Twelve Things Christians Should Know about AA

You may have met people involved with Alcoholics Anonymous: they are often in our churches. Here a Christian AA member gives us a personal perspective on AA.

This article is not intended as a dispassionate defence or exposition of Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”). As a member who believes he would not have most of the good things in his life without AA, this is hardly possible. My assertions are based solely on empirical evidence, along with my contention that AA works.  There are things I know to be true—I see the evidence in my life and the lives of those around me, but the ability to convey this often falls short.

One: AA started as a Christian fellowship

Most people regard AA's genesis as the seemingly unplanned meeting of 10 June 1935 in Akron, Ohio, between two certifiably 'hopeless case' alcoholics: Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, and Dr Robert Smith ('Dr Bob'), a local physician. Their discussion that night is part of AA folklore and generally regarded as the first AA meeting. Wilson had been a member of the Oxford Group, a fellowship founded by an American Lutheran minister who'd had a life changing conversion experience. The Oxford Group's principles infuse AA's Twelve Steps.  After falling out with the group Bill cried out to God and experienced what he later described as 'the great reality…the God of the preachers.'1

Two: Alcoholism was recognised as an illness by the American Medical Association in 1956

Despite obvious sympathy for the alcoholic, many people see alcoholism as a moral failing.  Sentiments such as 'well, his [job/marriage/life] would be far better if only he didn't drink so much, he only has himself to blame' abound. For some, it may be a question of sin: i.e. '[he/she] is stuck in their sin.  They won't give it up.' I know that the disease/illness model of addiction has its critics. For me, it was common sense. I'm responsible for my own actions, but there seemed something different about the way I drank, and it didn't make sense that I was choosing to continually drink to blackout when I could see the damage it was causing.

Three: God can (and does) remove from alcoholics the desire to drink – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly

Sometimes, the next thought after 'he should stop drinking' might be 'well, what he really needs is to know Jesus.'  But this need is not always met the same way. I've seen people healed directly, the compulsion removed immediately by God. More commonly, God renews alcoholics over weeks and months (and sometimes years), through the Twelve Steps. Most new members seem inexplicably inimical to any mention of God and without AA may be unlikely to tolerate what they see as 'religious' concepts.

Fortunately, the enmity is generally short-lived once 'in the rooms'.

Four: You do not need to be a Christian, or even believe in a Higher Power, to benefit from AA

Most members don't appear to identify as Christian, though many become curious given AA's insistence that a relationship with God 'as you understand him' is the key to true serenity. In writing the Big Book,2 the early drafters were undecided about how many spiritual references to include. They feared turning away those sick people with latent hostility towards anything 'religious'. Bill completed the first draft of the Twelve Steps, which were in a slightly different form. The 'God as we understood him' epithet is a result of redrafts by other members, with Bill's grudging acquiescence. Notable also is that the original Step Seven read 'Humbly, on our knees, asked God to forgive our shortcomings' (emphasis added).3

Five: What happens to an AA member who stops going to meetings.

The Big Book emphasises that recovered alcoholics are never entirely out of danger.  I've seen long-time members still sober after ceasing to attend meetings, though only where they continued to live their life in accordance with AA's Twelve Steps. Sadly, I've known many more members who've left AA and returned, a month or 3 years later, beaten even more than when they first came in.  Sadder still, in my six years of sobriety I have personally known at least four members who have died in the months after leaving AA, either by accident while intoxicated or by taking their own life.

Six: Today, AA meetings are estimated to take place in over 170 countries4

A World Convention is held every 5 years, with the most recent held in Atlanta, Georgia in July this year. AA has been in Australia since approximately 1943, following a letter to the editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry by the then Medical Superintendent of Rydalmere Hospital in Sydney. A copy of the Big Book was sent out as a gift, though it appears it was not until sometime in 1945 that the first meeting began.5

Seven: AA members should not identify themselves publicly

AA's eleventh 'tradition' states that AA members '…need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.' You may notice well-known people disclosing their alcoholism in the media, but not their membership of AA. This is different to personally identifying as an AA member, which is the right of each member (as is the right to remain anonymous). Tradition Eleven protects other alcoholics. One could imagine the deleterious effect on potential members of a million-hit YouTube clip of (say) a famous musician and outspoken AA member on a bender. 

Eight: A recovered alcoholic doesn't have a problem with alcohol; just with what alcohol does to them

When I first got sober, well-meaning friends would sometimes confess they felt awkward having a glass of wine in my company. They needn't have. Through AA God removed my drinking problem, which I believe he will continue to carry if I let him. Choosing to take the first drink, or allowing myself to wallow in emotionalism or resentment are sure signs that I've decided to take the problem back into my hands. Many AA members are careful to identify as 'recovering' rather than 'recovered' alcoholics, a recognition that we will never be able to drink normally again. However, the Big Book states that alcoholics can and do recover, and that we 'can go anywhere on this earth where other free men may go [a bar, for instance] without disaster, provided [we] remain willing to maintain a certain simple attitude.'6

Nine: Many Twelve Step programs have arisen based on AA's model

Most people would be familiar with the existence of many 'anonymous' programs, aimed at people living with all manner of conceivable addictions. Most of these are based on 'The Steps', with relevant modifications. Most emphasise the spiritual element. My own opinion is that all such programs target the same spiritual sickness and that most sufferers would therefore benefit from exposure to any of them.

Ten: Some Christian AA members may find that they can more closely maintain their conscious contact with God in the rooms, rather than in church.

This past month my friend celebrated his 45th year of sobriety. He tells of his younger years in the communist party in the old country, and rebellion towards the notion of a Supreme Being. It took him many years to even pray, despite it being one of AA's most strident suggestions. Sixteen years after his last drink he got on his knees and asked Jesus for forgiveness. From that day to this he has not wanted to take a drink.  This man does not attend church, identifies as a Christian, and believes that God's purpose for him is to help other alcoholics become sober. He helped me immensely on coming into AA.

Eleven: What happens to alcoholics who never find AA

Bluntly, the AA consensus is that a person who has crossed that line and become alcoholic, and who does not become sober, is destined to die an early death or become institutionalised, e.g. in hospital, or prison.  This was expressed to me not long after I joined AA and to me, it sounded overly bleak. Now that I have been around a few more years I no longer feel that way.  I've seen it in the rooms and amongst friends and sometimes even family.  I thank God for AA and for leading me there.

Twelve: There's almost certainly an AA meeting near you

Depending on the size of your city or town, there are likely to be dozens if not scores of meetings close to you. Some are 'closed' meetings, where only those identifying as alcoholic should attend, though most are 'open', meaning anyone with any interest at all can attend and if they wish, simply sit and listen.  Step Twelve is 'Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry the message to all alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.' To the sober AA member, helping other alcoholics is God's will for us, and the means by which we stay sober.

1 Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (Inc.) 'Pass it On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World.' (1984: New York), 111.
2 The colloquial name for AA’s basic text, 'Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism' (4th Ed. 2001: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.; New York).
3 The Book that Started it All: 'The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous' (2010: Hazelden, Center City).
4 'A.A. Around the Globei (2013: General Service Office, New York).
5 'History of AA in Australia'. Website of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Australia. http://www.aa.org.au/members/history.php. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
6 'The Big Book', 26.