A Reformed Critique of Alcoholics Anonymous

Note: This article was first written in 1987. It was first published in the Reformed Herald in 1989. It appears here with only minor revisions.

Since I first posted this essay on the web in 1999, it has generated more response than I expected. Before you write to complain that I have misrepresented AA or to tell me how much AA has helped you or to give me sources to read on the history of AA, please note that this is not my current field of research nor will it be any time soon. Please note that this essay is not intended as a personal criticism nor does it intend to deny that God is free to work as he wills. I understand that some have been helped by AA. That fact, however, does not change the will of God revealed in Holy Scripture (Deut 29:29). That God has used AA to bring one to faith in Jesus is a cause for thanks but it is not a reason to withhold criticism of AA. This essay is intended primarily to encourage confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches to take up their responsibility to love sinners. [Revised February, 2006.]


The Twelve-step movement and the language of co-dependency has become an accepted part of evangelical church life. It has not always been so nor is the status quo necessarily right and good for the church. This essay is a plea for reconsideration of this trend in the light of Biblical teaching and Christian doctrine. Alcoholics Anonymous was born in the midst of the religious turmoil in the 1930’s, in the midst of a great ecumenical fervor, growing anticipation of a war in Europe, and a fight between Fundamentalists and Modernists for the religious and theological soul of the nation’s Christians.1

In 1935 in Akron, Ohio, a “sudden spiritual experience” relieved one stockbroker of his obsession with alcohol.

Following a meeting with an alcoholic friend who had been in contact with the Oxford Groups of that day….Though he could not accept all the tenets of the Oxford Groups, he was convinced of the need for moral inventory, confession of personality defects, restitution to those harmed helpfulness to others, and the necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.2

That broker and his physician friend armed with a description of “alcoholism and its hopelessness” created their own synthetic spiritual remedy for their malady. What followed was an explosion in popularity any church growth program would envy. By 1939 membership had reached 800, with the support of Harry Emerson Fosdick, and the Episcopalian magazine Liberty. In 1940 John D. Rockefeller declared his support for AA By 1941 AA had 2000 members and the support of Jack Alexander in the Saturday Evening Post “The mushrooming process was in full swing. AA had become a national institution.”3

In this same time period the group began to formulate its creeds and confessions known as the Twelve Steps and Traditions.4 In 1939 they produced their authoritative book: Alcoholics Anonymous called by the group the Big Book.5

Some forty years after its seminal meetings the group has blossomed to 50,000 groups world wide in 110 countries and membership is conservatively estimated at well over 1,000,000. Its strength lies not only in numbers but in the attractiveness of its program, i.e., its anonymity, and its eclecticism. There are very few alcoholism treatment centers not wholly controlled intellectually by the theology and methodology of AA.

It will be useful to know a little bit more about the Oxford Groups from which AA has borrowed its methods. The Oxford Groups were founded by a Lutheran minister, Frank Buchman, in the early twenties. They gained their nickname from informal house parties around Oxford University. They called themselves the “First Century Christian Fellowship.” Their emphasis was upon mystical guidance, akin to the Pentecostal Word of Knowledge, if not as dramatic, surely as subjectivist.6

Focus was not upon the Bible as the revealed Word of God, but upon personal experience. The movement later became known as “Moral Rearmament” when Buchman declared that the nation could not save itself (1938) with guns but with guidance from God.7

Much of his evangelism in the USA was centered around Park Avenue and had its headquarters in a local New York City Episcopal parish. There is also an intellectual connection with modern positive thinking movements such as that led by Norman Vincent Peale and later Robert Schuller. There were four absolutes upon which he insisted:

  1. Perfect Honesty
  2. Purity
  3. Unselfishness
  4. Love

“Five C’s” for which the group is known are:

  1. Confidence
  2. Confession
  3. Conviction
  4. Conversion
  5. Continuance.8

It was a relatively simple matter to adapt the nine points listed above to the self-help methodology of AA.9 It has also been a regular practice of AA to borrow liberally from the Bible and the Christian tradition while denying their substance and meaning.10

One cannot doubt that AA speaks in overtly religious terms and teaches religious doctrine. The very words of the founder, Bill W., are quite clear in this respect.

I had always believed in a Power greater than myself. I had often pondered these things, I was not an atheist…I had little doubt that a mighty power and rhythm underlay all. How could there be so much of precise and immutable law, and no intelligence? I simply had to believe in a Spirit of the Universe, who knew neither time nor limitation….With ministers and the world’s Religions I parted right there….To Christ I conceded the certainty of a great man, not too closely followed by those who claimed Him…My friend suggested what seemed a novel idea. He said, Why don’t you choose your own conception of God? That statement hit me hard…I stood in the sunlight at last. It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make a beginning …There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. (italics original).11

The Big Book is a combination of the Bible and Augustine’s Confessions for Alcoholics Anonymous. Just as the Christian turns to the heart warming story of Augustine’s conversion after that great intellectual struggle with the foolishness of the Gospel, so this collection of stories stands as an even more authoritative account of the spiritual journey of the Founding Fathers and authors of the Big Book.12 The Big Book is, authoritative for AA because it was written by alcoholics for alcoholics and most of all because, in their words, “it works.”13

Law or Gospel?

There are only two sorts of words in this world, law or gospel. The former says, “Do this and live,” (Luke 10:28). The law demands perfect obedience. It tells us that we must “do,” in order to stand before God. By contrast, the gospel says that Jesus Christ has “done,” for us, he has obeyed God’s law and satisfied divine justice on behalf of all those who trust him.

The first word from the moral rearmament movement was “law,” or “do,” but there was no gospel. No message of genuine hope for sinners. The same is true of AA. The first word to the alcoholic is “admit you are powerless,” that your life has become “unmanageable.” This is not “law,” or “gospel.” It is a muddle. Hence the second word, “came to believe” in a “power greater than ourselves…” is equally muddled and helpless. AA has a fundamental problem. Instead of using the categories of “sin” and “redemption” or “law” and “gospel,” it has introduced alien categories.

The Disease?

How should Christians understand the behavior of the alcoholic? Is alcoholism the result of an allergy (their early explanation) or a disease (their more recent explanation) which makes the drinker not responsible for his abuse, or is it sin? Alcoholics Anonymous interprets Bill’s problem as a disease. Modern medicine has never been able to find any solid evidence of a viral or bio-chemical cause for alcoholism.14

Whatever the cause, they assert that only certain people who can treat the alcoholic’s problem: other alcoholics. In AA this is accepted dogma. The first thing an AA member learns is that his problem is unique, that he has a disease, and that no one else understands him but other alcoholics. These are the cornerstones of the first tradition and the first step.15

Biblical Data

What does Holy Scripture say? As we know, drunkenness, not drinking, is condemned throughout Scripture. We think immediately of the injunction: Be not drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18) In fact there are at least thirty separate passages dealing with drunkenness and drinking in some way. Scripture is very realistic in its portrayal of drunkenness. It describes what behaviors accompany it, what it leads to, what a drunkard is like and how he will be punished.

Proverbs 23:29-35 warns vividly of the folly of drunkenness. Earlier in the chapter we are warned of the consequences of excess. These are not ivory tower descriptions. The writer speaks of the attraction of the wine, how it sparkles, and the morning after red eyes, bed spins, hang over and the repetition of such behavior. The prophet Isaiah describes the filth of vomit such that there is no clean place, and drunkenness such that no one wishes to do the work of the Lord (Isaiah 5:11; 24; 28:1-7).20 One of the marks of a rebellious son is drunkenness (Deuteronomy 21:20). Israel’s sin is described in terms of drunkenness (Ezek 23:42; Joel 1:5).

Paul, in warning the Thessalonians to watch for the advent of Christ, reminds them graphically of the nocturnal life of the alcohol abuser (1 Thess 5:7).16 He warns the Corinthians that they ought to neither associate with drunkards nor should they expect drunkards to inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 5:11; 6:10).

These are not isolated patterns. This is the Bible’s description of addiction to alcohol. There is a clear acceptance of the fact that if abused, alcohol can have devastating spiritual, social, and physical effects. The biblical writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were fully aware of the behavior which is now called alcoholism. Yet it is never once treated like a disease. It is always classed with other sins: fornication, adultery, over-eating, homosexuality, murder, stealing etc. By implication, alcoholism does not appear to be considered a disease any more than the other sins mentioned along side it.

There are no Biblical grounds for distinguishing between alcoholism and what God’s Word calls drunkenness. It is true that we don’t usually consider the high school senior who gets drunk for the first time on prom night an alcoholic. The Bible however does not distinguish between the professional drunk and the amateur. Is a sin any less a sin if it is committed once instead of a hundred times?

A given sin does take on a different character once it becomes habitual. The effects of one type of sin may be more devastating than the other. Still, there is no Biblical warrant for calling any transgression of the Word of God a disease simply because it becomes habitual and life dominating. As we will see, nearly any sin can take on that character. At the suggestion of John Murray and Jay Adams, we will take Ephesians 5:15-20 as our guide for the Biblical solution to the problem of excessive drinking.

Be very careful then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (NIV).

Paul’s words are the revealed will of God, our rule and the rule for the alcohol abuser as well. Paul says to put off one behavior/lifestyle to put on another. It is not implied that it is a short or simple process, but only that, by the grace and Spirit of Christ, it must and can be done.

This is the consistent message of the New Testament. Colossians 3:10 says the same thing: put off the old and put on the new. There is a new creation, in Christ. There is growth in grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. All of Paul’s commands assume the life giving work of the Spirit described in Ephesians chapter one. These are evidences of the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

Personal Responsibility and Religious Authority

AA’s second tradition explains their view of religious authority. For AA, God’s will is discovered either privately, or through the collective conscience of the local meeting. In this, AA substitutes its own rules for God’s Word. AA’s fourth step speaks of a “fearless moral inventory”. Without God’s Word, how can one make such an inventory? By the experience of others? By one’s pre-alcoholic experience? There is no way to determine certainly what man is, or what life is, once one forfeits the biblical doctrine of man. The absence of an absolute standard against which to judge behavior results in moral and spiritual confusion.

The Doctrine of God

The reader will note an abundant use of the word “God” in the Twelve Steps and Traditions. A God concept is crucial to their system, as a regulative notion, or a useful idea. He is, however, quite unlike the God of the Bible, not a God who speaks. So when the second step says, “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves,” AA does not mean the self-existent, Triune God of the Bible.

It is inescapably true that the very language of the second step, “a power greater than” refers to an impersonal force. The anonymous god of AA is also mute. The god of AA cannot speak to humans because their god is an “it”. In the nature of things, however, one can not have personal relations with an impersonal entity. Therefore to camouflage their implicit agnosticism, AA speaks of the god of AA as a “Him”.

To any Christian who has ever said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” AA’s agnosticism should be most obvious and disturbing.17 The Christian God is Triune. That is, he is one God in three persons, therefore he is the beginning of personality. Because he is personal, he speaks to us, he knows us and can be known by us. The God of the Bible is a Spirit, (John 4:24) infinite, (Job 11:7-9) eternal, (Ps 90:2) and unchangeable, (James 1:17) in his being, (Ex 3:14)wisdom, (Ps 147:5) power, (Rev 4:8) holiness, (Rev 15:4) justice, goodness, and truth (Ex 34:6-7).18

AA tells the Alcoholic to worship God “as we conceive of Him”. This is the very thing the Bible does not want us to do. God’s Word says, “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut 5.6-7).19 What AA calls god, the Bible calls an idol. We are precisely called not to make up our own gods, but to turn away from them to the true and living God who made and redeems us.

The Doctrine of Man

Because God is personal, and we have been made in his image, we are persons. Hence one of the reasons AA is so harmful is that it ignores the Bible’s teaching that man is created in the image of God. Ephesians 4:24 says that we were created in the image of God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness of truth.

The Christian faith is that he was crucified to restore us as the image of God, which image will be consummated at the last day. Man as the image of God is essential to Christianity, but not to AA. If, with AA, we deny this doctrine, Christ died for nothing. For Christians such an idea is blasphemous (Gal 2:21).

AA says that alcoholism is not sinful pattern of behavior, but a loss of sanity. There are grave consequences to describing sin as sickness. P. E. Hughes said,

Sickness is not penalized: it is treated….Being sick and the victims of forces beyond their control, they must be sent off for “treatment.” …There is ample evidence of the way in which this therapeutic benevolence may be tyrannically extended beyond corrupt and violent persons to those who are politically or religiously out of line in the eyes of officialdom and who are consequently placed behind prison walls or in the wards of “mental” hospitals ostensibly for the purpose of being “treated” and “cured”.20

The spiritual consequences of describing sin as sickness are even worse. To refuse to describe alcohol abuse as sin is to implicitly deny humanity to the sinner by robbing him of moral responsibility before God. We hold sinner accountable for their actions to because the responsible moral agents with a mind, and a will. To categorize sinners as victims is to rob them of their moral agency and hence their personality.

To refuse to describe alcohol abuse as sin is also to deny hope for the patient. A disease may be hopeless, but there is a Savior for sinners.

For these reasons God’s Word pushes us away from thinking of any sin in terms of personal irresponsibility to personal responsibility. How can we ask of the person struggling with the sin of alcohol abuse any less than that which God demands of him?

To deny that one drink led to another, and for whatever sinful motivation, the sin became habitual and life dominating, leading to other sins and disastrous consequences of all sorts, is not to deny the greatness of the sin, but rather it is to put that sin in its biblical perspective. If we neglect to put the problem of alcohol abuse in its proper terms, sin and redemption, then we deny needy sinners the help they so need and can find only in Christ.

Christ and Redemption

Christianity is centered in the incarnation (taking on our humanity), obedient life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.21 Because Christianity is so Christ-centered, it is necessarily exclusivist and intolerant of other religions. Jesus taught us to think this way when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6).21

AA, in contrast, is simultaneously universalistic (embracing all world religions) and exclusivist (rejecting all other world religions except their own). On the one hand they speak as if there is no one true faith. On the other hand, they also say that they alone have the true way of deliverance from addiction to alcohol. This makes them effectively the one true religion.23 Either claim (universalism or AA’s exclusivism) is patently incompatible with Christianity.

AA also never describes the human condition in terms of sin and therefore never speaks of redemption in Christian terms. In contrast, the Christian religion begins with Adam and our fall in him. It finds salvation for sinners in Christ and his righteousness for us, received by faith (trusting Christ) alone.

If there was no first Adam, whose fall and sin is imputed to us, there is no need for a second Adam, Christ, whose obedience and righteousness is imputed to us. AA’s apparent rejection of the heart of Christianity is the most serious (and most disheartening) consequence of their teaching.

Christians and AA

Many Christians, including Evangelical and even Reformed Christians, have said that the disease model is sufficient to explain the success of AA and its offspring. Several writers have even tried to justify the synthesis of the pragmatism of AA with various Christian forms. One notable attempt was the late G. A. Taylor’s A Sober Faith (1953). Taylor is remembered in Reformed and Presbyterian circles as the editor of the Presbyterian Journal.

In the preface, Russell Dicks called Taylor a friend of both the Church and AA.24 This is only half true. Taylor wished to be a friend to both, but such is impossible. One cannot have two masters. He must love the one and hate the other.25 Taylor fails to make necessary and biblical distinctions between AA and Christianity. Christianity is God’s covenant relation to and redemption of his people from their sins, but AA is not.

Taylor says,

In its own unique way it [AA] goes about leading men and women to God who never before gave Him much thought. I hope the more conservative of my brethren who may feel inclined to question AA’s theology at this point will withhold their judgment for the moment. AA’s success constitutes a powerful recommendation for its methods.26

With all due respect, Christians cannot withhold theological or moral judgment upon a vaguely utilitarian basis. Other sects, e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, also claim to lead one to god, but it is clearly not the God of the Bible. Isaiah complains about hand made idols, Paul complains about those whose god is their belly. If the god to whom one is brought is not the Lord Jesus Christ then it is vanity. There are no intermediate steps to God.

In fact, AA is not the worship of the true and living God but is specifically applied peer pressure to alter a particular behavior pattern, often by replacing one addiction for another, in the nature of the case, bottle support for group support.27

Taylor’s claim that, at some point, every serious member of AA is confronted by necessity with Christianity is simply not true.28 In fact the leading currents of thought are moving away from the more overtly religious emphasis of years past to a more mechanistic and secular faith. The authority of Bill and the other founders of AA is also waning. After all isn’t one persons experience just as normative as anyone else’s? Agnosticism reigns in AA. “God as we conceive of Him” and the authority of God “as He is expressed in our group conscience”, has taken its natural course. If someone became sober without any god, then god isn’t strictly necessary. Of a course the god which began as a useful idea gives way to bare agnosticism.

Taylor admitted the parallels between Christianity and AA. Rather than chalking these apparent similarities up to plagiarism, Taylor says that there is just the right amount of religion in AA to make it effective without scaring this diseased person away from Christianity. After all, he says, alcoholics are notorious for their bad feelings about religion. Taylor thinks AA is a good introduction for Alcoholics to Christianity.29

Taylor’s biggest error was to deny the biblical teaching regarding human responsibility for sin. By saying as he does, with AA, that alcoholism (or any other excessive behavior for that matter) is a matter of treating a disease then one has removed the problem from the proper sphere of reference (sin and redemption) and conceded that biblical revelation, the work of Christ and the means of grace (preaching of the Word and sacraments) are insufficient for redemption and the Christian life.

God’s Word consistently describes our lot differently. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). All hold down the knowledge of God in unbelief (Rom 1:18). All are prone, by nature, to hate God and their neighbor. The Christian view of the matter is that the alcoholic, no matter how tragic his case, has no advantage over the average son of Adam in that respect. The answer does not lie with a synthesis of obvious Christian behaviors and doctrines (or facsimiles thereof) with modern disease models.

The answer lies in real repentance and faith in the living God, the second person of the Trinity, the Jesus who died for sinners and was raised again for our justification and who through the Holy Spirit effectively calls us to faith and who gives us new life and who makes us holy in himself.

What is the real difference between addictive sexual behavior and alcoholism? Once one becomes addicted to the sensations of orgasm he does not want to quit and will order his life around it. The question is not how much, but why, the inappropriate and damaging behavior continues? The “why” of the behavior is the same. All human beings are addicted to sin. Who of us in our old life was not? This is not to deny that alcoholism is not damaging, but to assert that all sin has its own form of fallout. The affects are different in some regard, but the progressive nature of the addiction begins with the will to sin. The effects of sin do not justify calling a sin a disease. In which case habitual drunkenness is no more a disease than habitual use of pornography. Neither sin is excusable no matter what the cause.

A 1982 book by A. C. DeJong, Help and Hope for the Alcoholic, is little improvement over Taylor. DeJong takes the middle road. DeJong’s approach is very similar to Taylor’s because his belief is that the Bible does not speak about the abuse of alcohol, (or that what it says is outdated), that Alcoholics Anonymous is a useful adjunct to the Church, and most importantly that alcoholism is not sin, but a disease.30

DeJong says that he once thought that alcoholism is sin, but since his own recovery (from alcoholism) he has come to see the error of that position.31 The reason for the change in his position was not exegetical (determined by detailed study of the Word of God) but experiential. DeJong, on the strength of his experience and assumptions, recommends all his alcoholic parishioners to AA and to all its subsidiary organizations.32

Like Taylor, DeJong argues that to call alcoholism a sin is not helpful. DeJong says that if the effects are this devastating, and no rational person would inflict this much damage upon himself and loved ones, not even a sinful one, then the cause must be disease over which the alcoholic had no control. DeJong admits that there is no known cause of the disease and that the origin of the disease is a mystery.33 DeJong still claims that for a non-alcoholic to call alcoholism sin is prideful.34

DeJong wants us to believe that AA is Biblical. He uses Scripture to support each of the Twelve Steps.35 DeJong admits that the alcoholic starts out in sin but he says that, in the end, the alcoholic is really a victim and not a sinner.36

Where Scripture and AA part ways, DeJong consistently follows the AA program. He makes the astonishing claim that alcoholism is not self inflicted. How then, one asks, did this catastrophe take place? He has already admitted that there is no known cause of the disease, nor any substantial medical support for the disease claim, so who or what secret and dark force foisted this disease upon him?37

In each chapter DeJong gives a summary of the meaning of one or more of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Chapter four deals with “unconditional surrender”. The third of the Twelve Steps.38 He compares this surrender to the biblical descriptions of contriteness, repentance and brokenness of heart.39

On the surface this seems appropriate, but in fact it is distinctly unchristian. How? Even when the later steps speak of “our wrongs” and “character defects” they are not gauged against the Word of God which is the only standard against which sin can be judged (1 John 3:4; Rom 7:7). In the Bible, to repent of one’s sins, to acknowledge the depth of one’s sin and misery, entails fleeing to Jesus who lifts our burden and replaces it with His light yoke.

This is not what AA has in mind. One does not, when he admits that he is “powerless” over Alcohol, confess that he has held down the knowledge of the Covenant God in unbelief, sin, and rebellion. Instead what the alcoholic admits by this confession is his lack of moral responsibility for his situation. He confesses that his disease has gripped him to the point that it has begun to control him above all his other defects. Moreover he confesses these slips to a god of his own imagination–to himself ultimately! These are two fundamentally different confessions of faith.

DeJong makes another breathtaking claim, in contrast to Taylor, that AA is not a religious fellowship because it does not require subscription to a specific set of doctrines for membership. He also contradicts reality. The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions are in fact a catechism and confession. AA is a confessional religion. There is not any non-religious or neutral confession of a god. Either one confesses the God of the Bible or he is an unbeliever.40

This helps us get to the heart of DeJong’s problem. At every point he allows the alcoholic to remain in charge. The Bible simply forbids such an approach. DeJong has simply ignored the Biblical data we surveyed earlier. It is clear towards the end of the book, where he quotes the AA Big Book more and more, that his position is driven by a bible but not the revealed Word of God.

Never does the Word of God allow such self sufficiency. Clearly DeJong has somehow justified to himself the sacrifice of a biblical world-view for that of Alcoholics Anonymous. At every one of the Twelve Steps, important differences can be shown between what the Bible teaches and what each Step or Tradition teaches.

Your Church and the Alcoholic

Phillip Yancey calls AA “The Midnight Church.” There are ways in which AA is like a local Church. What attracts alcoholics to AA is the fellowship, mutual support and acceptance they find in AA.41 Members are bound together by a common struggle against a common problem.

Like other para-church groups, AA grew up in a vacuum left by the church. In the past Christians have encouraged the growth of AA by looking down at alcoholics as sinners of a special sort. When Christians treat the alcoholic as though his sin was worse than ours, we’ve reinforced the idea that only alcoholics understand other alcoholics and that the church is irrelevant to the alcoholic.

It is not as if there is no alcohol abuse in the church. The truth is that there is more alcohol abuse and addiction than many recognize. By ignoring it and giggling about drinking problems, we have sometimes pushed the alcoholic into the arms of AA. Just as we have become sensitive to the needs of those facing the crisis of abortion, divorce, or spouse abuse, the church should make an effort to become aware of the specific symptoms of alcohol abuse so that we can spot it and address it in our own congregations. We cannot expect the alcoholic struggling with alcohol addiction and abuse to trust us, if we’re not willing to admit that those who confess Christ sometimes fall into the sin of alcohol abuse.

To correct the problem Christians much first realize that it is God’s will for sinners of all sorts to find their fellowship, acceptance, mutual support, and strength within the bonds of the local church, the Christ confessing covenant community, composed of confessing believers, redeemed sinners, saved by grace.

No one can confront any life-dominating sin apart from the saving grace of God in Christ. The first step toward freedom from alcohol abuse is to turn away from all sin and to place one’s trust in the righteous obedience of Jesus Christ as our substitute and Savior (Acts 2:28-9; 10:43; Rom 1:16-7; 10:17;
Gal 2:16).

The location of our life in Christ and the source of our daily help is the grace of God administered in the congregation through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.

In Eph 5:18-20 Paul gives explicit directions in this regard. Paul is assuming that in Christ we are a new creation with new life patterns and new friends. Paul suggests that part of the new life means being subject to our brothers and sisters in the visible body of Christ instead of alcohol.

Second, we Christians must make a commitment to accepting the alcohol abuser into our midst, as someone no more or less dependent upon God’s grace than we. If we as the visible community of the redeemed truly see ourselves as lost sinners saved by grace, then how can we not accept other sinners into our midst? How can we distinguish between one type of pre-Christian behavior and another? We can’t and neither should the alcohol (or other substance) abuser.

Notice how Peter classes alcohol abuse in 1 Peter 4:1-4:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do–living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you (NIV).

The Apostle Peter frankly recognizes the difficulty of leaving the old life behind and uniting with a new group of friends, the church. Verse four, “They think it strange…” seems to indicate even that some of the believers were being persecuted by their old drinking buddies. The verse also illustrates the need for the alcoholic to replace his old associations with new ones (cf. 1 Cor 15:33). The church is God’s agency for the helping the alcohol abuser.

Third, we must make a commitment to dealing openly with one another about our sins. Here we need to reclaim territory we have conceded to AA. In an AA meeting there is usually a remarkable degree of openness in the meeting to one another. Pretense is difficult in a room full of people who have been doing exactly what you have been doing and telling the same lies. If someone is having a difficult time of it, he is encouraged to seek help from a qualified fellow member and even from the group as a whole. This seems to fit the situation envisioned by the Lord in Matthew 18:15-19 and by Paul in Col 3:16. and by James 5:16.

Fourth, we must become available to serve one another. We are all sinners. Any sin could be life dominating. It is not necessary to be an alcoholic to serve the spiritual needs of the alcoholic.

Part of that ministry requires the mature, sober alcoholic to go on call (much the way a doctor is on call) for a 24 hour period. When on call one’s phone might ring day or night with call from a fellow member who is about to “fall off the wagon”. Strong bonds of love and mutual encouragement are formed when one spends the night holding another’s hand who is shaking and vomiting under withdrawal symptoms. Do we love one another in Christ as much as AA members love each other?

Would it not make a difference in one’s life, when tempted to commit some sin for the thousandth time, one knew that there was a Christian friend one might call who would show the love of Jesus by giving encouragement, praying with one, taking one out for coffee and providing some redirection? I think it would.

Fifth, there are a many Christians who attend AA, who live a dual life, because they believe the Church will scorn them because of their past alcohol abuse. This is very sad. It is the Church who has the good news for alcoholics–sin will not have dominion over believers! (Rom 6:14).

Those Christians who are leading this double life must help the Church learn to deal openly with alcohol and drug abuse. Christians with an alcoholic past must trust their brothers and sisters in Christ enough to show them how to minister to the addict.


The Church has been entrusted with the great commission to make disciples, even of alcoholics. AA constitutes a field of hurting, gospel needy people, white for the harvest. The question is, are we hungry enough to harvest?

It may be old fashioned, but we must describe to the alcoholic the depth of his sin and misery, how he can be redeemed from all his sins and misery and how he is to be thankful for such redemption.42 Obviously the presentation of the gospel must be sensitive and thoughtful and will vary from case to case, but the essentials, as we will see, cannot be compromised, even (or perhaps especially) for one as desperate as the alcoholic. We dare not throw too short a rope to a drowning man. Only the gospel rope will do.


Adams, J. E., The Christian Counselor’s Manual. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed: 1975.

___, Competent to Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970.

Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: A A World Services 1976.

Alcoholics Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Traditions. New York: AA Grapevine and AA World Services, 1953.

Crossman, R. H. S., ed., Oxford and The Groups. Oxford: Blackwell, 1934.

DeJong, A. C., Help and Hope for the Alcoholic. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1982.

Henry, C. F. H., Christian Personal Ethics. 1957; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.

Henson, H. H., The Oxford Groups. Oxford University Press: London, 1933.

Hughes, P. E., Hope for a Despairing World: The Christian Answer to the Problem of Evil. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977.

Leon, P., The Philosophy of Courage. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1939.

Machen, J. G., The Christian View of Man. 1937; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984.

Shipp, T. J., Helping the Alcoholic and His Family. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Taylor, G. A., A Sober Faith: Religion and Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Macmillan Company, 1953.

Wisdom, C., “Alcoholic’s Anonymous–A Biblical Critique of AA’s View of God. Man, Sin and Hope”, The Journal of Pastoral Practice, 1986.

1 Alcoholics Anonymous, xvii.

2 ibid

3 ibid. xviii, xxii.

4 The 12 Steps are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (emph. orig.)
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted too God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. (emph. orig.)
  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 in all our affairs.

The 12 Traditions are, in part:

  • Our common welfare should come first; the personal recovery depends upon AA. unity. Each member of Alcoholics Anonymous is but a small part of a great whole. AA. must continue to live or most of us will surely die. Hence our common welfare comes first. But individual welfare follows close afterward.
  • For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority–a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  • The only requirement for AA. membership is a desire to stop drinking. Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA. membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA., provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.
  • Each group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA. name ought never be drawn into public controversy. No AA. group should ever, in such a way as to implicate AA., express an opinion on outside controversial issues–particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one. Concerning such groups they can express no views whatever.
  • Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities….we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance…It reminds us that we are to actually practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all (Alcoholics Anonymous, 17; Twelve Steps, 5ff).

5 The Big Book has revised several times since its publication.

6 Pentecostal Christians teach a sort of on-going revelation and that God speaks to Christians directly and about specific things apart from the Scriptures. See W. S. Hudson, Religion in America, 378 ff., W. W. Sweet, The Story of Religion in America, 423ff, H. H. Henson, The Oxford Groups, 5; P. Leon, The Philosophy of Courage, 112ff.

7 Sweet, 423

8 Hudson, 378. The historical relationship between AA and the Oxford Groups is hinted at in the quotation from the Big Book above in the phrase, “though he (Bill W.) could not accept all the tenets….”

These tenets, though attached originally to an apparently Christian para-church organization, are not distinctively Christian, if only because they do not flow from a distinctively Christian confession. That is, there is nothing about them which requires one to be a Christian to practice them. The assumption of this essay is that Christianity is a unique religion in that it is divinely revealed, its God is triune, and its doctrine of redemption and ethics are organized around the God-Man Jesus Christ, who died as a substitute for all his people. Christian ethics is nothing more or less than the grateful response by the redeemed to God’s grace toward sinners in Christ.

9 ibid. xvi.

10 For example, it is a regular practice to recite the Lord’s Prayer in their meetings. Jesus prayed “Hallowed be thy name”, or “Your name is Holy”, with the clear intent of declaring that God’s name (Yahweh), indeed God Himself, is distinct morally and in his being from humanity. Yet in step three and tradition two AA rejects explicitly such a view of God. Jesus prayer is exclusivist in that it implies that there are no other gods besides the God of the Bible.

There are other hints of the Bible in the Twelve Traditions of AA Some examples of such borrowing: tradition three speaks of the gathering of “two or three” an obvious reference to Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three of you are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst”. The Twelve Steps and Traditions refer to God as “Him”, complete with the uppercase pronoun traditionally reserved in English for the Biblical Deity. Interestingly, the published prayers of AA are even written in a sort of 17th century English, apparently to lend them an air of tradition and authority.

11 Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-3. See also, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, 132ff.

12 Chapter four of the book even contains an apologetic for their doctrine of God and their view of revelation.

13 Many AA meetings close with the chant, “keep coming back, it works”.

14 L. P. Jacks, Oxford and the Groups, 129; See also J. Alsdurf’s review of H. Fingarette’s The Myth of Alcoholism As a Disease, “Alcoholism: Is It a Sin After All?”, (Christianity Today, February 3, 1989). See also L. M. Thomas, “Alcoholism is Not A Disease”, in Christianity Today, October 4, 1985. For a contrary view see. A. Spinkard’s article in Christianity Today August 4, 1983, 26.

15 A. Spinkard, 26; T. J. Shipp, Helping the Alcoholic and His Family, 91ff.

16 See the similar exhortation in Rom.13:13.

17 The first article of the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

18 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 4.

19 The Revised Standard Version (1973; New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)

20 P. E. Hughes, Hope For a Despairing World: The Christian Answer to the Problem of Evil, 26-7.

21 The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 22 says, “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, (Heb. 2:14,16, Heb. 10:5) and a reasonable soul, (Matt. 26:38) being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, (Luke 1:27,31,35,42, Gal. 4:4) yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15, Heb. 7:26)”

22 From the New American Standard Version.

23 Alcoholics Anonymous, 46-7.

24 ibid, the preface, vii.

25 Matthew 6:24.

26 A Sober Faith, 4ff;52.ff

27 ibid., 32ff., esp.42.

28 ibid., 59.

29 ibid., 35, 78, 87.

30 ibid., 18, 38, 41.

31 ibid.,18.

32 ibid., 14, 57.

33 Thus Jay Adams calls the use of the word disease in the context of alcoholism meaningless.

34 De Jong, Help and Hope for the Alcoholic, 18, 21; Cf. J. E. Adams, Competent to Counsel, xiv.

35 Help and Hope for the Alcoholic, 31ff.

36 ibid., 22.

37 ibid., 35.

38 ibid., p.59ff.

39 ibid., 61.

40 ibid., 114.

41 Phillip Yancey, “The Midnight Church,” Christianity Today, February 4, 1983, 96. Yancey gives an overly sentimental and unbiblical description of Alcoholics Anonymous. He is quite correct, however, when he calls it a “unique church”. Although he does not seem to realize what this implies. He too has bought into the idea that somehow Alcoholics Anonymous reflects the true spirit of the early Church, a church without all those nasty doctrinal disputes that bother the organized Church. In so doing he confirms the connection with the Oxford Groups. He brushes over what he calls the “Christological question” i.e., how a Christian could actively take part in the worship of an unknown god or even more to the point: propagate such a faith without compromising his Christian faith; with the worst kind of defense: well the church is full a hypocrites and the alcoholic is getting his needs met, so what is the difference? The most blatant inaccuracy, however, in the article is his insistence that AA requires the alcoholic to take responsibility for his actions. This is not the case. While there is a mild formal protest that, yes, the alcoholic is responsible, the chief doctrine of the faith is that alcoholism is the result of a disease not sin, therefore, ultimately, the alcoholic cannot be fully responsible because no one can justly be held responsible for actions committed under the influence of a disease over which he had no control.

42 This language is drawn from the second question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, a Reformed confessional document first published in 1563.

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Posted by R. Scott Clark | Monday, September 3, 2012 | Categorized in Ethics. R. Scott Clark. Bookmark the permalink.

About R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. Read more» He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.