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TODAY, Vol. 27: 96-97, February 4, 1983
by Philip Yancey
members consciously lean on each other
attended a unique "church" recently, one that
without a denominational headquarters or paid staff and
attracts millions of committed members. Its name is Alcoholics
Anonymous. A friend had invited me during a poignant conversation
in which he confessed his problem to me. I'd like you to
me," he said, "and I think you'll get a glimpse
of what the early
church must have been like." When I pressed him for
simply smiled and said, "Come, You'll see."
12 o'clock on a Monday night I entered a ramshackle house
that had been used for six other sessions already that day.
clouds of cigarette smoke hung like tear gas in the air.
sensed what my friend had meant in comparing A.A. to the
church: a well-known politician and several millionaires
mixing freely with unemployed dropouts and dazed-looking-kids
wore Band Aids to cover needle marks on their arms. The
conveyed obvious warmth, and conversations tended to be
and intense: alcoholics can expertly cut through a facade
polite aloofness or feigned strength.
we went around and introduced ourselves, it went like
this: "Hi, I'm Tom, and I'm an alcoholic and a drug
Instantly everyone shouted in unison, like a Greek chorus,
Tom!" Then Tom, and each person there, shared a personal
report on his battle with addiction. For many, these fellow
members are the only prople in the world who treat them
and respect, and even a ritual can have profound meaning.
phrases such as "One day at a time" and "You
it" decorated the dingy walls of the room. My friend
that those archaisms hint at another similarity to the early
church. Most of A.A.'s received wisdom is passed down in
of oral traditions from its founding members of more than
ago. Nobody much uses A.A. 's up-to-date brochures and public
relations pieces. Mainly, they rely on an old book called
Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which tells the stories of
members' lives in stilted, almost King Jamesian prose.
owns no property, has no headquarters and no consultants
and investment counselors jetting across the country. Its
intentionally built in restrictions to kill off anything
might lead to a bureacracy. They believed their program
only if kept to its most basic, intimate level: the relentless
support of one alcoholic giving his or her life to help
Yet A.A. has proven so effective that 250 other organizations
sprung up in deliberate mimicry of its program.
are good historical reasons for the parallels to an
early church structure: the Christian founders of A.A. included
conscious commitment to God as a mandatory part of their
treatment. The night I attended, everyone in the room repeated
12 principles, which acknowledge total dependence on God
forgiveness and strength. In the testimonial time , it was
at first to hear people use religious terms equally in profanity
and in expressing their dependence on God - both with utter
sincerity. Agnostic members often first substitute the euphemism
"Higher Power," but after a while that seems inane
and they revert
friend often reflects on what he calls "the Christological
question" of A.A. A deeply committed Christian, he
has put his
intellectual faith in abeyance while struggling with simple
survival. The A.A. "church," which has none of
underlying doctrine and centrality of Christ, keeps him
Christian church seems irrelevant, vapid, and gutless to
is not alone, for others in his group tell stories of rejection,
judgment, "a guilt trip." A local church is the
last place they
would stand up and declare, "Hi, I'm Tom, I'm an alcoholic
drug addict." No one would holler back, "Hi, Tom."
friend admits he will find his way back to the church someday,
and he has not abandoned the doctrine. In fact, he says
A.A. has resolved for him some of the most troubling paradoxes
of the faith - the free will determinism conundrum, for
example: How can a person accept full responsibility for
actions knowing that family background, the economy, and
hormonal imbalance all contribute to to that behavior? A.A.
is unequivocal: it requires every alcoholic to admit full
and complete responsibility for all behavior. Rationalizations
are forbidden. Or take the doctrine of original sin: It
will take maybe 10 seconds to convince an A.A. member of
that doctrine at which so many balk. A.A. members express
the truth every time they introduce themselves. No one is
ever allowed to say "I was an alcoholic."
my friend, immersion in A.A. has meant salvation in the
most literal sense. He knows that one slip could - no, will
him to an earthly death. A.A. members have responded to
at 4 A.M., finding him in the eerie brightness of all-night
restaurants where he has been sitting for hours at a formica
filling a notebook with the sentence, "God help me
make it through
the next five minutes." Now he is approaching the one-year
anniversary of his last drink - an important milestone by
reckoning. And yet he knows that 50 per cent of those who
that milestone eventually fall away.
inside A.A. and looking with a curious observer's
eye at the local church, my friend wonders about the plinth
undergirding doctrine on which his new "church"
rests. Meanwhile I
stand inside the local church and looking with a curious
observer's eye at A.A., wonder instead why A.A. met his
the local church did not. He had attended a progressive
that offered a similar climate to that found in A.A. There
millionaires mixed with dropouts and members offered acceptance,
not judgment. Why was it not enough ? I asked him to name
quality missing in the local church that was somehow provided
A.A. He stared at his cup of coffee for a long time. Then
softly one word: dependency.
of us can make it on our own - isn't that why Jesus
came?" he explained. "Yet most church people give
self-satisfied air of piety or superiority. I don't sense
consciously leaning on God or each other. An alcoholic who
church feels inferior and incomplete."
sat in silence for a while; then a smile began to crease
his face. "It's a funny thing," he said at last.-"What
I hate most
about myself, my alcoholism, was the one thing God used
me back to him. Because of it, I know I can't survive without
Maybe God is calling us alcoholics to teach the saints what
means to be dependent on him and his community on earth."