“Salvation” or “Recovery”: Which Should You Choose? (Sept-Oct 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rubel Shelly
September – October, 1993

Church buildings are used for a variety of support-group meetings where people applying the 12-step methods of Alcoholics Anonymous explore addiction, sanity, and recovery. Pulpit vocabulary nowadays occasionally includes terms like “dysfunctional families,” “codependency,” and “acting out.” Literature from the recovery movement is in church foyers and sticking out of Christians’ Bibles. Some believers have opted out of Wednesday night Bible classes for support groups.

What’s going on here? What does all this terminology mean? What is the force that has spawned it? Is it dangerous to faith and pulling members away from the church? Should church leaders be alarmed?

Be very skeptical of anyone who offers a glib, one-size-fits-all assessment of today’s recovery movement, recovery vocabulary, or the relationship of recovery to salvation. In this issue of Wineskins, we hope to provide a variety of helpful insights that will assist you in understanding what is going on in this modern phenomenon and some of its implications.

Have some people abandoned the church for support groups? Yes. Does this mean that Christians who get involved in the recovery movement are likely to renounce the church? No. Are 12-step programs inherently dangerous? No. Are there potential abuses and harmful outcomes to the spiritual lives of people who participate in 12-step programs? Yes. Are there potential abuses and harmful outcomes to the spiritual lives of people who attend church regularly? Yes. Is there a foolproof way to know in advance which support groups and churches will be sources of harm to those who get involved with them? No.

The famous “12 steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous underlie a modern phenomenon in which millions of people are involved.1 People dealing with substance abuse, poor parenting, incest, gambling, and yes, religion have come together to share experiences, offer non-judgmental acceptance of one another, and support each other in developing healthier coping skills. The one requirement of joining such a group is that one must truly want to overcome some enslaving, self-destructive behavior.

There is nothing about the 12 steps that is anti-Christian. As a matter of fact, they are very biblical in nature.2 Beginning with honesty, repentance, and surrender to one’s “Higher Power” and moving through confession of specific wrongdoings and making restitution where possible all the way to pointing other strugglers to the prospect of breaking away from their enslaving behaviors, they resemble a sound theology of redemption, sanctification, and evangelism.

If its method resembles theology, then why were Alcoholics Anonymous and its sister movements founded? Because the church was failing to do its job!

Half a century ago, alcoholics weren’t getting much that was practical or helpful from churches. They were getting harsh looks and ringing denunciations. If one confessed to drunkenness or was found out as an alcoholic, he or she would be stripped of church office or function and given no help. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, such persons would be made to feel both unwelcome and unwanted by churches. At the end of some of the finger-shaking scoldings they got from incensed church leaders, many of them had to go immediately and have a drink!

In the absence of firm disapproval of an unhealthy behavior coupled with resolute acceptance of the person enmeshed in it from the church, these people had to establish a healing support system in “secular” form. Thus the 12-step movement came into being as a response to the failure of the church to deal with alcoholics, gamblers, and the like on the model of Jesus’ treatment of them (cf. John 8:1ff). If the church had been behaving toward people enslaved by sinful habits in the manner Jesus did, there probably would never have been a need for AA, CoDA, GA, SA, and the dozens of other support groups that today aid millions of people in breaking free of sick habits and sinful deeds.

Our culture is using the word “recovery” in much the same way the Bible uses the term “salvation.” As a secular goal, recovery means breaking certain self-destructive patterns of thinking and behaving, reestablishing (where possible) right relationships with others, and surrendering to a reality greater than self (i.e., a “Higher Power”). As a biblical goal, salvation means being redeemed from sin, reconciled to one’s brothers and sisters, and taking up one’s cross daily to follow Christ. The former is simply a less distinct version of the latter.

Many people give AA credit for turning their lives around and restoring meaning to their existence. Not for a moment would I discount the significance of the 12 steps to their recovery from alcoholism. As a Christian, though, I am forced to believe that their recovery has a “glass ceiling” without Jesus Christ. The 12 steps can get one sober, refocus one’s attention on life’s real priorities, and allow a person to resume a positive role in society. Without the blood of Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, though, life in its fullest form remains elusive.

Without the blood of Christ, for example, forgiveness is only partial at best. Since all sin is against God, pardon must ultimately come from him. It is as impossible to forgive oneself of sin as it is to sit in one’s own lap.

Without the power of the Holy Spirit, human willpower as buttressed by caring friends is the limit of one’s capacity for doing good. The Holy Spirit, however, opens vistas beyond what is possible by human resolve and resources.

Although some will choose between the alternatives, it will be far wiser to see the compatibility of our culture’s vigorous pursuit of “recovery” and the biblical concept of “salvation.”

Most Christians could benefit from greater openness about ourselves and less censure of others, more passion for being authentically spiritual and less for being artificially religious. Most would grow stronger in the Lord by having a small group of trustworthy people by whom to be held accountable and with whom to be spiritually transparent without being judged. Most would admit their need for the sort of loving support that comes from intimacy with others who share a common spiritual goal. These are things the church is supposed to provide its members but too often fails in because of formalism and caution born of experience.

All persons in recovery from what 12-step movements call “insane behavior” need Jesus, for it is only in him that one becomes a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and ceases to be merely a victim of his or her own past.


1 The “basic text” for AA that contains the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, and explains how the program works is Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1976). It is often referred to as The Big Book. It may be purchased by calling the telephone number for AA/Alcoholics Anonymous in one’s local telephone book. The same number provides information on times and locations for meetings in the area.

2Cf. Nan Robertson, Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988), pp. 56-85.Wineskins Magazine

Rubel ShellyRubel Shelly preached for the Family of God at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1978-2005. During that time he also taught at Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, and is the author or co-author of many books, including The Jesus Community: A Theology of Relational Faith and The Second Incarnation. He presently lives in the Greater Detroit area where he teaches philosophy and religion at Rochester College. He is known as a community leader in Nashville and has served with such groups as the AIDS Education Committee of the American Red Cross, a medical relief project to an 1100-bed children’s hospital in Moscow called “From Nashville With Love,” and “Seeds of Kindness.”

He is the author of more than 20 books, including several which have been translated into languages such as Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Russian. He has published widely in religious journals. He was founding co-editor with Mike Cope of New Wineskins. Shelly has lectured on Christian apologetics, ethics, and medical ethics on university campuses across America and in several foreign countries. He has done short-term mission work in such places as Kenya, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Russia. He was educated at Harding University (B.A.), Harding Graduate School of Religion (M.A., M. Th.), and Vanderbilt University (M.A., Ph.D.). He is married to the former Myra Shappley, and they are the parents of three children: Mrs. David (Michelle) Arms, Tim, and Tom. [RubelShelly.com]

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 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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