Many Christians eagerly embrace the disease model and Twelve Steps theory of addiction treatment, including involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), because they are convinced it is a biblically based approach to changing human behavior. Many aspects of this treatment approach, however, are actually contrary to biblical teaching. I would also argue that it is a treatment system that is not very effective.
A key component of the disease theory is the belief in loss of control of one’s behavior. According to this theory, loss of control is an involuntary reaction to the presence of alcohol in the body. It is argued that when alcohol enters in the bloodstream, it produces an irresistible craving for more alcohol. This is said to be an involuntary biological reaction, similar to catching a cold or developing a fever.
The disease or sickness label implies that people do not choose to get sick, they are not bad because they are sick, and when they get sick, they need treatment. This concept is summarized in the often heard saying: “You’re not bad, you’re sick!” The disease label is not confined to alcohol abuse, but has expanded to include all kinds of behaviors. Today, people who have problems with gambling, fornication, eating, shopping, smoking, or any other problematic behavior, can also claim the sickness label. Nowhere in the Bible, however, is drunkenness described as an uncontrollable disease.Instead, drunkenness is a behavior that excludes one from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10).
When I argue that it is legitimate to say people are bad rather than sick when they abuse alcohol, I am not making a moralistic judgment of personal condemnation. From a biblical standpoint, Jesus warned against judging people, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1 NIV). But in the same chapter, Jesus encouraged people to make righteous judgments regarding other people’s behavior, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (v. 16). So, there is a difference between judging or attacking the person and judging a behavior. For those who take the Bible seriously, recognition of sinful behavior ought to provide a great incentive to change if they abuse alcohol.
To say that people have no control over their choices is to deny a fundamental aspect of their God-given humanness. Humankind was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), which implies that Adam and Eve had the capacity to make choices regarding their behavior. God said, “You are free to eat…but you must not eat” (Genesis 2:16-17).
Disease model proponents argue that genes, brainwaves, or chemicals force some people to act irresponsibly. Although genes are a defining element of our physiological makeup, they do not determine whether, or to what extent, we will take drugs, overeat, gamble, or practice some other self-destructive behavior. In addition, applying the sickness label to people who misbehave is cruel to those who are actually sick with a biological disease. People who battle real diseases have little in common with those who choose not to control their behavior.
A contradictory belief, held with religious fervor by many who believe in the disease model of addiction, is that you cannot be free of addiction unless you first admit that you are helpless. The first step in the Twelve Step theory of addiction treatment is that people must admit that they are powerless over their addictions, but this belief is in conflict with both experiments in human behavior and biblical teaching.
Nowhere does the Bible teach that people are helpless in their ability to stop abusing alcohol. Sometimes, however, concepts are attached to the language of the Bible without the Bible actually teaching the concept.Such is the case with the belief that people are helpless or powerless to stop certain addictions. For example, Paul said, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). The NIV translates the Greek adjective asthenes as “powerless” while the NASB translates it “helpless.” Both of these terms are applied to human behavior in the literature of the Twelve Steps theory and AA model of addiction treatment. Although Romans 5:6 is often referenced by those who seek a biblical justification for this treatment approach, it is actually a misapplication of the passage. Paul’s subject in this text is salvation and not addiction, human behavior, or the ability to make choices. His argument is that humankind is powerless to provide a means of salvation, which is the point he makes just two verses later, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 8).
The fatalistic view that all addicts have a disease can be countered with the biblical view that all addicts have a choice. To say that addiction is a choice is heresy to the religion of AA and the disease model of addiction treatment. For some people, regular drunkenness is a preferred method of coping with some personal misery or environmental stress, but the Bible describes it as a sinful behavior, and people choose their behaviors.
J B Myers