When I was twenty-four, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the 12-Step program philosophy gave me the structure I needed to get sober. I’ll always be thankful for that.
At the time, I knew very little about it, but I stuck around “the rooms” because I consistently met people who had been addicted like me but were now sober. Seeing them gave me hope and reaffirmed that what I wanted was possible.
The fellowship of 12-Step programs not only helped me get sober, though. It also helped me stay sober for six years after that and helped me take steps that changed the entire direction of my life. I even went to Bible college and planned to enter full-time ministry after graduation.
After I finished Bible school, however, I was full of myself and overconfident. I thought I had life figured out—and that’s when my old habits and thought patterns came back to haunt me. While I was looking the other way, those addictions snuck up and completely engulfed my life for the next five years.
I tried going back to AA and “the rooms” many times in those years. I was even able to string together short spans of sobriety here and there.
As I was going through my five-year death spiral, what I longed for—what I needed but couldn’t verbalize—was transformation.
Sure, sobriety was good, but it was temporary. I needed something permanent or I was going to die.
Only transformation is permanent.
The only goal of a 12-step program
The 12-Step philosophy has had a larger effect on addiction recovery than any other philosophy worldwide. There are more former addicts who have achieved sobriety through the 12 Steps than through any other avenue.
What is less well known, though, is that even though the third of the 12 Steps is to “make a decision to turn your will and life over to God as you understand him,” the 12-Step philosophy leaves the entire concept of “God” or “higher power” up to the individual to figure out. They never define God as the God of the Bible or mention turning your life and will over to Jesus Christ.
The goal of AA and 12-Step groups is sobriety—nothing more, nothing less.
As a Christian, and as someone who has been clean for nine years as a result of the life transformation that only Christ can bring, this fact greatly concerns me.
12 steps to legalism
To understand how the 12 Steps work in the life of an addict to bring them toward recovery, I’ll relate it to something else I struggle with: legalism.
It’s so easy for me to get caught up in the idea that if I follow the rules, do certain things, or avoid other things, I’ll be accepted by God and others. Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows us this is a sure recipe for disaster.
Because the 12-Step philosophy leaves the definition of God up to the individual, what inevitably happens is that adherence to the 12 Steps becomes their God. They believe that if they can faithfully follow the steps without fail, sobriety and a “normal” life are guaranteed to follow.
The biggest problem with this belief is that there is simply no way anyone can perfectly adhere to all of the requirements.
We’re all human and occasionally make mistakes and poor choices. When this happens in the context of the 12 Steps, the only answer available is to double-down on the conviction to do better.
But what is truly needed (and desired) is biblical life transformation.
The ‘god of my choosing’
We all require a Savior who lived a perfect life to provide redemption from our sins and graft us back into the fellowship. Trying harder can never lead to transformation.
The 12 Steps, just like biblical legalism, can only serve as ways to identify departures from the accepted standard. By their very nature, they identify failure and cannot provide redemption or recourse for those failures.
As I struggled for sobriety, this left me feeling confused and frustrated. Every time I went to a meeting, I saw so many compassionate, caring people who were having success in sobriety, even though they had rejected the idea that they needed a Savior or needed to repent of their sin.
I struggled as I considered my life, the lives of the people I was interacting with, the 12-Step doctrine, and my growing Christian faith. I realized this legalism was leading to something even more insidious. It encouraged me to replace the God of the Bible with a “god of my choosing.”
The 12-Step philosophy uses this language because they want to be inclusive of all people no matter what they believe. The Bible, however, warns us to worship the God of Scripture rather than trying to remake him into an image more to our liking.
Said another way, God’s standard is a sinless life while the 12 Steps simply require us to live up to our own malleable performance standards.
Leaving 12-Steps to walk with Christ
As transformed Christians, we need to be aware of the slippery theological slope that 12-Step programs put followers on. It’s easy to assume that, because they mention God, they also promote the God of the Bible. That simply isn’t the case.
There is no doubt that 12-Step programs have helped and will continue to help many millions of men and women achieve and maintain sobriety. But their goal is not to point people to Christ or to help them realize their need for a Savior.
I left the fellowship of a 12-Step program nine years ago and was led to the transformational program of Freedom Farm Ministries in Boone, North Carolina. I completed that program and decided to stay on as an employee. Now I serve as executive director and counsel men every day going through the same frustrations and confusion I went through.
They’ve been indoctrinated in the 12-Step system and its belief system. They’ve bought into the idea that sobriety is the goal. I get the privilege of presenting the gospel to them and sharing my experiences and my Jesus with them.
I get to watch as the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to the idea that sobriety is just part of the journey and the true goal is a transformed life.
Jim Quigley is an ordained minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, listed on special assignment as the Executive Director of Freedom Farm Ministries, where he has served in multiple capacities for eight years, five as Executive Director.
Jim is husband to Elvie and father to Phoebe (4) and JP (11 months). He’s also a graduate of Columbia International University, where he earned a BA in Bible and humanities. He is currently enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary in the Masters of Arts in Christian Counseling program.
Jim was born and raised in West Palm Beach Florida and currently resides in Western North Carolina.