Are AA’s 12 Steps Based Upon Christian Principles?

The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religion. It is a spiritual discipline. The conscious practice of the principles of the 12 Steps and their virtues of honesty, hope, faith, courage, integrity, willingness, humility, brotherly love, justice, perseverance, prayer, meditation, and service to one another in all our daily affairs is a spiritual discipline requiring rigorous honesty and perseverance. It involves being responsible to our fellows, to God, and to ourselves. The 12-Step program is a mode of living out our daily lives sober, one day at a time, under the rigor of a spiritual discipline.

From my first memories, I felt broken. I felt imperfect and as if I didn’t belong. My solution was to self-medicate. I used alcohol and supplemented that with marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs. I more or less thought it worked. I didn’t think that there were solutions other than numbing myself to escape. I personally discovered, however, that addiction is a progressive disease. I crashed and burned; unless I stopped I would die. As non-functional as I was at that time, I knew I had to stop.

One of the most common misconceptions about Alcoholics Anonymous is that it is a religious organization. New members especially, confronted with A.A.’s emphasis on recovery from alcoholism by spiritual means, often interpret “spiritual” as “religious” and shy away from meetings, avoiding what they perceive as a new and frightening set of beliefs. By the time they walk into their first meeting, many alcoholics have lost what faith they might once have possessed; others have tried religion to stop drinking and failed; still others simply want nothing to do with it. Yet with rare exceptions, once A.A. members achieve any length of sobriety, they have found a source of strength outside themselves. A higher power by whatever name. For many, this in effect removes the stumbling block.

Bill Wilson tells us in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age,” (which is a history of the Fellowship’s early years) that “…the hot debate about the Twelve Steps and the book’s content was doubled and redoubled. There were conservative, liberal, and radical viewpoints.” Some thought the Big Book ought to be Christian; others could accept the word “God” but were opposed to any other theological proposition. And the atheists and agnostics wanted to delete all references to God and take a psychological approach. Bill Wilson concludes, “We finally began to talk about the possibility of compromise. In Step Two we decided to describe God as a Power greater than ourselves. In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words ‘God as we understood Him.’ From Step Seven we deleted the words ‘on our knees.’ And, as a lead-in sentence to all the Steps we said ‘Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery.’ A.A.’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only.”

More than sixty years later, those compromises, articulated after weeks of heated controversy, have made it possible for alcoholics of all faiths, or no faith at all, to embrace the A.A. program of recovery and find lasting sobriety. What about this idea of having a spiritual awakening? Nevertheless, the phrase “spiritual awakening,” found in Step 12, and defined in Appendix II to the Big Book, remains daunting to many beginners. For some, it conjures up a dramatic “conversion,” such as being born again. Not an appealing idea to an alcoholic just coming off a drunk. To others, beaten down by years of steady drinking, it seems completely out of reach. But for those who persevere, ongoing sobriety almost invariably brings the realization that in some wonderful and unexpected way they have indeed experienced a spiritual change. Spirituality, A.A. style, is the result of action.

Step 12 begins, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps. . .” And in the book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” Bill Wilson describes what happens. He writes, “Maybe there are as many definitions of spiritual awakening as there are people who have had them. But certainly each genuine one has something in common with all the others. When a man or woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being. He has been set on a path which tells him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered. In a very real sense he has been transformed.

Alcoholics Anonymous began on June 10, 1935, co-founded by William Griffith Wilson (Bill W.) and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith (Dr. Bob). Bill W. conceived the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous while he was hospitalized for excessive drinking in December 1934. During his hospital stay, Bill W. had a spiritual experience that removed his desire to drink. In the following months, he tried to persuade other alcoholics to stop drinking just as he had. Bill W. found his first “convert” in Dr. Bob, who was willing to follow Bill W.’s method to find freedom from alcoholism. Four years later, Bill W. and Dr. Bob published the book, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” which contains the Twelve Steps and a spiritually based program of recovery from alcoholism.

Various sources influenced the formulation of A.A.’s program, as developed and recorded by Bill W. Of these, the British-born Oxford Group movement and its American leader, Episcopal clergyman Samuel Moor Shoemaker, Jr., contributed most significantly to the Christian basis of Alcoholics Anonymous. Both Bill W. and Dr. Bob attended Oxford Group meetings and based much of the A.A. program on this framework. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Oxford Group movement became a revolutionary answer to anti-religious reaction following World War I. Aiming to rekindle living faith in a church gone stale with institutionalism, the Oxford Group declared itself an “organism” rather than an “organization.” Group members met in homes and hotels, mingling religion with meals. Despite its freedom from institutional ties, the movement was distinctly ecclesiastical and looked to the church as its authority.

Dr. Frank N.D. Buchman, a Lutheran pastor, is most often cited as the leader of the Oxford movement. Yet, if one were to ask an Oxford Group follower, “Who is your leader?” the reply might well be, “The Holy Spirit.” So confidently did the group believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit that it had no organized board of officers, but relied instead on God’s control through men and women who had fully surrendered to God’s will. Buchman traveled extensively in the United States, England and the Orient, organizing local groups and urging people to follow definitive principles in order to experience a life-changing conversion. Buchman emphasized the need to surrender to God for forgiveness and guidance and to confess one’s sins to God and others. Oxford Group followers learned also to make restitution for wrongs done and to witness about their changed lives in order to help change others.

In establishing the principles of A.A., Bill W. borrowed material from many sources, including Christianity, and translated them into language easier for the alcoholic to accept. Consequently, A.A. members talk about spirituality, not religion; sobriety, not salvation; wrongdoing, not sin; admitting, not confessing; strength and hope, not resurrection; carrying the message, not sharing the faith. However, the absence of direct Christian references within A.A. does not take away from the program’s Christian basis.

In essence, the Twelve Steps embody the Bible’s core teachings concerning God’s redemptive relationship with humankind, from salvation to evangelism. They begin with an admission of human shortcomings and a profession of faith in God’s power, love and forgiveness. The essence of justification. The Twelve Steps go on to encourage continual confession of wrongdoing, submission to God’s control and proper conduct toward others. These are the principles of sanctification. Finally, they encourage habits of devotion, responsiveness to God’s will and sharing the message of recovery with others.

Of course, this is the basics of biblical Christian living. Charles Knippel, Ph.D., a noted scholar on Christianity’s influence on A.A., has this to say about the Twelve Steps and Christianity. “In making use of twelve-step programs and in encouraging others to use them, the Christian will view the Steps within the Christian context and give the Steps Christian meaning. In addressing himself to non-Christian members of twelve-step groups, the Christian will seek, by way of caring and sharing relationships, to bring such twelve-step practitioners to a Christian understanding of the Steps that will provide rich spiritual benefits and a more abundant experience of recovery.”

I firmly believe that the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is based upon Christian principles. I have taken issue in the past with alcoholics naming a tree or a dog or another person as their higher power. I also don’t think it’s appropriate to use the AA group as your higher power. This I base on the comment in How It Works that no human power can relieve our alcoholism. But God can and will if He is sought. I realize not everyone believes in the same God. I have learned that it is not appropriate for me to “witness” or “preach” during an AA meeting. I do, however, share my relationship with Jesus Christ when talking with alcoholics one-on-one. I have been set free from the bondage of addiction through the power of the cross, and I truly want everyone to experience the same freedom.

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