Should Christians Attend Alcoholics Anonymous?
Can Alcoholics Anonymous break my addiction? It’s a question from a listener named Tanya. “Dear Pastor John, I’m five years sober from alcohol because I went to A.A. and was miraculously delivered from the desire to drink. I was, and am, a born-again believer. I listen to and read much of your content. However, I’m now hearing that it is wrong for a Christian to attend A.A. I only want to do the right thing before the Lord. I have entered a deeper relationship with God through A.A. and am always at liberty to declare that my ‘higher power’ is Jesus Christ. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on the matter.” Pastor John, what potential role can social programs play in really helping to bring genuine change to the Christian life?
The roots of Alcoholics Anonymous are in the Christian tradition. The founders, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, were members of a Christian revival organization called the Oxford Group. So, even though the A.A. movement now is non-sectarian, it’s not surprising, therefore, that the 12 steps are all, so to speak, like the Christian shell where the nut of Christ has been removed. With this much outward similarity to the way Christians overcome sin, it’s not surprising to me that the 12 steps have and can be amazingly helpful for those moving out of addiction to alcohol.
Road to Recovery
My guess is that most of our listeners will never have read all of the 12 steps. Some for sure have. So, I want to read them, all of them. It will take only a minute. They’re very short. I want to read them and then say something to Tanya about her situation.
We admit we are powerless over alcohol — that our lives are unmanageable.
We come to be aware of a Power greater than ourselves and only it can restore us to sanity.
We make a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understand him.
We take a personal inventory of strengths and weaknesses of character.
We admit to God and to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrong.
We become willing to look at our negative qualities and admit our defects of character.
We humbly ask God, as we understand him, to remove our shortcomings.
We make a list of people we have harmed and are willing to apologize and right our wrongs.
We set about making amends for those wrongs.
We continue to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong, to promptly admit it.
We reach out to God and accept that he has a plan for our life.
Assuming we have experienced a spiritual awakening that comes as a result of completing the 11 steps, we carry the message of A.A. to other addicts and practice the principles of A.A. in our daily affairs.
Those are the 12 steps. So, my first response to Tanya’s situation is to give thanks to God that he has used A.A. in her deliverance from bondage to alcohol. I’m thankful that has happened. This does not surprise me, and it does not worry me. I praise God for it.
Get the Full Picture
What would worry me is if Tanya did not see the serious shortcomings of the 12 steps, and seek to make up for them in her ongoing warfare with sin in some kind of good, solid, healthy church, and in her own study of Scripture.
I would not require Tanya to keep away from these meetings. That wouldn’t be my first approach. I wouldn’t say, “You can’t go there anymore.” I would encourage her to go deep with Scripture, probably with the help of a good older woman who knows her Scripture well, and a good, solid church, to see the full picture of how God provides for our warfare with sin, including alcoholism.
And then if I were her, I would seek to fight the battle alongside fellow Christians who share the same vision of biblical sanctification. And I hope she has a good church where she can find that kind of camaraderie in warfare against sin, and they don’t all have to be alcoholics. All of us have besetting sins, and we have the same kinds of strategies in the Bible.
The Greatest Misstep
Here’s what she should recognize and be concerned about: the most serious omission of A.A. is not that the higher power is unnamed. Tanya says that she sees Jesus as her higher power. Well, that’s good. But the most glaring omission is the entire transaction between God and man in Christ Jesus at the cross. The cross is missing. The atonement for sin is missing.
And that is because the greatest problem of humankind is missing — namely, not alcoholism, not the hurt we have done others, but sin against God, and the outrage it is in dishonoring God. The greatest problem that has to be solved in every human life everywhere on this planet — no matter what tribe, language, culture it is — the greatest problem that has to be solved in every life is the just and holy wrath of God against us because of our dishonoring God in our sins against him.
Without this — a grasp of this vertical alienation between us and God and the price paid on the cross to overcome that alienation — even adding the name God or Jesus to the higher power will become a religious technique rather than an act of redemption or ransom by means of the death of Jesus paying for our sins and providing our perfect righteousness and acceptance with God.
Forgiven, We Fight
The essence of the Christian warfare with sin, which is missing from Alcoholics Anonymous, is that we fight sin as justified sinners. That is, we fight as blood-bought, forgiven children of God based on the work of Christ alone. We come to see the death and resurrection of Jesus as our only hope of acceptance with God. That’s the fundamental problem: acceptance with God, peace with God. And then, because we are accepted and forgiven, because of Christ alone, we can make progress in fighting actual sin.
So, my prayer is that Tanya and all others who have found help in A.A. would give thanks to God for his great grace in using A.A. to help them. And then my prayer is that they would go deep into the distinctive, precious, powerful way that the Bible glorifies Christ and his cross in how we fight sin as blood-bought, justified, forgiven children of God.
Paul says in Titus 2:14 that Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” In other words, Jesus shed his blood to deliver alcoholics and the rest of us from whatever bondage holds us fast. That’s the meaning of the blood of Christ: to deliver us from those.
So, our great aim should be to glorify Christ and his cross by defeating our sins with the power of that blood and righteousness.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons.