By Brandon Sutton

A lot of people who are Christians first got sober in programs like Alcoholic Anonymous (AA). Like myself, they came in desperate and looking for anything to help them stop drinking and drugging. Just make the pain stop, and it did when they started working the steps with a sponsor and going to meetings. I praise for recovery programs like AA. They’ve helped countless people. 

But the question must be asked, now that we’re believers: can we in good conscience work and believe the 12 Steps as they are originally written? My answer is no. 

Let me explain. 

I can’t get into the full back story of the 12 Steps and how they began, but they originated in Alcoholics Anonymous. AA was founded by Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith (“Dr. Bob”) in Akron, Ohio in 1935. Wilson was a chronic alcoholic who claims to have had a spiritual experience that liberated him from his alcoholism. Convinced that believing in God and living out spiritual principles were the answer to his malady (and that of others), Wilson wrote the 12 Steps as a guideline for recovery. They 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.

At first glance, the 12 Steps seem very good. Essentially, they encourage addicts to accept their sinfulness (step 1), believe in God’s power to restore and then surrender to Him (steps 2-3), confess sin and pray for spiritual improvement (steps 4-7), ask those we’ve wronged for forgiveness (steps 8-9), practice continual self-examination and spiritual disciplines (steps 10-11) and helping others (step 12). 

What’s wrong with that? Well, a few things. First of all, the steps don’t specifically address sin as the main problem (Romans 6:23). Alcohol (or drugs in NA) is the listed as the problem. We must understand, addiction is not the disease. Sin is. Addiction is a symptom of the disease. Our hearts are wicked and need renewed. If you take away alcohol but don’t renew the heart, you still have a person who desires sin more than Christ. So, I have no problem admitting we are powerless, but the language needs be about sin, not merely alcohol. 

Secondly, steps 2 and 3 promote idolatry. We don’t believe in a “higher power” (step 2). We believe in the LORD, the God of the Bible who is three in One—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—our Creator and Redeemer. We are not permitted to believe in a god of our own understanding. We don’t get to make God up in our minds. When Bill Wilson was visited by a friend who was once an alcoholic, he told Bill he had found God, but Bill wasn’t interested. Then his suggested to Bill what he considered, “a novel idea. He said, ‘Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” Referring to this moment, Bill writes, “That statement hit me hard. It melted the icey intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered for years. 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 my beginning.” There is a lot in that statement to consider. First, you can’t choose your own conception of God any more than you can choose the color of the sky. God is who He is (Exodus 3:14). We don’t define God. He defines us. He is our Creator. We are His creatures. Not the other way around. Forming our own conception of God is the essence of idolatry and begs for His judgment. God will have no rivals. Second, it’s interesting to see how Wilson once thought about God. He once “shivered” at his belief in God. He lived in His “shadow.” That fascinates me. It demonstrates that Wilson had a conception of a God who wasn’t pleased with his life, and he was right! Wilson was an alcoholic who lived in total rebellion to God. Of course, God wasn’t pleased, but the answer isn’t to reject God and find a new one. The answer is to turn to Christ. 

Whether Wilson ever turned to Christ for salvation, we cannot be sure, but we do know he said this about our Lord, “To Christ I conceded the certainty of a great man, not too closely followed by those who claimed Him. His moral teaching—most excellent. For myself, I had adopted those parts which seemed convenient and not too difficult; the rest I disregarded.” This doesn’t sound like a man who confessed Jesus as Lord and believed God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10). 

Finally, we consider the goal of the 12 Steps—a spiritual awakening (step 12). The goal of every recovery program is to gain and maintain sobriety and then help others do the same. But that isn’t the goal of Christianity. 

So, can Christians work the 12 steps as they are originally written? The answer must be no. We can’t reduce our problem to addiction and the problems it’s caused. Our problem is sin and the fact that we will face the wrath of almighty God (Hebrews 9:27). And we can’t believe in whatever god we want. There is One true and living God. It is He that we must believe in and serve. And our ultimate goal isn’t to help people stay sober by carrying the message of sobriety. Our goal is to share the gospel and make disciples of all nations.  And the benefits are far more than sobriety—we get eternal life (John 3:16).