12 Steps to Another Gospel?

Part One

Tyndale House Publishers advertises their Life Recovery Bible with these words: "Imagine having Abraham, King David, and the Apostle Paul in your 12-step group." The ad continues: "Like you, they found recovery by trusting in a power greater than themselves." Besides presenting a psychological, 12-step biased "character profile" of Abraham, David, and Paul, this adulterated version of the Bible includes "fascinating 12-step notes on almost every page," "recovery themes at the beginning of each book," "12-step devotions, serenity prayer devotions, and much, much more." The ad assures the reader that "every study help has been written by a biblical scholar who has personally experienced the 12 steps."

When Christians seek to combine the ways of the world with Christianity they end up with a distorted gospel at least, but more often it ends up being another gospel and another form of sanctification. Twelve-Step programs originated with Alcoholics Anonymous. Now they are embraced and followed religiously by numerous other groups, including Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Co-dependents Anonymous. Churches have housed AA meetings for years and now many leading Christians are promoting various Twelve-Step programs. We wonder if they have explored the history of AA’s Twelve Steps and the implications of programs centered around any unspecified higher power. The following excerpt from our book 12 Steps to Destruction: Codependency/Recovery Heresies gives a brief background of AA in terms of its religious roots and goals.

Alcoholics Anonymous Religion.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, originally written by Bill Wilson, came from his own personal experience and world view. Step One, "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable," expresses the relief he experienced when his doctor convinced him that his heavy drinking was caused by an "allergy" over which he was powerless.

Thus, when Wilson completed his drying out treatment, he thought his problem was solved. He had been relieved of guilt for moral failure and had been diagnosed as having a disease. The cure was simple. Just don’t take another drink. Nevertheless, his confidence in his newly found sobriety did not last long. In spite of his belief that his excessive drinking was not his fault, but rather due to an "allergy," Wilson felt doomed.

During this bleak time Wilson received a phone call from an "old drinking buddy," Ebby Thatcher. They hadn’t seen each other for five years and Thatcher seemed like a new man. When Wilson asked him why he wasn’t drinking and why he seemed so different, Thatcher replied, "I’ve got religion." He told Wilson that when he had prayed God had released him from the desire to drink and filled him with "peace of mind and happiness of a kind he had not known for years."1

Wilson was uncomfortable with Thatcher’s testimony. Yet he desired Thatcher’s freedom from alcohol. Wilson drank for several more days until he reached a point of great agony and hopelessness (the full intensity of Step One). He then returned to the hospital for detoxification treatment.

Wilson’s Conversion.

Wilson’s religious experience occurred at the hospital. He deeply desired the sobriety his friend had, but Wilson still "gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself." Up to the last moment Wilson resisted the idea of God. Nevertheless, at this extreme point of agony, alone in his room, he cried out, "If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!"2

Because Wilson believed he was helplessly afflicted by a dread disease, he cried out to God as a helpless victim, not as a sinner. He had already been absolved from guilt through the doctor’s allergy theory. Thus he approached God from the helpless stance of a victim, suffering the agony of his affliction, and commanded God to show Himself. Here is Wilson’s description of his experience:

Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy—I was conscious of nothing else for a time.3

He saw an internal vision of a mountain with a clean wind blowing through him. He sensed a great peace and was "acutely conscious of a Presence which seemed like a veritable sea of living spirit." He thought, "This must be the great reality. The God of the preachers." He said:

For the first time, I felt that I really belonged. I knew that I was loved and could love in return. I thanked my God, who had given me a glimpse of His absolute self. Even though a pilgrim upon an uncertain highway, I need be concerned no more, for I had glimpsed the great beyond.4

The experience had a profound effect on Wilson. From that point on he believed in the existence of God and he stopped drinking alcohol. Thus, Steps Two and Three read: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity," and "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him."5 (Emphasis in original.)

While this experience included God as Bill Wilson understood him, there is no mention of faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ and salvation from sin based upon Jesus’ death and resurrection. Rather than attempting to understand his experience in the light of the Bible, Wilson turned to William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Philosopher-psychologist William James (1842-1910) was intrigued with mystical, existential experiences that people reported to him. He contended that such experiences were superior to any religious doctrine.6 He did not care about the religious persuasion of mystics as long as they achieved a personal experience. James says:

In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity. . . .7

It is easy to see how such a description fit Bill Wilson’s experience. The mystical experiences reported by James also followed calamity, admission of defeat, and an appeal to a higher power. The official AA biography of Wilson says:

James gave Bill the material he needed to understand what had just happened to him—and gave it to him in a way that was acceptable to Bill. Bill Wilson, the alcoholic, now had his spiritual experience ratified by a Harvard professor, called by some the father of American psychology!8 (Emphasis in original.)

Most people assume that the founders of Alcoholics’ Anonymous were Christians. After all, Wilson talks about God, prayer, and morality. On the other hand, Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is absent from his spiritual experience. There is no mention of Jesus Christ providing the only way of salvation through paying the price for Bill Wilson’s sin. Wilson’s faith system was not based on Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Nor is there any mention of Jesus Christ being Lord of his life.

Not only is there clear evidence that Bill Wilson did not embrace Jesus Christ as His Lord and Savior and as the only way to the Father, but Wilson was also heavily involved in occult activities in his search for spiritual experiences. These are the roots of Alcoholics Anonymous rather than Christianity. Part Two of this article discusses Wilson’s spirituality and occult practices.

1 Pass It On: The story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1984, pp. 111, 115.
2 Ernest Kurtz. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Center City, MN: Hazelden Educational Services, 1979, p. 19.
3 Pass It On, op. cit., p. 121.
4 Ibid.
5 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1952, 1953, 1981.
6 William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). New York: Viking Penguin Inc. 1982, p. xxiv.
7 Ibid., p. 419.
8 Pass It On, op. cit., p. 125.

PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries, 4137 Primavera Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93110

12 Steps to Another Gospel?

Part Two

The Higher Power and the Occult.

Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, the cofounders of AA, embraced and promoted a variety of spiritual experiences. Both men practiced spiritualism and believed in the validity and importance of contacting and conversing with the dead (necromancy, which the Bible forbids).1 The AA biography of Wilson says:

It is not clear when he first became interested in extrasensory phenomena; the field was something that Dr. Bob and Anne Smith were also deeply involved with. Whether or not Bill initially became interested through them, there are references to séances and other psychic events in the letters Bill wrote to Lois [Wilson’s wife] during that first Akron summer with the Smiths, in 1935.2

Wilson and his wife were also conducting regular séances in their own home as early as 1941. They were engaging in other psychic activities as well, such as using an Ouija board.3

Wilson also acted as a medium or what is now referred to as a "channeler." He would lie on a couch in a passive receptive manner and "receive" messages (in a manner similar to that of the occultist Edgar Cayce) while another person would write them down. His wife described it this way:

Bill would lie down on the couch. He would "get" these things. He kept doing it every week or so. Each time, certain people would "come in." Sometimes, it would be new ones and they’d carry on some story. There would be long sentences; word by word would come through.4

It is interesting to note that in 1938, between the séances at the Smiths’ and Wilson receiving messages while in a prone position in the 40s, Wilson wrote the AA Twelve Steps. He was lying in bed thinking. The official AA biography of Wilson describes it this way:

As he started to write, he asked for guidance. And he relaxed. The words began tumbling out with astonishing speed. He completed the first draft in about half an hour, then kept on writing until he felt he should stop and review what he had written. Numbering the new steps, he found that they added up to twelve—a symbolic number; he thought of the Twelve apostles, and soon became convinced that the Society should have twelve steps.5

Whether creating the Twelve Steps involved occultic activity, Wilson and Smith’s commitment to spiritualism was intrinsically tied to their creation of and leadership in AA.

A regular participant in what they referred to as their "spook sessions" said:

I was a problem to these people, because I was an atheist, and an atheist is, by definition, a materialist. . . and a materialist is, by definition, someone who does not believe in other worlds. Now these people, Bill and Dr. Bob, believed vigorously and aggressively. They were working away at the spiritualism; it was not just a hobby. And it related to A.A., because the big problem in A.A. is that for a materialist it’s hard to buy the program.6

Many Ways to God?

Wilson’s interest in spiritual matters was all-inclusive, all except faith in Jesus as the only way. For a while Wilson seriously considered becoming a Catholic. He described his relation to the church this way:

I’m more affected than ever by that sweet and powerful aura of the church; that marvelous spiritual essence flowing down by the centuries touches me as no other emanation does, but—when I look at the authoritative layout, despite all the arguments in its favor, I still can’t warm up. No affirmative conviction comes.7

Wilson did not want to attach AA to any one faith. The official AA biography of Wilson declares:

Bill felt it would be unwise for A.A. as a fellowship to have an allegiance to any one religious sect. He felt A.A.’s usefulness was worldwide, and contained spiritual principles that members of any and every religion could accept, including the Eastern religions.8 (Emphasis added.)

Wilson could not have believed in the "faith once delivered to the saints" because he did not believe Jesus’ words when He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). Wilson complained, "The thing that still irks me about all organized religions is their claim how confoundedly right all of them are. Each seems to think it has the right pipeline."9 (Emphasis added.) Obviously, according to Wilson, Jesus is not the only "pipeline" to God.

The Wide Gateway of AA.

When Wilson first formulated the Twelve-Steps, Step Two was: "Came to believe that God could restore us to sanity."10 Wilson had had a religious experience he thought was God. Therefore, such a statement seemed natural. However, he met with opposition from those who were close to him in the AA movement. Thus he changed the wording of Step Two: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." Wilson believed that those concessions regarding references to God were:

. . . the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.11 (Italics his, bold added.)

And indeed the gate is wide. The "Power greater than ourselves" can be anybody or anything that seems greater than the person who takes Step Two. It can be a familiar spirit such as Carl Jung’s Philemon. It could be any deity of Hinduism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, or New Age channeled entities. It could be one’s own so-called higher self. It could even be the devil himself.

The extreme naiveté of Christians comes through when they confidently assert that their higher Power is Jesus Christ. Since when did Jesus align Himself with false gods? Since when has He been willing to join the Pantheon or the array of Hindu deities? Jesus is not an option of one among many. He is the Only Son, the Only Savior, and the Only Way. All Twelve Step programs violate the declarations of the Reformation: Only Scripture; Only Christ; Only Grace; Only Faith; and Glory to God Only. Instead they offer another power, another gospel, another savior, another source, another fellowship, another tradition, another evangelism, and another god. Jesus’ majesty and His very person are violated by joining Him together with the gods of the wide gate and the broad way. Jesus emphatically stated that His gate is strait and His way is narrow. He is the only way to life, while all other ways lead to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).

Notes for "Twelve Steps to Another Gospel?"
1 Pass It On: The story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1984, pp. 156, 275.
2 Ibid., p. 275.
3 Ibid., p. 278.
4 Ibid., pp. 278-279.
5 Ibid., p. 198.
6 Ibid., p. 280.
7 Ibid., p. 281.
8 Ibid., p. 283.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., p. 198.
11 Ibid., p. 199.

PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries, 4137 Primavera Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93110


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