Alcoholism: best left to the experts?

Paul Witter asks if the church can still help drunkards

‘My name is Paul, and I am an alcoholic.’

With these words I introduce myself to the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous that I have attended for the last 16 years.

They are significant words. They imply difference and that implied difference often has church members (and leaders) feeling out of their depth when confronted by an individual alcoholic. But I want to suggest that the little known Oxford Group (not to be confused with the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement), from whom modern AA emerged in the 1930s, can help evangelical churches recover the issue for Christ.

Beyond getting drunk

Proverbs 23.29-35 shows that the Bible is fully aware of the problem that today we call alcoholism. It is a vivid description not only of the ill effects of getting drunk, but also of the craving that results from persistent alcoholic drinking. It ends with the words every alcoholic will recognise: ‘When will I wake up so I can find another drink?’ Much of the AA 12-step programme is drawn from biblical principles which they received from the Oxford Group. From them they got the idea that alcoholism is a spiritual malady requiring a spiritual solution. If they are right (and I think they are), then why is the church not providing that solution?

Perhaps we have bought into the notion that there is something unique about alcoholism that means we need to leave it to the experts? One of the things that Christians can learn from the Oxford Group is that this just isn’t so. Very few, if any, of the Oxford Group could claim medical expertise in dealing with alcoholism. Yet they were able to reach a common denominator with alcoholics that made alcoholics listen to them and brought about change via the gospel.

1st-century Christianity

The Oxford Group saw itself as recreating 1st-century Christianity and was within the broad evangelical spectrum of its time. In the mid-30s, the Group began to have some success with alcoholics even though the vast majority of the Group itself were non-alcoholic. Between 1935 and 1939, at just two Oxford Group gatherings, nearly 100 men obtained lasting sobriety. Two of these, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, became the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. They eventually started to meet separately, leaving the Oxford Group by the early 1940s. Wilson and Smith’s first meeting had impressed on them the positive effect of one alcoholic talking to another. However Smith and Wilson’s creation of AA led, in time, to the myth that this was the only effective way to help alcoholics. Although undoubtedly helpful, it wasn’t essential for many of those who obtained sobriety through the Oxford Group and it needn’t be today.

Need for conversion

The Oxford Group believed in the need for souls gripped by sin to be converted and saved by the work of Christ. They believed that confession of current temptations and past sin was essential for healthy Christian living and for witness. I believe it was this sharing of changed lives that was the key to the Oxford Group’s success with alcoholics during this period.

Oxford Groupers talked of sin as a form of addiction that needed to be brought out into the open in order for it to be properly dealt with. Their testimonies were strong on the addictive and dominating power of sin over their lives prior to their conversions.

And this, it seems, enabled alcoholics to make a connection. For the first time they were hearing people speaking with blunt honesty about themselves and they found that much of what they thought they alone had done was actually more common than they imagined.

Alcoholics are not as unique as the church fears or they themselves think they are. The reasons that stand behind their drinking are often complex and numerous, but they are far from exclusive to them. The alcoholic’s sense of remorse over past and present failings is a significant factor in his or her continued drinking. The Oxford Group was able to show these people that the sins, which they thought were so vile that no one would want to know them, were sins shared by others. And these others had found a way out of their bondage to these sins, and the guilt that went with them, by a means other than drowning their feelings in alcohol.

In short, they saw that the gospel had practical implications for their deep-seated problems, of which alcoholic drinking was merely the tip of the iceberg.

Ultimately the Oxford Group would show, through their testimonies (which were their chief means of evangelism both in major meetings and in one-to-one conversations), that the root of all of their sin problems was the fact that they were selfish, self-centred and self-worshipping.

How the gospel speaks

Once we locate the root problem of alcoholism in this idolatry of self we can see how the gospel speaks into the heart of the issue. That does not mean that we simply have to proclaim the gospel to alcoholics and that should sort it out. Whatever your view of alcoholism as a disease, the fact remains that long-term excessive drinking makes you ill. Well-meaning folk telling someone to ‘just stop’ could, without that person having medical support, cause that person to have withdrawal fits.

However, medical intervention only goes so far. We need, as the Oxford Group seemed able to do, to help alcoholics come to terms with the idolatrous root behaviours (some of which are negative reactions to them being sinned against) that lie behind alcoholism, and with their guilt and remorse. If we don’t, then these things will eventually lead the person back to a drink.

The Oxford Group not only helped alcoholics see the reality of their own sin, they also provided an environment of rigorous honesty that enabled them to continue to bring to light the effects of sin in their lives. And this honesty will still be found in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Many alcoholics, finding sobriety in AA, report that they see no similarly rigorous honesty in the churches they have been to (many of them evangelical). And so they do not see the church providing anything they cannot already get in their meetings or with their sponsors. That too needs to change. After all, being new creations in possession of the power that raised Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1.19-20), we ought to be able to demonstrate changed lives more readily than AA.

Curing souls

Much work needs to be done on the details if evangelicals are to recover the task of curing souls trapped in alcoholism. We could begin by learning the positive lessons from the Oxford Group. But such a ministry will also need to recover the shared identity of all the people of God as forgiven sinners who struggle with temptation, who are ready to be radically accountable to one another. By God’s grace, this will break down the notion that somehow the sins of alcoholics are unique and only capable of being dealt with in a separate group.

In the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous decided that dealing with alcoholism had to be taken away from the church. Maybe now is the time for the church to take it back?

Paul Witter studied at Oak Hill Theological College, London, and has an MTh in Theology and Pastoral Studies.