There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. (Proverbs:14:12)
I recently attended the Celebrate Recovery Summit 2005 at Saddleback Church in Southern California. The primary purpose of the conference was to train new leaders who would return to their churches and inaugurate the Celebrate Recovery (CR) program. Saddleback’s pastor, Rick Warren, describes CR as “a biblical and balanced program to help people overcome their hurts, habits, and hang-ups...[that is] based on the actual words of Jesus rather than psychological theory [emphasis added].” 1
As a long-time critic of psychological counseling and 12-Steps therapies in the church (see The Seduction of Christianity and archived TBCnewsletter articles and Q&As), I was pleased to have the opportunity to learn firsthand from those who are leading and/or participating in the program, to better understand what was intended in CR, and to see how it is implemented. What I learned right away was that the 3,000 or so in attendance had a tremendous zeal for the Lord and an unquestionable sincerity in desiring to help those who were struggling with habitual sin. This was my impression in all of my interactions—with individuals, in small groups, in workshop sessions, and in the general worship sessions. The CR Summit lasted three (eight- to nine-hour) days and covered nearly every aspect of Celebrate Recovery.
Nevertheless, other thoughts ran through my mind as I reviewed whether or not I had missed something significant in my previous criticisms of 12-Steps recovery therapies. Is Celebrate Recovery’s 12-Steps program truly different—that is, “biblical and balanced…rather than psychological”—as Rick Warren believes? Furthermore, is he simply naïve when he says in his “Road to Recovery” series of sermons, “In 1935 a couple of guys formulated, based upon the Scriptures , what are now known as the classic twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and used by hundreds of other recovery groups. Twenty million Americans are in a recovery group every week and there are 500,000 recovery groups. The basis is God’s Word [emphasis added].” Or is Celebrate Recovery another alarming example of a way that seems right to a man but one that is turning believers to ways and means other than the Bible to solve their sin-related problems? Let’s consider these questions in light of some A.A. and 12 Steps background information.
To begin with, 12-Steps programs are not just a Saddleback Church issue. Increasing numbers of evangelical churches are sponsoring Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) meetings and/or creating their own self-help groups based upon A.A.’s 12-Steps principles. Bill Wilson, one of the founders of A.A., created the 12 Steps. Wilson was a habitual drunk who had two life-changing events that he claims helped him achieve sobriety: 1) he was (mis)informed by a doctor that his drinking habit was a disease and was therefore not his fault, and 2) he had an experience (which he viewed as spiritual enlightenment) that convinced him that only “a Power greater than” himself could keep him sober. Attempting to understand his mystical experience, he was led into spiritism, a form of divination condemned in the Scriptures. His official biography indicates that the content of the 12-Steps principles came to him “rapidly” through spirit communication. Certainly not from God.
Celebrate Recovery began 14 years ago at Saddleback and is used in more than 3,500 churches today, making it evangelical Christianity’s most prominent and widely exported 12-Steps church program. Warren considers CR to be “the center of living a purpose-driven life and building a purpose-driven church” and recently announced that Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship would begin implementing CR in every prison where the ministry is functioning.
Celebrate Recovery is a very complex methodology that attempts to bring biblical adjustments to the 12-Steps program originated by A.A. and utilized in numerous other “addiction” recovery programs. The complexity, however, applies to the setting up and implementation of the program as well as to the strict rules that govern its execution. Although there are many problems related to “making it work,” there is only space in this article to address some fundamental issues. Let’s begin with the implications regarding the name of the program.
Reflecting A.A.’s influence upon CR, the term “Recovery” is significant. All those in A.A. are “recovering” alcoholics, who, according to A.A., never completely recover. Recovery is a term that primarily denotes a process of physical healing. A.A. teaches that alcoholism is a disease for which there is no ultimate cure. Although CR rejects A.A.’s view of alcoholism as a disease and calls it sin, the title nevertheless promotes the A.A. concept in contradiction to what the Bible teaches. Sin is not something from which a believer is “in recovery.” Sin is confessed by the sinner and forgiven by God. The believer is cleansed of the sin right then. “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Ps:32:5).
At the 2005 Celebrate Recovery Summit, every speaker introduced himself or herself in the A.A. “recovery” mode, with this “Christianized” difference: “Hi, I’m so and so…and I’m a believer in Jesus Christ who struggles with issues of (alcohol, drug, codependency, sex, or whatever) addiction.” The audience then applauded to affirm the individual for overcoming the “denial” of his or her habitual sin. Not to confess some “addiction” or specific sin struggle raises suspicions of “being in denial.” Throughout the three-day conference, there was never a hint from any of the speakers that anything about A.A., 12 Steps, or CR might not be biblical. Moreover, where Celebrate Recovery programs were not available, those “in recovery” were encouraged to attend A.A. or N.A. meetings.
Rick Warren, on video, reassured the Summit attendees that CR was no man-made therapy. He insisted that CR was based upon the “actual words of Jesus Christ from the eight Beatitudes, which parallel the 12 Steps” and identified his own “Higher Power: His name is Jesus Christ.” I don’t find “Higher Power,” which is a misrepresentation of God, in the Bible. Nor can I fathom why a Bible-believing Christian would want to promote Bill Wilson’s concept and methodology. Why not simply rely on what the Bible teaches?
Is God’s way completely sufficient to set one free from so-called addictions? Did A.A.’s founders provide a more effective way? If so, what did the church do for the nearly 2,000 years prior to Bill Wilson’s “spiritually enlightened” way to recovery? Moreover, if Wilson’s method really works, why are some in the church trying to add Jesus as one’s Higher Power and the Beatitudes to it? On the other hand, if the effectiveness of the 12-Steps program is questionable at best and detrimental to the gospel and to a believer’s life and growth in Christ, why attempt to “Christianize” such a program? It is imperative that all believers ask themselves whether or not they truly believe that the Scriptures and the enablement of God’s Holy Spirit are sufficient for “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pt 1:3). A rejection of this biblical teaching is the only possible justification for turning to ways the Bible condemns: “the counsel of the ungodly” (Ps:1:1) and “a way which seemeth right unto a man.”
How dependent is Celebrate Recovery upon (with minor modifications) A.A.’s 12 Steps? Completely! Those going through CR’s small group take from 12 to 16 months to complete the 12-Steps program. Many go through more than one small group and often become leaders in one while attending others. Without Bill Wilson’s principles, the CR program would be reduced to a handful of misapplied Bible verses. Tragically, the most obvious biblical problem with such an approach to overcoming habitual sins seems to be dismissed by all 12-Steps advocates: the Bible never offers a by-the-numbers self-help methodology for deliverance from sin or for living a sanctified life. God’s way involves obedience to His full counsel and maturity in Christ through the enablement of His Holy Spirit.
Warren’s CR program views the 12 Steps as generally compatible with Scripture yet seeks out verses that appear to biblically reinforce each step. In doing so, however, scriptural interpretations are forced upon concepts that either have no direct relationship to the Bible or that pervert the true interpretation of the scripture intended to support the particular step. CR’s attempt to use the Beatitudes as biblical principles for overcoming habitual sins, for example, is a serious distortion of the Word of God.
Search as you may, you’ll find no commentaries that even hint at such a use of the Beatitudes. Why? Simply because the Beatitudes all have to do with seeking the Kingdom of God and nothing to do with solving an individual’s so-called addictions. Again, why try to legitimize from Scripture Wilson’s “ungodly counsel” from “seducing spirits [bringing] doctrines of devils” (1 Tim:4:1)?
Consider, for example, the “Beatitudes-justified” first three steps: (1) We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors. That our lives had become unmanageable. “Happy are those who are spiritually poor.” (2) Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. “Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (3) Made a decision to turn our life and our will over to the care of God (modified from A.A.’s “God as we understood Him”). “Happy are the meek.” This is more than a misdirected attempt to sanctify (in Rick Warren’s words) Bill Wilson’s “biblically vague” 12 Steps. 2 It both abuses the Scriptures and reinterprets Wilson.
In these foundational steps, Wilson is summarizing his beliefs based upon his experiences as a “recovering alcoholic.” He felt “powerless” because he believed alcoholism was an incurable disease that consequently made his life “unmanageable.” Since he couldn’t “cure” himself (although millions do without 12-Step or other therapies!), he put his faith in “a power greater than ourselves,” whom he called God, and “understood” Him by fabricating Him out of beliefs discovered in his study of different religions and religious experiences. That’s more than “biblically vague.” It’s a false religion.
So why would Celebrate Recovery or the multitudes of other Christianized 12-Steps groups try to reconcile the Word of God with Wilson’s definitely erroneous and demonically inspired methodology? The deluded response is: “Because it works!” But does it?
Pragmatism is the fuel that powers “the way that seems right” and governs much of what is being lauded in the church today. Not only is this unbiblical, but too often there is nothing beyond enthusiastic testimonials to support the claim that something actually works. The reality for the 12-Steps program of A.A. and N.A. is that there is no research evidence proving that they are more effective than other treatments. Furthermore, the most extensive studies related to “addictions” conclude that most drug and alcohol abusers recover without any psychotherapeutic treatment or self-help therapies. 3
The many problems inherent within a Christianized 12-Steps program—and particularly Celebrate Recovery—are too numerous for this brief article. Yet, consider these observations: CR is highly promoted as completely biblical and not psychological, yet the key speakers for CR Summit 2005 were clinical psychologists Drs. John Townsend and Henry Cloud. Psychologist David Stoop, the editor of Life Recovery Bible(CR participants’ mandatory paraphrase Bible, polluted with psychotherapy commentary), is a favorite speaker at Saddleback’s CR Large Group meetings. The CR leadership manual advises, “Have Christian psychotherapists volunteer their time to help instruct and support your leaders.” 4
CR’s entire program content is marbled with psychobabble such as this “solution” from its Adult Children of the Chemically Addicted group’s dogmas: “The solution is to become your own loving parent....You will recover the child within you, learning to accept and love yourself.” 5This is biblical?! Honoring the psychologically contrived “disorder” of codependency, CR’s Codependency and Christian Living group made this humanistic and biblically false statement: “Jesus taught....A love of self forms the basis for loving others.” 6
A.A.’s 12-Steps methodology, along with its antibiblical psychotherapeutic concepts and practices permeates Celebrate Recovery, yet no one at the Summit with whom I spoke seemed concerned. CR’s small group meetings are the antithesis of the way the Bible instructs mature believers to help those young or struggling in the faith to grow. Pastors and elders can be small group leaders, but not for teaching purposes. No leader may biblically instruct or correct but may only affirm the “transparency” of the participant sharing his feelings. “Cross-talk,” or comments by others, are prohibited to allow the freest expression possible. Much of this “expression” reinforces psychotherapeutic myths. The two-hour meetings usually open with the spiritually anemic Serenity Prayer and the recitation of the 12 Steps. Leaders are drawn from those who have completed one or more 12-Step groups. Some leaders work through one “addiction” in a small group while leading another group. It’s not unusual for a leader to put in eight to ten hours in CR functions per week, every week. Serious Bible study and discipleship are not part of the Celebrate Recovery “biblical” emphasis.
Let no one think that presenting these critical concerns about Celebrate Recovery in any way lessens the biblical obligation (Gal 6) of the church to minister to those struggling with habitual sin. The issue is not whether we should minister, but how we should minister: man’s way or God’s way? Man’s way, or a mixture of biblical teaching and ungodly counsel , is contrary to God’s way. Man’s way leads to death. Applying Scripture to man’s way leads to a slower death, akin to what would result when pure water is added to a toxic drinking fountain. We desperately need to take heed to God’s admonition through the Prophet Jeremiah: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer:2:13). TBC
Celebrate Recovery Summit 2005 Handbook, 61.
Celebrate Recovery Senior Pastor Support Video, 2003.
The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Vol. 16, No. 12, 1-4; See also: www.stats.org/issuerecord.jsp?issue=true&ID=8.