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They Devoted Themselves to the Fellowship

On effectiveness in overcoming sin.

To be perfectly candid about it, I’ve never had any use for 12-step programs. There – I said it! A lot of you are probably ready to nail my hide to wall for saying it, but it’s the truth. Since honesty is one of the basic principles of the 12-step concept, you’re just going to have to deal with it.

The thing which really ‘sticks in my craw’ is this business about a “Power greater than ourselves.” To my way of thinking it reduces God to some impersonal force instead of the living Person who created us, loves us and is intensely concerned about our well-being. What I find particularly offensive, however, is references to God as we understand Him. To me this sounds very much like an attempt to make God conform to our preconceived notions rather than accepting God for who He really is. If God exists at all, He is who He is regardless of anybody’s concept about Him. It is our responsibility to discover who He is rather than reduce Him to fit our criteria. I realize that the wording is an attempt to avoid sectarianism and to reach a wider public than would be possible through an accurate portrayal of who God is. But it still bothers me.

“What’s your hangup?”, you ask, “The program obviously works!” Well of course the program works! God is so gracious and compassionate that He responds to any move someone makes toward Him however flawed his or her understanding of who He is may be. “Come near to God and he will come near to you…” (James 4:8 NIV) The problem is that if a person does not eventually come to a knowledge and acceptance of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, the eternal consequences will be the same as if he had died of his alcoholism or addiction without acknowledging any kind of ‘Higher Power’ at all. I’m afraid that what many 12-step programs do is cure one affliction without adequately addressing the far more serious problem of sin. It’s sort of like shampooing the stains out of the living-room carpet only to have the house burn down.

Now it so happens that a relative of one of members of the congregation where I served is an acute alcoholic. It seems like this person has been through just about every program and system under the sun. Over the past year it appeared that perhaps some genuine progress was being made. Unfortunately, the dry spell ended a few weeks back with a colossal bender which landed this person in lockup.

The member talked to the Elders about the situation and requested our prayers for the relative. Sometime during the conversation I mentioned something about not understanding the phenomenon of alcoholism and other addictions. The following Lord’s Day, the member reminded me of what I’d said and asked if I’d be willing to read a book on the subject. That’s how I wound up lugging a copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book (Third Edition) home with me. I was quite reluctant to read it. There are a good many other topics I’d rather read about and this reading assignment came at a particularly busy and stressful time for me. Also, the subject of alcoholism is not particularly edifying or one to lift burdens. But, since it was obviously important to the member who loaned me the book, I plowed through it. In some ways it was a disturbing read.

Why is the church ineffective?

One of the things which disturbed me was the repeated testimony of people who said that church had not been able help them overcome their alcoholism. It seems to me that if any place could help someone overcome a sin of this nature, or any other sin for that matter, it ought to be the church. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, the Apostle Paul gives a list of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Significantly, drunkards are included in the list. In verse 11 Paul extends the prod by explicitly stating that that’s what some in the church in Corinth had been. However, Paul goes on to say, “…But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (NIV)

If the church used to be effective in transforming and reclaiming drunkards but is no longer, something must account for the difference. Now I learned a long time ago that when something (such as a computer, for instance) starts behaving differently than it did before, the very first thing to ask is, “What changed?” I think it’s valid to ask the same question in this case. What has changed? Is human nature different than it was in the first century? Hardly. Have the properties of alcohol or the nature of alcoholism changed since Paul’s day? I highly doubt it. I submit to you that it isn’t human nature or alcohol which has changed, but the nature and character of the church. The church is ineffective because it is fundamentally different than it was at the beginning. If our congregations were like those in apostolic times then they would be effective in helping people confront their sins and overcome their addictions.

How the church used to be

You don’t believe me that the church is very different than it was in the beginning? See how well the following statements taken from A.A.’s The Twelve Traditions fit the congregations you know: (taken from pages 564 through 568 of the Big Book)

“Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.”

“Each group should be autonomous…”

“Problems of money, property, and authority may easily divert us from our primary spiritual aim… An A.A. group, as such, should never go into business.”

“Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.”

“Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional. We define professionalism as the occupation of counseling alcoholics for fees or hire.”

“Each A.A. group needs the least possible organization. Rotating leadership is the best. …true leaders in A.A. are but trusted and experienced servants of the whole. They derive no real authority from their titles; they do not govern. Universal respect is the key to their usefulness.”

“Our relations with the general public should be characterized by personal anonymity… There is never need to praise ourselves.”

“…we are actually to practice a genuine humility.”

Now compare the above statements with Scripture:

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NIV)

“Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” (Acts 14:23 NIV)

“Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 3:17-20 NIV)

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:44-45 NIV)

“If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.” (1 Corinthians 9:17-18 NIV)

“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 NIV)

“…When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:26 NIV)

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3 NIV)

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4 NIV)

Do you begin to see what I’m getting at? But there’s more.

Healing through caring for the lost

Frankly, after a while the stories in the Big Book just sort of blended into a undistinguished fog in my mind. Aside from the fact that some were better written than others, the testimonies all began to sound the same. There were a couple of things, though, which really stood out. One was the extent that the recovered alcoholics went out of their way in order to help others overcome alcoholism. What particularly impressed me was their insistence that reaching out to others is an essential component in their own recovery. I can’t help but think of the similar behavior which is recorded in Acts 8:4, “Those who had been scattered [by the persecution they experienced in Jerusalem] preached the word wherever they went.” (NIV) What a sad commentary that in our day and age we have, all too often, relegated evangelism to paid professionals! Instead of taking personal responsibility for taking the good news of freedom from the bondage of sin to others, we leave it to the church as an institution. Could it be that one reason the faith of so many of us is weak, is that we don’t exercise our faith by helping others find Christ? Could it be that the reason so many of us have such struggles overcoming our own sin is that we don’t bear one another’s burdens as we should?

A family sticks together

The other thing which really struck me is how so many described A.A. as family. It was in A.A. that they felt connected to like-minded people. It was there that they found acceptance. It was there that they were able to share their sorrows, struggles, triumphs and joys. It was there that they found fellowship.

But wait a minute. Isn’t the church supposed to be a family? After all, Christians are described as “children of God” (Romans 8:16, Philippians 2:15, etc.). As members of God’s “household” (Philippians 2:19) why have we forgotten that in a household or family there is not only a relationship between child and parent but also between children? Why do we act as though we are an only child? It is tragic that members of the family which should have the strongest bonds of all have to look elsewhere for fellowship.

Am I suggesting that the church ought to become like A.A.? Not at all. However I am suggesting that the reason A.A. is effective is that it, whether deliberately or inadvertently, adopted many of the principles and characteristics which made the early church effective. It’s high time that we got back into our New Testaments to discover those principles and characteristics and put them into practice.

We read this description of the first Christians: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42 NIV) Among the churches with which I am familiar, there’s room for a lot of improvement in all four of those areas. But especially in the area of fellowship. Fellowship is far more than a few minutes of superficial chit-chat before or after the church service. It means spending time with one another. It means becoming vulnerable to one another. It means being available. It means showing hospitality. It means taking an active and genuine interest in each other. It means putting the welfare of our spiritual family members ahead of our own. It means going out of our way to help each other. It means befriending each other. And, when we learn to act as a family; when the church rediscovers its roots, the need for A.A. and the other 12-step programs will go away.

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