Christianity, Alcoholics, and Addictions: How Should the Church Deal with Addictions and Addicts?
It didn’t occur to me until now to make a blog post about this.
After all, I am the same person who wrote this post a couple of weeks ago:
Perhaps “addictions and alcoholism” should be added to my list of topics in that post?
I don’t know why the folks at TWW (Wartburg Watch blog) didn’t make a separate, open thread to allow denizens of their blog to discuss this, since the issue cropped up in their Sproul Jr. thread (pastor who had a drinking problem – among other problems).
Obviously, TWW member Velour feels strongly about the topic. She believes churches are not handling addiction or addicts properly.
At one point, a member in the thread, Roberts, said, citing 1 Corinthians, that she believes an (unrepentant) alcoholic should be removed from church. I don’t quite know if Roberts means that all Christians should stop associating with that person or if she only meant to say the alcoholic should not be allowed to attend church services.
Sometimes alcoholics and addicts not only damage their own lives, but those of people around them.
Addiction, by the way, isn’t confined to only alcohol or drugs.
One article I saw mentioned gambling, and another, pornography.
FOOD AND SHOPPING ADDICTS
There is a program on cable TV called “Hoarders.” This is a TV show about people who deal with pain in life by spending. They go out to flea markets and stores, or order lots of stuff online, and fill their houses with material possessions, to the extent that their houses are at times are condemned by the city.
Some of the homes on “Hoarders” are so thoroughly filled with trash and debris, they are over-run by roaches, dead cats, and mice.
Some people use food to cope with stress and and pain in life.
I see such individuals constantly on a television program called My 600 Pound Life.
In one episode of that program, I saw a 600 pound man named James, who was 46 years old and bed-ridden. He could not care for himself because his girth made it impossible.
James has a live-in girlfriend named Lisa who was approximately 55 years old, and she is his main care-taker, as is their teen daughter, Bailey.
Lisa was, prior to James, married to a physically abusive man. During her marriage to her abusive spouse, she met James, who was nice to her. They started an affair, Lisa had two kids by James, and she eventually left her abusive spouse to be with James.
James himself- the bed-ridden obese man – is, as I saw from the episode, verbally and emotionally abusive to Lisa.
Lisa left one (physically) abusive man (her ex husband) for another (verbally) abusive man, James.
Lisa knows James is obese and bringing him lots of fatty foods and fast food burgers is literally killing him. But she keeps doing it.
Because if she does not, James will emotionally and verbally abuse her. She is codependent and lacks boundaries. After having endured one abusive man, she is too knocked down to fight back against the second (verbal) abuser (James).
There was a similar episode featuring another obese man named Steve. Steve would verbally abuse his father if the father would not order him large pizzas.
VICTIMS OF ADDICTS: ACCOUNTABILITY
One question I pose is, at what point should people, including Christians and churches, stop having compassion on addicts and hold them accountable? Or, can both be done?
Can Christians be compassionate while upholding boundaries? Can upholding boundaries be thought of as a form of compassion – since enabling addicts does them no favors?
My brother who is an alcoholic, has been married to a drug addict since the 1990s. His wife has a son by a former husband of hers.
My brother’s wife began as a crack or cocaine addict and later came to prefer heroin. He used to phone our mother and tell her that his wife would do things like take their boy’s X-box video game system and pawn it off to get cash to buy drugs.
My brother had to sleep with his wallet under his pillow at night to stop her from taking his cash and credit cards to obtain drug money. She has been fired from jobs for embezzling – to take an employer’s money to buy drugs.
Where and when should a church or Christian draw the line on such behavior?
Do the feelings and needs of an addict really out-weigh those of their victims – the family, friends, and co-workers they are hurting to get their addictions fed?
HEATHER AT RHE
Many times in the Sproul thread at TWW, Velour referred people to this post at Rachel Held Evan’s blog:
The page at RHE’s site consists of various people asking recovering alcoholic Heather for her views about alcoholism in the church.
The odd thing is that Heather was saying things in some areas that myself and others were saying at the TWW that Velour seemed to object to or disagree with.
I don’t think the answer is for churches to get more involved in diagnoses or administering recovery. But I do think they could do more to bring awareness to the issue, help people feel safe enough to admit to addictions, and help them connect with professional help or recovery groups. Thankfully, many already do this.
// end quote
I myself don’t think churches should get involved in acting like medical or addiction speciality centers where they diagnose addictions or prescribe treatments, either.
Velour seemed to be promoting church itself as a treatment center, unless I misunderstood. That is where I got confused and was asking how or why she believes laypersons can help addicts, and in a church setting?
Considering that most churches and Christians are completely inept at helping domestic violence victims, persons under-going grief, the depressed, those with anxiety, why would anyone think churches would be of any help or use in pointing addicts and alcoholics to helpful resources?
Another quote by Heather:
I know from personal experience that pastors can communicate shame or reinforcement of stigma without ever uttering the word “addict” from the pulpit.
This is especially true when a church puts a strong emphasis on people being delivered from any bondage or weakness through repentance alone.
When a pastor declares that “Jesus is the answer” to all our problems, he is implying that reaching for outside help is a show of weakness or lack of faith. We’re over that when it comes to appendicitis—alcoholism, not so much.
I spent more than twelve years trying to overcome alcoholism through prayer, repentance, doubling down on devotions, and begging God for miraculous deliverance. It didn’t get me sober. What it did, though, was make me doubt my own faith, doubt the Bible…
…I think we do people a huge disservice when our message is: If you’re truly a Christian, you should be able to pray and repent your way out of this!
// end Heather quote
To a degree, I agree with some of what Heather says in that quote.
Whether we are discussing depression, over-eating, or alcoholism, a lot of Christians think there are easy or fast solutions, and all these issues can just be ‘prayed away.’ They believe if a hurting or troubled Christian can just pray enough or have enough faith, they will get better in no time.
And that is not so (I know based on years of dealing with depression and anxiety).
However, at some stage, a person still needs to repent. There has to be a willingness for the person with a problem to want to change herself.
If an addict is not willing to change herself, to go through some kind of treatment, no amount of loving that person, or inviting them to a church service, is necessarily going to halt their addiction.
Heather looks to be promoting treatment and 12-step philosophies in page at RHE’s site.
As I wrote in an earlier post, sometimes AA and other 12 step programs do not work for everyone – and neither do “faith” based solutions (such as Bible reading, Jesus, prayer), as I wrote about here. Where do these people turn?
Heather also says on RHE’s site:
One concrete way many churches support recovery is to make their buildings available for meetings—even for recovery groups that aren’t exclusively Christian. Lots of churches and hospitals already do this and I’m grateful every single week.
// end Heather quote
Perhaps one thing that set Velour off in the TWW thread about this is that she is conflating “kicking alcoholics out of church” (as Barbara Roberts was promoting) with the idea that churches should not allow their brick- and- mortar buildings to be used as support recovery sites.
I don’t think anyone in that thread was advocating that, however.
I don’t think the disagreement was with allowing alcoholics to meet on church property after-hours to discuss their alcoholism, but whether or not Christians should provide on-going fellowship to someone who claims to be a Christian but who is living in unrepentant sin, and the Bible does seem to teach that alcoholism is a sin.
1 Corinthians 5:11-13 reads:
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
//end Bible passage
Or is it wrong to view alcoholism as a type of sin?
What would you make of that Bible passage from 1 Corinthians 5:11-13?
What should Christians make of passages such as 1 Timothy 3:3:
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not dependent on wine, not violent but gentle, peaceable, and free of the love of money.4 An overseer must manage his own household well and keep his children under control, with complete dignity.…
//end Bible passage
1 Peter 4:3
3 For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.
//end Bible passage
Ephesians 5: 8:
Do not be drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit,
//end Bible passage
From the Old Testament of the Bible:
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
30 Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
31 Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup,
when it goes down smoothly!
32 In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
33 Your eyes will see strange sights,
and your mind will imagine confusing things.
34 You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
lying on top of the rigging.
35 “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt!
They beat me, but I don’t feel it!
When will I wake up
so I can find another drink?”
//end Bible passage
There are several other passages in both Old and New Testaments that declare that drinking to the point of becoming drunk is unwise. Alcoholism, I think it fair to say, is not celebrated or condoned in the Bible.
If some want to behave as though over-use of alcohol by a self-professing Christian is not a sin, or is not to be viewed as a big deal, or if addicts are viewed as people needing to be treated with kid gloves at all times, why does the Bible have a few verses of passages instructing Christians to forbid someone who drinks a lot from holding certain church positions?
Why does the Bible tell Christians to not fellowship with someone claiming to be a Christian who won’t get his or her drinking under control?
The reality is that few if any addicts will stay sober without a follow up program of recovery. I personally am part of a 12-step community, so I work these steps with a sponsor and I apply the principles on a regular basis.
…Probably the most important thing for my continued sobriety is attending meetings.
// end Heather
I can’t agree with Heather there. I am glad 12-step treatments worked for her, but again, from what I’ve read, they don’t work for all alcoholics. This isn’t me refusing to offer addicts hope. It’s not me being a Debbie Downer or negative just for the sake of being negative. It’s me living in Reality.
As to this following point by Heather, it’s hotly disputed by others who study alcoholism and addiction. I refer you again to this previous post of mine that critiques common notions about alcoholism as promoted by groups such as A.A. (and again, the source for these quotes I am providing comes from RHE’s blog post here):
- Recovery is the solution to alcoholism, but there is no cure. For example, once you become an active alcoholic, you’ll never become a “normal” drinker. People who caneventually resume drinking in a controlled way are by definition not alcoholic—or they’ve been miraculously healed. I’m told it happens, but I’ve never seen it.
The rest of us have to stay on our guard for that sneaky little voice that tells us, “Oh c’mon! Jeez. Look how you’ve changed! You could handle a drink or two.” This lie has killed untold thousands, if not millions. And the fact is, the longer we’re sober, the more likely we are to forget the truth. Meetings—and hearing the stories of newcomers—help us remember.
[said a doctor Heather saw about her alcoholism]:
“And like other diseases,” he added, “alcoholism is progressive. It gets worse over time, never better. Left untreated, it often results in death.”
// end Heather quote
My sister is an alcoholic. She began as being a social drinker in her teens and 20s and by her 30s was getting sloshed to cope with relationship and job stress.
By her late 30s or her 40s, without entering 12-step programs, without using “spiritual” means, my sister reverted back to normal social drinking. It’s simply not true that all alcoholics have to attend meetings and so on to curtail or halt drinking. And yes, my sister was an actual alcoholic. My sister did not die from her alcoholism.
CHOICE, DISEASE, SIN?
Someone asked Heather this question:
From Eric: In terms of helping an alcoholic to recover, how important do you think it is to call alcoholism a disease versus calling it a sin?
Her partial response:
When I first went to treatment, I too objected to the disease model. I asked a counselor, “How can you call something a disease if it could have been avoided had you not participated in a certain behavior?”
He calmly explained that alcoholism, like lung cancer caused by cigarettes or diabetes brought on by obesity, is a legitimate disease, even if it arises from an avoidable indulgence.
…I had to admit his answer made sense. Things clicked into place for me even more when I learned that an alcoholic doesn’t process the enzymes in alcohol the way a normal drinker does. We have an abnormal, allergic-like reaction. A normal person thirsty for alcohol has a drink or two and is satiated.
…Today, I think alcoholism is not a matter of sin or sickness, but both.
// end Heather quote
This debate also rages on among Christians concerning depression and anxiety: a lot of Christians like to attribute any and all depression or anxiety purely to personal choice and to personal sin (or weakness of character or moral failing).
However, it’s not purely one or the other, and the cause can vary from person to person. (See this book for more: Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded – the doctor who wrote the book says often, it’s not choice, or sin, but in some cases, it can be a combination of one or more of those things in some people some of the tie; he explains that depression and anxiety are sometimes purely biological in nature).
I have watched numerous interviews for decades on Christian television programs with people who are recovering addicts. I have also seen addicts on programs such as Hoarders and My 600 Pound Life.
In my view, while something like alcoholism or drug addiction can turn into a disease- like state after weeks or months, I often see addicts (food addicts, shopping addicts, alcoholics, and drug addicts) who are interviewed admit, when asked by a therapist, what do they think is the cause of their addiction, and they almost always cite a personal pain or struggle.
For example, most of the obese women on “My 600 Pound Life” will say they were molested or raped as a child or a teen, either by a group of friends or by a family member. They will trace their food addiction to that sexual abuse and say they turned to food for comfort and for protection.
Many of the obese men on the program say they began over-eating as a kid to cope with a divorce in the family, with an alcoholic, emotionally absent parent, or with the death of a parent.
On the Hoarders program, ditto. Almost every hoarder can pin point the reason their addiction began: it was a choice they made years ago to deal with some tragedy that befell them early in life.
I will see drug addicts and alcoholics say the same thing in their testimonies: they will tell you they began their addiction as a choice. Rather than deal with loneliness or a stressful life event in a healthy manner, they turned to drugs and alcohol to numb themselves from pain and reality.
My understanding from what addicts say about themselves is that the body may develop a physical, chemical need for the substance and act out when the body is deprived.
(One article about addiction on Christianity Today, Is Addiction a Disease? Yes, and Much More, mentions dependence vs. withdrawl, in regards to the physical ramifications of substance abuse.)
For example, I’ve read that alcoholics quitting cold turkey may go through the DTs (delirium tremens) as the body adjusts to the lack of alcohol.
I believe heroin addicts are prescribed methadone (Wiki link Re: Methadone) to help their bodies deal with withdrawal symptoms.
Regardless, and again based upon what I’ve seen addicts say themselves, these addictions almost always started as deliberate choice, even if they become to possess a biological component later on.
Heather offers up this comment at RHE’s site, which I felt was a little strange, considering all the comments she made before (emphasis added by me):
Contrary to popular belief, most alcoholics don’t stay sober by continually resisting the temptation to drink. Very few of us would make it that way long term. Instead, at some point God relieves us of the obsession to drink. We become “neutral” concerning alcohol. It’s like it no longer exists for us. When Dave and I go to a restaurant, he often has a glass of wine or a martini and I don’t mind at all.
// end Heather quote
If God relieves you, the alcoholic, of your obsession to drink eventually, why then bother with the 12-step meetings and so on in the first place? Her comment there sounds very similar to the view of “Just pray it away” that she was earlier disputing in the same article.
Funny enough, the page itself that TWW commentator Velour was strongly advising us all to read states that there is no one, single, correct Christian view on alcoholism or its treatment(s), which is one thing I was getting at in the TWW thread, but Velour was angry at me for pointing this out:
In our experience with addiction (not alcohol addiction) we’ve found a group of people who believe addiction can be overcome completely and victoriously without the need for a lifetime of recovery, and another group who see it is a lifetime process. Is there a way to reconcile those beliefs and live somewhere in the middle–as a person who no longer is enslaved to the addiction but is still a recovering addict?
// end quote
That question in and of itself is admitting there is no one right way for Christians to view alcoholism, or to treat it.
I didn’t find Heather’s response altogether clear – because she’s quite keen to promote 12-step programs, some of which, like AA, promote life-time meetings, she might feel recovery is a “life time process.”
But again, it’s not a life-time process for all addicts, nor do all addicts need treatment programs to stop or minimize their drinking, as I mentioned above. I think all this depends on each individual in question – what may work for one addict may not work or be necessary for another.
ON SUBSTITUTIONS AND PAIN/ EMOTIONAL REPRESSION
I found this ending comment by Heather interesting:
We learn to embrace our feelings—even emptiness—and allow ourselves to experience them as a capacity for grace and Spirit instead of stuffing them with a substitute. And this is at the heart of what life in recovery is all about.
// end Heather quote
Alcoholism runs on my mother’s side of the family. Her grandfather and a brother or two (my uncles) were alcoholics, as are two of my siblings.
There are a few reasons I never drank alcohol.
One reason is that from the time I was a kid, my mother would tell me all the time how harmful alcohol was to her family. Her dad (my grandfather) would get drunk and abuse her mother and sometimes her. My mother warned me of alcohol, and I paid attention. I did not want to repeat the mistakes of my alcoholic family members.
Once, when I was about three or four years old, I asked my father if I could try a sip of his beer. I just assumed it must taste really great, since my dad almost always had at least one beer every day when he got home from work. (My father, by the way, is a responsible, moderate drinker. My father has never been an alcoholic.)
My father allowed three year old me a sip of his beer. It tasted disgusting, and so I vowed to stick to chocolate milk the rest of my life. (My mother was very irate when she found out from 3 year old me that my father let me sip his beer.)
In my early 20s, I sipped a few alcoholic drinks at parties, and I hated them (as an introvert, I hated the parties as well as the alcoholic beverages!).
So, another reason I do not drink is that alcohol tastes disgusting. I can’t get past the disgusting taste to enjoy any supposed great side-effects (e.g., emotional pain numbing) it may provide.
I stay away from alcohol because I’m a bit vain – it’s empty calories. If I’m going to gain some pounds, I’d rather do so via eating chocolate. I jog regularly to stay in shape and keep caloric intake low. I’m not blowing it on beer or alcohol.
As a kid and teen, I saw news stories about drunk people crashing into trees and killing themselves, or driving head-on into other vehicles, injuring or killing others. I did’t want that to happen to me or because of me.
I saw news stories of college girls or women at bars or in college frat boy parties being raped while drunk (the alcohol impaired their ability to stay in control and fight back). I wanted to avoid that fate, too.
Last but not least, I always force myself to be honest with myself and to feel all the feels. I was raised in this family that believes it is wrong and shameful to do so. I was taught by my family to repress all my feelings, and/or deny them.
My mother was the one exception, to a point; she was fine with me going to her in private and admitting to feeling lonely, depressed, anxious, and so forth, but she did not permit me to feel anger.
But my father and siblings, especially my sister, are big believers in “sucking it up buttercup,” in believing it is shameful or a weakness to admit to having negative feelings and turning to someone else for emotional support. I never bought into any of that and find those “repress your feelings” ideas very strange and counter-productive.
(My sister and dad preach this stuff to me, but they don’t always practice it themselves. My sister used to phone me, complaining to me about her pain and problems in life, expecting me to empathize with her. My sister never did “suck it up buttercup” herself but turned to me as a sounding board. Never- the- less, I was pressured to repress my own feelings.)
I knew intuitively since my childhood (and had this backed up later in adult life by seeing this in books by psychologists) that it’s unhealthy to deny your true feelings, or feelings of emptiness, or turn to substitutes such as drugs or alcohol to bury or cover up those bad feelings.
You are better off feeling every negative feeling, admitting to yourself you have them, and processing them in healthy ways, (such as but not limited to, exercise, or using art and music, or talking to a friend), than you are in numbing pain by taking drugs or alcohol, or coping by buying lots of stuff, or by eating lots of pizza.
I personally believe that while addicts need medical and perhaps personal support (community of friends), that they should not be enabled.
One thing that troubled me about TWW commentator Velour’s repeated insistence on showing lenience or compassion to addicts is that her concern for the addict out-weighed the damage they do to society and victims.
I don’t think any and every treatment program is a miraculous cure, not for everyone; Velour seemed to put as much faith into secular programs as some Christians do with “faith only” solutions to addiction.
Treatment programs and 12 step programs will not work for everyone, and certainly not if the addict does not make a choice him or herself to commit.
The CT article, Is Addiction a Disease? Yes, and Much More, closes on this note – emphasis added by me:
King’s CT essay reflects this complex interaction of body, mind, and soul. His doctors had to show him that the opioids were doing him more harm than good and acknowledge the role they had played in his addiction. They had to use their professional skills to develop a medical plan for dealing with his pain and his addiction that complemented the support from friends and family. But he also chose to get better, committed to the plan, and was willing to do the work necessary to confront the way that painkillers had changed his mind and body for the worse.
// end quote
Maybe one thing that set Heather the alcoholic part from the RC Sproul Jr sort of alcoholic that TWW discussed is that she, Heather, wanted to get better, she wanted to change, and she repented – she went through some kind of process to get better.
RC Sproul Jr, meanwhile, from what I gathered on the TWW thread, is in denial about his alcoholism. Should a church continue to openly welcome or tolerate such an alcoholic?
If there is anything a reader would like to toss into the comment section in regards to Christianity and addiction, please feel free.
Maybe I overlooked an angle to the subject. Maybe you disagree with something I’ve written, so let me know.
More links (this blog):