Enslaving behaviors are as old, and common to humanity, as sin itself. Since our fall at the dawn of time, we have been naturally enslavement to every destructive behavior possible. In response, various efforts have been made to deal with the problem.
One such effort is a packaged addictions program called Celebrate Recovery (CR). John Baker and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church created the program in 1991 to help people with various addictions. Rick Warren writes, “[D]uring the ten-week series that I preached to kick off this program, our attendance grew by over 1500!” (John Baker, Celebrate Recovery Leader’s Guide, 12). During the past 25 years, some 20,000 churches in the United States have reportedly used CR, with some 2.5 million people having completed the program. Needless to say, CR has had a major influence on the church.
CR’s stated purpose is “to encourage fellowship and to celebrate God’s healing power in our lives as we work our way along the road to recovery” (21). Further, Warren claims that CR is “more effective in helping people change than anything else I’ve seen or heard of” (12).
Generally, the program runs on a one-year repeating schedule. Participants are taken through the material in 25 lessons and testimonies, meeting once per week for 52 weeks. Rick Warren writes that CR was born when “I began an intense study of the Scriptures to discover what God had to say about ‘recovery.’ To my amazement, I found the principles of recovery—in their logical order—given by Christ in His most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount” (12). More specifically, CR teaches that the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12), which are said to be “eight ways to be happy,” contain the progressive path to addiction recovery.
The eight principles upon which CR is derived are as follows (the principle is stated, followed by the corresponding Beatitude):
The Road to Recovery
- Realize I’m not God; I admit that I am powerless to control my tendency to do the wrong thing and that my life is unmanageable. (Step 1) “Happy are those who know that they are spiritually poor” (Matt. 5:3, though the CR manual cites these verses as the NIV, they are all taken from the GNT).
- Earnestly believe that God exists, that I matter to Him and that He has the power to help me recover. (Step 2) “Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
- Consciously choose to commit all my life and will to Christ’s care and control. (Step 3) “Happy are the meek” (Matt. 5:5).
- Openly examine and confess my faults to myself, to God, and to someone I trust. (Steps 4 and 5) “Happy are the pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8).
Voluntarily submit to any and all changes God wants to make in my life and humbly ask Him to remove my character defects. (Steps 6 and 7) “Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires” (Matt. 5:6).
- Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me and make amends for harm I’ve done to others when possible, except when to do so would harm them or others. (Steps 8 and 9) “Happy are the merciful” (Matt. 5:7). “Happy are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9).
- Reserve a time with God for self-examination, Bible reading, and prayer in order to know God and His will for my life and to gain the power to follow His will. (Steps 10 and 11) (no verse cited).
- Yield myself to God to be used to bring this Good News to others, both by my example and my words. (Step 12) “Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires” (Matt. 5:10).
Clever readers will notice that the first letter from each of the eight steps forms the acronym, “recovery.” CR’s approach takes each of the eight principles and expounds them with a few lessons, forming the 25 lessons in which participants are guided through how to deal with their “hurts, hang-ups, and habits” (the oft-used phrase in CR to describe our problems which need recovery).
Since CR claims to be Christian in nature, “biblical” (13), grounded in God’s word (12), and “[b]ased on the actual words of Jesus rather than on psychological theory” (12), it deserves to be evaluated as such. This review is based upon the program’s teaching as stated in the CR Leadership Guide only (pages cited are from this guide) and is not a critique of every person who has participated in the program. Further, the purpose of this review is not to question whether the 2.5 million participants have felt that they were assisted with enslaving behaviors, nor to doubt the sincerity of individuals seeking to help, but, instead, to examine CR’s claim to be biblically based.
Having said that, this review (completed largely with the help of Matthew Mumma, pastor of biblical counseling at Cornerstone Church) will demonstrate that CR contains two major problems: (1) Though claiming to be biblically based, its teachings are often constructed from a misuse of Scripture and an erroneous hermeneutic. (2) Though claiming to be Christian based, its theology often clashes with sound Christian theology. In today’s post, this first problem will be demonstrated.
- Many of CR’s teachings are constructed from a misuse of Scripture and an erroneous hermeneutic.
The clearest instance of this occurs in the principles upon which CR is founded. CR’s “Road to Recovery” begins with the “Eight Principles Based on the Beatitudes” (12), stated above. Thus, CR claims that the Beatitudes are principles for addiction recovery.
This interpretation, however, incorrectly understands the Beatitudes by removing them out of their context and interpreting them in an eisegetical manner. As such, CR imposes a meaning other than the authorial intent upon the text. When Christ preached the Beatitudes, he did not intend for them to be a protocol for recovery. Neither are they “ways to be happy” (12). Instead, the Beatitudes are descriptions of kingdom citizens; of individuals having been saved by God’s grace. Commentators agree that the Beatitudes describe the common characteristics of true believers (e.g. John Blanchard, 54; James Boice, 74; D.A. Carson, 128, 132; D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1:24; Charles Quarles, 39). Jesus begins this great sermon by turning the common understanding of those in God’s favor on its head. The Pharisees, who largely set the religious/spiritual tone of the day, would have propagated the photo-negative of the Beatitudes, and, thus, an incorrect understanding of the believer. For this reason, Jesus brings clarity to the scene with these corrections.
Specifically, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3) is not a recovery principle, teaching that “I’m not God…powerless to control my tendency to do the wrong thing and that my life is unmanageable” (9). Instead, Jesus teaches that one certain evidence of the true believer is a poverty of spirit. The word “poor” was used to describe abject poverty and a raggedly covered (if covered at all) beggar, cowered over with head down and hand out (TDNT, 6:886), while “in spirit” refers to our moral/spiritual state. The idea is that the sinner has come to terms with God’s towering moral standards for humanity; absolute perfection (cf. Matt. 5:48). Further, he understands that, having rebelliously and flagrantly violated God’s holy law, he deserves to endure the righteous wrath of God in hell for eternity. Thus, he comes to God, as nothing more than a head down, hand out, moral beggar, with zero moral/spiritual contribution to God except sin. Being morally filthy, the sinner depends entirely on God’s mercy if he is going to be acceptable to God. So, Matthew 5:3 does not teach a principle for recovering from addictions, but that true believers understand that they cannot earn God’s favor from their impressive moral wealth, but have only earned his wrath by their offensive moral filth.
Similar problems exist with CR’s other foundational principles. For example, Matthew 5:4 does not teach that one must “earnestly believe that God exists, that I matter to Him, and that He has the power to help me recover” (9). Instead, Jesus teaches that true believers are characterized as those who are shattered and sorrowful for having sinned against God (“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”). Matthew 5:8 does not teach that, to recover, I must “[o]penly examine and confess my faults to myself, to God, and to someone I trust” (9). The verse teaches nothing about addiction recovery nor confessing faults to myself. Rather, Jesus is teaching that true believers are characterized by a measure of spiritual and moral purity even at the level of the will and worship. And, notwithstanding the GNT, Matthew 5:6 does not say, “Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires,” but, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Thus, in addition to an imposed meaning on the text, CR often uses inadequate translations of Scripture.
So, many of the principles upon which CR rests and from which the curriculum is expounded are constructed from a misuse of Scripture and erroneous hermeneutics. Consequently, if CR intends to find a protocol for recovery, they will need to look somewhere other than the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount.
CR errs elsewhere in its use of Scripture. Often words taken from the realm of psychology are used in place of God’s word to describe sin. For example, terms such as “co-dependent,” “addiction,” and “abusing” (167) of substances are not found in Scripture. One reason is because those terms are not God’s way of describing those behaviors.
Instead, Scripture describes addictions in terms of sinful enslavement to ones lusts and pleasures and lovers of pleasure (e.g. Rom. 6:12-13, Eph. 2:3, 2 Tim. 3:4). One who is addicted to, or practices the abuse of, alcohol, for example, is best referred to as a drunkard or drunkenness (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:10, Gal. 5:21). God made no mistakes in the inspiration of his word (cf. Prov. 30:5-6, 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Therefore, it is best for us to use his Spirit-given terms when describing all things, whether sins or blessings.
CR misuses Scripture in its teaching of forgiveness. For example, the assertion is made that since we have been forgiven by God, we must forgive ourselves (193). Matthew 22:39 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) is used to support the assertion. The question is posed, “Now, how can you love or forgive your neighbor, if you can’t love or forgive yourself?” (193). Jesus is not implying, much less teaching, self-love or self-forgiveness there. On the contrary, much of our sinfulness is excessive self-love (more on this in tomorrow’s post). The idea is not that self-love and self-forgiveness is the gate to love others, but to love others as much as we effortlessly do ourselves.
Additionally, the idea of forgiving oneself is an unbiblical idea not found in Scripture, thus one that Christians must reject. Forgiveness is a transaction between parties when the offended releases the offender from an infraction. While we can sin against other people, all of our sin is against the One to whom we are culpable; God. Thus, forgiveness is needed from God, not ourselves.
Though claiming to be biblically based, many of CR’s teachings are constructed from a misuse of Scripture and an erroneous hermeneutic. Consequently, participants are not shepherded in an accurate handling of God’s word. One likely objection may be, “So many people have been helped by CR. How can one criticize something that works so well?” We do not doubt that people have received help from CR in curbing addictions. In some measure, that is a good thing. However, the objection hinges on the definition of “works well” and “people being helped.” Further, should something that misinterprets God’s word and errs theologically be so justified?
In tomorrow’s post, we will compare the theology of CR with that of Scripture and suggest alternatives for shepherding individuals battling with various enslavements.