JOURNAL CLINICAL AND PASTORAL WORK. Vol. 22: 124-132, 1949
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS SPEAKS TO THE CHURCH
ROBERT K. NACE*
Bill had been sober for five months. One of the things that had kept him sober was his frequent visits to other alcoholics in an effort to sober them up. He hadn’t been successful, but at least it had helped to keep him sober. The other thing that Bill found a help in his fight with alcohol was his interest in an Oxford Group. Here he found some resources which gave him strength.
Sobriety had brought with it a new success in his business. He was slowly trying to put his affairs on solid ground after years of neglect. To do this he had to make a trip from New York to Akron. Legal entanglements produced problems, and as the days stretched into weeks, and success was not yet at hand the old battle with alcohol grew stronger. Yet here he was, miles away from any alcoholics whom he knew, and far from his Oxford Group. Out of sheer desperation Bill, searching for an Oxford Group and contact with a man who was having trouble similar to his, called a minister in Akron. This call brought him together with Dr. Bob.
Dr. Bob had been fighting his problem with alcohol for 35 years, ever since medical school days. All the resources at his disposal seemed to be of no avail. He too had had an interest in the Oxford Group, but even this was not enough. He and Bill shared their common problem and the resources they had found to help them. Dr. Bob was interested in Bill’s added “technique” of trying to help other alcoholics as a means of keeping sober himself. Bill moved from the hotel into Dr. Bob’s home and together they set out to find other alcoholics whom they might help. When Bill returned to New York six months later he left behind not only Dr. Bob but two other alcoholics who had joined them in this program of mutual aid. With the encouragement of the fellowship he had found in Akron, Bill began again to work with alcoholics and soon there was a small group who gathered together in New York. Out of these two small groups of men has grown the movement which is now known as Alcoholics Anonymous. Today A.A. is a movement which has about 80,000 members scattered throughout the United States and in 29 countries around the globe. While no exact figures are kept, it is estimated that about 50% of those who undertake the A.A. program remain sober, another 25% have a few “slips” and the remainder can best be classified as “doubtful.” The power of these figures can only be realized when we note that traditional medical and religious “cures” for alcoholism can best claim effectiveness somewhere under 5%. Honesty requires mentioning however that as the size of the A.A. movement increases the percentage of effectiveness decreases. What this means will be discussed shortly.
What is A.A. and how does it work? The answers to this question can best be found in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous” first published in 1939 when the group consisted of about 100 men and women. It was the publishing of this book that changed A.A. from a small localized group of alcoholics to the world movement it is today. It explains the principles and program of A.A. and gives the personal stories of a number of those who first found their strength in A.A. It is urged that those with an interest in A.A. should have the book on their shelf.
We can give a brief answer to the question, however, by mentioning three of the central aspects of the A.A. program:-1.) The Twelve Steps 2.) The Fellowship 3.) Twelfth Step Work. The Twelve Steps of A.A. are:-
Step one We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. Step Two We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step Three We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM. Step Four We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Step Five We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Step Six We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Step Seven We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. Step Eight We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Step Nine We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Step Ten We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. Step Eleven We 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. Step Twelve Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
In a sense these Twelve Steps are self-explanatory. A few things should be mentioned however. A.A. does not offer these steps as a recipe for sobriety. They don’t guarantee success. They are not steps which once taken are then finished. They are rather like a snow ball – incorporating all the previous steps in the one of immediate concern. They are not steps in the sense that one must be taken before the next can be started. If any one step seems too difficult, move on to the next, and return to that one later.
A second fundamental in the A.A. movement is its fellowship. This finds its fullest expression in the A.A. meeting where the group share their experience and thoughts. This meeting often takes the character of a “testimonial” meeting followed by refreshments – usually coffee. It is found that unless a man shares in this fellowship the Twelve Steps are exceedingly difficult. It takes the place of lost “drinking companions” or fills a long empty gap of loneliness. Part of the fellowship, though subsidiary to the meeting, are such things as an A.A. Club House, picnics, and parties.
The third fundamental of A.A. is the 12th Step Work. It was this that Bill brought to Dr. Bob in Akron. Particularly if the going “gets rough” the A.A. immediately goes out to help others. They will spend long hours with one another, or a newcomer, or in the alcoholic wards of a hospital giving acceptance and hope to others. This is the final step, but it also points to a step before the first step, which is this – that if a man is going to take that first step he must feel that there are people whom he can rely on even though he admits he is “powerless over alcohol,” people who know what he is experiencing, people who will accept him, at his lowest point, with love rather than judgment. It is only in this climate that a man can take this first step.
Even in such a brief statement of the history and fundamentals of the A.A. movement, one is impressed with the “religious” quality of the program, and the many parallels between A.A. and Christianity. There is for example an historic parallel. Almost everyone who becomes familiar with the spirit and voice of this fellowship remarks that it must be similar to that of the first century Church. As was true of the first century Christians, the alcoholics are a minority group who stand on the fringe of society. Misunderstood by the majority, often subject to the law, they find their security in their own fellowship. With the members of A.A. their fellowship is not only the result of their alcoholic exile, but also the sharing of a mutual redemptive experience, which soon becomes not just a means of sobriety but a way of life. Thus, central in both groups is the dynamic of a personal faith which resulted in salvation for each individual.
There is also a clear parallel in the Fellowship of A.A. with the congregational life of the Church. Central in the A.A. meeting is the “word,” the telling of the gospel of A.A., and the explanation of it. This is done by public testimony, which can be found in some form in all our churches. The A.A. groups also have a social expression similar to many churches. Socials, suppers, picnics and the like are reminiscent of the weekly activities in many churches. The A.A. Fellowship is a group who, having shared a common peril, now share in a common salvation. Is this not similar to the Christian fellowship which sings:-
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear,
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
With the exception of the word “Christian” these verses perfectly describe the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
It is particularly interesting to compare the principles, the theories and the “dogmatic’s” of A.A., with those of the Church. The Twelve Steps certainly are expressions of principles which have been central in Christian thought and teaching in all ages.
Step one, the admission that the alcoholic is powerless over alcohol, that his life has become unmanageable, immediately calls to mind Paul’s:- “The good which I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.” A.A. emphasizes that this lack of power is caused by something beyond the control of the individual. They speak of allergy and addiction – they are constitutionally alcoholics. There is something in their mind-body-spirit totality which makes this first step a fact. Is there not a similarity here with the concept of original sin? Both relieve the individual from the burden of guilt which hinders his admitting his sin (i.e. life being unmanageable), while leaving him with the possibility and responsibility of recognizing his sin, and thus making salvation possible.
Steps two and three are likewise particularized statements of fundamental Christian doctrine – the recognition and surrender of ourselves to a “Higher Power,” to God, as the source of our salvation. These steps are similar to the first answer in the Heidelberg Catechism:-“That I-am not my own-.” It is significant that these steps are the first three. It is an insistence upon faith as basic to salvation. The A.A. message is a message of salvation through faith, with works being the expression of that faith, rather than the source of salvation.
Steps four through seven make the distinction between original sin and particular sins. Besides being “alcoholic”-being in a constitutional state of sin- each individual has particular sins which he must acknowledge in step four. In step five, A.A. sees the value of the traditional Christian practice of confession. And in steps six and seven God is recognized as a forgiving God. All these steps are fundamentally Christian.
In steps eight and nine, where the alcoholic is urges to make amends to all those he has injured, we are reminded of the words of Jesus:-“If you are offering your gift at the alter, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the alter and go; first to be reconciled to your brother-.” That one’s relation to God involves a certain responsibility to our brothers is here very clearly stated, just as it is constantly reaffirmed in the New Testament.
The Church has always insisted that a spiritual life requires constant effort and is a never ending process. This effort takes the form of turning frequently to the source of our spiritual power through prayer and meditation, and also of trying to live our daily lives, in our relationship to our brothers, according to God’s will. A.A. expresses these principles in the tenth and eleventh steps.
Christianity has moved always under the commandment of the risen Christ:- “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” This has been the drive for the spread of Christianity. It has made Christianity the evangelistic religion of the world. It has resulted in missionary work around the globe. A.A. says in its twelfth step:- “having had a spiritual awakening-carry this message to alcoholics-.”
Recognizing these many close parallels between the A.A. movement and fundamental Christian thought and practice prompts us to ask a number of questions. How is it that A.A. is more successful in bringing a spiritual approach to alcoholics? Is there anything which the Church can learn from A.A.? How can the minister in his pastoral work best cooperate with A.A. in particular situations?
There is nothing really new in A.A. It is a synthesis of old ideas, and techniques, re-emphasizing well known, perhaps forgotten principles. One might suspect that A.A. would point to some glaring error in the procedure of the churches in dealing with alcoholics, and with the world in general. Particularly this might be true at first glance regarding the matter of self-righteousness. It is true that many A.A.’s have expressed a dislike toward self-righteous helpers, and “preachers,” but it includes all such people, and doesn’t give the clergy or the Christian any special claim on this attitude.
The growth of the A.A. movement has served as evidence which should plead for more tolerance toward the errors of the churches. It has shown that in many of the ways the churches have erred this has been the result of their human frailty, rather than any insincerity or weakness in the institutions and members as such. For example, the A.A.’s point out that pride and self righteousness are blocks in approaching newcomers, but as A.A. has grown large, in some circles it has established a reputation for these qualities. The author was visiting an alcoholic patient in one of our big city hospitals, and among other things suggested that he. might contact the A.A.’s His reply was significant. “I’ve had plenty of contact with the A.A. and I don’t want any of them coming here and looking at me and saying that ‘Anyway there is one bum in the world lower than I am.”‘
We are touching here one of the fundamental dangers in the systematic and institutional expressions of man. What for A.A. was a somewhat systematic statement of the experience of a group of men, now becomes a system to which men must fit themselves. We ask the question:- “Is the system created for man, or man for the system?” It would appear that after the first systematization of an experience succeeding generations are more and more required to fit into the system. This has some practical meaning for the pastor who tries to help individuals with A.A. A.A. at this point is still quite fluid and free from rigid institutional forms. Its unique quality is this. It is still a group of people who have had an experience. However, the more that the clergy, families and interested people use A.A. as a referral agency the more it is deprived of this quality. That is why A.A. suggests that it establish contact with a newcomer as much as possible directly with him, so that he may become a part of that experience rather than as an outsider sent to A.A. to be “cured.” A.A. is not a referral agency for a particular human problem.
One thing which A.A. can say to the Church is that it is a validation of some of the central tenets of Christianity, and the orthodox theology of salvation. This was the implication in the comments pointing out parallels between the A.A. principles and Christian teachings. For example we can look at the way the first step illustrates the importance of recognition of one’s sin as the beginning of salvation. A similar validation is the recognition of the following steps that faith-faith in a loving and forgiving God-is the avenue of salvation, and that works are the expression of this faith and belong in the secondary position. We might note at this point the importance however of what was called the step before the first step. That is that before the man can come to recognize and admits his “state of sin” a climate of love, acceptance, and understanding must be present. Taking the first step is not the result of exhortations pointing out this “state of sin.”
This brings us to the second major area in which we can learn something from A.A. The Church has always been troubled with the problem of a “point of contact” -how do we contact people to tell them the Gospel? It is here that A.A. has some important re emphases to make.
The first of these is that the contact between members and non-members is a contact between saved sinners and unsaved sinners, with the emphasis upon the fact that both are sinners rather than emphasis upon the idea that one is saved and the other unsaved. When an A.A. approaches an alcoholic, his first job is not to show that he is sober, but to show that he understands and is fighting the same battle. An A.A. told the author that the reason why the clergy had a difficult time in making contact with alcoholics is that they don’t have a common experience to serve as a basis of confidence. It is true that most clergymen don’t have a similar alcoholic history, but certainly if this point is emphasize there is a common experience, the experience of needing help, which can be shared. This is equally applicable to situations other than alcoholism.
It is well known that common peril makes strange bed-fellows. The deer and the mountain lion run side by side in front of a burning forest fire. The point at which we contact not only the alcoholic, but the whole “city of the world,” is that we all share a common peril. This is not only the point of contact, it is the dynamic of fellowship. Here we are reminded of Calvin’s insistence that the Church is made for forgiven sinners rather than righteous men. The fellowship of A.A. stems from the fact that all members , share the common peril of alcohol. And in a broader sense this is the source of fellowship with all men. A.A.’s have found that their fellowship is of the weak helping the weak, rather than the strong helping the weak. There is indeed something that we as churchmen can learn from this experience of A.A.
This brings us again to the problem of self-righteousness and pride. It is no doubt true that we can never get completely away from creating this feeling, because it stems to a degree from the sense of guilt which the one being helped feels. His pride is destroyed. He resents his need for help and counters it with doubts about the sincerity of others. However, much of this can be avoided if we are fully aware that our point of contact is that we all need help. It is perhaps significant at this point that A.A. tradition has stood resolutely against the development of any professional workers. The professional worker often has as his point of contact the fact that this is his job, his business. This tends to hide the more basic, more relevant, and more successful point of contact.
We might also note at this point the attitude which the A.A. has regarding his twelfth step work. For him it is not the consequence of his salvation, or a duty or expression of thanksgiving, but it is an integral part of his salvation. He does the sacrifice and the work involved in this step not simply because he wants to “help people,” but because it is necessary and vital to his own welfare. There is the danger that in the Church we often forget this aspect of our “good works.”
The second major area in which A.A. sheds light and worthwhile emphasis, concerning the “point of contact,” is the well known idea of meeting people where they are. Particularly we might call attention to the A.A. use of the term “Higher Power,” always qualified “as the individual understands Him.” Here is the way to meet people just where they are. A.A. recognizes that many alcoholics have strong prejudices against many of the teachings and terms of the institutions of religion. And they are quick to remind us that arousing these prejudices is not the place to start the spiritual approach to sobriety. Go with a man the second mile on these prejudices. Meet him where he is religiously.
Does this not have some relevance to us as churchmen when we see how often our approach is bound up with particular terms and particular forms? Witness the disunity of Christendom, much of which is aggravated by this very thing. The author is reminded of work done in the YMCA. The avowed purpose in this work was to train boys in the Christian way of life. There was concern because it was often found difficult to impose a particular form (of ritual, or prayer, or terms) upon them. Our emphasis too often seems to be the imposing of a particular dogma upon the individual. Admittedly there is a necessity for historic continuity and some mutual understanding. However, this emphasis which A.A. makes is vital and valid. Meet the people where they are! The only thing required for membership is a recognition of need and the desire to find help. In A.A. we see that neither the terms, nor even the concepts are important. It is the experience which makes the Gospel real.
It is well to stress however that while A.A. meets the people where they are, they don’t expect them to stay there (though they can if they want to). It is the general feeling of A.A. members that as the individual develops in this program, his spiritual understanding will likewise grow. We can note that this is the demonstration of a great faith in God. We as churchmen, and particularly clergymen, do well note this. We so often forget that God reveals Himself, and feel that it is our job to reveal Him, rather than just to open the way for Him. So here we find in A.A., or as they often call themselves “a handful of drunks,” a lesson in faith-both faith in man, and faith in God.
In summary we can say that Alcoholics Anonymous have found a way to bring the gospel of Christ to a particular group in a successful way; and that examination of this way serves to reemphasize the validity of the central teaching of the Church. But also A.A. calls attention to the fact that the point of contact with the world is that we all share in the common peril of life being unmanageable, and we must meet the world where it is, on its own grounds, if salvation is to be found.
*Graduate of Union Theological Seminary, New York City, and a clergy-man of the Evangelical and Reformed Church.