Lies People Tell About The Twelve Step Programs


    I have noticed that a lot of falsehood and deception exists in relation to the 12 step programs, especially in Christendom.  So I decided to list a few here and explain why they're false.
    The background story is sort of sad.  For decades, well-meaning Christians have judged addicts instead of helping them.  The Washingtonians and then Oxford groups helped addicts by giving them a place to be, a group to belong to, in which they could experience spiritual growth.  These gave birth to the 12 step programs.
    So for decades, the 12 step programs have been helping addicts.  The church's response has been slow in coming, and even when it comes, is often judgmental and harsh.  The nouthetic counseling model especially has been too harsh to accomplish much good.
    I don't say this to judge the church.  I love the church.  The church ought to be, per Scripture, the most ideal place in which addicts can get sober and find love and support.  But if my experience in the church is any indication, often addicts get the opposite of what they need.  Many who "came out" at church and asked for help have been kicked out of the church.  Even theologians such as Dr. Eric Scalise have lamented on the state of Christianity.
    The 12 step programs include Alcoholics Anonymous (the original), Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, and most recently Celebrate Recovery, a Bible-based re-infusion.

Misconception #1 They Teach Powerlessness

    While this one seems true at first, it's not.  So this is labeled a "misconception" because it's not a direct lie.
    The first step does tell the addict that they are powerless over addictive behavior.  However, the very next step says that God is the one who can help them.  The rest of the steps and program explains what the addict must do.
    So while it does say this, it also doesn't, in that it then gives the addict things that they must do in order to overcome their addiction.  It's not much different than misunderstanding Romans 8 to say that now the Holy Spirit does literally everything in the Christian's life.  There's still very much some work to be done (read your Bible and pray) and a surrendering to the will of God.  In fact, the 12 steps and the Christian life have many similarities and parallels.

Misconception #2 They Teach Addiction is a Disease, Therefore Excusing It

    This misconception is harder to get people to understand.  The answer is in two parts.
    First, Dr. Doweiko writes in The Concepts of Chemical Dependency that the disease model, while it was helpful in the past, started falling out of favor in the 1990s, in light of the newer biopsychosocial model.
    After doing my own research on the matter, the disease model is still very valid.
    The 12 step programs never use this disease model to excuse the addict's behavior.  In fact, the opposite is true: they teach that the addict has this disease and therefore ought to take action to treat it.
    Second, sadly Dr. Heath Lambert has stated "It is very important that Christians make correct distinctions between [moral failure and disease]. If we do not, we will rebuke people who are not responsible for their medical conditions like Parkinsonís disease...."  First, this statement is a strawman because even a Google search would tell whatever would-be Pharisee that Parkinson's is caused by low and falling dopamine levels, not moral failure (except in the very rare case of a "frozen addicts", or those who overdose on MPTP).  Second, the category of lifestyle diseases speaks to the fact that our choices and moral failures (given that gluttony is a sin) can definitely lead to disease.  But anyone who understands human behavior knows that the way to change someone's lifestyle, their behavior, is not to lead out with a harsh rebuke.  This is why the 12 steps work: they teach you and lead you without judging you.  Dr. Tim Clinton well said that the reason the nouthetics and other separatist type counseling movements fail to expand is because they are too harsh with the very people they're trying to help, and statements like this from Dr. Heath Lambert already point this out.
    Per Dr. Michael Lyles, all addiction is caused by a choice at the beginning, except maybe in cases where someone was drugged against their will.  It's after either the 2nd or 50th choice (depending on the drug or behavior) that it becomes an addiction, which sets up a fight inside our brain and subverts the will of the addict.  We do not give anyone excuses by saying this: the addict still knows they need help.  The 12 steps give them a non-judgmental, safe atmosphere to get help in.

Misconception #3 There's A Demon Behind Every Sin

    This is one of those "pin the tail on the devil/demons" fallacies.  I do not exclude the possibility of demonic influence in addiction or sin.  However, I think this is sort of like a blame shifting campaign.  I think I get myself in way more than enough sin and trouble in life without needing the Devil or Demons to help me ruin my life.  Sure, there may be a demon behind every sin.  But I think that's an unproductive mentality to have.
    In addiction, it is a false hope.  For example, I saw a lady on television asking for deliverance from the demon of smoking.  Sorry if this sounds uncaring, but if you keep buying cigarettes, a demon isn't the problem: you are.  If they are magically appearing in your house and you didn't buy them, that's demonic.  (The person in this show was a Christian, apparently, so the odds of it being demonic possession are zero.)  Don't ask God to free you from smoking when you keep buying cigarettes.  Your first step is to stop buying them.
    (Keep in mind that Dr. Michael Lyles has said that nicotine is the most addictive substance on earth.)

Misconception #4 They Say You'll Always Be An Addict

    This one is true, but as I have experienced, people misunderstand this concept completely.
    The Bible says all men are sinners (Rom. 3:10; Eccl. 7:20; 1 Kings 8:46), and that this condition is permanent.  The Christian life includes sanctification, and sanctification is gradual, not instant.
    The 12 steps say that all addicts will always be addicts, and that freedom is gradual, not instant.
    The two agree, they just use different terms.
    This concept is taught as a warning in the 12 steps, not as an excuse.  Indeed, one very common source of relapse (whether to sin or to addiction, in the two areas I mentioned above) is when the addict or sinner thinks they don't need to be on guard any more: pride.  The 12 steps and the Bible (Prov. 16:18) agree in this point, also.
    Some have insinuated that the 12 steps claim the "new man" (cf. sanctification) is an addict.  This is incorrect.  The 12 steps claim that the new man is an addict who has been victorious over addictive behavior and substances.  They agree along the lines of sanctification.
    Some have tried to say that 1 Corinthians 6:11 "and some of you used to be like this", means the 12 steps are wrong in their orientation.  This verse comes after a long list of sins that include sexual immorality, adultery, homosexuality, and alcoholism.  This is a wrong and even heretical viewpoint, however, because first, it denies that all human beings are sinners (i.e. that after salvation you cease to be a sinner).  Second, this verse doesn't say "and all of you used to be like this", nor does it say "and only the Christians used to be like this," so teaching that no Christian can be an addict is wrong on face value.
    Pastoral counseling has known for many years that some Christians, upon salvation, immediately cease to be addicted, and some, upon salvation, still need to confront addiction.  For some, sobriety is instantaneous; for others, it comes only with difficulty.  There is no Bible verse that states that, upon salvation, every problem in the Christian's life is immediately cured.  I still pray that God removes people's addictions when I pray with them to receive salvation; however, it is up to God, not us, whether that person will receive instant sobriety or whether it will take work.  There seems to be no way to know who achieves what, and no way to determine the result ahead of time.  God chooses who gets instant sobriety and who has to work at it.  But let's not forget that the Apostle Paul (Romans 7) also dealt with a thorn in his own life, and was denied instant healing.  Paul's language, "What a wretched man I am", seems to hint that this thorn is a sin, not just a hindrance.  If the Apostle Paul had such issues, surely claiming that everyone gets instant and perfect holiness upon salvation is simply erroneous, and ought to be labeled heresy.
    Sometimes the best place you can be is at the end of yourself: you have no where to look except upward to God.

Misconception #5 They Say Higher Power Instead of God

    This is also true.  But often how it's presented, the person saying it is implying that it leads people into idolatry.  This is not true.
    Indeed, if one "reverse engineers" the 12 steps based on all the references to this "Higher Power", as if trying to identify this God, one can come to only one conclusion: it is the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible.  For example, Sex Addicts Anonymous:
    This Higher Power wants to restore us to sanity (step 2 and p. 40, 42), wants to remove our defects of character (step 6, 7), has a will for our lives (step 11), is our only hope (p. 40), can free us from our bondage (p. 41), cares about us (p. 42, 45), transcends human willpower and thinking (p. 42), is a spiritual reality (p. 42), is loving and caring (p. 42), can work in our lives (p. 44), helps us (p. 44), wants to guide our daily decisions (p. 45), can transform us (p. 45), doesn't want us to act out (p. 46), helps us stay abstinent (p. 46), gives us the gift of abstinence (p. 47, 48), can heal us (p. 48), is loving (p. 56), gives us courage and honesty (p. 56), loves us no matter what we have done (p. 56), gives us strength (p. 57), won't give us more than we can handle (p. 59), can remove our defects (p. 60), moves us towards healthier sexuality (p. 61), works in our lives (p. 62), changes our lives (p. 63), determines the time line for our change (p. 64), is personal (p. 65), and it is to this Higher Power that we must surrender (p. 69).
    It's sad that many Christians cop this belief but have never read the 12 step literature.  This is bearing false witness.
    My answer is the opposite: "whoever is not against you is for you" (Luke 9:50).  The 12 step programs have been casting out the "demons" of alcoholism, drug addiction, over-eating and sex addiction for decades in the name of God.  They are on your side.
    I have interviewed people I have met at 12 steps who are not Christians.  Their beliefs included atheism and universalism (karma-based New Age, sort of).  To these non-Christians, the Christian influence on the 12 steps is undeniable.  They could tell that the 12 steps came from a Christian starting point.  So saying that this reference to "Higher Power" rather than God means "someone other than the Judeo-Christian God" is stretching the truth to the point that it becomes a lie.
    As a final note, those who say that "the 12 steps" say "Higher Power" instead of God have never read the 12 steps.  They also fail to keep in mind that Celebrate Recovery is also a 12 step program, and all of the literature has been re-written to replace "Higher Power" with God.  So anyone who says "the 12 steps don't say 'God'" is not only bearing false witness, but ignorant of what 12 step programs exist.

Lie #6 They Say You Cannot Stop Being Whatever You're Addicted To

    Again, read above.  The whole point of each 12 step program is to gain freedom from whatever addictive behavior or substance.

Misconception #7 It Allows Anything To Be Your Higher Power

    To a point, yes, but again, if you reverse engineer who this Higher Power is, you discover it's the God of the Bible.
    But the focus of the 12 steps isn't proselyting: it's freeing people from addiction.
    Still, I've met atheists who, after the 12 steps freed them from their addiction, became agnostic, because they realize that there "might be something out there."  So now this addict is not enslaved mentally, and free to ask the real questions of life, such as "why do I exist?" and "is there a God?"  Per apologetics, addiction is one of the main obstacles in bringing people to Christ.  "I'll come after I stop ____."  Now they have one less excuse.
    Besides, even if all that happens is they break free from their addiction, first, the church's job is to evangelize.  Second, it's the former addict's responsibility to seek God.  The 12 steps don't exist to evangelize.  But even if all that happens is they break free from their addiction, that is doing God's work, for that means there's one less abused spouse (AA), one less molested child (SAA), one less person in jail (AA, SAA, NA), etc.

Misconception #8 They Are Not Based On Science

    That may be, but psychology has been watching and researching the 12 steps, and has found that they are effective.
    Besides, would you rather have a spiritual program or a scientific program?  I like the 12 steps better.

Lie #9 They're Taking Business Away From The Church

    First, this is hilarious.  Christians who say this, to me, sound very immature.
    No one is stopping the church from reaching addicts.
    Indeed, Celebrate Recovery is a Christian 12 step group.
    Also, most 12 step groups meet in churches.  How is that taking away business?
    Really, this smacks of jealousy.  My advice to such Christians who say this: take that jealousy and turn it into action, instead of sitting at home behind a keyboard mocking the 12 step programs.  No one is stopping you from helping addicts.  Indeed, Christians can get their state license and churches can start addiction treatment centers that can even be eligible for state funding.
    So don't just stand there.  Do something.

Lie #10 They Preach a False Gospel

    The basics of this accusation is that somehow the 12 steps are giving addicts something only Jesus can give (sobriety), therefore they're a false gospel.
    This has several problems.  First, it misinterprets what the gospel is.  The gospel is the good news that God, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, offers us forgiveness and reconciliation.  The 12 steps do not give anyone salvation or forgiveness.  The 12 steps merely offer people a new way of life that is sober rather than addicted.  Indeed, the 12 steps all state in some way or form that they only deal with whatever specific addiction, and that they have no opinion on outside issues.  The salvation of one's soul, one's eternal status, is none of their business.
    Second, it errs in understanding sin, human nature, and addiction.  The 12 steps have been keeping people sober for long periods of time, so saying that sobriety is impossible outside of Jesus Christ is a half truth at best.  Second, you can take away all a lost person's addictions and they will still be lost.  Third, even Christians can become addicted: if the definition of salvation was immediate and permanent cessation of sin and addiction, no Christian is saved.
    Human beings can change their behaviors from harmful addictions to less harmful sins.  It is possible to be a very moral person while lost (see Acts 10-11).  To say otherwise is heretical.
    The gospel specifically deals with forgiveness of sins.  We can go through life and repent to everyone we've sinned against, but still be lost.  The gospel deals with the spiritual state of the individual: saved or lost.  Indeed, to say that the 12 steps preach a false gospel is to imply that we can be saved by works: we can't.
    Now one might reply to this, "the only power against sin is the Holy Spirit."  To a point, yes, very true.  However, again, we do not become sinless as a result of salvation; indeed, we will always be sinners.  To say we are not sinners (1 John 1) is to deceive ourselves.  It's more precise to say that the Holy Spirit gives us the power over indwelling sin: all sins.  So a person's life can go from 75% sinless to 99% sinless with the Holy Spirit's power.  But while we are on this earth, we cannot be perfectly sinless.  It's possible with the Holy Spirit's power, yes, but it's improbable due to our sin nature.
    What's telling is that the saints of old never dared call themselves sinless.  Even the apostle Paul said he had not yet attained sinless perfection (Phil. 3:12).
    Part of the problem with this is a confusion between our standards and God's standards.  We can be good moral people by society's standards.  But we can never be sinless by God's standards.  This is precisely why we need salvation.  And the 12 steps never even come close to teaching that they are some sort of salvation.


    I am a Christian and I'm training to be an addictions counselor.  I would prefer a completely biblical treatment method.  I also want to work in psychology as an addictions counselor.  But neither the biblical nor the psychological side of me can say anything bad about the 12 step programs, now that I participate in one.  It's sad how many well-meaning people spread lies about the 12 step programs.  But the 12 step programs almost have the market cornered, and they work.  They also work well when attended alongside lay counseling and discipleship.