The 12 Traditions and Church Structure

makutiframeAlmost everyone has heard of the 12 steps. A little lesser known are the 12 traditions. These were designed to preserve the integrity of the meetings and the purpose that they uphold. While the 12 steps focus merely on the content the 12 traditions focus on the structure. I recently read them and asked this question: What would it look like if the church applied the 12 traditions to their model?

Here are a few examples. I replaced CHURCH for A.A. (alcoholics anonymous).

  • Our common welfare should come first; personal growth depends upon CHURCH unity.
  • For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  • A CHURCH ought never endorse, finance or lend the CHURCH name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  • CHURCH should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  • CHURCH, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  • Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Even after writing this, a part of me cringes at the first reactions of myself and possible others. “Remain nonprofessional”! “Never be organized?” That sounds like chaos. EDIT: The most fascinating thing to me about these principles is that A.A. does not think that any of these structures are evil. The biggest danger is that they are distracting (from their mission.) In fact it would seem that distractions are far more dangerous than overt conflict based upon the protections they have put in place.

I have asked myself these two questions:

  1. What is the purpose for each of these traditions within A.A.?
  2. EDIT: If A.A. Considers these things distractions, how is that the Church is not distracted? Or is it?

Would these things destroy the church, explode the church? What do you think?


12 thoughts

  1. The more I see the more I believe that 96.7% of what happens within the realm of AA could and SHOULD be applied to Christ’s church. When do we start?

  2. I would say, that the last point about anonymity is in direct contrast to what the church should be about. Though, it is typically a standard in the church. Per our conversations in the past, you know that I would love to see everyone’s crap spread everywhere all the time so no one can hide. Otherwise, we will choose to live in darkness naturally.

  3. “CHURCH should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.”

    I wonder what would happen to our pastoral staff if they thought of themselves as nonprofessionals?

  4. Rhett, upon first glance I agree with you, but I think the latter part of the sentence explains the anonymity: “reminding us to place principles before personalities”. I used to think that the purpose of the anonymity was to protect individuals but it’s not. It’s to protect the group. If Michael Jordan were to attend a 12 step he would not be Michael Jordon the Nike/Basketball Superstar he would be Michael the alcoholic. So, “anonymity” does not become a shelter that we use to hide from our shame but rather a tool we use to focus on our primary identity. In a church this may look more like leaving your identity of race, profession, class, personality etc and saying “Hi, my name is Ben and I’m a follower of Christ.”

    In contrast, this last weekend I attended two Mega-ish Churches where the head pastor and his personality was very far from anonymous. Very different outcome.

    Jon – can you please restate your question.

  5. Hmm….I think in as much as it is consistent with the scriptural principles/directions given to and for the church, it would be beneficial, though not giving any guarantee of ‘exploding.’

    There is some concerning things in there too for me, in terms of what damage it could do:

    1. The supremacy of Christ should come first in the context of our community. Our welfare isn’t first. (though I think I get the gist of what they’re intending here)

    2. The authority of God should be expressed in more biblical terms. In fact, it should literally include the fact that the only authority eldership can use is only as far as the word is employed. God reveals himself to us through the Scriptures in the person of Jesus and by the guiding of the Spirit.

    The ‘group conscience’ seems like gobbledygook.

    3. Even a garden is organized. AA (or Church) doesn’t happen without both spontaneous gatherings AND intentional ones. You can’t go to an AA meeting without being invited and generally, there will be a time and location, etc. So, it seems an overstatement to talk about being unorganized. This could lead to a lack of direction and connection with the mission, that involves both gathering AND scattering.

    4. Rhett brings up a good point about anonymity. That notion really doesn’t jive with Christian community.

    great post to make folks think these types of things through!

  6. mike, thanks for your response.

    i think your first point is good….and obvious. i didn’t want to change the wording of the A.A. doc but for the Church there needs to be different criteria.

    my guess is that “group conscience” is merely referring to the consensus of the group as opposed to the expertise of a select few. i don’t think it’s referring to some higher state. i don’t know if this makes it less gobeldygook or not?

    Yeah, the organization line is strange. They obviously employ some forms of organization. It seems like their stance is to fear over organization as opposed to under. I wonder what the validity to this is?

  7. It seems there is a distinction between the organization that goes into scheduling a meeting, and the kind of organization which occurs when a group itself becomes “organized”, and divides itself into a array of sub-groups, with an ever-increasing strata of and positions and ranks. No one would argue that any kind of activity or meeting requires a certain amount of coordination among those involved, but that is an entirely different matter than “organizing” the people themselves….

    Like you said Ben, in regards to the anonymity thing, in an AA meeting, Michael Jordan would not be MJ, the basketball star, but simply Michael, the alcoholic. Everyone in an AA meeting is defined by their alcoholihism, their need, and desire for change…

    In the Body of Christ, there should be the same understanding, that all who gather are merely sinners, in need of a Saviour. But the reality is that as the Church has “organized” itself, it has into evolved into a state where there are at least two distinct classes, and while the equality of everyone may very well be affirmed in doctrine or word, the practical outworking of it all is much different… Like you mentioned, this is more or less a result of the “distraction factor”, rather than of anything being done overtly…

    Basically, it would seem like all of the “traditions” from AA that you listed here, have all been put in place to safeguard against the same thing. To me, they all appear to work together, as attempts to deal with a single issue, just from different angles…

  8. Enjoying the discussion.

    Ben, as you stated…if the “group conscience” is merely referring to the consensus of the group as opposed to the expertise of a select few, I don’t necessarily want to be a part of that church. I value the fact that each of us has been blessed with different talents and gifts. It would concern me greatly if the church simply depended on the entire “group consensus.” There are some who were meant to teach…others who were designed to share music and worship…etc., etc. You get the picture.

    I truly believe that the Lord prepares, instructs, and leads some to certain and specific areas. Together, we function as a body of believers.

    At the same time, I can see how the extreme in this situation would not benefit the church as a whole. If one (or a few) were to govern the church without the input, advice and insight of others, we would be greeted with chaos.

    Is this even making sense?

    * * * * *

    I sometimes wonder if our nation is moving towards this notion of “group conscience.” We’re supposed to embrace everyone, refrain from speaking what we believe to be true – and do it all with rosy colored glasses. It honestly scares me a bit.

  9. Hey Ben,
    Just read this, (haven’t read the comments, so hopefully I’m not repeating anything)…

    I think firstly having grown up on and off in AA, (my step dad was sober during the 10 years he was my step-dad and my mom and a couple of her friends took us to meetings often as kids/teenagers) and I later attended to get sober myself (not for drinking) I’d say that most of these ‘traditions’ aren’t upheld, I realize that’s not the basis of this conversation, but thought I’d throw that out there.

    Also, regarding applying these principles/traditions to the Church seems like in theory it could be a good idea, but ultimately, what would be our purpose for applying them to the Church? What would the Church be abstaining from? That’s what AA is for, to help people stop ‘drinking’ so if we applied them to Church, what would out goal be in doing this? Is it sinning? Curious where you’re going with this…


  10. ok, just read the comments, and wanted to add, that the anonymity part, isn’t as any of you’ve described. It means, that what is said in the meetings stays in the meetings, which in that sense I think the Church should subscribe to.

    I know that when I’ve shared pieces of my testimony with people, they’ve taken that as free reign to then go ahead and tell all their friends all about some chick they just met, and all that she’s done…when in reality I’d feel more comfortable sharing my life and all that it entails personally w/a person or group vs. someone else summing me up for others. Good conversation/thoughts on this subject.

    I think when you’re building relationships, which is what this principle is for in AA, that you trust one another to not slander, or spread things you’ve heard, that its safe to get real there and not have to worry about anything you’ve said in confidence & that it will remain in confidence w/those attending. Its definatly something I find lacking in the christian community/culture.

  11. Daniel – I think you’re right. There is a major theme within the 12 traditions around what they are protecting.

    Anne – I think the idea of operating off of a “group conscience” is not to diminish talent but to release it. I know for me it is easy to walk into any group with “leaders” and naturally depend on them. In my limited experience with 12 step I have noticed that the lack of leadership causes a lot of the “lesser” *public* giftings to be more released. I wonder what the impact of this would be on the Church?

    Heather – Thanks for your response. In regards to your first point I agree that AA has a very different purpose than the Church and the Church’s goals should not be to abstain from anything. In that regards they are very different but it seems to me that there are similarities as well. The main thing that appeals to me is that it is a group of people that are on a common mission. That mission is based upon personal growth and strength in the group. In that regards, I think that the structure of the group is really interesting. They could appoint a president of each chapter and it would impact the group in positive and negative ways. But they chose not to. In the church we have our own leadership structures and I wonder if these structures are working for or against our stated goals?

    As far as the anonymity, I think you are right about the practical application but I think the Michael Jordan example that Daniel alluded to is a level of structure that most people in an Anonymous group never see directly but always experience indirectly. Somewhere at sometime some forefather stated that there will be no identity outside of the sickness. It reminds me of George Washington turning down the request for him to continue in the Presidency. We feel the waves of that to this day. He was making a statement about the dangers of creating a structure around any one man for to long. Anyways, do you see this at all or is it just me?

  12. I don’t think Heather’s comments about anonymity were in any real disagreement with what was previously talked about, but rather an extension of the topic, taken from insight gained through experiences in both AA and conventional churches…

    While the ideal they are trying to protect in AA is essentially, “everyone is equally diseased by their chemical dependence”, the correllating ideal we are talking about regarding the church would be something like, “we are all equally diseased by sin”… The thing is, if we’re honest, AA does a pretty good job of making sure everyone understands this, (“Hi, my name is So-and-s0, and I’m a *whatever*-aholic…”) On the other hand, the church, if we’re honest, really does not…

    So rather than everyone coming together with an attitude of “we’re simply all sinners saved by the grace of God”, it is usually those who are up-front about their sin (their “disease”) who are typically treated as the “oddball”, the black sheep… This is where the slander/gossip problem ties in. As there is no true mutual acceptance of our common “disease”, a rift usually occurs, an unconscious divide between those who view themselves as being more or less good people, and those who’s sin is laid bare in the street, like the prostitute about to be stoned…

    So long story short, I guess we see it all as being interconnected; structure, leadership, mission, goals, identity, anonymity, confidentiality… All of these are interwoven, because in the end, it all goes back to Christ. He is what gives real definition to all these things, He is what it is all about. And maybe that’s the main difference between AA, and what the church is called to be…

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