by Al Maxey

Issue #164 ------- December 22, 2004
Men may rise on steppingstones
of their dead selves to higher things.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Stairway to Recovery
12 Steps - 12 Traditions

A dear brother in Christ Jesus from the beautiful state of California, who is a subscriber to these Reflections and a ministry leader in the International Churches of Christ, recently emailed me with this personal request, "I would love for you to tackle the twelve-step Alcoholics Anonymous program. They have done a tremendous amount of good and have helped a great many people." This brother and his wife lead a team whose primary area of ministry is devoted to reaching out with the love of God to those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Thus, he knows well the benefits of the twelve steps and the twelve traditions of the above named organization.

The Twelve-Step program is a time tested method of recovery from various obsessive-compulsive and addictive behaviors that is primarily predicated upon a set of spiritual principles. These simple "tools for living" have been employed by millions of people over the years and have helped countless addictive personalities rise from the ashes of personal defeat to recovery from life-threatening and seemingly unmanageable behaviors. These steps and traditions have been adopted by and adapted to numerous afflictive, addictive conditions, such as: overeaters, sexual addicts, workaholics, shopaholics, smokers, gamblers, and even those obsessed with unhealthy forms of religious fundamentalism, just to name a few. There are literally thousands of organizations throughout the world, both Christian and non-Christian, that have successfully employed these spiritual principles to bring freedom to those who had previously been enslaved to their destructive obsessions.

Although credit most often is attributed to Alcoholics Anonymous, around the mid-1930's, for the origin of these liberating principles, they are, in reality, far more ancient. They reflect the practical experience and wisdom, as well as the application of spiritual insights, documented by religious thinkers down through the ages. Thus, it is rather presumptuous for any of us to claim credit for such spiritual insight; at best, it is "wisdom derived." Nevertheless, most users of this Twelve-Step concept, even in its various adapted forms, still commend Alcoholics Anonymous as the primary source of this approach to recovery.

The Twelve-Step methodology is not without considerable controversy, however, both with regard to its formation as well as its application. Whereas some believe it virtually comes from the hand of God Himself, others regard it as a scheme concocted by Satan. It seems people either love it or hate it. Pastor Gary Gilley of Illinois, editor of the Southern View Chapel (which has since been renamed Think On These Things), did an excellent overview of the history of this program in the April, 1996 issue of his publication. It seems the principal founder of AA was Bill Wilson, a drunk whose life had spun out of control. He stumbled upon an old drinking buddy named Ebby Thatcher one day, only to discover this man had conquered his drinking problem when he "got religion." To make a long story short, Wilson, from a hospital detoxification room, soon had his own "religious experience," and he too "got religion." He and Bob Smith, the co-founder of AA, then spent some time experimenting with a variety of mystic religions, and became deeply involved in Spiritism (including trying to hold sťances with the dead).

One of the major concerns many of the critics of the Twelve-Steps have with this program is that they believe such recovery groups, who base their treatment upon these steps, tend to constitute a religious system, one which not infrequently seems to supplant the church. In these meetings they pray, have discussions about God, adopt and follow a creed, and even assemble in a church-like setting. Some have even abandoned affiliation with their churches, claiming that they get sufficient "religion" at these recovery meetings. A few have even declared that the "way of their salvation" lies in these programs based on the Twelve-Steps. This, as one might imagine, has caused a great deal of concern with those who see these groups as rising up to challenge more traditional churches. Pastor Gary Gilley wrote, in the above referenced periodical he edits, "Their god is not the God of Scripture, their prayers are to whatever power(s) they choose, their bible is not God's Word, and their salvation is from 'addiction,' not from sin. The devil is more than happy to provide sobriety in the place of salvation. AA and recovery movements are false religions with false religious systems, attempting to lead mankind to a better and happier life, yet bypass the cross of Christ."

The subscriber to these Reflections from California, mentioned at the beginning of this article, sent me a long email describing his own approach to the use of these programs based on the Twelve-Steps. I appreciate his focus, and want to share with you the three points he always stresses in his own ministry with those who have problems with addictions. His points are (in his own words):

  1. "Twelve-Step Programs Do NOT Save. This may seem like an obvious point, but it leads me to a couple of other points. The purpose of Twelve-Step programs is to keep the participant away from drugs and/or alcohol. Nothing more, nothing less. While this goal is obviously in keeping with God's will, it is incomplete to save, and anyone who says otherwise is, at best, mistaken, and, at worst, teaching false doctrine."

  2. "There is a Difference between Healing and Salvation. This point is most clearly illustrated by the man in Mark 2. After the man was lowered in by his friends, Jesus forgave his sins. The man was still paralyzed, but his sins were forgiven by Christ. If he had died on the spot, he would have been saved, so he was infinitely better off spiritually than he was otherwise. He still had a problem, however, and that was his paralysis. Jesus, being rich in mercy, as well as grace, saw fit to heal the man as well. We see two separate outpourings of God's power: 1) salvation, and 2) healing."

  3. "The Power of the Twelve-Step Programs is the Power of Christ. This point is where some may take issue. Since the Twelve-Step programs do not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, some would discount the work altogether. I think one is 'throwing the baby out with the bath water' with this attitude."

I would like to sincerely thank this reader for his perspectives on this issue. As one who works closely with such programs, his insight is of value. I also appreciate his willingness to share the will of the Lord "more perfectly" with those to whom he and his wife minister. There is indeed a danger that this program (and, indeed, virtually any program or methodology) may become lifted higher in the estimation of the afflicted than it was ever intended to be. A very similar situation occurred with the bronze serpent of Numbers 21:6-9. I suppose one could characterize looking to the bronze serpent as a form of "recovery program." The people of Israel, however, soon elevated this bronze serpent to an idol, named it "Nehushtan," and burned incense to it (2 Kings 18:4). It was finally destroyed under the leadership and reforms of King Hezekiah. We should always be careful, when recommending such programs as the Twelve-Steps that we never lose sight of the Great Physician. After all, He is the source of ultimate healing, and people and programs should never overlook this fact by elevating themselves.

The Twelve Steps

Many of the readers may not be familiar with the Twelve-Steps, nor with the subsequent Twelve Traditions. Those with a background in psychology and counseling, however, are likely very well-versed in these stepping stones to recovery from obsessive-compulsive and addictive behaviors. For the rest, though, I will list these steps with a brief commentary. It will not take much imagination on the part of the readers to perceive that some, if not all, of these steps can have application to a host of problem areas in life. Each step (listed in quotation marks and bold print) is a direct quote of the traditional Alcoholics Anonymous wording. Other programs have modified the wording somewhat to reflect their own focus.

STEP 1 --- "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable." This step is foundational to recovery, as it admits a problem exists. Unless one is willing to acknowledge they have a problem, and admit to the nature of that problem, efforts to bring about a solution will be futile. Recovery is predicated upon recognition; before a condition can be alleviated, it must be admitted. This is an extremely threatening step for almost all who are suffering from addictive personality disorders. It is an admission of helplessness; that one's life is spiraling out of control. For those suffering from low self-esteem to begin with, this is a giant step forward, but a difficult one to take. Denial is very common among alcoholics (as well as those afflicted with other addictive disorders). Thus, the very first step must always be an admission of the problem, and a recognition that one needs help; that the solution does not lie within one's own power.

STEP 2 --- "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." There has been protest by some that AA is reluctant to actually name this "Power." As Christians, we would regard that "Power greater than ourselves" to be God the Father, His Son Jesus, and/or the Holy Spirit. However, the Twelve-Steps are designed in such a way as to be applicable to all groups, whether they be Christian or not. There are Buddhist programs based on these steps, for example. Thus, the philosophy has been to keep this "Power" rather generic, rather than specific to any one belief system. The principle, however, is valid regardless of what name one gives this greater Power. Recovery from various afflictions in life are rarely accomplished solely by one's own effort. We need others in our life, and we need HIM in our life. It is only when we turn to Him that our lives return to a semblance of sanity.

STEP 3 --- "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him." The emphasis on that last phrase, by the way, was in the original. This reflects the point made above, and has again been the source of controversy. This is the logical next step, however, for those who have identified and admitted to their problem (step 1) and who have come to realize that there is a source of help outside of themselves, which is greater than themselves (step 2). Based on these first two steps, it is only reasonable to then commit one's self to the care of that higher Power.

STEP 4 --- "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." Introspection. Honest self-evaluation. This is certainly a sound psychological principle, not to mention a biblical one.

STEP 5 --- "Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." One of the hardest things to do, aside from admitting to ourselves our own shortcomings, is admitting such to another. Yet, the road to recovery is paved when one allows another into his circle of confidence. Some refer to these as "Accountability Partners." Whether such a person is a close friend, a minister, a family member, or a counselor, it is nevertheless critical that one seek out a trusted confidant with whom he can partner in his quest for wholeness. "Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (James 5:16).

STEP 6 --- "We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character." This displays readiness of mind for recovery. One perceives one's flaws and is willing to seek out transformation of character and behavior modification.

STEP 7 --- "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings." In step six we see the readiness for healing; in step seven we see the request for healing. It is also a recognition that ultimate healing, regardless of programs or persons involved, lies in the hands of "He who is greater than we." Recovery is truly begun when we turn to the Great Physician.

STEP 8 --- "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all." Following recognition and request, must come personal responsibility and attempted restoration and restitution. We do not live in isolation; our actions and attitudes impact others. A vital part of the healing process is to heal relationships. This means humbling ourselves before those we have injured, and seeking forgiveness. The Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) declares that no matter how much atonement (physical restitution) one seeks to make to those who have been harmed, it is completely ineffective unless forgiveness from the person has first been sought.

STEP 9 --- "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." This is simply carrying through with the resolve of the previous step. It is a step that has been characterized by some as The Zaccheus Principle -- "And Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, 'Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much'" (Luke 19:8).

STEP 10 --- "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it." The operative word in this step is "continued." It is the extension throughout one's life of step four: "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." Self-evaluation is not a one time assessment; it is ongoing. Further, when one discovers "wrong" during this inventory of self, there exists the responsibility to promptly admit such wrong. The longer one delays in acknowledging the wrongs in one's life, the more damaging they become, both to self and others.

STEP 11 --- "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out." Lifting one's spiritual focus to that greater "Power" is critical to genuine spiritual growth and development. Seeking relationship with and guidance from Him, and tapping into that divine power, is a key to any man's ultimate recovery, whatever the affliction.

STEP 12 --- "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." This is evangelism. When one has been healed, one then bears the responsibility for sharing the source of that healing with others who have yet to be freed from their addictions. This not only expands the parameters of wholeness, but is a psychologically sound principle for maintaining one's own wellness. Find useful, productive endeavor, and what better endeavor is there than sharing the good news of personal redemption with others? And who better to reach an alcoholic, than an alcoholic?!

The Twelve Traditions

The Twelve Traditions also grew out of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. They outline the principles whereby this group seeks to maintain its unity and to relate to the world about them. The Twelve Traditions are to the group what the Twelve Steps are to the individual. There is an excellent book on both titled "12 Steps and 12 Traditions" which can be acquired from AA, or from a local bookstore. It is worthwhile reading. An excerpt from the book, in which these Twelve Traditions are discussed in some depth, can be read online at -- Following are these Twelve Traditions, with just a few reflective remarks added by me:

TRADITION 1 --- "Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity." Each member is but a small part of the whole, and each member must continually seek the common good. Unless we function as one, unified in purpose, our cause will suffer. In John 17, Jesus prayed for unity and oneness among believers so that "the world may believe." A body divided is a dysfunctional body ... and, in time, it will become a dead body.

TRADITION 2 --- "For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority -- a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern." Jesus informed those who would be leaders among His people that they were not to be "lords" over the flock, as some people are prone to do, but rather they were to serve the flock. The ultimate authority for the Body of Christ is not man, it is God.

TRADITION 3 --- "The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking." "And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost" (Rev. 22:17). "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18). There is not a long list of legal requirements for inclusion in the family of God. The invitation is extended to all who are stumbling about in the darkness, and the door is open to those who have a desire to be healed from the afflictive obsessions of the flesh. If they are willing, they may come and drink of that liquid which bestows life.

TRADITION 4 --- "Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole." If our ultimate authority is from God, and if our leaders are to be servants, not rulers or lords, then individual gatherings of disciples should not be governed by an earthly headquarters or board of directors. On the other hand, each group of disciples has a responsibility to live and conduct themselves in such a way as not to injure another group or bring shame upon the Body of Christ as a whole.

TRADITION 5 --- "Each group has but one primary purpose -- to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers." This again emphasizes the evangelistic responsibility of each group of disciples, both individually (step 12) and collectively. Our divine purpose is not to isolate ourselves inside four walls, but rather to go out into the darkness which surrounds us and let our lights shine. Our calling is to seek the lost and rescue the perishing!

TRADITION 6 --- "An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose." The church of our Lord Jesus Christ was not designed to be a corporate entity; a profit-making enterprise; a human institution overseen by boards, executives, and by-laws. Such should be left to the secular realm; we are of the spiritual realm. The two should be kept distinct. If not, the danger exists that we may lose sight of our true purpose for being.

TRADITION 7 --- "Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions." If outside interests or parties hold the purse strings, then it is inevitable that they will soon determine policy as well. The church should be "beholding" to no man. It should be supported and sustained in all areas by its own members. Obligating ourselves to those outside our fellowship is a dangerous practice. It should be avoided whenever and wherever possible.

TRADITION 8 --- "Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers." The church has always faced the danger of developing a "clergy caste" -- paid professionals who "do church" for everyone else. There is a place for "special workers" in service to the King; these are the various specialized parts of the body that make for a unified, functional whole. When one part assumes primacy, however, while the others atrophy from non-use, the body dies. By remaining "non-professional" in character, the Body of Christ allows for "the proper working of each individual part" (Eph. 4:16), while still allowing a place for specialized workers (Eph. 4:11-12).

TRADITION 9 --- "Alcoholics Anonymous, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve." Institutionalizing the church is a grave error! We can literally organize ourselves right out of existence. There is certainly nothing wrong with groups of disciples within the church coming together to aid one another in the performance of some task. We must exercise great care, however, lest the corporate body of believers become a Corporate body of business associates.

TRADITION 10 --- "Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy." The point being made here is that AA is by design committed to the recovery of those afflicted with debilitating addictions and obsessions. It is not designed to be a political action group. The church of our Lord has a spiritual mission on earth; its primary purpose is not to back political parties or involve itself in promoting secular concerns. Yes, the church should be a positive force in the world about it, by means of proclaiming Truth and visibly living it before others, but we are not political or social lobbyists or activists. Our citizenship is not of this earth, although by dwelling upon it our presence should testify to the transforming power of a Spirit-filled life.

TRADITION 11 --- "Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films." Christians do not seek the limelight; we do not glory in ourselves. The purpose of the church is not to promote itself, but to hold up Jesus Christ for public display. He will draw men to Himself. By living Christ-like lives, we attract people to the light; it is evangelization by example ... the most powerful kind.

TRADITION 12 --- "Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities." Oh, how much better off the church would be if individual members didn't care so deeply who got the credit. When personalities prevail, pandemonium reigns supreme! Down through the ages, it can be safely declared, the vast majority of problems affecting the church have been over personality clashes. Where personal preferences rule, divine principles retreat. The purpose of the church must prevail over the various "personalities" who seek to promote and prescribe their own perceptions.


As with any such program overseen and promoted by mere men, one should exercise a degree of caution before endorsing or embracing it. It is my conviction, after many years of witnessing these Twelve Steps in action, in a variety of forums, that they can indeed accomplish much good if employed responsibly. As with just about any such program, however, there is always the potential for misuse and abuse. As a general rule of thumb, I would suggest that any such recovery program that bases itself upon divine principles, and which points its people toward a deeper faith in and commitment to our God, is probably one that deserves our support. Those which draw attention away from God, and promote a more secular, self-centered foundation for recovery and healing, are less worthy of support by the Christian community. This is just my personal conviction, however, and I would certainly not seek to bind it upon anyone else. In all things, let us use wisdom and discernment, and may our Father ultimately be glorified in all that we do, both for Him and for others!

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Your last article -- A Berean Spirit: Thugs vs. Thinkers -- was great! I really love that passage from Acts, and I do realize what our Father considers noble. Please don't think all "Conservatives" are Thugs. I consider myself a conservative, but not a Thug. I think!! I've been reading all your past Reflections and have enjoyed them all. Thanks for your efforts, brother!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Your Reflections #162 -- Evangelizing the Enslaved -- was excellent. I agreed with every point. Even as I write this, I am quite familiar with the attacks of those who want "to keep the church pure." I know, too, the feeling of "Am I wasting my time with them?" My own rebuttal to that question is that my role is simply to sow the seed of Truth. God, in His own good time, will give the increase. I have had, though, the grand pleasure of seeing some embrace the Truth and free themselves. Praise God! My view, too, is that Christ suffered much, much more for my sake than anything I have suffered so far for His. I have learned, too, that freeing slaves is like building a skyscraper -- i.e., one brick at a time. People cannot absorb the whole load of Truth at one sitting. Often the same point needs to be made over and over before it takes root in some hearts. Keep up the good work, Al. You do good!

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, This passage about the Bereans is so short, and yet it does indeed speak volumes. I find it interesting to note that the Scripture does NOT read, "The Bereans were of more noble character because they agreed with everything Paul said." They were of more noble character because of their dedication to God's Word and to using IT as the basis of discussion, not their old beliefs and prejudices. Also, I find it ironic that someone would refer to you as "liberal," since you are dedicated to conserving the true spirit of the Scriptures. What these so-called "conservatives" teach is about as far from the true spirit of Christ's message as one can possibly be. I would actually call them "liberal" since they are taking tremendous liberties with the Scriptures. I really appreciate your continued dedication to speaking the truth in love, despite opposition. President Theodore Roosevelt held a special level of contempt for those he referred to as "the timid good." These were people who were basically good folks, but were afraid to stand up for what was right for fear of opposition. Keep holding up the flag for all of us to rally around!

From an Elder in Missouri:

Once again ... Amen! I love the quote from William James ("A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices"). It has always made me wonder why men who claim to be servants of the Lord and students of His Word are so afraid to actually study it! In my studies with religious people, I find that most do not study for themselves, but rather parrot the words of their "pastor" or favorite teacher. Many of these leaders are not willing to put their teachings to the test, as did the Bereans -- they don't want anyone to check them out. They just want the power of having followers who blindly follow them. I am asked by some how I can be "brave" enough to address controversial subjects in our Bible studies. My only response is that it is in the Book and that means we must study it. Truly we need to be Bereans. They were not willing to stay in the stagnated traditions of men, but rather wanted to find the true power that exists in the Word.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I read every one of your Reflections, but have not acknowledged lately because of continuing health problems. Today's, however, demanded a response. The difference between the Bereans and the Thessalonians (attitude, that is) is so thoroughly and clearly set forth in Scripture, it is hard to understand why it does not resonate with members of the church now. What are we afraid of?! And incidentally, your daring comment on "liberal" brought a smile. Again, thanks for standing in the gap, taking the blows, sacrificing popularity, etc., all because of your unrelenting pursuit of Truth. May you and your family enjoy this lovely time of the year when all of us pay at least nominal homage to the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

From a Reader in Montana:

Brother, the articles you have labored over have no doubt been a blessing to a lot of people. May you find satisfaction in knowing they haven't been in vain. The "Berean Spirit" article was masterfully done! Thank you!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Great article! I noticed your style has changed somewhat. Your writing now seems a little softer, personable, more open, and more in tune with us lay people. I so appreciate you and the work you do, brother! I know you have taken some abuse, but keep on keepin' on, brother!

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

As always, Al, your latest Reflections was another excellent message with a point well made. Let's not write off ALL the Thessalonians, though. "Some who listened were persuaded and became converts, including a large number of godly Greek men and also many important women of the city" (Acts 17:4). As is often the case, it was the Jewish leaders, and "some worthless fellows from the streets," that were the problem. They may have been in the minority, but no doubt they were the loudest. Tell me, Al -- why, some 20 years after Jesus, was Paul still going to the synagogue on the Sabbath? Shouldn't he have been inviting everyone to "come to church" on the Lord's Day to hear the message? Why would any God-fearing minister attend the services of that Jewish denomination? Did he not know they were all going to hell? He should not have cast these pearls before the swine. I guess he did not have soccer or football or fishing or mowing the grass to do on Saturday (chuckle, chuckle).

From a Reader in New York:

I just want you to know how blessed I am to be able to turn to your Reflections and be fed from God's precious Word. Thank you. The last two articles in particular were encouraging! Thanks for all you do for those who have a hungry heart.

From a New Reader in (Unknown):

Hello Al, I'm so thrilled to have stumbled upon your Reflections! I'm a woman who is predominately homebound due to being disabled. So fellowship with other believers is a rare thing, if at all, for me. When I stumbled upon your archives (still not sure how that happened), you've no idea what excitement went through me to find someone who teaches what the Bible teaches! Not only that, but I had so many questions in my head regarding some Scriptures and Christian living that upon reading many of your articles in the archives, the answers all came! My heart cannot thank God enough for your ministry, and I'd very much like to subscribe to your Reflections. What insight I've gleaned through your teaching, and what solace as well. Nobody can tell me that happening upon your web site was not an act of God!! I know He hears me and has answered my prayers. Bless Him! And may God bless you!

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. I would also welcome
any questions or comments from the readers. A CD
containing these articles may be purchased. Check the
ARCHIVES for details & past issues of Reflections: