Twelve-Step Recovery Groups and the Christian

(April 1996 – Volume 2, Issue 6)

Without a doubt, the most widely recommended “therapy” for people struggling with life (including various forms of addictions, many “mental illnesses,” and conditions such as codependency) is a recovery group that employs a Twelve-Step program. The original Twelve-Step recovery group is, of course, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) which was founded in 1935. Today there are thousands of recovery groups modeled after AA. Minirth and Meier specifically place their stamp of approval on the following groups: AA, Al-Anon, Alateen, Debtors Anonymous, Emotions A, Gamblers A, Narcotics A, Codependents A, National Association for Children of Alcoholics, Overcomers Outreach, Overeaters A, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Incest Survivors A, Adult Children A, Al-Atot, Alcoholics Victorious, Bulimics/Anorexics A, Child Abusers A, Codependents of Sex Addicts, Fundamentalists A, Parents A, Pills A, Sex Addicts A, Sexaholics A, Sex and Love A, Shoplifters A, Smokers A, Spenders A, Victims of Incest Can Emerge, and Workaholics A (Love is a Choice p280,281).

In this issue we will detail the background of AA, examine its steps, look at research and propose a Biblical response.

The Background of Alcoholics Anonymous

Many believers mistakenly believe that the founders of AA were Christians who established their organization on Biblical principles. Minirth and Meier, for example say, “The first AA workers knew God intimately” (Ibid p12). In fact, the founders of AA, while religious, never claimed to be Christians — rather they were enmeshed in a wide range of spiritual activities including heavy involvement with the occult and spiritualism.

Bill Wilson was an alcoholic whose life had become unmanageable. Wilson became hopeful that he could overcome his problem when his doctor convinced him that his heavy drinking was not his fault, but rather due to an “allergy” (a new idea at the time). Wilson then entered the hospital in order to receive drying-out treatments, which he assumed would solve his problems. Upon leaving the hospital he soon returned to his old ways. He then concluded that he was doomed.

It was at this point that Wilson ran into an old drinking buddy by the name of Ebby Thatcher. Thatcher had whipped his drinking problem and seemed like a new man. He attributed his new life to having “got religion.” Wilson envied his old friend’s peace of mind but resisted the idea of submitting himself to God. Shortly thereafter he entered another detoxification program at the hospital, where he was to receive his own religious experience. Alone in his room, perhaps at the lowest point of his life, Wilson finally cried out in desperation, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!” He then describes his experience, “Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy — I was conscious of nothing else for a time” ( Pass It On, p 121 ).

The experience had a profound effect on Wilson. From that point on he believed in the existence of God and he stopped drinking alcohol. However, at no time in his life (to our knowledge) did Bill Wilson ever place his faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin. In addition, rather than turning to the Bible to explain more about God, he turned to William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James was a philosopher-psychologist (1842-1910) who was intrigued with mystical, existential experiences. He believed that people from all religions had had virtually identical experiences in which the person becomes one with the Absolute (God, as we understand Him). The official AA biography of Wilson says, “James gave Bill the material he needed to understand what had just happened to him — and gave it to him in a way that was acceptable to Bill” (see Psychoheresy Update, Spring 1991 ).

It is important to note that Wilson’s faith system was not based on Jesus Christ and Him crucified; nor is there any mention of Jesus Christ being the Savior of his life. Both he and Bob Smith (cofounder of AA) embraced and promoted a variety of spiritual experiences, which included practicing spiritualism and conversing with the dead (which the Bible forbids) and being heavily involved in seances. Wilson also acted as a medium or channeler. It was while involved in these types of religious experiences, not Biblical Christianity, that Wilson developed his Twelve Steps ( Pass It On, pp 156, 198, 275 and 278 ).

Bill Wilson received some Christian influence from a highly experiential oriented organization called the Oxford Group. Sam Shoemaker, the leader of the Oxford Group, was responsible for many of the concepts that Wilson later incorporated into AA. At one time Wilson did consider becoming a Catholic, but he felt that the authoritative layout of the Church was too much for him, and he did not want to associate AA with any one religious sect. Tim Stafford sums up Bill Wilson’s religious life well when he wrote, “Though he was close to Christians for the rest of his life, and once took a year of instruction in the Catholic faith, . . . he never could reconcile himself to any orthodox expression of faith. His continuing religious search led him to LSD and spiritualist experiments. ‘God as we understand him’ allows room for seekers, but also those who prefer to define God, rather than to allow Him to define them. It is a profoundly ambivalent expression” (Christianity Today; July 22, 1991; p17; “The Hidden Gospel of the 12 Steps”).

The Twelve Steps

The major concern that we have with AA (and other such recovery groups) is that contrary to their denial, they constitute a religious system. For example, they believe and talk about God, they pray, they have a creed, Alcoholics Anonymous is their bible, and they fellowship in a church-like setting. However, just like all religions, save true Christianity, Twelve-Step recovery groups cannot bring a person into a right relationship with God; for their god is not the God of Scripture, their prayers are to whatever power(s) they choose, their bible is not God’s Word, and their salvation is from “addiction,” not sin. The devil is more than happy to provide sobriety in the place of salvation. AA and recovery movements are false religions, attempting to lead mankind to a better and happier life, yet bypass the Cross.

The following is an overview of the Twelve Steps. Each recovery group words these steps somewhat differently to fit its needs, but the steps are all based upon the Twelve Steps of AA:

STEP #1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”
While this step sounds Biblical, unfortunately AA defines alcoholism as a disease. Stafford says, “The ‘disease concept’ of alcoholism — not invented, but certainly popularized by AA — seems to remove any moral dimension from drinking” (Ibid. p14). Martin Bobgan writes,

Step One is a dangerous counterfeit for both Christians and non-Christians. It serves as a substitute for acknowledging one’s own depravity, sinful acts and utter lostness apart from Jesus Christ, the only Savior and the only way to forgiveness (relief of true guilt)” (12 Steps to Destruction p91).

It should be noted throughout this study that the other recovery groups simply mimic what AA has done. Codependents Anonymous, for example, believes codependency is an illness (mental); Sexaholics Anonymous would teach that addiction to sex is an illness. The first step for Codependents only changes one word, “We admitted we were powerless over others — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

STEP #2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

STEP #3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him(Emphasis in original).
AA denies being a religion, nevertheless, when the central activity of a society is to turn one’s will and life over to God, that society is a religious society. What makes AA unique is that it doesn’t care which god you choose, so long as that god is loving and nonjudgmental. Of course, we would agree that sobriety is important, but one will go to Hell sober — if he turns his life over to any but the true God as revealed in Scripture.

STEP #4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

STEP #5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
Much of steps four and five have a Biblical ring to them — if we are talking about the search for and confession of our own sins. This is often not the case, but rather an opportunity to discover who has wronged us in the past. On the other hand, confession of sins to other people should ordinarily be only as broad as those affected by those sins. Keep in mind, as well, that in AA God can be any form of higher power (even self); therefore, these steps are not the same as confession or repentance of sin as outlined in the Bible. In addition, without the absolutes of Scripture, how is one to decide when he is morally wrong? Is the standard AA, or the majority of people, or our own hearts? Like many false religions the steps of AA sound very close to Biblical teaching until examined closely.

STEP #6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

STEP #7: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
While moralistic, these steps are not Biblical. God would have us recognize our total depravity, turn to Him in faith and be transformed (Eph. 2:1-10; II Cor. 5:17). The real problem of man is not that he has “defects” and “shortcomings,” but that he is not in proper relationship with God.

STEP #8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”

STEP #9: “Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
The major concern with steps eight and nine is that they are self-serving. The addicted person is doing these things to make himself feel better. Melody Beattie in Codependent’s Guide to the Twelve Steps says, “We are on our way to freeing ourselves from guilt, taking responsibility for ourselves, removing ourselves as victims, and restoring these relationships” (p146). The dedication of Beattie’s book says plenty: “This book is dedicated to me.”

STEP #10: “Continued to take a personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
“This sounds terrific, however, by what standard is this ‘honest analysis’ to be made? What is the basis for an accurate self-appraisal? Because the Bible is not the standard for judgment, personal inventory depends upon what standard is this ‘honest analysis’ to be made? What is the basis for an accurate self-appraisal? Because the Bible is not the standard for judgment, personal inventory depends upon subjective values to determine what is right or wrong” (Bobgan p213).

STEP #11: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understoodHim, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out” (emphasis in original).
The question must be asked, “If these people are not praying to the true God, what kind of responses are they receiving, and from whom?” Beattie, whose books are regularly sold in Christian bookstores, has this to say, “Now I have found a spiritual path through some Native American practices. Zen meditation, and shamanistic practices. . . We build a connection to God by building a connection to ourselves ” (p179,180). She also has this to say about the messages we receive from “our god,” “When it is time, we will receive all the guidance, power and assistance we need to do what we have to do, and we can let go of the rest. If we wait until it is time, our part will be clear. It will be possible. It will happen — naturally, gradually, and with ease. . . When in doubt, when confused stop and ask: What do I need to do to take care of myself? Then listen, and trust what we hear” (p184). SCARY STUFF!

STEP#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.”
Although this sounds a lot like witnessing, listen to the focus of this step as explained by Bill Wilson, “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.”

Stafford observes, “In other words, AA members share their testimony not simply out of concern for others, but also out of concern for themselves” (p18). Beattie makes this even clearer for codependents, “It is a message of self-love, self-nurturing, paying attention to our own issues, and taking responsibility for ourselves, whether that means addressing our own behaviors or owning our power to take care of ourselves . . . Our message is that we are lovable and deserving people, and we need to begin loving ourselves” (p189).


Whether something “works” or not, is never the criteria for discerning truth. Only that the scrutiny of the Scriptures can reveal truth. In the light of the Word we know that twelve-step programs are unbiblical, but it is worth our time to at least ask the question, “do these programs even work?” The interesting thing is that we really do not know! Let’s examine the statements made by researchers:

In spite of the fact that it inspires nearly universal acclaim and enthusiasm among alcoholism treatment personnel in the United States, Alcoholics Anonymous wholly lacks experimental support for its efficacy (The Effectiveness of Alcoholism Treatment: What Research Reveals). Only two studies have employed random assignment and adequate controls to compare the efficacy of AA versus no intervention or alternative interventions. Brandsma et al. (1980) found no difference at 12-month follow-up between AA and no treatment, and at 3-month follow-up those assigned to AA were found to be significantly more likely to be binge drinking, relative to controls or those assigned to other interventions… Bitman and Crawford (1966) assigned court-mandated “alcohol addicts” to AA, Clinic Treatment or no treatment (probation only). Based on records or rearrest, 31% of AA clients and 32% of clinic-treated clients were judged successful, as compared with 44% success in the untreated group (Ibid). Most recovery from alcoholism is not the result of treatment. Probably no more than 10% of alcohol abusers are ever treated at all, but as many as 40% recover spontaneously (The Harvard Medical School Mental Health Review publication, “Alcohol Abuse and Dependence”). Several studies have shown that those who quit drinking via AA actually have higher relapse rates than those who quit on their own (Disease of America: Addiction Testament out of Control).

Biblical Response

The 12-Step recovery programs, as practiced in secular society, are clearly non-Christian, unbiblical attempts to solve the problems of life apart from bowing before the One and only God. The Scriptures provide answers and solutions for every “addiction” and struggle man faces (II Pet. 1:3). However, natural man would rather “discover” his own way than yield to God’s way. We expect such behavior from the unsaved, but when the church trades in the Scriptures for Bill Wilson’s revelations, it amazes us. We agree with Martin Bobgan’s conclusion, “In spite of all that the Lord has given to His children through His Word and Holy Spirit, Christians continue to look elsewhere to solve their problems of living” (Bobgan p175). This is nothing new, see Jere. 2:13; Isa. 8:19,20. Some have suggested however that believers could bring the Twelve-Step programs into the church and “Christianize” them. We could point the struggler to the true God and at the same time take advantage of a secular program that seems to work. Besides the fact that there is no evidence that recovery programs are effective, we must ask why would a believer want to use a recovery program? The believer has the Word and Spirit of God. What does he need with constantly changing human wisdom and the methods of man? Besides, God already has revealed to us a two-step recovery program:

STEP#1: SALVATION — the forgiveness of sin, being justified by God and therefore being made the righteousness of God (Rom. 3:21-31).

STEP#2: SANCTIFICATION — growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Pet. 1:3).

We would do well to “work” God’s 2-step program, rather than man’s 12-step program!


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