Twelve Step and Christian Recovery

This page is unlikely to be well understood by readers who have not previously read our page entitled "Christian Recovery."  Please read that first if you have not already done so.

People of Christian faith can frequently receive conflicting advice from responsible, well meaning people regarding Twelve Step resources and and Christian recovery resources. This becomes a problem due to two phenomena:

  1. Some Christian voices tend to criticize twelve step activities claiming them to be anti-Christian for a variety of reasons. We profoundly disagree.
  2. Some people in twelve step groups object when people state that their "higher power" as identified in the twelve steps is the God of Christianity. We understand that prohibiting mention of the God of Christianity can be made a rule when the group meets as a "group conscience" but making that a rule seldom happens. In the twelve steps and twelve traditions it is clear that people are free to identify their own "higher power." So unless the group has made a policy on this, a policy that goes outside the steps and traditions, to identify the God of Christianity as your "higher power" in a twelve step context is entirely appropriate.  What is not appropriate is to disrespect others' choices of a higher power and/ or to state that the God of Christianity is the only appropriate way for others to understand their higher power.

For information regarding support for Christian faith in secular programs, see also Religion, Family, and Spiritual Dimension of Healing

We want to avoid using this forum for taking sides in religious controversies. We at FamilyLight are people of Christian faith. We try to do what we do in a manner that is guided by our faith but not in a way that demeans or disrespects others. But one thing we will do is call out others who are hiding behind a Christian label in order to do something that we think gives all Christians a bad name, and we see too much of that. 

For some, Christian Recovery is as simple as finding freedom from addiction by simply participating in the normal worship style and discipline of their own church.  We see this especially in Pentecostal Churches, and can attest to several specific cases of recovery in this context appearing to be quite genuine. For some, Christian Recovery involves participation in an organized group based upon Christian faith. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in its earliest days was an example of Christian Recovery, beginning as it did as an offshoot of the Oxford Group, a Christian organization dedicated to helping people come to a more robust Christian faith. The move to separate from the Oxford Group was not for the purpose of rejecting Christianity but was for the purpose of inviting non-Christians into the fellowship (as well as Christians who were not in tune with the Oxford Group).

The suggestion by some Christians that the usual twelve step groups are not sufficiently Christian is a relatively recent phenomenon. AA, in a very respectful manner, separated from the Oxford Group in the late 1930s. AA was rejecting neither the Oxford Group nor Christianity. AA wanted all people of whatever religion to know they were welcome. Many AA pioneers remained active in the Oxford Group. At about the same time it formally adopted the book Alcoholics Anonymous (now better known as The Big Book) which included and made official the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions for the first time. There was never any intention to exclude Christians or to suggest that Christians should not understand "higher power" to be the God of Christianity. For many decades the unity of the recovering community was not disrupted to any significant degree by people taking offense at twelve step meetings when some people would state that their "higher power" was Jesus or the God of Christianity.  It was also much later when detractors would complain that Twelve Step participants were worshiping a false God. We were unaware of this kind of thing until the 1990s, although it probably started a bit before that.

In earlier times, the influence of AA in bringing people to Christianity was well understood and was appreciated by evangelical Christians as was respect for non-Christian participation. We cite the recordings of Gertrude Behanna as evidence of how neatly Christianity fit within AA without demeaning non-Christians and showing how AA could be an arm of Christian evangelism. We believe conflict over this issue has been unfortunate and has a negative effect on both Christianity and addiction recovery. Just as AA, NA and other twelve step groups have encouraged specialty groups such as young people's groups, gender specific groups, and groups that communicate in a minority language (such as Spanish in the USA or English in Western Europe), we think broader encouragement of specifically Christian meetings within the framework of AA would be helpful.

We know of nothing in the formal documents describing parameters of AA or other twelve step groups that would prohibit that. We do know of attitudes of some individuals within AA and within some Christian groups that might make that difficult. AA members -- especially those who have suffered religious abuse -- appear to feel threatened by others who transparently make the Christian God the "higher power" of recovery. Some evangelists preach that "higher power" in AA means worshiping a pagan God. We know of no  legitimate basis for such claims, although we do empathize with people who have been traumatized by religious abuse. The language of the twelve step groups clearly refers to "God as [each individual member] understands God. Clearly the intention of AA when steps and traditions were formalized was to allow each member to identify their higher power according to their own religious belief. We suspect that evangelists and some local pastors make the "Pagan God" claim either out of sheer ignorance or for the purpose of promoting a specific program or theory which is in their personal self-interest to promote.

Practical application: 

  • We strongly urge Christians who are active in twelve step groups to outwardly identify the God of Christianity as your higher power while in twelve step meetings. This should not involve a subtext of proselyting or claiming that this is the only acceptable higher power, and should show respect for non-Christians seeking a different higher power.
  • We urge Christian twelve step participants to participate in a specifically Christian recovery group in addition to the usual twelve step groups. This may be a special purpose twelve step group or a group similar to Celebrate Recovery or something else. It is important to maintain the support of a support group focused on the specific addictive behavior from which you are attempting to recover. Most Christian recovery groups address a wide variety of addictive behaviors where the common element of the group is Christian faith.
  • Resist claims that twelve step groups are anti-Christian. In general, they are not.  But do not criticize or demean others who identify a different higher power.
  • Resist challenges to your outward choice to acknowledge that your higher power is the Christian God. It is clear from the steps and the traditions that each person identifies his or her own higher power and others in the group are expected to respect each others choices.
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Last Update July 2, 2018

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