The Twelve Steps


    There seems to be a lot of negativity in Christian circles, mainly in conservative ones, over the use of 12 step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), etc., in the treatment of addicts.  There is a point at which this is justified, for the Christian circles want to help people, but in a way that they can be sure is honoring to God.
    This has caused some rather negative "counseling wars" within the Kingdom of God.  While I can see both sides to the arguments presented, it still makes me sad because this stigma is a road block in the life of some addicts who happen to be religious.  Fear of being a castaway can leave some addicts in one of several states: clinging to their church and not attending the 12 steps for fear of being discovered, attending 12 steps and feeling excluded (which only makes addictions worse), or being in constant conflict with their church but improving due to 12 step attendance.
    I think this is the wrong time in US history to be arguing over 12 step attendance.  The evils of the opiod epidemic, the acceptability and ease of abusing alcohol, and the pornography epidemic are wreaking measurable havoc upon society.  And as this happens, as Dr. Gerald G. May wrote in Addiction and Grace, "the psychic enemy of the church" is marching almost completely unopposed.  Denominations and counseling associations lock horns in a war over this petty issue.  As I witness this, I am reminded of Jesus's words about the man who was casting out demons in His name: "He who is not against us is for us."  I don't think Jesus was being literal: I think He was asking us to pick and choose our battles.
    So when we read of psychology backing up what the Bible has been saying for 2000+ years, I think our response should be agreement, not an illogical hatred of everything that is psychology.
    In the 12 steps, however, we have a spiritual program that is not overtly Christian yet not psychological in nature.  Given the rabid hatred of some biblical counseling movements towards psychology, one would think that whatever is not psychology would be welcomed with open arms.  However, this has not been the case.  I know of one biblical counseling association in particular whose own leaders admit that there is not a book on sexual addiction, yet their movement engages in what almost amounts to persecution of the 12 step programs.
    I wrote a 12 step resource PowerPoint presentation for a class and made a 100% grade on it, and so I'd like to share some of this content here.  I would like to suggest that it is completely possible to refer people to the 12 steps (which is what addiction psychology textbooks like Doweiko's book Concepts of Chemical Dependency recommend) and yet still not be breaking any biblical commandments.
    The time for addicts to get help is now.  Again, the opioid, marijuana, and porn epidemics are already here.  They are already battering the church and society at large.  The time to get addicts help, and help that is comprehensive, is now, not tomorrow, not when your preferred counseling association comes out with a book you like.
    And given how porn is extremely available and free, I am tempted to say that any delay in responding in helpful ways could be considered breaking the 2nd most important commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself."  Love doesn't block people from useful resources over petty disagreements.
    Most of these addictions, but especially porn, require a very comprehensive approach.  I say this from a mindset of grace: I believe this is because most addicts have too much free time in which to act out.  They need support.  The 12 steps are arguably the best way to do continuing support.  I will specifically detail Sexaholics Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous.
    As a background information, addiction is a medically verified condition.  Addictive substances and behaviors literally re-wire the brain, and such effects are almost completely permanent.  (I'm not listing the copious references to this truth, in the spirit of brevity.)


    Per Pastor Mark Laaser in Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction, a sex addict is someone who is engaged in any type of uncontrollable (sinful) sexual activity who cannot control their addiction ("unmanageable"), for whom this sexual sin leads to destructive consequences.  The sex addict almost always experiences devastating shame and believes they are totally worthless.  In addition, this addiction is almost always progressive in nature, meaning it leads to more deviant and extreme behaviors.  This is similar to the themes of unmanageability, progression, and self-harm from the DSM-V and ICD-10.  (However, only the ICD-10 mentions anything close to sex addiction.)
    Per Ed Welch in Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, addiction can be thought of as spiritual slavery to sin.  Ed Welch is correct, but for our purposes, the word "addiction" will be used because most people understand it.
    The nature of addiction often requires constant support and admonition to struggle.  Regardless of whether the addict's primary perspective on addiction is spiritual or psychological, however, the 12 steps can help.

The Twelve Steps

    The 12 step programs are a spiritual treatment plan designed around a sponsor, held in public places, maintained by a service organization.  Alcoholics Anonymous was the first such plan, and its success stands on its own.
    The 12 step programs keep meeting information on the internet.  However, keep in mind some terminology: "open" meetings mean new members may attend.  This is the type of meeting outsiders can attend, if their desire is to seek help.  Groups protect their anonymity fiercely, because the effectiveness of the groups depends upon it: in doing so, addicts don't just defend themselves, they defend everyone.  "Closed" meetings are those that only people already in the program and/or in recovery may attend.

Types of Meetings

    In my study for college, I only detailed Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) and Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA).  I have little information on Celebrate Recovery (CR), but I would like to offer the following critique: there is no specific track for the sex addict.  They are often put into "all other" category support group rooms in CR, per those I spoke with during my internship.  It is not likely that someone from CR who is addicted to sugar can relate to someone addicted to pornography.  This has been found by several sex addicts I know (who remain anonymous) to be completely counterproductive, rendering the CR program almost useless in their perspective.  Also, some groups (SAA primarily) have co-ed groups, but in such meetings, they have additional boundaries and rules that help keep the group from collapsing.

Meetings For Porn Addicts

    There are many porn addict related 12 steps I have seen, but again, I'll limit discussion to SA and SAA.
    SA has the best sobriety definition, in terms of congruence with the Bible.  I admire SA for this, as does Marnie Ferree in her book No Stones.  However, when I did my internship, there are few SA meetings.  Again, it is imperative that addicts get into a group with many local meetings.  It has been suggested that, in the first 90 days, an addict should attend all local meetings.  I can concur with this.  As such, then, at least in my area, SA is not very useful, though it is available.  And keep in mind the various sex-related 12 steps encourage each other to attend each other's meetings: there's not enough meetings for everyone, so partnership is more important than agreement.
    SAA, however, is closest to the original 12 step concept.  And in my area, there are a lot more meetings.  As such, it is the group I recommend.  Here is a link to the 12 steps, and they are as follows:

The Twelve Steps of SAA

  1. We admitted we were powerless over addictive sexual behavior - that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other sex addicts and to practice these principles in our lives.
    In reading the 12 steps, I would like to point out, from my perspective, why they work so well.
    Step 1 gets the addict to admit they cannot change themselves.  This step is good because it gets the addict to get support outside of themselves.  The insidious way that addictions often work is that they get the addict to believe he/she can just quit any time.  And then when they try, because they are relying solely upon themselves, they fail and therefore never break free.
    Step 2 gets the addict to focus on the solution coming outside of themselves, like from their religious deity.  Now this was "diluted" from the original AA program due to being unacceptable for everyone.  The decision was made to allow everyone to be able to attend, because everyone who is addicted needs help.  But for the Christian, this isn't an issue: if someone asks the Christian who his or her Higher Power is, they will say "God", as indeed the programs still say in most places.
    Step 4 requires the addict to make a list of all their past sinful behaviors ("defects of character"), both those of the addiction and all others in their past, and in great detail.  This is one of the most emotionally stressful points in the 12 step process, but it does good like a medicine.
    Step 7 requires the addict to pray to God and ask God to remove all their defects of character (sins).  This is almost right out of the principles Romans 7-8.
    Then, of course, step 9 asks the addict to go make amends to everyone they've ever harmed.  So between 4, 7, and 9 is the biblical principle of confession and restitution of sins.

Drawbacks and Benefits

    But again, there are accusations, mostly from the more separatist and divisive within the biblical counseling associations, on the drawbacks of the 12 steps.  I would like to address them here:
    One of the accusations is that there isn't enough reference to God.  While this is true to a point, I would like to point out that all the groups in my area begin and end with prayer.  Also, almost all of them meet in churches.  While the program is supposed to be flexible enough to let atheists and agnostics attend, clearly the language being used in my local meetings is more Judeo-Christian.  In addition, if you write down all the ways this Higher Power is referenced in SAA's literature, you quickly come to the conclusion that this is a very Christian program.  The 12 steps aren't going to get Christians to put their faith in anyone but God
    Another accusation is that the addict can define her/her own sobriety, thus in a way that is incongruent with the Bible.  This is not a very difficult thing to compensate for: one who is referring such a client to SAA need only remind the client that they'll need to define their sobriety in the way the Bible does.  However, keep in mind SAA's literature on what sobriety is: "sexually compulsive behavior" and behaviors that "are compulsive and lead to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization" (i.e. guilt/shame, meaning everything the Christian should already know about sexual sin).  It would be very difficult to justify anyone attending SAA and defining their sobriety in a way that keeps them from becoming sober, especially if they have a sponsor guiding them through the steps.
    Still another accusation is that the 12 steps "change the identity" of the Christian who attends because they must address themselves as "Hi, I'm (First Name) and I'm a _____ addict".  This is actually sort of funny because it's completely illogical.  But I heard it right from the mouth of someone at one of these more separatist biblical counseling movements.  First, those who attend are under first name basis due to anonymity: the person is already attending under an almost assumed name.  Or indeed could be attending under an assumed name if they so choose.  Second, the Christian should know that nothing can take their salvation, though the status of eternal security of the believer depends upon your own specific background.  (Though I subscribe to that belief.)  Third, the Bible calls all human beings sinners: how is that different?  In reality, making people address themselves this way does many useful things, such as breaking pride, fostering a community of understanding and humility, and encourages the attitude of dependence upon a Higher Power.  As well, it is never mentioned or used to excuse anyone of their behavior.  There are copious stories in the literature of precisely the opposite: of addicts admitting how they had ruined their lives and families, and how the 12 step programs gave them hope.
    Now what's interesting to note is that Ed Welch, whose book mentioned above is on the reading list of at least one of the biblical counseling associations, actually speaks in respectful ways about the 12 step programs.  Ed Welch says many good things about the 12 steps, but then quickly shifts away as if admitting that they can accomplish good would be against the rules of his association.
    Another accusation is that there is no accountability in the 12 step programs.  Maybe, if the addict is attending but not actually working the steps with a sponsor like he/she is supposed to.  But I bring this up only because it is technically possible.  However, it is not ideal, and it is actually not what the 12 steps recommend, so realize if you meet someone who is attending but not working the steps, they're actually not abiding by the program.

How They're Useful

    So what can we use the 12 steps for?  Well, for starters, not for salvation, counseling, church fellowship, or a relationship with Christ, though the steps support at least the relationship with Christ, in that they encourage constant contact with one's Higher Power.
    But what they do is they function as a constant recovery reminder, first.  Per the work of Dr. Dan Ariely in The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, in the section where he commends religion as supporting honesty and integrity, we see that the constant reminder keeps us on the straight and narrow path.  This isn't much different from the concepts of accountability and/or discipleship.
    They also function as a support group of sorts.  Addicts learn from each other's successes and struggles, a concept that the book of Proverbs supports in terms of listening to the wisdom of others.
     The 12 steps also function to support others who struggle.  Often addicts gain strength to remain sober by helping others.  It encourages people to help others.
    And lastly, though maybe most importantly, addicts tend to have a hard time structuring their spare time.  Their addictions have swallowed up most, if not all, of their lives.  They need something else to do than sit at home feeling sorry for themselves, because that's often how they fall back into their addictions.  The groups offer something better to do.
    A hypothetical plan would be to send addicts to the 12 steps, but insist that they focus on the spiritual disciplines (prayer, bible reading, quiet, fasting, etc), that they remain in biblical counseling for the duration, that they seek a sponsor early, and that they use the biblical (SA) definition of sobriety.

An Alternative

    To those who suggest that their churches can do more and/or better for the addict, I have a series of questions:
    1) How much is your church spending/contributing on helping addicts?  Most churches I've seen spend no money on this.  Be warned: if you speak against 12 steps and yet don't do anything or donate to anything to help addicts, you are a hypocrite.
    2) Do you have lay counselors at your church who know how to help addicts?  Most churches I've seen don't even have counselors, and their pastors were not specifically trained on addictions.  In addition, the people I've met who have been harmed, not helped, by the likes of NANC and other nouthetic approaches tells me churches don't have a very good handle on this.  I say this not to condemn, but to encourage churches to change this: get trained.
    3) Are your churches a safe place where people can share without being condemned?  I've met far too many addicts that can't even speak about their addictions, much less get help, at their home churches.  In fact, the most stigmatized of all the addicts, the female sex addict, has the hardest time getting grace and help from churches, as Marnie Ferree has testified.  This is really sad in light of how Jesus treated sinners in the gospels, especially two specific female sinners.
    4) Are you willing to start a grace-filled Bible study for every day of the week where addicts can find help, hope, and support?
    5) Do you have at least three people that can be on call 24/7 for your addicts?  Addicts, especially sexual ones, don't often struggle during the 9 to 5: they struggle at 2 AM when they can't sleep because they're experiencing withdrawals.  And yes, withdrawals are real and they are terrifying.  If anything, all the deacons and elders in your church, as well as all ministers, should be available to those who struggle 24/7.  As one pastor I know put it, that's simply what being a minister is about.
    Because most churches either cannot and/or will not do all of the above things, my advice is that churches not try to reinvent the wheel: they should partner with the various 12 steps.


    I wrote this from an aspect of grace, but I hope you can tell that I am passionate about helping addicts and helping churches help addicts.  I believe the church is the best place for addicts to get help.  A church that adheres to how Jesus taught us to treat each other will see addicts come clean through the power of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit working in their lives and in the lives of those around them.  However, far too many churches have fallen from what their original charter was.  But there's hope: Jesus can change addicts and churches.
    The time is now to help addicts.  People are already hurting.  Families and churches are already being poisoned by the effects of addiction.  So little is being done that it makes no sense to take arms against the 12 steps.  If anything, we need them.