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CLINICAL AND PASTORAL WORK. Vol. 22: 124-132, 1949
ANONYMOUS SPEAKS TO THE CHURCH
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:-
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:-
be the tie that binds
hearts in Christian love
fellowship of kindred minds
like to that above.
share our mutual woes,
mutual burdens bear,
often for each other flows
the exception of the word "Christian" these verses
perfectly describe the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-."
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
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.
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."'
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
of Union Theological Seminary, New York City, and a clergy-man
of the Evangelical and Reformed Church.