Abstract: As the biblical counseling movement advances, greater apologetic interaction with institutions such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is inevitable. After a concise consideration of the origin and history of AA, this article focuses upon a biblical evaluation and critique of the problems inherit in its method and doctrine. Because AA’s method is rooted in an attempt at theological neutrality, the brain disease model of addiction, and psychology’s mental illness concept, it is incapable of provided a sound means unto recovery from alcohol addiction. Whereas the Christian gospel affords those who struggle with any addiction comprehensive renewal, AA constitutes another religion which affords its adherents an ever-present fear of relapse.
Like Walmart, McDonalds, and the Rotary Club, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is one of those distinctly American institutions that is ubiquitous in most cities, even operating in the basements of many church buildings. It is revealed knowledge in American culture that anyone who struggles with alcohol addiction ought to routinely participate in local AA meetings. Because of AA’s acceptance within our culture, many Christians have accepted the role of AA within their congregation. Perhaps due to their discomfort with AA’s non-Christian spirituality, others have adopted a Christian twelve-step program that is methodologically derived from AA.
This article will provide an evaluation and critique of AA in light of Scripture, comparing its teaching and presuppositions to that of a biblical worldview. Despite its ubiquity and acceptance among many evangelicals, AA is predicated upon doctrines that are completely unbiblical and contrary to the Christian gospel. It will be shown that AA is, in fact, a religion which is in competition with the Christian faith.
The Origin of AA
In 1928, Frank Buchman, an ordained Lutheran minister, began the Oxford Group, a moralistic cult which held that through absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, love, and confession of sin, man can achieve peace with God, even Christ. The movement, also called Moral Re-Armament, affirmed a neo-Pelagian view of human nature, believing that through confession of sin and a renewed commitment to moral living, humanity could bring about a pax humana. Conspicuously absent from the Oxford Group’s teaching was any mention of the gospel of Jesus Christ. H. A. Ironside, the great evangelical theologian and pastor of Moody Church, a contemporary of Buchman, remarked that the teaching of the Oxford Group was essentially a form of Christianity without the Savior, his cross, his atonement, or his Holy Spirit.
William Wilson (1895-1971), also known as Bill W., was a drunkard who had a career on Wall St. until the great depression hit on “black Tuesday,” 1929. Wilson gave himself over to alcohol as a way to alleviate his loss, and in 1934 he met a former drinking buddy who had reached sobriety through a conversion to the Oxford Group. Although Wilson wanted sobriety, he rejected the Christian faith. Bill’s friend responded to his hesitancy by inviting him to invent a God of his own making. He said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?’’
While in the hospital undergoing detox, Wilson was under the care of Dr. W. D. Silkworth. Silkworth instructed Wilson that alcoholism is a disease, and that this disease results in a biologically driven predilection for alcohol. Out of desperation to be free from this disease, Wilson is said to have cried out from his hospital bed, “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let him show himself!” After having a “spiritual experience,” Wilson agreed to believe in “a Power greater than himself,” undergoing some form of conversion.
The basis of Wilson’s relationship with his own conception of God were certain works he learned while in the Oxford Group: “a moral inventory, confession of personality defects, restitution to those harmed, helpfulness to others, and the necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.” These works were later featured in AA’s recovery model. Wilson became convinced that these were the essential and exclusive elements needed to achieve sobriety.
Dr. Robert Smith (1879-1950), also known as Dr. Bob S., was a proctologist and a severe drunkard. While participating in the Oxford Group in a last-ditch attempt to find sobriety, Smith met Wilson who introduced the good doctor to the disease model of addiction. Through his own “spiritual experience,” along with Wilson’s aid, Smith was able to achieve sobriety.
Together, Smith and Wilson went on to aid yet another “alcoholic,” and thus founded the organization as it is known today. As of 2014, AA is an international organization which consists of over 115,000 local chapters or “fellowships”
AA only admits people into their fellowships who desire to stop drinking. Once admitted, other alcoholics who have reached sobriety begin to aid the newcomer to “work the steps.” He or she is typically appointed a sponsor, unless they were previously invited to AA by a sponsor. The sponsor is someone who has “made some progress in the recovery program and shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through AA” The sponsor encourages and helps the newcomer to attend a variety of AA meetings, promotes AA literature and teaching to the newcomer, and disciples them in the traditions of AA. Sponsors essentially look after the new recruit, assisting them on their path to sobriety.
AA’s recovery movement is centered around the spiritual experience that is brought about by following The Twelve Steps of Recovery. The Twelve Steps of Recovery are as follows:
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.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to 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 only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
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.
A Biblical Evaluation of AA
The tenth of AA’s “Twelve Traditions” states,
No AA group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate AA, express any opinion on outside controversial issues—particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups opposes [sic] no one.
AA intends to portray an innocuous image while remaining neutral on controversial issues. However, such an attempt at neutrality is itself non-neutral. One cannot be lukewarm on an issue such as the Lordship of Christ. Jesus said to his disciples “Whoever is not with me is against me and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” An attempt at neutrality, or even silence, is itself an opinion on “controversial issues.” Therefore, because A.A. intentionally rejects the exclusivist nature of the Bible’s truth claims, it rejects Christianity by implication.
- AA Promotes an Unbiblical Spirituality
Although AA claims that it “is not a religious organization,” it promotes and teaches its own distinct spirituality. The practice of the twelve steps is said to produce a “spiritual experience” or “awakening,” just as in some form of religious conversion. According to Alcoholics Anonymous (i.e., the “Big Book”), “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express himself in our group conscience.” The pamphlet, Members of the Clergy ask about Alcoholics Anonymous, states,
Most members, before turning to AA, had already admitted that they could not handle their drinking—alcohol had taken control of their lives. AA experience suggests that to get sober and stay sober, alcoholics need to accept and depend upon a spiritual entity, or force, that they perceive as greater than themselves. Some choose the AA group as their “Higher Power”; some look to God—as they understand Him; and others rely upon entirely different concepts.
When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book
AA’s spirituality is definitionally relativistic. That is, AA’s foundational “spiritual method” is idolatry. What underlies AA’s nebulous notion of a “Higher Power,” is the belief that all conceptions of God are equally legitimate and helpful in achieving sobriety. Thus, the underlying presupposition of AA’s spirituality is theological neutrality.
Biblical Christianity rejects theological relativism in the strongest possible terms. The non-Christian’s conception of God is corrupted by sin and needs correction, not embrace. There is only one God, and it is the Triune God of the Bible: “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens.” The existence of biblical revelation presupposes the human need for a proper understanding of God, what God requires, and man himself. Thus, AA’s theological relativism is a flat rejection of biblical revelation and the Triune God.
AA has attempted to cloak its rejection of the Triune God and biblical theology by featuring the endorsement of theological liberals such as H. E. Fosdick. It promotes its spirituality as religiously neutral:
We have no desire to convince anyone that there is only one way by which faith can be acquired. If what we have learned and felt and seen means anything at all, it means that all of us, whatever our race, creed, or color are the children of a living Creator with whom we may form a relationship upon simple and understandable terms as soon as we are willing and honest enough to try. Those having religious affiliations will find here nothing disturbing to their beliefs or ceremonies. There is no friction among us over such matters.
The Scriptures teach that there is no neutrality in this life, and that there is no form of “faith” through which one may have fellowship with God outside of Christ.
AA’s spirituality is designed to fly under the radar of Christians as somehow compatible with the biblical faith:
We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men.
AA’s spirituality is nothing less than an attack of the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the Savior and Mediator. One cannot know God as father without the salvific work of Jesus Christ. Jesus contradicted AA inclusivist spirituality by claiming, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. AA’s “broad” and “roomy” path unto God is, in reality, the wide path that leads to destruction.
- AA Calls Disease What the Bible Calls Sin
The disease model of alcohol addiction is an intrinsic and unalterable part of the fabric of AA. For AA, “Alcoholics” are not like typical people. They are instead, “bodily and mentally different” than other people. Alcoholism, says AA, becomes completely involuntary, such that the only thing that may stop an alcoholic from his involuntary habit is AA’s “spiritual experience” leading to an entire “psychic change:”
At a certain point in the drinking of every alcoholic, he passes into a state where the most powerful desire to stop drinking is of absolutely no avail…have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent.
For AA, alcoholism is a disease, and alcoholics are sick. However, biblically speaking, devoting oneself to an addiction to alcohol isn’t merely a disease, it is the sin of drunkenness. Edward Welch has noted,
Since the history of drunkenness extends back to the beginnings of recorded history, the writers of Scripture were very familiar with it, probably even more than we are today. The biblical view of drunkenness—the prototype of all addictions—is that it is always called sin, never sickness. Scripture is unwavering in this teaching and relentless in its illustrations.
Because AA does not accurately identify the problem, it is unable to provide a sufficient solution. The solution for drunkenness, and for any sin, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The means by which men become made new is the grace of God wrought in Christ and him crucified and resurrected for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
When AA teaches drunkards to proclaim in its twelve steps creed, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol,” it is asserting that drunkenness is not a choice people make, but a biologically driven addiction. This assertion is a clear contradiction of the Bible’s teaching, that drunkenness is a choice people make, and not merely a biological reality. When the Scripture commands, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery,” it is assuming that people have a personal choice in the matter. When Peter tells believers, “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry,” he assumes that his readers have a conscious choice as to whether one continues in drunkenness or not. The watching world claims it is impossible to stop drinking and it is “surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” Nonetheless, drunkenness is a choice.
The Scriptures refute AA’s claim that drunkenness is altogether different than other vices:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Cor. 10:13)
Drunkenness is not a special classification of sin that requires a unique solution. Rather, drunkenness is “common to man,” and may be resisted.
In addition to there being no biblical justification for the disease model of alcohol addiction, there are also severe medical, logical, and moral problems with the model:
- AA’s Model Revokes Both Personal Freedom and Responsibility
If addiction is brought about by a genetic disease, this presupposes a loss of personal freedom and subsequently, personal responsibility. Thus, the drunk who drives his car into a crowd of people isn’t personally responsible. Rather, such a turn of affairs was brought about by an illness, just as if the drunk had a stroke while behind the wheel. The mother of the baby born with a drug addiction shouldn’t be prosecuted, as her actions were merely the result of a disease. If the brain disease model were true, many actions previously deemed immoral or criminal should, when committed by a drunkard, go unpunished.
- AA’s Model Presupposes Anthropological Monism
The notion that drunkenness is brought about by genetics implies that human beings are not a body-soul unity as taught in the Christian Bible. Instead, the brain disease view assumes that human beings are only physical entities who have no immaterial soul or spirit. This view, known as physicalism, is in fundamental contradiction with the Bible’s description of the soulish existence experienced by the dead, whether in the presence of God or in torment.
- AA’s Model is Intrinsically Unscientific
The disease model assumes a completely unscientific understanding of alcoholism. Built into the model is the notion that an alcoholic is someone who has an uncontrollable compulsion to drink. This lack of control is said to be evidence by destructive behaviors, and failed attempts at quitting. “But, there is no scientific way to distinguish between uncontrolled compulsion and uncontrollable compulsion.”
- The Brain Disease Model is Yet Unproven
There is not unanimity among medical professionals and scholars on the brain disease model of addiction. For instance, a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine notes that, “the concept of addiction as a disease of the brain is still being questioned.” Consider the following:
Although the brain disease model of addiction is perceived by many as received knowledge, it is not supported by research or logic. In contrast, well established, quantitative choice principles predict both the possibility and the details of addiction.
It surely is irresponsible to claim that ‘addiction’ is a brain disease based on the present state of neurological knowledge and underlying theories and techniques. It is more probable that addiction is normal human bonding to an object, in spite of the negative social and cultural evaluations it is subjected to.
There are many people who recover from alcohol addiction without having had any treatment for their “disease,” and no actual medical intervention for the brain disease model has ever been developed. This is due to the fact that there is no pathology associated with addiction. While brain disease model advocates argue that addiction has a molecular basis in the human brain, there exists no known biological marker whatever. It is more accurate to recognize that brain function changes gradually in response to alcohol addiction.
- AA’s Model Requires Wholesale Ascent to Modern Psychology
There is good indication in the literature of AA that the organization affirms a modern psychological view of “mental illness” in conjunction with the brain disease model. The notion of a non-pathological mental disease is contrary to the basic teaching of Scripture. As Adams notes below, the Bible doesn’t possess a category for a non-organic illness:
The Scriptures plainly speak of both organically based problems as well as those problems that stem from sinful attitudes and behavior; but where, in all God’s Word, is there so much as a trace of any third source of problems which might approximate the modern concept of ‘mental illness’? Clearly the burden of proof lies with those who loudly affirm the existence of mental illness or disease but fail to demonstrate biblically that it exists. Until such a demonstration is forthcoming, the only safe course to follow is to declare with all of Scripture that the genesis of such human problems are twofold, not threefold.
AA’s capitulation to psychology requires us to consider the vast problems inherit in the modern psychological establishment. Even the secular world has come to the realization that psychology and its resultant therapeutic culture doesn’t work. Psychology has been recognized by the secular culture as something of a pseudo-science. Dr. Alex B. Berezow, a microbiologist, has come out and declared, “Psychology isn’t science.” The basis for Berezow’s confident assertion is that psychology doesn’t meet basic scientific criteria:
Why can we definitively say that? Because psychology often does not meet the five basic requirements for a field to be considered scientifically rigorous: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.
Psychology’s failure to legitimize its “science” is rooted in its inability to follow standard scientific practices. John Horgan has noted that in 2015 more than half of 100 studies published in “major psychology journals” had failed a replication test “despite painstaking efforts to re-create the original experiments.” In his book length evaluation, Dr. Brian M. Hughes has noted,
Second-rate replication records, paradoxical paradigms, enigmatic measurement practices, cryptic statistics, and unconvincing sampling conventions all stand as ubiquitous reminders of why psychologist’s enthusiasm should be tempered.
Hughes concluded that although psychology “considers itself agile at producing authentic insights about the human psyche,” psychologists should instead “feel torrents of collective embarrassment running down their spines.”
AA’s embrace of psychology’s “mental disease” concept and the brain disease model of addiction, leaves AA incapable of providing those who struggle with alcohol addiction an appropriate solution. Drunkenness is first a spiritual condition, and only by implication a physiological condition. That is, the physiological effects of drunkenness are brought about by a preexisting spiritual condition, which in the case of the drunkard, is manifested in alcohol abuse. While legitimate medical interventions may be necessary, the root issue is one of sin and not disease.
- AA’s Spiritual Method Denies the Gospel
AA’s slavish devotion to the disease model of addiction renders its members in a state of helplessness such that they may never achieve freedom from the predilection to be drunk. AA has cloaked its failure to provide freedom from alcohol addiction by instituting its own anthropological dogma, namely, once someone is an alcoholic, he or she will always be an alcoholic. Hence, AA members introduce themselves saying, “Hello, my name is…and I am an alcoholic,” into perpetuity. Alcoholism, says AA, is a disease for which there exists no cure. So devoted is AA to the disease model, the organization equates alcohol addiction with the finality of amputation:
We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control… We are like men who have lost their legs; they never grow new ones.
By distinction, the Christian gospel makes sinners free from bondage to sin and the Holy Spirit sanctifies his people. While Christians may still struggle with sin, they are not a slave to sin and are a new creation in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The Scriptures explicitly deny the finality of addiction:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9-11)
“Drunkards,” says the apostle Paul, were transformed into Christians by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. By using the imperfect verb ēte, Paul characterizes some of the Corinthian Christians as precisely what AA denies, people who were once addicted to alcohol, but were made free from that addiction.
The biblical answer to either a substance addiction or a behavioral addiction (i.e., one that is not in and of itself sinful) is not complete abstinence. For instance, the Bible’s message to someone who is a glutton and is addicted to overeating is not, “Stop eating, and never eat again.” Instead, the Bible’s message is to repent from abusing the gift of food, and use food properly through the redemptive power of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit. Similarly, no one says to the shopping addict, “Never buy things again.” Rather, the Bible’s directive is to put the gift of provision within its appropriate place. So it is with alcohol addiction. Fear of relapse such that one may never drink alcohol again is not recovery. Rather, recovery is a well-adjusted and faithful disposition that is not still in bondage to sin. The Christian who has been freed from the sin of drunkenness is free to make good use of God’s gift of alcohol. Indeed, that Jesus ordained the use of alcohol in the Lord’s Supper is good evidence that neither he nor his church viewed complete abstinence as the proper approach to drunkenness. The wealth of so-called “dry drunks” in AA testifies that its methods are able only to bring people to a fearful state wherein the potential relapse is always close at hand.
AA is in no way compatible with biblical Christianity, and it is in itself another a competing religion—The AA fellowships are its churches, the ‘Big Book’ is its Bible, the “spiritual experience” is its conversion, sponsors are its clergy, and the Twelve Steps are its creed. AA’s religion even possesses a method of evangelism complete with personal testimony:
When you discover a prospect for Alcoholics Anonymous, find out all you can about him. If he does not want to stop drinking, don’t waste time trying to persuade him. You may spoil a later opportunity. This advice is given for his family also. They should be patient, realizing they are dealing with a sick person.
Tell him [i.e., the prospect] exactly what happened to you. Stress the spiritual feature freely. If the man be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God. He can choose any conception he likes, provided it makes sense to him. The main thing is that he be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself and that he live by spiritual principles.
In the final analysis, AA is a competing religion, and only through religious syncretism, can one harmonize the competing claims of Christianity and AA While many have reached sobriety through AA, the end doesn’t justify the means. Millenia before AA existed, those who were addicted to alcohol found healing and freedom through the gospel of Jesus Christ, Christian soul care, and the local church.
[Editor’s Note: Contributed by Michael R. Burgos]
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