A Response to Substance Abuse: Equipping Church Leaders
Encounter: Journal for Pentecostal Ministry, Summer 2014, Vol. 11
A Response to Substance Abuse:
Equipping Church Leaders
Barbara L. Gilliam (D.Min. 2014)
Founder and Director of Compassionate Wisdom Works
Huntington Beach, CA
What do Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Yoko Ono, Ulysses S. Grant, Pyotr IIyich Tchaikovsky, Ava Gardner, Sigmund Freud, Winston Churchill, Melissa Gilbert, Howard Hughes and Philip Seymour Hoffman have in common? Each one admittedly struggled with alcoholism or drug addiction. The list could extend for pages on public figures who lived in recovery or battled the problem until death. The list of people represents a variety of talents, cultural roots, education, and socio-economic status. For this diverse group, substance abuse became the great equalizer.
Millions of people who will never make a VIP registry suffer from the effects of substance abuse. Whether family members of an alcoholic or drug addict, co-worker, friend, or a person trying to make sense of a tragedy related to intoxication, the ripple effect of addiction tries to destroy everything in its path. Chemical dependency tears down relationships, health, finances and careers, and leaves confused victims trying to make sense of what happened.
The issue of alcoholism and drug addiction affects people inside and outside the church. Long-term abusers often end up incarcerated, in health care facilities, or fall victim to premature death. They leave behind the wreckage of broken families, debt, and devastating pain. Instead of contributing on a regular basis to family, church, or community, addicts drain the resources available in these groups. Denial and shame associated with addiction restrict people from seeking help. Chemically dependent people may have a spouse, parent, or other family members who helps them cover the problem by rescuing them from the consequences of their addictions. Whether a person has a family member struggling with chemical dependency or tragedy strikes a community from a drunken driving fatality, eventually substance abuse affects everyone.
The expansion of narcotic pain medication purchased over the Internet and the increase of cleaning products within the home where children experiment by inhaling, can result in premature death. Being cognizant of symptoms and educating congregations can save lives and direct people to treatment. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states an alarming statistic: “Overdose deaths are rising fastest among middle-aged women, and their drug of choice is usually prescription painkillers … Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying at rates we have never seen before. The greatest increases in drug overdose deaths were in women ages 45 through 54, and 55 through 64.”2 These statistics illustrate the dangers of secretly abusing these powerful drugs. Many women in the church secretly abuse drugs yet actively participate in church and various ministry contexts. They suffer in silence and shame until a life event reveals the truth.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are not restricted to stereotypical images. Preconceived stereotypes of substance abusers encourage denial and enabling. Functional alcoholics and drug addicts attend church services, maintain employment, and lead Christian organizations. In addition, many Christians feel powerless to help a loved one with addiction. Delayed intervention, due to pride, secrecy, or ignorance, increases the possibility of irreversible consequences. Often church people assume that addiction simply reveals a lack of willpower or spiritual commitment. Although a strong spiritual component to addiction exists, other factors prohibit addicts from quitting on their own. For example, detoxing from alcohol or certain drugs can result in death or seizures. Some church leaders adopt a simplistic answer to addiction that does not address the physical, emotional, social, or family components.
The role of church leaders in relating to the person addicted to drugs or alcohol and his or her family members varies depending on the person’s level of understanding. Without additional training, the potential for informed and compassionate leaders to influence individuals, families, congregations, and communities affected by addiction remains limited. The wellinformed church leader can shape and educate a congregation to become a welcoming and understanding community for individuals affected by substance abuse. Pentecostal leaders model a distinctive empowerment by the Holy Spirit that testifies to God’s intimate involvement and care in the lives of people. God partners with His church to understand and rebuild the lives of broken people. God entrusted Zerubbabel with the responsibility of rebuilding the temple, but God assured him it would not be accomplished by human ability or strength, but by His Spirit (Zech. 4:6).3
Pentecostal leaders should be at the forefront of community involvement by empowering their congregations for works of service (Eph. 4:11-13.) The Assemblies of God has a historical precedence for diversity within the church. Critics often attacked William J. Seymour, the African-American holiness preacher, for “preaching racial reconciliation and restoration of biblical spiritual gifts.”4 People not readily accepted in the culture or other churches, felt welcomed in most of the early Assemblies of God churches. This included alcoholics, drug addicts and all social outcasts.
While reading an article in Life magazine about a gang on trial in New York City for beating a young man to death, country preacher, David Wilkerson, was touched by the compassion of God. He left his church in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City to work full-time with gang members. One person’s willingness to help the outcast of society birthed a worldwide ministry to alcoholics and drug addicts. The Assemblies of God home missions department included Teen Challenge a couple years after its inception.5 Most people with drug addictions will not go to Teen Challenge, but they need the support and counsel of their local church. Although working with people battling drug and alcohol problems can prove challenging and time-consuming, the investment can render much fruit for the kingdom of God.
Making the Most of Every Opportunity
The spiritual component proves central for addicts to live a life of abstinence and health. Two alcoholic men started Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the 1930s in order to keep one another sober. They developed a program that took the best in Christian discipleship programs available at the time and adapted them into a twelve-step program, resulting in a discipleship program optimized for alcoholics. Working with thousands of alcoholics, Robert Smith, a medical doctor and co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, always included a devotional in his counseling or public speaking. He encouraged every alcoholic to read the Bible daily. One of “his favorite passages includes Jesus’ conversation with the Jews.”6 Many had put their trust in Christ and their faith was tested, but Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-31). Smith wanted alcoholics to find the peace of mind he had discovered in the Bible.
Through the years, the AA program modified its terminology in order to be inclusive to all people, but they retained biblical principles and phrases. The men understood the necessity of belonging to a community of faith and required people to recover in community as a core principle. The first three steps of the twelve-step program address the alcoholic’s relationship to God. Later AA adapted the word “God” to “higher power” in order to include all people who desire recovery. Connecting with a God of one’s own understanding is central to AA and other twelve-step programs. Bill Wilson, a Christian and cofounder of AA, says, “Before AA, we were trying to drink God out of a bottle.”7
With the spiritual component playing an intricate part of recovery, the Christian community can provide an understanding and caring environment that encourages people to heal their broken relationships with God and others. Most alcoholics and other addicted persons feel disconnected and “even disowned by churches and other religious communities, a feeling that often spills over into members of the family.”8 Without awareness of the specifics of addiction and the wreckage to families and communities, the church can miss a major opportunity to ignite a revival where life transformation happens. Leaders equipped with resources and referrals in chemical dependency can build relationships in their communities and contribute to positive changes.
Although an association between the church and twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous exists, the extensive growth of twelve-step groups “has exposed the church’s inability or failure to deal honestly and adequately with the brokenness of people.”9 As the pastor of an urban church, I witnessed the sincerity and transparency of alcoholics and drug addicts struggling to maintain sobriety. Part of their healing included telling their story of waking up in jail, unaware of how they got there. Their honesty stirred many people in the congregation who had lost perspective of their own brokenness.
Drunkenness: What the Bible Says
Drunkenness in the Old Testament
The vividness of the Bible’s picture of the drunkard “elicits special moral disgust.”10 The drunkard “is categorized as an archetypal villain characterized chiefly by evil. The term villain designates a function that a character might play in a story as the one who opposes the good characters and does the most mischief.”11 The drunkard belongs in the classification of “villain as imaged in such examples as the character sketch of Noah lying drunk in his tent (Gen. 9:20), Lot committing incest with his daughters (19:30-38), and Nabal and Ahasuerus losing their judgment while drunk (1 Sam 25:36; Esther 1:10-12).”12 Other Old Testament examples of the results of intoxication include King David’s scheme to get Uriah drunk in an attempt to manipulate him and cover David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:1-1). Amon, David’s son, was killed when he was drunk (2 Sam. 13:28-29) and Elah, the king of Israel was assassinated while getting drunk (1 Kings 16:9). King Xerxes felt the effects of the endless provisions of wine he provided at a banquet when he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him to bring Queen Vasthi to him so he could display her beauty. His poor judgment, lack of impulse control, and disrespect for the queen resulted in the breakup of his marriage and the banishment of the queen from the palace forever (Esther 1).
Proverbs 23:29 asks six questions: “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?” Verse 30 answers the “who” of verse 29. When a person’s gaze turns from God to a glass of wine, the compulsion to taste all the wine is consuming and there is never enough. Verse 30 describes those who do not stop at one drink, but continue to sample bowls of mixed wine. It compares the allure of being mesmerized or hypnotized by wine to a man caught up in the beauty of an adulterous woman.
Proverbs 23:34-35 depicts an unstable drunken man as reeling and trembling while staggering about on a ship at sea. Verse 34 compares the drunkard to someone lying on top of the mast of a ship, the place of greatest danger and instability. The foolishness and progressive deterioration of being drunk concludes in verse 35, narrating the irrational cycle of bondage. The person has gone from lingering over a glass of wine to sampling bowls of mixed wine, drinking with pleasure, causing visual hallucinations and confusion. Unaware and numb to the bruises and cuts from being beaten, the drunkard, in verse 35, obsesses to find another drink. Each Old Testament example of drunkenness provides a pathetic portrayal of what happens when a person consumes lavish amounts of alcohol. Sprinkled throughout the New Testament the admonishment against drunkenness continues.
Drunkenness in the New Testament
The New Testament records drunkenness as acts of darkness (Rom. 13:13), behavior of a wicked person who will not inherit eternal life (1 Cor. 6:9), and deeds of the sinful nature (Gal. 5:21). Paul concludes his list of acts of the sinful nature with drunkenness and orgies, two terms that refer to “wild drinking parties held in honor of pagan gods.”13
Although the New Testament does not mention drunkenness as much as the Old Testament, it condemns the practice. Paul admonishes his readers to live, “not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity” (Eph. 5:15-16). A foolish person does not make the most of every opportunity or understand what the will of God means. Ephesians 5:17 restates the command given in verse 15: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” The first imperative is in 5:18, “Do not be drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.” The contrasting imperative at the end of verse 18 brings a climax to the passage. Getting drunk resides on the opposite side of being “filled with the Spirit.” The exhortation to live “wisely and make the most of every opportunity can be achieved because God has given the necessary instructions in wisdom passages throughout Scripture.”14 Paul contrasts two different ways of life. The foolish and shameful way of life embraces the path of darkness and seeks selfish pleasures that lead to destruction. Paul admonishes believers to understand and practice God’s will, which is to be “filled with the Spirit.” Another way to describe the filling of the Spirit is to speak of being subject to the control of the Spirit.
There exists “a sense in which alcohol controls a person by lowering inhibitions and letting the lower nature perform. Drunkenness is both an example of sinful behavior and the antithesis of being filled with the Spirit.”15 The command in Ephesians 5:15-18 to “be careful how you live” includes “three ‘not … but’ contrasts: (1) not as unwise, but as wise (v.15b), (2) not foolish, but understanding what the Lord’s will is (v. 17), (3) not drunk, but instead filled with the Spirit (v. 18).”16 Both the Old and New Testaments prohibit drunkenness and link intoxication to behaviors unacceptable to God. Drinking alcohol in excess lowers inhibitions and skews a person’s judgment. Peter exhorts readers: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). God desires clarity of mind, integrity in life, and oneness with Christ. Drunkenness destroys the ability to please God and fulfill His purposes.
Chemicals affect a person’s ability to distinguish between reality and fiction, generating confusion and lack of clarity. Irrational thinking contributes to poor decision-making and behavior, which negatively affects the people closest to the addict. Nevertheless, the threat of losing a job or the breakup of the family does not motivate the addict to stop the addiction. Receiving a life-threatening medical diagnosis caused by substance abuse does not guarantee that a person will stop using alcohol or drugs. The insanity of addiction requires the intervention of a powerful and merciful God and a supportive and understanding faith community.
With the Internet making access to drugs easier and social media making it possible to connect with people who abuse alcohol and drugs, the need for competent leaders who care about addiction increases. Churches content with a vague awareness of issues relevant to the culture and community lack the passion and commitment to make a difference in their neighborhoods. To remain simple, uninformed, and uninvolved signifies an immature faith. The issue of addiction challenges the Church to offer “a viable alternative to the addicted life. That life must embody the purposes and the allconsuming love of God.”17 For church leaders who are open to learning more about dealing with addiction and leaning on the power of the Holy Spirit, addiction should not be feared or avoided, but rather viewed as an opportunity to serve as a wise and compassionate welcoming community. The complexity of alcoholism and drug dependency has damaging consequences that extend far beyond the individual. Equipping churches with applicable resources paves the way for empowering the community of faith with wisdom and confidence to help addicts and their families. Clergy and other spiritual leaders are a critical, yet untapped resource in preventing and treating substance abuse and addiction. Families remain strong and communities thrive when addiction is not present to ruin lives. The ramifications of a church prepared to preach on addiction, establish and foster social networks, and involvement with community prevention programs can affect a multitude of people and fulfill the Great Commission. Translating love into action can start by taking small strides toward attracting people affected by substance abuse.
Steps to Creating an Understanding and Supportive Congregation
- As a church leader, learn about the symptoms of substance abuse disorders and their impact so as to educate the congregation and empower the believers to respond to and support individuals with substance abuse issues.
- Get to know people in your church who have experienced alcohol or drug abuse and learn from them.
- Become familiar with the treatment facilities in your community and network with other organizations providing services. The church could host an educational and prevention seminar for the community.
- Consider a recovery ministry within the church or as outreach.
- Organize a clergy training program.18
Educational and Referral Resources for Churches
- National Association for Christian Recovery http://www.nacr.org/
- Fuller Institute for Recovery Ministries http://www.fullerinstitute.org/
- Christians in Recovery http://christians-in-recovery.org/
- Clergy Recovery Network http://www.clergyrecovery.com/
- Overcomers Outreach http://www.overcomersoutreach.org/
- Saddleback Church www.celebraterecovery.com
- Chemical Dependency Ministries (UMC) United Methodist ministry of Oklahoma www.okumcministries.org/Addiction_Ministries/home.asp
- Teen Challenge www.teenchallenge.org
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence http://www.ncadd.org/
- National Institute on Drug Abuse http://www.nida.nih.gov/
- Addiction Recovery Resource Center http://www.addict-help.com/
- Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/
- Alcoholics Anonymous http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org/
- Cocaine Anonymous http://www.ca.org/
SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800-662-Help (4357) – or 1-800-487-4889 (TDD): Provides 24-hour, free, and confidential treatment referral and information about mental and/or substance use disorders, prevention, and recovery. SAMHSA’s “Find substance abuse and Mental Health Treatment” Website is (http://www.samhsa.gov/treatment). This site contains information about treatment options and special services located in your area. Enter “clergy training” in the search box for specific resources for church leaders.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. Alcoholics Anonymous. 4th ed. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001.
- B., Dick. The Good Book and The Big Book. Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 1997.
- Barker, Kenneth L., and John R. Kohlenberger III, eds., NIV Bible Commentary of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.
- Barley, Nigel. “A Structural Approach to the Proverb and the Maxim with Special Reference to the Anglo-Saxon Corpus.” Proverbium 20 (1972): 737-50.
- Dunnington, Kent. Addiction and Virtue. Downers Grove: IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2011.
- Forti, Tova. “The Polarity of Wisdom and Fear of God: The Eden Narrative in the Book of Proverbs.” Biblische Notizen no. 149 (January 1, 2011): 45-57.
- Hansen, Walter G. Galatians. The New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
- Horn, Ken. ed. “Painkiller Overdoses Spike in Middle-Aged Women.” Pentecostal Evangel, September 29, 2013.
- Kidner, Derek. The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964.
- Kirwan, William T. Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984.
- Liefeld, Walter L. Ephesians. The New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
- May, Gerald. Addiction and Grace. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
- Mounce, William D. Mounce’s Complete Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Kindle e-book.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drug Facts: Treatment Statistics.” Accessed June 2, 2013. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-statistics.
- Nelson, James. Thirst: God and the Alcoholic Experience. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2004.
- Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
- Snodgrass, Klyne. Ephesians. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Spiritual Caregiving to Help Addicted Persons and Families. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, n.d.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Understanding Addiction and Supporting Recovery: Strategies and Tools for Clergy and Other Congregational Leaders. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, n.d.
- The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. “So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality.” Accessed September 3, 2013. http://www.casacolumbia.org/templates/Publications_Reports.aspx#r33.
- 1 “Famous Alcoholics,” Michael’s House, accessed December 1, 2013, http://www.michaelshouse.com/alcoholrehab/famous-alcoholics/.
- 2 “CDC Report: Drug Overdose Deaths Spike among Middle-aged Women,” WPXI News, accessed May 19, 2014, http://www.wpxi.com/news/news/local/cdc-report-drug-overdose-deaths-spike-among-middle/nYcds/.
- 3 All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New International Version.
- 4 “History,” Assemblies of God, accessed December 9, 2013, http://www.ag.org/top/About/History/index.cfm.
- 5 “Program History,” Teen Challenge USA, http://teenchallengeusa.com/program/history.php (accessed December 8, 2013).
- 6 Dick B, The Good Book and The Big Book (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 1997), 197.
- 7 James Nelson, Thirst: God and the Alcoholic Experience (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2004), 27.
- 8 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Spiritual Caregiving to Help Addicted Persons and Families (Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, n.d.), 33.
- 9 Kent Dunnington, Addiction and Virtue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2011), 179.
- 10 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds., “Drunkenness,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 220.
- 11 Ibid., “Villain,” 913.
- 12 Ibid., 914.
- 13 Walter G. Hansen, Galatians, The New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 176.
- 14 Walter L. Liefeld, Ephesians, The New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 133. See Exod. 31:3; 2 Chron. 9:23; Ezra 7:25, Job 28:28; Pss. 37:30; 111:10; Prov. 1:7, 8; 2:12; 10:13, 23; 11:2; 13:10; 14:8; 19:11; Eccles. 2:26; 7:12.
- 15 Ibid.
- 16 Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 286.
- 17 Dunnington, 193-194.
- 18 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Understanding Addiction and Supporting Recovery: Strategies and Tools for Clergy and Other Congregational Leaders (Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, n.d.), 40.