12 Step Recovery: An Exposition of the Insufficiency of Twelve Step Theology

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  – John 14:6

Having been, like many others, a beneficiary of the Twelve Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and also Christian support groups that employ the twelve step theology, I would like to pursue with you the reality of the harmony, or lack thereof, of this teaching with the inspired Word of God. While it is the opinion of many that the twelve steps are rooted in Scripture and the product of a group of Christian men known as the Oxford Group, it is important to recognize the intrinsic flaws in this accepted system of thinking.

Granted, AA is a “spiritual program” that centers around a spiritual awakening which resembles the born again experience. But while members are encouraged to adopt a higher power, that higher power is not clearly identified, at least in secular group. In Christian groups, Jesus Christ is spoken of as the higher power, but in some instances much emphasis is placed on dependence on the group itself to maintain a constant state of sobriety. In essence, the group can become the “higher power.” While sobriety is of the utmost importance to the person in recovery, it falls hopelessly short of the abundant life that Jesus offers to those who come to Him.

 “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” – John 10:10

In pursuing this abundant life, it is possible to get stuck in recovery and assume the identity of a recovering alcoholic or addict rather than progressing into the God-given identity of a child of God.

“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).

While this is readily accepted by those in recovery circles, it again falls short of God’s purpose of conforming us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” – Romans 8:28-29

In giving due respect to secular and Christian programs, they do address character issues through the process of working the twelve steps. Issues like resentment, forgiveness, self-directed behavior, anger, and deceit are brought to bear on a person’s spiritual growth. But while dealing with these issues, their true nature is often diluted or minimized, as they are referred to as character defects rather than as sin. The Bible instructs us to confess our sins or agree with God that we have, indeed, fallen short of His righteous requirements.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. – 1 John 1:9-10

Another issue that comes into play is one that was brought to my attention in a recent counseling session with a young man who had been in the rooms of NA for ten years. While there, he was actively engaged in the twelve step process and had thoroughly worked through the steps three times. His sobering comment while working through the process of repentance was, “I never realized that my sin was against God!” This is a serious oversight in the process of sanctification that must be addressed in order to facilitate a healthy relationship with God.

As we who are leaders in the church have been given the charge by Christ to make disciples, we must evaluate the doctrinal foundation of the recovery programs to which we are directing these disciples for counsel. Upon doing so we may discover that much of that in modern society that uses the label “Christian” is really not that at all. While Christian twelve step programs are definitely more favorable than their secular counterparts, we must examine the theology on which they are based to determine whether we are holding fast to sound doctrine.

“For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast to the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” – Titus 1:7-9“But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine.” – Titus 2:1

Conclusion: Where Do We Go From Here?

Secular Twelve Step Programs

These traditional programs might be helpful to those who are opposed to the gospel, for a limited period of time, in order to clear their mind and get them pointed in the direction of a higher power. The danger here is that they will be taught the disease model of addiction and will be constantly exposed to unsavory companions. Their identity as an addict/alcoholic will be reinforced and they will see themselves as different from normal people, including family and Christian friends.

Christian Twelve Step Programs

When choosing a twelve step Christian group, one must ascertain whether the group is teaching the sin model or disease model of addiction. The disease model minimizes personal responsibility in the fact that it teaches addiction is a matter of genetics rather than a personal choice.

James says clearly, “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

These is also a lot of secular methodology used in disease model programs. It is common to be asked how you feel about a Scripture rather than what God is trying to communicate through this passage. As each individual group has its own personality and format, one must investigate personally the suitability of the group to one’s needs.

Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, God can and will use many avenues to bring a person into a saving knowledge of Himself. But we must never believe that sobriety is a sufficient end in itself. God desires each one of us to be conformed to the image of Christ, transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and integrated into the Body of Christ. It is only when we are able to live victoriously as husbands, fathers, and active members of the Kingdom of God that we will experience the abundant life that Jesus Christ offers to those who come to the Father through Him.

All scripture is from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.


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