12 steps & the gospel

Christians who are in or contemplating joining a 12-step programme often wrestle with the tension between the non-specific ‘god’ of the 12 steps and the One who is fully revealed in Christ as we understand through the Gospel. There are two extremes, I believe, to avoid when comparing 12-step spirituality with Christianity.

One extreme is to say that there is no difference, or that working the 12 steps is basically the same as following Jesus.  I don’t want to judge or comment on the status or quality of relationship and intimacy that non-Christian 12-steppers experience with the god of their understanding.  But the simple reality is that any other god is simply not the same as the God revealed in and through the historical person of Jesus Christ.  We may (and rightly can, in my view – see below…) identify valuable and worthwhile spiritual patterns in the experience of non-Christian 12-steppers.  But the point here is that with the Gospel, God is not ‘understood’ through experience or reason alone, but supremely through the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, being a faith that is rooted in Scripture, Christianity incorporates a breathtaking narrative and a robust set of doctrines that are not the same as those of other faiths or personal understandings, even if there may be significant overlap or common ground at various points.  All of this is to say that the Christian 12-stepper can continue to deeply value their faith as something unique, and something that we believe – hopefully with deep humility!!! – that is completely true.

And that brings us to the other extreme: to say that there is so much difference that one cannot benefit from the programme.  Here is where we Christians often need to learn deep humility – or be deeply humbled!  To put it frankly, many of our ‘gospel presentations’ don’t even begin to plumb the depths of the whole Christian faith.  They often go far beyond a simple summary of the Gospel, and err on the side of being overly simplistic and therefore a distortion of it.  I’m thinking here of presentations of the Gospel where a) God’s ultimate vision for creation centres on two predistined locations, heaven or hell, b) Christian life and discipleship is primarily if not totally focused on getting people to ‘go’ to heaven and not hell.  True, as the Apostles Creed has always said, our faith entails a final ‘judgement’ of the ‘living and the dead’.  But there are riches that this small distortion of the Gospel screens out: the joy and beauty of creation, real and painful suffering, the role of Israel, the call to live faithfully in the present, etc.  More than this, most Christians can learn a great deal from the 12 steps, in their focused programme of specific actions – actions that turn out to be deeply Christian.

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