12 Step Explosion: A Christian Response to the Recovery Movement (Sept-Oct 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by C. Jefferson Hood
September – October, 1993

At the time it didn’t seem like much of a meeting. One man, desperately attempting to stay sober, met another man who had been unable to stop drinking. The two hit it off in a remarkable way. After a month of late-night talks and with the help of a conservative religious meeting they had found, the second man joined the first in a vow of sobriety. The place was Akron, Ohio, the date was June 10, 1935, and the group which was founded would five years later become known as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Psychiatrist Scott Peck has called the founding of AA the greatest event of the twentieth century. Author Keith Miller has referred to the 12 steps as “a way of spiritual healing and growth that may well be the most important spiritual model of any age for many contemporary Christians.” What began with the efforts to help two men struggling to stay sober has grown into a recovery movement which has worked the miracle of change in the lives of millions of people. Today there is a growing number of groups which use the 12 steps as a guide to overcoming problems and addictions in their lives. Narcotics Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, and Alanon are just some of the recovery groups AA has spawned.

Yet with all the accolades AA and the assorted recovery groups have received, many Christians are at best ambivalent and at worst hostile toward the movement. The 12 steps focus on a “Higher Power” and the reference to “God as we understood Him” make some followers of Jesus uncomfortable. The language may sound too soft, accepting too much and excluding nothing in the religious arena. Some may fear that recovery groups will become a substitute for involvement in a local church. Also, the disease concept of addiction, a central part of AA philosophy, seems to some to release an addict from responsibility for his or her actions.

In order to know how to respond to this exploding phenomenon, some more information is needed. Understanding how the 12 steps were developed and how they are used to facilitate the recovery process can help believers know how to respond to the recovery movement and the men and women who are attempting to change their lives using this model.

BIBLE ROOTS

Bill Wilson was unquestionably the most influential person in the development of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1934 he was a grandiose, loud-talking alcoholic living in New York City. He had attempted to stop drinking a number of times, but without success. One day an old drinking friend of his, Ebby Thacher, paid him a visit. He told Wilson that he had been able to get sober through a religious experience. He had been taught by members of the Oxford Group, a group founded in the early 1900s as an evangelistic movement dedicated to reclaiming first-century Christianity. They had visited him in jail, encouraging him to surrender his life to God and when he did so, his desire to drink was gone. His life was changed.

Wilson was at first hesitant to accept his friend’s testimony. He did go to a meeting sponsored by Calvary Episcopal Church, local headquarters of the Oxford Group. It took another drinking binge and hospitalization for him to recognize the seriousness of his problem. He was advised to “turn your life over to the care of God” and this time was willing to do so. From that day on, he never took another drink.

Once sober, he joined the local Oxford Group, which was led by Sam Shoemaker. Wilson would later refer to Shoemaker as the man who revealed the spiritual keys by which he and other alcoholics were liberated from prison. Those early members of what would become AA got their ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others directly from the Oxford Group and the teaching of Sam Shoemaker.

It was during the next spring that Bill Wilson traveled to Akron, Ohio on business. His deal fell through, and he found himself depressed and broke and tempted to drink. He contacted a local member of the Oxford Group who introduced him to Dr. Bob Smith, the man who would become co-founder of AA. Together they found the support they needed to stay with their vow of sobriety.

At first they continued their work within the confines of the group, but later broke away because they saw the Oxford Group’s approach as being too religious. Oxford Group meetings were small, informal gatherings. They stressed prayer, mutual confessions, the importance of making restitution when you had wronged anyone and the importance of telling your personal story. Most of these concepts and practices later found their way into AA. The publication of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939 gave the group their name, codified the 12 steps and publicized to others the ideas of this fledging group. The “big book” as it is called in AA circles has sold over 10 million copies.

Even from this brief history, it is easy to see that the roots of Alcoholics Anonymous, its teaching and practice, grew out of the meetings of the Oxford Groups. In addition, the core concepts of the 12 steps were also cultivated from the precepts emphasized by this restoration-minded group. The biblical influence on the wording and content of the steps is difficult to miss.

THE 12 STEPS

You may have heard about them for years, but never seen a copy of the 12 steps in their entirety. For this reason, it seems important to include them here:

1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4) Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5) Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6) Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7) Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8) Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9) Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10) Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11) Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12) Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

With a change in wording in the first step from “alcohol” to the particular issue or addiction being addressed, these 12 steps are used in the wide range of recovery groups available. At a typical meeting, these steps are recited as the meeting begins. The experience of repetition plants them firmly in the minds of those who attend. The real process of sobriety doesn’t come simply from attending the meetings, but from “working the steps.” The support of the group and the direction of a sponsor, usually a mentor of the same sex who has some experience in working the steps, are vital to the recovery process.

In forging these steps, the pioneers of AA rejected many of the religious concepts of the Oxford Group, but kept the spiritual dimensions. Notice the powerful force of the program. The first three are steps of surrender. Change begins in the life of a recovering person only when the problem in all its severity is admitted and God is acknowledged as the only avenue of deliverance. These three steps are a summary of the credo of every Christian who wishes to turn his life over to God and are very much in line with Paul’s teaching in Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out…. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 3:34; 7:18; 12:1).

Steps four through nine are steps of preparation and action. Self is examined. The damage our actions have inflicted on others is acknowledged. Amends are made. These steps reflect the Bible’s entreaties to examine ourselves, confess our sins, walk humbly before the Lord and follow the golden rule (2 Corinthians 13:5; James 5:16a; 4:10; Matthew 7:12).

The final three steps focus on maintaining the changes made. People in recovery programs sustain their “sobriety” by focusing on doing a “daily 10th step,” as well as deepening their spiritual connection with God and sharing the message with others. Once again, the Bible influence on the development of these steps is easy to see. Christians are cautioned to “be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Paul suggests that letting “the word of Christ dwell in you richly” is an avenue to spiritual growth (Colossians 3:16). Sharing the message is a hallmark of the Christian faith (Matthew 18:18-20).

The openness of the language with respect to God only adds to the energy of the 12 steps. Since many people have been hurt by their religious ties, the use of the concept of “a power greater than ourselves” and “God as we understood Him” allows a person to receive the benefit of the steps without having to confront the religious issues in the beginning of the recovery process. As he or she grows stronger spiritually, the nature of his or her relationship with God can be examined further.

The content of these steps also makes it clear that people in recovery programs do take responsibility for their issues and addictions. The disease concept leaves no room for excuses and blaming. Those in 12-step programs are engaged in a soul-searching process which explores the depths of one’s life.

RECOVERY PROGRAMS ARE NOT THE CHURCH

Even though the 12 steps grew out of a church setting, working the steps isn’t the same as being involved in a local church. Many addicts have testified to the life-transforming power in the program, but having a life-changing experience and having a salvation experience are two different things. While there is an encounter with God inherent in the 12-step process, this is not the same as being delivered from sin and accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord. However, to say that recovering is not the same as being saved does not diminish in any way the experience of deliverance from the prison of addiction and abuse. The steps leading to that sobriety are indeed life-giving and life-saving steps.

Recovery support groups are in no way a substitute for a local church. Churches can supply what the groups cannot: involvement with a group of believers who share a common allegiance to Jesus, the fellowship of redeemed sinners, and joining together in joyful worship to God. Having said that, many church members have noted that they experience a level of honesty at 12-step meetings that is missing in classes at their local church. Participants often feel a greater level of freedom to speak their minds in 12-step groups than in Sunday School. This implies that while support groups are not a substitute for the local church, the local church (at least as it currently exists in many places) is no substitute for the support groups.

Many people in the recovery community are open to a salvation experience with Jesus. Others are not. This means that churches can reach many, but not all those who are involved in support groups. Facing one’s addiction and beginning the recovery process through the 12 steps can be the first awareness some people have of the destructive presence of sin in their lives. When a person recognizes his weakness and sees the need for a power beyond his own to rescue him from death, he becomes open to the message of the gospel. For the first time in their lives, some people may be ready to move toward a saving relationship with God as the result of their experience in a recovery group.

This use of progressive intensity in dealing with people seems to be very similar to Jesus’ use of healing to touch the lives of those he contacted who were socially rejected, sick, or needy. When Jesus healed a man born blind, the man had a face-to-face encounter with God which led to the healing of his sightless eyes. This change in his life altered everything about his world, even to the point of straining his relationship with his parents and the religious leaders of his community. As he struggled with those changes, Jesus came to him again. He asked him if he believed, and with further teaching, he accepted Jesus as Lord (John 9).

Just as Jesus would heal the lame and blind, then wait until later to confront the issue of salvation, so the 12 steps speak to those who feel broken or infirm. First, the need for wholeness and sobriety is met. Then further contact with the message of the gospel can bring the recovering person to a place of making a choice about his relationship with Jesus.

CONCLUSION

Those who are involved in 12-step programs need our love and concern, not our judgment. Jesus was patient with those who were learning to follow him; in the same way we need to be patient with recovering persons who are in the process of healing. Using the concept of “God as we understood Him” allows the recovering person to meet with God in whatever way he or she can at that point in time.

Not all recovering persons will feel the need to seek a conversion experience through Jesus. That does not argue against the value of the 12-step programs. On one occasion, Jesus healed 10 lepers of their ghastly disease. Only one of them returned to express gratitude. The failure of the nine to praise God for the healing doesn’t mean that their physical recovery was not real (Luke 17:11-19). Just as some of the lepers Jesus healed failed to return to him and say thanks, so some who have been delivered from an addiction may forget to acknowledge the sovereignty of Jehovah God in the healing process and fail to make a commitment to him which leads to salvation. That failure doesn’t argue against the recovery programs any more than the failure of the nine to express gratitude at their healing implies that Jesus should not have performed his miracle.

We have nothing to fear from the 12-step programs. Even to their very core these programs are based on solid, biblical concepts. Many hurting people are being helped by the life-enhancing power of these groups. They are not the church and don’t try to be. They can, however, be a funnel to bring people with intense needs into contact with Jesus and into the fellowship of a concerned and compassionate body of believers.

C. Jefferson Hood

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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