects of humility and are all relative to inferiority feelings. Humble behavior due to inferiority feelings is no more valuable than humble behavior due to pride-"I can be humbler than you can."

Freud observed that the sense of inferiority and the sense of guilt are difficult to distinguish (1932). In fact, inferiority feelings are representative neurotic symtoms. Where the Church encourages humility without adequately distinguishing it from feelings of inferiority, without emphasizing the worth of the individual in God's sight, it encourages neurosis among its adherents.

When improperly used, aspects of Christian faith can and do contribute  to the induction and development of neurotic symptoms.

5. Attraction of Neurotics. When improperly used, aspects of Christian faith can and do contribute to the induction and development of neurotic symtoms. This does not in itself account for the presence of all neurotics in the Church. Many individuals from the general population, who complain of neurotic symptoms and an unassailable sense of guilt are drawn by the Church's promise of nurturant support and forgiveness. Spellman, Baskett and Byrne (1971) found that sudden religious converts had a higher level of anxiety than a group of regular church attenders and nonattenders combined, leading them to suggest that manifest anxiety-a neurotic symptom-was a contributing factor in religious conversion. Rappaport (1978) combined the anxiety dimension with a dogmatism scale (Rokeach, 1956) and found that individuals who switch to a different religious affiliation tended to be low on dogmatism and high on anxiety, while those who abandoned religious belief tended to be high dogmatism/low anxiety. The high dogmatism/high anxiety group maintained their religious beliefs. Thus both Spellman et al. and Rappaport found evidence relating high anxiety to religious conversion. The Church, then, does draw neurotics, or is at least the target of their movement.

That the church is successful in decreasing the anxiety of its adherents is attested to by the already-cited study by Barton and Vaughan (1976). At any given time, there will be highly anxious individuals in the church who have affiliated in an attempt to cope with their neurotic symptoms.

The implicit offer of free counselling by ministerial staff of the Church, much as it leaves to be desired, may be a drawing card for neurotics in the general population. A sympathetic ear, as psychologists from Freud to Rogers have observed, goes a long way in helping an individual cope with free-floating anxiety. Inasmuch as neurotic individuals recognize this, they may seek the Church as a venue for cathartic experience.

6. Actuarial Prediction. Actuarial models-cf. Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975-suggest that important personality factors, such as extraversion and neuroticism, are normally distributed in the population. Thus, in any large, relatively random sample-the Church, for example-one would expect to find individuals with a high tendency to express neurotic symptoms. From this point of view, there are neurotic Christians simply because there are neurotic people.

Causality of neurotic symptoms is non-central to this viewpoint. Differential induction of guilt in Christians and non-Christians is thus of little importance.

If these are the causes, what are the cures?

It is not sufficient, in dealing with the Christian neurotic, to simply encourage him or her to "have faith", to accept God's forgiveness and live a free life. Many neurotic Christians are in that state because their guilt feelings persist: they have not been able to accept God's forgiveness. They may cognitively believe it, but they are unable to phenomenologically experience it.

One successful and psychologically valid technique for the reduction of neurotic anxiety due to guilt is confession-and age-old practice of the Church. Confession is similar to Freud and Breuer's catharsis-the talking cure. Christian confession is more closely tied to the problem than is secular psychotherapeutic usage, for Christian confession is the admission to a fellow-Christian minister, priest or counsellor of a specific failure to live up to the shared Christian standards. The guilt was not over the activity itself, but was due to the discrepancy between the behavior and the shared ideal. The same behavior that the secular therapist views as rather innocuous may be recognized by the Christian counsellor as a guilt-inducing deviation from shared values. Confession itself can be used as a venue for neurotic, compulsive ritual, and so is not necessarily always of value. There are compulsive confessors, attempting to confess away their feelings of guilt. Others find comfort from their anxiety in ritualized confession, saving them from coming to grips with the source of their anxiety.

Another useful technique is that of restitution. Restitution is psychologically valid to the extent that it enables reconstruction of the shattered self-concept: the individual in effect says, "I was a worthless person for the wrong that I did, but since I have made up for it, I must be a better person than I thought I was. " Restitution towards God for sins not against other people often takes the form of penance. While theologians may debate the value of penance, its psychological import should not be overlooked. The Christian therapist can help the suffering individual to reach the true problem by emphasizing his or her worth in God's sight. When the low self-concept is contradicted by evidence of God's love and care, through the accepting, nurturant presence of the Christian therapist, the prognosis is vastly improved.

So then, there are neurotic Christians. The Church, especially through her ministers and excessive early moral demands in her families, produces a few. Offering rituals for reassurance and an easy sense of belonging, she doubtless develops a few more. And with offers of acceptance and a sympathetic ear, she attracts some others. But in a more promising vein, she heals, she frees from guilt. She offers, through Christian faith, a cure for many of the underlying causes of neurotic behavior.


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