Science in Christian Perspective



Can Christians Learn Anything from A A?

Lieutenant Commander, Medical Corps, U.S.N.R.
Staff Psychiatrist, Baldpate, Inc., Georgetown, Massachusetts
Professor of Practical Theology, Gordon Divinity School, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts

From: JASA 7 (December 1956): 21-25.

Today much is said and written about AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) from the economic and social standpoint, the best social answer to the problem of alcoholism.

Among the many favorable comments lauding the achievements of Alcoholic Anonymous, we occasionally see articles attacking it, especially in evangelical Christian publications.

Let us examine the Alcoholics Anonymous program, its dynamics and achievements and see if in attacking it we are not being unrealistic, negativistic, and violating the scriptural admonition to be "stablished in every good work."'

It may be that we shall learn something from. Alcoholics Anonymous, something we can use in our daily lives for a more effective Christian life to the glory of God.

What AA Is Not

First, let us be factual-let us understand what AA is not.

AA is not a religion, though many of its members may try to make it that, just as many church members make a religion of their particular church.

AA is not a social organization, though it serves a similar purpose as a part of its mission.

AA is not a cure-all, nor is it an easy way to solve alcoholism or the alcoholic's problems.

AA is not and does not pretend to be Biblical Christianity or all imitation. Neither is it Christian philosophy, though many of its principles (dynamics) could be used to the glory of God in any church.

AA, or its so-called doctrines, philosophy or practices, is not an imitation or substitute for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It could be looked upon as providing a social program. In practice, at least, it is a social and not a spiritual program. It does not therefore fall into a category to which a "Scripture Test" could be applied, nor is it another gospel.

AA is not something "vicious . . . diverting the person from the Source of light and life and true adjustment", but rather the way by which many an alcoholic may stay sober long enough to find his way to the church and Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of his whole life. (Let's not take away the little that the alcoholic has.)

AA is not a belief "that man is essentially good", otherwise "step one"2 would not say, ". . . admitted

Presented at the Ninth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, Harrisonburg, Virginia, August, 1954.

we were powerless over alcohol... that our lives had become unmanageable", or "step two",2 "... believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."

AA is not an organization or philosophy that absolves the alcoholic of moral responsibility or divorces alcoholism and morality. This is plainly indicated in "step four'2: . . made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves", and "step five"2; "admitted to God the exact nature of our wrongs".

Finally, AA is not, in the social sense, a failure. People fail, AA gives them hope or shows them up.

A Christian layman, not exactly an AA enthusiast, has written:

The international monthly journal of the Alcoholics Anonymous, The AA Grapevine, carries this declaration on the inside back cover of every issue:

Marty Mann, present head of The National Coirimittee on Alcoholism, has written an excellent little book which I heartily recommend to anyone wishing to know more about alcoholism. To give a better understanding of what AA is and how it works, the following is quoted from the chapter on AA of this now sober woman's book, "The Primer On Alcoholism."

In the first place, AA has a single purpose from which it will not be diverted, and to which all efforts of AA members are directed. In the words of those members, AA is a loosely knit, voluntary fellowship of alcoholics (and of alcoholics only) gathered together for the sole purpose of helping themselves and each other to get sober and to stay sober. It is not affiliated or connected in any way with any other group, organization, society or movement. It is not, for instance, allied to (or fighting) the W. C. T. U. or any other "Temperance" group. It has no ties, open, hidden or otherwise, with the liquor business. In other words, it stays completely clear of the age-old Wet-Dry controversy.4

But AA is much more than just an answer to the alcoholic's drinking problem-it is a plan for achievement that you and I can use to advantage as Christians. I continue to quote from Mrs. Mann's chapter on AA.

Those who have anything to do with church group meetings will find something of value in an AA meet ing which she describes as follows:
But most of all he will learn of the warm friendlyness that exists among these alcoholics; he will feel not only welcome, but often as if he had come home at last to his own people. He is taken on face value here. No one asks his age, occupation, financial position or background-they rarely even ask his last name, for first names are he rule, at once. No one looks down on him from a height of long sobriety, for there is a saying in AA that all members are only one drink away from a drunk, and another saying that it is the quality and not the quantity of sobriety that counts. The newcomer's few hours of sobriety have as much value in the members' eyes as their own months or years, providing that he is serious about making it permanent. It is often said that a newcomer is the most important person at an AA meeting: Because of his great need, and also because of their need of him, both to learn more of AA principles by teaching them to him, and as a link in the endless chain they are forging to pull themselves and other alcoholics out of the abyss of alcoliolism.8

The importance of the spiritual is often more apparenly important to AA than to many churches. Speaking of the "12 Steps" and commenting on the tenth, Marty Mann writes:

From, experience I know, as you do, scores of men and women who have been able to achieve sobriety with the help of AA. We would know of many more if we knew the life history of the friends in our community-friends we'd never suspect thank AA for their present social and economic status.

To summarize briefly, AA, now in its 20th year, was started when a New York broker, Bill W., an alcoholic and now a Christian, too, was in Akron, Ohio, on a collapsed business venture. Scared to death of getting drunk and knowing that he needed another alcoholic as much as that one could possibly need hini, he sought out Dr. Bob.10 By pooling their experiences, tbeir spiritual, moral and intellectual resources, AA was started.

In the one short year 1953 after Sister Ignatia went to Cleveland's famed St. Vincent's Charity Hospital, 1000 alcoholics saw the light of their new day in the remodeled alcoholic ward. Sister Tgnatia, who has kept in touch with many of them, believes that 700 are sober at this moment."

AA now reports a membership in excess of 125,000.

More than 1/2 of this number are believed to be quite successful in sobriety, yet a much smaller per cent would still make AA a social project well worth the support of anyone really interested in his neighborhis fellow man.

What AA is is well summarized in the following quotation from a Jesuit of Brooklyn, N. Y.

The idea of using a disease or illness as a means of illustrating a spiritual problem, as a symbol in an equation to find an unknown or to bring into consciousness a painful concept, is not new. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament so used leprosy-a disease which most of us now know only from books as hearsay. Now let us use the problem of alcoholism, comnion to all of us today, as a means of reformulating some new ideas of everyday practical Christian living. Indeed, alcoholism is the leprosy of our day.

Let us turn at once to the "12 Steps of the AA program."

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (sin14) ... that our lives had become unmanageable,

Step Two: Came to believe that a Power15 greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him.16

Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step Five: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Step Six: Were entirely ready to have God re move all these defects of character.

Step Seven: Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.

Step Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step Nine: Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Step Ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Step Eleven: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscience contact with God as we understand him,16 praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.

Step Twelve: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message of alcoholics (sinners)14 and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I submit these "12 Steps" to all of its Christians for soul-searching, study, analysis and application-12 wonderful steps toward a fuller, more effective, more satisfying Christian life and witness-in the true evangelical, spiritual sense, not just a way of social living or of handling alcohol.

Now for the Church of Jesus Christ that wants to be a real witness in a spiritual, evangelical sense, I submit "The 12 Traditions"17, with the slight indicated adaptions:

One: Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon church18 unity.

Two: For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority ... a loving God as be may express himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants . . . they do not govern.19

Three: The only requirement for Chiti-ch1ii membership is a desire to stop sinning.20

Four: Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting other groups or the Church18 as a whole.

Five: Each group has but one primary purpose ... to carry its message to the sinner2l who still suffers.

Six: A Charch18 group ought never endorse, finance or lend the Church18 name to any related facility or outside enterprise lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert its from our primary spiritual aim.

Seven: Every Church18 group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

Eight: The Church13 should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

Nine: The Church18 as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

Ten: The Church22 has no opinion on outside issues; hence the Chnrch18 name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

Eleven: Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.

Twelve: Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.

I leave with you "The 12 Traditions" as something to think about in terms of cooperative spiritual living.

I know that some Christians will want to criticize this effort to introduce a formulation of practical, psychodynamics into our daily walk- as Christian and servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. I know, too, that all of its will find it hard to accept these definite, practical ways of increasing our spirituality (converting psychodynamics into pneumadynamics).

Why is it so hard to accept these principles when they seem so obvious? There are several reasons:

First. because it is huinbling to take these steps and make these admissions to God, to ourselves, and to others,

Second, because at first our resistance naturally blinds our own eyes to these hidden principles, as it does in the writings of James, Paul, Peter and John.

Third, because they do not coiiie oid of the Church, but from what appears to be a secular, non-Christian organization.23

Fourth. because anYthing new or that appears new instantiv generates resistance. It is the old difficulty of changing direction.24

Fifth, because we want to reject anything relating to alcohol. as not important, so that we may feel superior to alcoholics. This is a means of justifying our self -righteousness, concealing a blind Spot.25

What is the place of AA in the thinking of Christians? Let us consider these possibilities.

AA is a step in the right direction. The alcoholic may not be ready for the Church, but bitter and fighting Christ and Christianity. For such, AA is an opening wedge for a spiritual program and a valuable ally of the Church, not another denomination.

We can ease our fears of competition by remembering what Christ told John: "He that is not against us is for US.1126

The moral problem is the same with the alcoholic as with the non-problem drinker, but the effects are dif f erent.

AA was started by Christians to help people the church is not reaching, socially or spiritually! It is doing that-perhaps first on a social level-but many are helped in a spiritual way, too. (Should Christians want to take away the little that these alcoholics have because they are threatened by the fancied competition ?)

Finally, AA started by Christians, is spiritually and psychologically correct, and forms an opening wedge for surrender to and acceptance of deeper spiritual meanings.


The purpose of this paper has not been to make a brief for AA, but to find what it is that AA members are using so successfully to live on a higher spiritual plane, which, used by Christians, will help them live a better and more effective spiritual life.

Since these principle,; work for the alcoholic, they may work for all of its, for you and me! Should the alcoholic have the exclusive use of psychodynamic concepts that work?

Finally, the only difference between you and me and any alcoholic is that Jesus Christ is our Savior and the Holy Spirit is our Parakletos, "one called alongside to help"27 - the psychological essence of the AA program.

So let us not take away the little that the alcoholic has. If we find it hard to accept AA ideas , just remember: "There but for the grace of God..."

It has been the purpose of this paper;

1. to clear up some of the confusion that seems to exist among evangelical Christians as to what Alcoholics Anonymous is not and what it is-a means to a happy sobriety for its members";

2. to establish an understanding of the dynamics responsible for the success of the Alcoholics Anonymous program-stres sing "the absolute need of spiritual principles in life";

3. to provide principles and facts upon which evangelical Christians may develop attitudes and approaches toward certain social problems-not taking away the little that a man has, but using it to lead him into deeper spiritual truths which bring him face to face with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord;

4. to enable Christians who desire to be an effective daily witness for Jesus Christ to understand the forces utilized in AA, and to find that which they may use in their own every-day experiences in living a surrendered, successful, spiritual life


Bloom, Herbert L, Rabbi, "A Rabbi Speaks", The AA Grapevine, Vol. 10, No. 10, May, 1954.

Ellison, Jerome, "The Drug Addicts Who Cure One Anothe?', The Saturday Evening Post, August 7, 1954, p. 22.

Shoemaker, Sam H., "The Twelve Steps of AA", The Evangel, 61 Gramercy Park, New York City.

Smith, Rev. William J., SJ, "A Jesuit Applauds AA", The AA Grapevine, Vol. 10, No. 9, Feb., 1954, p. 17.

Taylor, Dr. G. Aiken, "God and AA", The AA Grapevine, Vol. 10, No. 6, Nov., 1953, p. 3. (Dr. Taylor, who is pastor of the Northside Presbyterian Church, Burlington, N. C., has also written a book on AA). Alcoholics Anonymous, Works Publishing Company, New York City, 1954.

The AA Grapevine, international monthly journal of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 459, Grand Central Terminal Annex, New York City.

1. Il Thes. 2:17. See also 11 Cor. 9:8; Col. 1:10; 11 Tim. 2:21; 3:17; Titus 2;17, 14; 3:8; Heb. 10:24; 13:21; Eph. 2:10; 1 Pet. 2:12.
2. 12 Steps, as found inside the front cover of the AA Grapevine and in other AA literature.
3. Chase, Ernest L., Alcoholics Anonymous, CMS Tournal, Vol. V, No. 6, Nov.-Dec. 1953.
4. Mann, Marty, Primer on Alcoholism, Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1950, p. 148f.
5. Ibid., p. 150.
6. Ibid., p. 150f.
7. Ibid., p. 151.
8. Ibid., p. 155.
9. Ibid., p. 167.
10. The AA Grapevine, Vol. 10, No. 2, July 1953, p. 7.
11. Sister Ignatia had gone to St. Vincent's from St. Thomas Hospital, Akron, Ohio, the. first religious institution to open its doors to AA (1939). See AA Grapevine, Vol. 10, No. 9, Feb. 1954, pp. 2-5.
12. The AA Grapevine, Vol. 10, No. 9, Feb. 1954, "A Jesuit Applauds AA", by William J. Smith, S.J., p. 18.
13. "The 12 Steps" as found inside the front cover of every AA Grapevine and in other AA literature.
14. The author's substitution to clarify the application of Christian living.
15. "A power greater than ourselves" can mean only one thing to the Christian-the power of the Holy Spirit through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
16. "God as we understand him": Christians will have no difficulty in acceptin& this phrase, except in the same sense that Mark Twain, years ago, replied to the critic who asked him if he was not bothered by the things in the Bible he didn't understand. The famous writer replied, "It isn't the things I don't understand, but the things I do understand, that bother me.
17. Adapted from "The 12 Traditions" found inside the back cover of The AA Grapevine, and in other AA literature.
The author has substituted "Church" for "AA". While some church groups may differ in certain respects with some of the "Traditions" here expressed, all of them are embodied in some form in many of our denominations, and this list certainly gives one cause for thought and re-thinking his church organizational doctrines. The "Traditions" are presented here for that purpose, not as the only or proper way a church should be run.
19. The Christian may add, "except through the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scripture."
20. "Sinning" is substituted for "drinking".
21. "Sinner" is substituted for "Alcoholic".
22. The author has substituted "Church" for "Alcoholics Anonymous".
23. Actually, the men who set AA in motion first found the spiritual experie,ice which changed their lives in a spiritual, Christian church 20 years ago. They use the term "Higher Power which AA calls God" to include all in their program. "Somewhere about 120,000 men and women are now in their ranks, sober, industrious, God-fearing, happy, useful citizens." Evangel, Jan.-Feb. 1952. (61 Gramercy Park, New York 10, New York.
24. "There is nothing so discouraging as the resistance of the human mind to the introduction of knowledge."
25. Church people usually avoid the alcoholic because they do not understand him, and perhaps don't want to understand him.
26. Luke 9:50; Mark 9:40; see also Phil. 1:15-17.
27. John 14:16. See note 1 on p. 1136 of the Scofield Reference Bible.