Twelve Steps in the Wrong Direction

(Volume 22, Issue 1, Jan/Feb 2016)

A Biblical View of Codependency and Alcoholics Anonymous

by Gary E. Gilley and M. Kurt Goedelman

A number of years ago I wrote a TOTT article dealing with twelve-step programs as well as codependency.  Recently that article was revised by myself and Kurt Goedelman, the director of Personal Freedom Outreach, and published in the PFO’s Quarterly Journal (January-March 2016). – Gary E. Gilley

Those who consume a steady diet of syndicated television talk shows or digest the writings of Christian psychologists such as Frank Minirth, [1] Paul Meier, and Henry Cloud will be surprised to learn that there is neither scientific nor biblical evidence to support the theories of codependency.

Codependency is a hot topic within current psychology. Before the late 20th century the word — and even the concept — was virtually unknown. Now, nearly everyone in one fashion or another seems to be codependent.


In The Christian’s Guide to Psychological Terms, Marshall and Mary Asher call codependency, “An irrational, unhealthy relationship where one or both parties are emotionally dependent on each other.” [2] They further note, “The term codependency is a term used in non-technical literature and especially self-help literature.” [3]

Martin and Deidre Bobgan, who for more than 30 years have educated Christians on the dangers of psychological counseling theories, tell us, “The word codependent was first used in the late 1970s to describe those people ‘whose lives had become unmanageable as a result of living in a committed relationship with an alcoholic.’”[4]

Citing two professionals in the field, the Bobgans wrote, “Originally, it [codependency] was used to describe the person or persons whose lives were affected as a result of their being involved with someone who was chemically dependent.” [5]

Today, definitions vary so much that it is often difficult to be certain what is being talked about.

Consider the ways that the term is described and explained by several popular “Christian” psychologizers:

“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” [6]

“In its broadest sense, codependency can be defined as ‘an addiction to people, behaviors, or things.’ Codependency is the fallacy of trying to control interior feelings by controlling people, things, and events on the outside. To the codependent, control or the lack of it is central to every aspect of life. The codependent may be addicted to another person. In this interpersonal codependency, the codependent has become so elaborately enmeshed in the other person that the sense of self — personal identity — is severely restricted, crowded out by that other person’s identity and problems.” [7]

“It’s [codependency] the condition when the love tanks are running on empty.” [8]

The Bobgans add:

“The idea of compulsive behavior also enters into the definition of codependency. The working definition at the first national conference on codependency (1989) used this definition: ‘Codependency is a pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity.’” [9]

Confused? Even Melody Beattie, the acknowledged spokeswoman for codependency, admitted:

“There are almost as many definitions of codependency as there are experiences that represent it. In desperation (or perhaps enlightenment), some therapists have proclaimed: ‘Codependency is anything, and everyone is codependent.’” [10]

Not only are the experts uncertain about what this “disorder” is, they are also not sure who has it. Drs. Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirth, and Paul Meier tell us that roughly 100 million Americans suffer from codependency. [11]

It has been estimated by yet another source that 85 percent of the codependent population is female. The primary reason is that traditional feminine traits and behaviors such as nurturing, mothering, and developing intimate relationships are often considered symptoms of codependency. Women who have chosen to be caretakers and nurturers rather than put their own feelings and desires above others are labeled codependent.

While we would acknowledge that these traits can be carried too far by some, we are greatly concerned when we are told that virtually the whole adult population — especially women — is suffering from this “disease.” Psychologists may be confusing codependence with unselfish acts of love and their goal may be to turn us into people who serve and love self more than others. If so, they are in contradiction with Philippians 2:3-4.


Psychologists Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier say that “unmet emotional needs, lost childhood, and the compulsion to fix the dysfunctional family” lead to codependency.[12] While these causes are interrelated, we will take them one at a time.

Unmet Emotional Needs: The theory is that we each have a reservoir of love — a “love tank.” If our reservoir has not been filled by the “significant others” in our lives, our emotional needs will not be met and we will become codependent. [13] This theory especially targets children.

Lost Childhood: Children lose their childhood through abuse usually by parents or parental figures. Active abuse such as incest and physical or emotional abuse are the most recognized forms and we must not deny or minimize them. However, we are told of more subtle forms of abuse that apparently leave similar scars on a child’s life. Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier assert there are other forms of abuse that are often not recognized. These include one parent who is preoccupied and unavailable to a child emotionally, a child who is not constantly praised, a lack of touching and hugging in the family, parents who are not at peace with one another sexually, parents who demand “too much,” parents depending too much on their children, a parent who is too rigid, and so forth. [14]

It is important to mention two points in response to the subtle forms of abuse suggested above. This view places extreme pressure on parents who don’t know where the line is between emotional availability and overindulgence, between firmness and rigidity, or expecting too much and not enough. What a horrible position to be in, knowing that the answers to these questions are relative, yet knowing that failure on our part will “scar” our children for life.

The biblical view would be that parents do have responsibility to their children, but that they are not responsible for the choices their children make. Likewise, instead of blaming our parents for the mistakes they made while raising us, we must take responsibility for our own actions. By the codependent definition of abuse, virtually all children in the past should have developed into codependents. Parents of 10 or more children could not have been emotionally available to all of them all the time. It would have been difficult if not impossible to fill their children’s love tanks while they worked 60 or more hours per week and their children often worked as well. Yet from all observations children in the past were as mentally healthy as those today, perhaps more so.

Second, and even more critical: If codependency has been our problem all of these years, God has failed us by not giving us instructions on how to deal with it and worse yet, has revealed this problem and its solution mostly to those who reject Christ and His revelation.

The Compulsion to Fix the Dysfunctional Family: Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier also wrote:

“We all possess a primal need to re-create the familiar, the original family situation,even if the familiar, the situation, is destructive and painful.” [15]

People want to re-create a painful situation, we are told, because we are compelled by our unconscious minds, which control 80 percent of our decisions (apparently without our conscious knowledge). [16] Why we would unconsciously choose to put ourselves through such pain is difficult to understand, but those in the codependency movement give three reasons:

• We believe that if the original situation can be drummed back into existence, this time around we can fix it. We can cure the pain. We know we can! The codependent possesses a powerful need to go back and fix what was wrong, he must cure the original pain.

• We believe that we were responsible for the rotten original family; therefore, we must be punished — we deserve pain. Codependents may actually be hooked on misery.

• We believe that there is that yearning for the familiar and the secure. Even if the past was painful, at least it was home.

John Bradshaw, author and television codependency guru, blames biblical teaching that everyone is born in a condition of sin. He asserts that such teaching produces a “shame-based” personality destined to become an addict. He wrote:

“Many religious denominations teach a concept of man as wretched and stained with original sin. Original sin as taught by some religious bodies means you are bad from the moment you are born. … With original sin you’re beat before you start.” [17]

Actually, the various “experts” come up with numerous and often contradictory reasons why they believe people become codependent. Why so many options? Perhaps this quote from the University of California’s Wellness Letter explains the problem:

The literature of codependency is based on assertions, generalizations, and anecdotes. … To startwithout the slightest shred of scientific evidence and casually label large groups as diseased may be helpful to a few, but it is potentially harmful and exploitative as well. If as the best sellers claim, ‘all society is an addict’ and 96% of us are codependents, that leaves precious few of us outside the rehab centers — but at that point the claims become ludicrous at best.” [18]

The codependency movement is quickly turning biblical living into a vice. Those who choose to put Christ and others before their own needs are being told they are sick and in need of therapy. It is no wonder that their world is confused.


Codependency advocates say that it is very difficult to discern whether the behavior of a codependent is caused by his “illness” or the “illness” is caused by his behavior. Melody Beattie groups the problems of codependent people around the following categories: caretaking, low self-worth, repression, obsession, controlling, denial, dependency, poor communication, weak boundaries, lack of trust, anger, sex problems, miscellaneous and progressive. [19] Few, if any, can totally escape this codependent label.

Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier blame addictions and compulsions on codependency. Even more importantly, they claim that a codependent is unable to obey God:

“The Christian’s foremost privilege and responsibility is to hear and respond to God. The codependent can neither hear clearly nor respond adequately. It’s that simple.”[20]

How cruel God must be to demand obedience from people who cannot obey because of their emotional illnesses (caused usually by harsh parents), then punish them because of their disobedience. Either the apostles of codependency are right or God (in His Word) is — we cannot have it both ways!


In order to recover from codependency, codependents must enter a “Twelve Step” program specifically designed for them. The program, Codependence Anonymous, is almost identical to Alcoholics Anonymous, with only minor changes.

Another option is to enter a clinic such as The Minirth Mental Health Solution Clinic or Meier Clinics (in early 1996, the Minirth-Meier team split up) and go through their program. As a summation, the adherents of codependency would say:

“… codependents carry distorted messages about their own sense of worth and that such messages originate in ‘dysfunctional’ families. … And of course those messages must be erased through regressive therapy and replaced with positive, self- enhancing messages.” [21]

The Scriptures teach a very different method of change and growth. This method is outlined in places such as Ephesians 4:22-24, where we are told to put off the old self, put on the new self, and be renewed in the spirit of our minds. Specific application of this principle will depend upon the problem that we face.

The psychological world — including Christian psychology — errs because it has a faulty view of man based upon human wisdom rather than upon the Word of God. Psychologists, in the codependent camp, believe that people behave poorly and develop emotional and psychological problems because their love tanks are empty. If they can get their “significant others” or even God to fill up their “love tanks,” their problems will be resolved. The result is self-focused living. The Bible says, however, that we behave poorly because we are totally depraved, having been born with a sin nature. As a result, we react sinfully to our problems.

The solution offered by God is to live biblically through the strength of the Holy Spirit. Progressive sanctification is our goal as we live our lives to please God. Unfortunately, many miss the mandate in Scripture that the Word of God is sufficient not only for doctrine but for reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness so that the believer will be “complete” and “thoroughly equipped” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Many are ignorant of this truth and therefore choose a solution based on worldly wisdom.


Without a doubt, the most widely recommended “therapy” for people struggling with life (including various forms of addictions, conditions such as codependency, and many “mental illnesses”) 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 that are modeled after AA. Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier specifically place their stamp of approval on a long list of recovery groups including: 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. [22]

All of these groups have adapted AA’s methods and philosophies. One online recovery resource directory discloses:

“The suggested 12 steps were originally developed by the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. … Other twelve-step groups have adapted the steps of AA as guiding principles for problems other than alcoholism. In some cases, the steps have been altered to emphasize particular principles important to those fellowships. One example being the first step in Al-anon replaces the word alcohol with the word people.” [23]


Many believers mistakenly think that the founders of AA were Christians who established their organization on biblical principles. Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier wrote, “the first AA workers themselves knew God intimately.” [24] In fact, however, the founders of AA, while religious, never claimed to be Christians. Rather, as we will see, they were enmeshed in a wide range of spiritual activities including heavy involvement with the occult and spiritualism.

Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, 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). It would be a concept found at the genesis of AA:

“A decisive turn toward seeing alcohol as a disease was the publication of The Big Book and the founding of A.A.” [25]

However, in defense of Wilson, biblical counselor Edward Welch noted:

“It helps to recognize that AA has gradually changed over the years. When Bill W. started AA, he used disease more in a figurative sense than a literal one. Although he was not always consistent in this, he would often use the word disease in a way similar to the way Scripture uses it — as a metaphor for our spiritual condition. Now, however, the disease metaphor is more often used in a literal way at AA meetings, and illness language is mandatory. The result is that forgiveness of sins and the imputed righteousness of Christ are no longer absolutely central to the process of change.” [26]

Welch continues:

“Even more troublesome is the fact that the metaphor of addictions is gradually losing its metaphorical quality. Instead of saying that addictions are like a disease, in that they have many things in common with more traditional diseases, more people are simply saying that addictions are diseases.”[27]

As a result of Wilson’s alcoholism, he entered the hospital 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 appeared to be 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, and perhaps at the lowest point of his life, Wilson finally cried out in desperation. Biographer Francis Hartigan describes the episode:

“In the depths of his torment, Wilson issued the unknowable a challenge: ‘If there be a God, let Him show Himself now!’ he shouted. As if in response to his demand, the room suddenly filled with light. It was bright and white, a benign, enveloping presence that seemed more than a match for the terror he had been feeling just moments before. Then he saw himself on a mountaintop, with a wind blowing toward him. The wind moved closer and closer, then through him. Then the man who had been bound up in a seemingly irresolvable internal struggle felt profoundly free.” [28]

In AA’s own biography of its co-founder, Wilson’s experience is further described:

“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.” [29]

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 (1842-1910) was a philosopher-psychologist 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. Bill Wilson, the alcoholic, now had his spiritual experience ratified by a Harvard professor, called by some the father of American psychology!” [30]

In other ways, Wilson’s life was absent of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Hartigan wrote:

“Many of Bill’s failings centered on his arrogance. There were also, more devastatingly, his losing battles with depression, his compulsive womanizing, and a deep, and ultimately insatiable, need for approval. Even at the height of his success, Bill could be both certain that people were against him and determined to win them over. Once he succeeded in doing so, though, he seemed to lose interest. Soon, the quest for something or someone else he could not have would begin again. Bill was hardly a poster boy for the joys of living a sober life the AA way, yet AA’s poster boy was exactly what he was supposed to be.”[31]

Hartigan added:

“When his depressions became severe and he sought relief from them through psychotherapy, many AA members were outraged. Bill was castigated for not working his own program. He was accused of never having taken the AA Steps, and the primary evidence offered for this was that he had stopped drinking as a result of a spiritual conversion experience.” [32]

It is important for the discerning Christian 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 Wilson and Bob Smith (the other co- founder of AA) embraced and promoted a variety of spiritual experiences, which included practicing spiritualism and conversing with the dead and being heavily involved in séances (all of which the Bible forbids). 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.[33]

One reference source critical of AA provides additional alarming details:

“It was during Bill Wilson’s 1935 extended summer visit at Bob Smith’s home that the OCCULT activities of Bob and Bill became evident, although this curiosity in the occult went back many years before the founding of AA. One book tells us that Wilson, alcoholics, and homeless men would gather at the Calvary Church’s mission for lectures on SPIRITUALISM! We also know that when Bill Wilson married Lois Burnham in 1918 he was already interested in occultism. You see, Lois’ grandfather was a minister in the Swedenborgian Church, also known as the New Church or the Church of the New Jerusalem. The founder of the Swedenborgian Church was Emmanuel Swedenborg. He practiced automatic writing and astral travel. Bill knew of the Burnhams’ involvement in this OCCULT group and he and Lois vowed to explore it more deeply someday. In fact, they were even married in the Swedenborgian Church in Brooklyn, New York. Both Dr. Bob and Bill were involved with all kinds of psychic phenomena such as ESP, seances, spiritualism, necromancy, which is communication with the dead, and channeling.”[34]

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. But Wilson’s relationship with Shoemaker and the Oxford Group was not without obstacles:

“Bill objected to the Oxford Group’s aggressive evangelism, personal publicity seeking, use of coercion, and intolerant attitude toward nonbelievers. He felt the same way about the Group’s growing dogmatism: it now insisted that members accept the ‘guidance’ they received as coming directly from God and that they engaged in evangelism for the Group. Such demands made it impossible for Catholics, among others, to be associated with it.” [35]

At one time Wilson did consider becoming a Catholic, but similar to his antagonism toward the Oxford Group, he felt that the authoritative layout of the Catholic Church was too much for him. Besides he did not want to associate AA with any one religious sect. Tim Stafford sums up 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 from Msgr. Fulton Sheen, 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 it also leaves room for those who prefer to define God, rather than to allow him to define them. It is a profoundly ambivalent expression.”[36]

Despite Wilson being “close to Christians for the rest of his life,” he missed or ignored most of, if not all of, the basic tenets of the faith, including who God is and what He is really like. One publication which addresses AA’s defective view of God explains:

“Is AA as bad as it really sounds? After all, they frequently have references about a ‘Higher Power’ and ‘God.’ Can you believe in God and still be influenced by the New Age philosophy? Again, we have to look at what AA actually means when they refer to God. They certainly DO NOT speak of the God of the Bible, although many people believe this is what is intended. Rather, AA recommends a ‘God as YOU understand Him.’ It doesn’t matter whether you believe a supernatural being or the AA group itself is your ‘God’ or ‘Higher Power.’” [37]

Ed Welch informs us as to how this defective theology plays out in one’s worldview:

“The first grand deception is about God. The second is about us. At a very deep level, we believe that God is not as good as he says, and we think we are better than we actually are. Instead of believing that we are sinners who sin, we tend to think of ourselves as good people who occasionally do bad things. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the literature on addictions. Secular (and most Christian) literature seems to work hard to say that addicts are not responsible for the cause of their problems. Addicts are responsible to change, but they are not responsible for getting where they are in the first place.”[38]

However, some may protest and say that such criticism is unwarranted because AA itself claims that it is not a religious society nor does it require specific beliefs for membership. Herein is the major concern that we have with AA — and other such recovery groups — that, contrary to their denial, they really do constitute a religious system. For example, they believe and talk about God, they pray, they have a creed, Alcoholics Anonymousis their bible, and they fellowship in a church-like setting. Cathy Burns also responds to the non-religious disclaimer set forth by AA advocates and maintains:

“Regardless of this denial, AA IS religious. Reading through numerous pamphlets and books which are approved by AA, shows definitely that AA is religious in nature. Since AA is not Christianity, yet it promotes a spirituality, what kind of spirituality is represented? Although many individuals in AA are unaware of it, Alcoholics Anonymous actually is encouraging New Age beliefs and practices.” [39]

Just like all religions — with the sole exception of 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 (or powers) they choose, their bible is not God’s Word, and their salvation is from “addiction,” not sin. Satan, the enemy of our souls, is more than happy to provide sobriety in the place of salvation. Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery movements are false religions, which attempt to lead mankind to a better and happier life, yet bypass the Cross.


The philosophy and values which constitute AA and other such recovery groups is established in their Twelve Steps. While individual recovery groups may word the various steps somewhat differently to fit their own needs and objectives, the steps are all based upon the Twelve Steps of AA. Basically, 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 twelve steps are:

Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

While this step may sound biblical, it is not because, unfortunately, AA defines alcoholism as a disease. Tim Stafford says, “The ‘disease concept’ of alcoholism — not invented, but certainly popularized by A.A. — seems to remove any moral dimension from drinking.” [40] Martin and Deidre Bobgan wrote:

“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). … Many Christians attempt to make Step One coincide with biblical confession. But they generally substitute powerlessness for sinfulness and admit a life that has become unmanageable without confessing disobedience. In fact, most of the popular codependency/recovery books indicate that feeling guilty is the last thing a codependent needs.”[41]

Various other recovery groups simply replicate what AA has done. Codependent Anonymous changes only one word in this first step for their codependents: “We admitted we were powerless over others — that our lives had become unmanageable.” [42]

Step Two: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Wilson and AA’s greater “Power” is unbiblical and dangerous because it (or he) is subject to the beholder. As the Bobgans emphasized:

“The ‘Power greater than ourselves’ can be anybody or anything that seems greater than the person who takes Step Two. It can be a familiar spirit, such as Carl Jung’s Philemon. It could be any deity of Hinduism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, or New Age channeled entities. It could be one’s own so-called higher self. It could even be the devil himself.” [43]

And for the Christian who may balk, arguing that his greater Power is Jesus Christ (or the Holy Spirit), the Bobgans further show the error of such thinking:

“The extreme naivete of Christians comes through when they confidently assert that their higher Power is Jesus Christ. Since when did Jesus align Himself with false gods? Since when has He been willing to join the Pantheon or the array of Hindu deities? Jesus is not an option of one among many.” [44]

Step Three: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” (italics in original).

As earlier stated, 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 and unsafe for the Bible-believing Christian 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 can go to Hell sober if he or she turns their life over to any but the true God as revealed in Scripture.

Step Four: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

As in the case of determining one’s own greater “Power” in Step Two, here again the AA member is left to a subjective determination, this time by constructing a personal record of wrong. For the Christian, the Word of God is the objective source used to gain a proper understanding of his or her sinfulness and in examining one’s heart to identify desires and idols of the heart. Psalm 119 repeatedly speaks to the necessity and importance of employing God’s Word. For example, verse 59 says, “I thought about my ways, and turned my feet to Your testimonies.” Scripture is our ultimate counselor in making a “moral inventory of ourselves.” Our meditation must center on God’s Word.

Step Five: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

As with several of the steps, Step Five has a biblical ring to it — but only if we are talking about the search for and confession of our own sins. With AA, all too often this is not the case. Rather it is 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 Six: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

Step Seven: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

While moralistic, once again these steps are not biblical. God would have us recognize our total depravity, turn to Him in faith, and be transformed (Ephesians 2:1-10;2 Corinthians 5:17). The real problem of man is not that he has “defects” and “shortcomings,” but that he is not in a proper relationship with God.

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

Step Nine: “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.” [45]

The dedication of Beattie’s book Codependent No More says plenty: “This book is dedicated to me.” [46]

Step Ten: “Continued to take a personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

As the Bobgans note, “Step Ten is actually a reminder to repeat Steps Four through Nine. Therefore, Twelve-Step recovery programs never end. They are a way of life — a religion.”[47]

The Bobgans further emphasize the subjectivity within Step Ten:

“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 subjective values to determine what is right or wrong. Subjective values or morals may be pronounced by various members of recovery groups or one’s therapist or ‘sponsor,’ or found in any number of recovery books. Subjectivity reigns and whatever subjective opinions seem to have the most authority will become the shaky standard.” [48]

Step Eleven: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with Godas we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out” (italics 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.”[49]

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.” [50]

Step Twelve: “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 evangelical 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.”[51]

Tim Stafford observes:

“In other words, A.A. members share their testimony not simply out of concern for others, but also out of concern for themselves.” [52]

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.”[53]

Christians must never be persuaded into approving of AA and its Twelve Steps simply because of their widespread use and acceptance or because of the pragmatic nature of the organization and its methods. Whether something “works” or not, is never the criteria for discerning truth. Only scrutiny of the Scriptures can reveal truth. Cathy Burns provides a good summation of the Twelve Steps:

“If you gave a superficial glance at the above steps, you may think they look good. After all, doesn’t Christianity teach some of the same ideas? Don’t Christians believe in restitution, prayer, God, a spiritual awakening, and confession? Yes, we do, but if these steps are looked at in closer detail, many problems start to arise. First of all, AA’s terminology is different and has ANOTHER meaning than what Bible-believing Christians accept. Notice that instead of saying that the alcoholic has committed sin, it is only called ‘defects of character’ or a ‘shortcoming.’ AA does not consider drinking alcoholic beverages wrong; it is only ‘wrong’ for those who become alcoholics.” [54]

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? Based on the statements and conclusions made by researchers, we really do not know.

In chapter 7 of The Effectiveness of Alcoholism Treatment: What Research Reveals, an extensive investigation spanning several years revealed numerous significant observations:

“In spite of the fact that it inspires nearly universal acclaim and enthusiasm among alcoholism treatment personnel in the United States, Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) wholly lacks experimental support for its efficacy.” [55]

The researchers further observed:

“Only two studies have employed random assignment and adequate controls to compare the efficacy of A.A. versus no intervention or alternative interventions. Brandsma et al (1980) found no differences at 12-month follow-up between A.A. and no treatment, and at 3-month follow-up those assigned to A.A. were found to be significantly more likely to be binge drinking, relative to controls or those assigned to other interventions (based on unverified self-reports). Ditman and Crawford (1966) assigned court mandated ‘alcohol addicts’ to A.A., clinic treatment, or no treatment (probation only). Based on records of rearrest, 31% of A.A. clients and 32% of clinic-treated clients were judged successful, as compared with 44% success in the untreated group.”[56]

The fact is that most who recover from alcoholism do not do so as the result of treatment. Probably no more than 10% of alcohol abusers are ever treated at all, but as many as 40% recover spontaneously. And some say those figures are generous. The Orange Papers, a website that provides information on the ineffectiveness of AA, states:

“Even the most ardent true believers who will be honest about it recognize that A.A. and N.A. [Narcotics Anonymous] have at least 90% failure rates. And the real numbers are more like 95% or 98% or 100% failure rates. It depends on who is doing the counting, how they are counting, and what they are counting or measuring. A 5% success rate is nothing more than the rate of spontaneous remission in alcoholics and drug addicts. That is, out of any given group of alcoholics or drug addicts, approximately 5% per year will just wise up, and quit killing themselves. They just get sick and tired of being sick and tired, and of watching their friends die. (And something between 1% and 3% of their friends do die annually, so that is a big incentive.) They often quit with little or no official treatment or help. Some actually detox themselves on their own couches, or in their own beds, or locked in their own closets. Often, they don’t go to a lot of meetings. They just quit, all on their own, or with the help of a couple of good friends who keep them locked up for a few days while they go through withdrawal. A.A. and N.A. true believers insist that addicts can’t successfully quit that way, but they do, every day.” [57]

This online research paper further stated:

The Harvard Mental Health Letter, from The Harvard Medical School, stated quite plainly: On their own – There is a high rate of recovery among alcoholics and addicts, treated and untreated. According to one estimate, heroin addicts break the habit in an average of 11 years. Another estimate is that at least 50% of alcoholics eventually free themselves although only 10% are ever treated. One recent study found that 80% of all alcoholics who recover for a year or more do so on their own, some after being unsuccessfully treated. When a group of these self-treated alcoholics was interviewed, 57% said they simply decided that alcohol was bad for them. Twenty-nine percent said health problems, frightening experiences, accidents, or blackouts persuaded them to quit. Others used such phrases as ‘Things were building up’ or ‘I was sick and tired of it.’ Support from a husband or wife was important in sustaining the resolution.” [58]

Thus, several studies repeatedly demonstrate the group’s ineffectiveness and that those who quit drinking via AA actually have higher relapse rates than those who quit on their own.


Twelve-Step recovery programs, as practiced in secular society, are clearly non-Christian and 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 people face:

“His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:3-4).

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 the Bobgans’ 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.”[59]

This is nothing new, and the words of God’s prophets ring just as clear today:

“For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns — broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

“And when they say to you, ‘Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,’ should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:19-20).

Some have suggested, however, that believers could bring the Twelve-Step programs into the Church and “Christianize” them. We are told that the struggler could be pointed to the true God and at the same time take advantage of a secular program that seems to work. Yet it is beneficial to know that:

“AA has common sense and compassion, but it is not Christian. The church has theological horsepower and both the mandate and power to love, but it doesn’t always apply either its theology or its practice to addictions. Some opt for a Christian version of AA, of which there are more and more. Yet these groups seem to have more in common with AA, and its strengths and weaknesses, than the church.” [60]

Notwithstanding 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 Spirit of God and the Word which is all we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:2-3). 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 One: Salvation — The forgiveness of sin, being justified by God, and therefore being made the righteousness of God(Romans 3:21-31). The Apostle Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast”

(Ephesians 2:8-9).

Christ shed His blood upon the cross, dying in our place and rising again the third day so that we may have forgiveness and the fellowship with His Father that our sin prohibited (1 Peter 3:18; Titus 3:5; Isaiah 53:5). Our response to this is to repent and believe. When we repent, we turn from our rebellion and sin to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, with a desire to live God’s way. When we believe, we are trusting alone in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus; we trust in nothing of our own (works included), but only in the complete and finished work of Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9; John 3:16, 36; 1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Step Two: Sanctification — Growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). As Edward Welch instructs:

“The process of doing battle with internal temptations, or taking our souls to task, is called progressive sanctification. It means that the battle with our own sinful desires will gradually progress over time. In God’s sovereign plan, conversion does not bring about instant moral perfection. Instead, sinlessness waits for the return of Christ. Meanwhile, God’s plan is that we fight indwelling sin. … We are given all the resources of Jesus Christ in our fight. Victory is assured. Yes, the battle must be waged, but it is now waged with the passion of an army that knows the momentum has shifted. The fighting may be fierce, but those who know they can and will win can fight with abandon.” [61]

We would do well to “work” God’s Two-Step program, rather than man’s Twelve-Step program!


[1] Although Frank Minirth died on Jan. 24, 2015, the psychological practices he integrated into biblical principles live on as he authored or co-authored more than 100 books and 50 self-help workbooks, many of which are still available and widely used.

[2] Marshall and Mary Asher, The Christian’s Guide to Psychological Terms. Bemidji, Minn.: Focus Publishing, 2004, pg. 41.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin and Deidre Bobgan, 12 Steps to Destruction. Santa Barbara, Calif.: EastGate Publishers, 1991, pg. 15, italic in original. The quotation used by the Bobgans is from Melody Beattie, Codependent No More. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987, pg. 27.

[5] Ibid., pg. 15. The Bobgans cite Robert Subby and John Friel, “Codependency: A Paradoxical Dependency” in Codependency: An Emerging Issue. Hollywood, Fla.: Health Communications, Inc., 1984, pg. 31.

[6] Melody Beattie, Codependent No More. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Information & Educational Services, 1987, pg. 36, quotation rendered in italics in original.

[7] Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirth, and Paul Meier, Love Is A Choice. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989, pg. 5, italic in original.

[8] Ibid., pg. 32.

[9] 12 Steps to Destruction , op. cit., pg. 17, italic in original. The quotation used by the Bobgans is from David Treadway, “Codependency: Disease, Metaphor, or Fad?” Networker, January-February 1990, pg. 40. Bold emphasis added by Bobgans.

[10] Codependent No More , op. cit., pg. 33, italics in original.

[11] Love Is A Choice , op. cit., pg. 8.

[12] Ibid., pg. 9.

[13] See further, ibid., pp. 27-32.

[14] Ibid., pp. 44-55.

[15] Ibid., pg. 58, italics in original.

[16] Ibid.

[17] John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You. Deerfield Beach, Fla.: Health Communications, Inc., 1988, pg. 64.

[18] “Codependency,” University of California Berkeley, Wellness Letter, October 1990, pg. 7, cited in 12 Steps to Destruction, op. cit., pg. 33, bold emphasis and ellipsis added by the Bobgans.

[19] Codependent No More , op. cit., pp. 42-52.

[20] Love Is A Choice , op. cit., pg. 165.

[21] 12 Steps to Destruction , op. cit., pg. 46.

[22] Love Is A Choice , op. cit., pp. 275-277.

[23] “Popular Recovery Groups and Programs” from website, italics in original. Document accessed at:

[24] Love Is A Choice , op. cit., pg. 6.

[25] “The Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous)” from Wikipedia. Document accessed at:

[26] Edward T. Welch, Addictions. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2001, pg. 119, italics in original.

[27] Ibid., pg. 46, italics in original.

[28] Francis Hartigan, Bill W. – A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, pg. 61.

[29] Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘Pass It On’: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1984, pg. 121.

[30] Ibid., pg. 125, italic in original.

[31] Bill W. , op. cit., pg. 7.

[32] Ibid., pg. 6.

[33] ‘Pass It On,’ op. cit., pp. 198, 275, 278-280.

[34] Cathy Burns, Alcoholics Anonymous Unmasked – Deception and Deliverance. Mt. Carmel, Pa.: Sharing, 1991, pp. 24-25, capitalizations in original.

[35] Bill W. , op. cit., pg. 97.

[36] Tim Stafford, “The Hidden Gospel of the 12 Steps,” Christianity Today, July 22, 1991, pg. 17.

[37] Alcoholics Anonymous Unmasked , op. cit., pg. 33, capitalizations in original.

[38] Addictions , op. cit., pg. 193.

[39] Alcoholics Anonymous Unmasked , op. cit., pg. 455, capitalization in original

[40] “The Hidden Gospel of the 12 Steps,” op. cit., pg. 14.

[41] 12 Steps to Destruction , op. cit., pg. 91.

[42] Italic added to emphasize word change.

[43] Ibid., pg. 115.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Melody Beattie, Codependents’ Guide to the Twelve Steps. New York: Fireside, 1990, pg. 137.

[46] Codependent No More , op. cit., pg. vi., italics in original.

[47] 12 Steps to Destruction , op. cit., pg. 212.

[48] Ibid., pg. 213.

[49] Codependents’ Guide to the Twelve Steps , op. cit., pp. 174, 175.

[50] Ibid., pp. 178, 179.

[51] Alcoholics Anonymous . New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1984, pg. 89.

[52] “The Hidden Gospel of the 12 Steps,” op. cit., pg. 18.

[53] Codependents’ Guide to the Twelve Steps , op. cit., pg. 184.

[54] Alcoholics Anonymous Unmasked , op. cit., pg. 28, capitalization in original.

[55] William R. Miller and Reid K. Hester in William R. Miller and Nick Heather, Editors, Treating Addictive Behaviors – Processes of Change. New York: Plenum Press, 1986, “The Effectiveness of Alcoholism Treatment – What Research Reveals” (Chapter 7), pg. 135. Cited by the Bobgans in 12 Steps to Destruction, op. cit., pg. 190.

[56] Ibid., italics in original. Cited by the Bobgans in 12 Steps to Destruction, op. cit., pg. 190.

[57] A. Orange, “The Effectiveness of the Twelve-Step Treatment,” from The Orange Papers website. Document accessed at:

[58] Ibid., bold in original. The quotation used by Orange is from Treatment of Drug Abuse and Addiction — Part III, The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Volume 12, Number 4, October 1995, pg. 3.

[59] 12 Steps to Destruction , op. cit., pg. 175.

[60] Addictions , op. cit., pg. 118.

[61] Ibid., pp. 230, 234.


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