The Church as a Community of Social Liberation: A Christian Response to Addiction, part 3
By Kevin A. Wilson, PhD
The first article in this series introduced the transtheoretical model, which posits six stages through which people pass when they are trying to change. It also found that social liberation, a process that helps people progress through the early stages of change, is an ideal way for the church to help those with addiction. The second article developed a theology of addiction as a precursor to formulating a Christian response to addiction. This final article explores how the church can build on the theology of addiction to foster social liberation to make it easier to people struggling with substance abuse to acknowledge their problem and seek treatment.
A number of factors keep addiction hidden. Shame, in particular, is a strong motivator. People are sometime convinced—often with good reason—that if they publicly acknowledge that they suffer from addiction, it will lead to loss of status within the community, including perhaps the loss of leadership positions within the church and other organizations.
It may also have consequences for their careers. This fear of shame can be especially strong within the church, where people often put up a façade to make themselves seem better than they are. With so many “righteous” people around, it is no wonder that addicts would not want their problems known.
To practice social liberation, Christians must come to the recognition that we do not have a righteousness of our own. Our righteousness is found in Christ Jesus. Yet we frequently act as if our righteousness is our own doing. We may acknowledge on one level that we are sinners, but rarely in practice do we live as if “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa 64:4).
The Apostle Paul recognized the necessity of discarding the idea that our righteousness is our own work. After recounting all his credentials and achievements from a lifetime of pious living, he goes on to say:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Phil 3:7–9)1
Paul discarded all credit for his own righteousness. The good things he had formerly done he considered to be loss. He relied only on the righteousness of Christ. If the church were to practice this same attitude and recognize that none of our righteousness is our own, it would be a form of social liberation for addicts. It would be easier for them to admit their addictions if they were in the midst of a congregation that recognized that none of us is righteous and that we all are sinner on the same level. Just as the lack of stigma allows people to tell others they have cancer, destigmatizing addiction would make it easier for addicts to admit their problems. One way to practice this is for people to be open about their own sins. This, of course, is not easy. Those who are not addicts feel the same pressures to live up to the expectations of the congregation. We recognize on a theoretical level that we are sinners, but we spend little time talking about our own particular sins, mostly because we want others to think we are righteous. But if, like Paul, we were to acknowledge that we have no righteousness of our own, we would lose the fear of others judging us. We would not be worried about what others would think, because we would know that our righteousness comes from Christ and that any good opinions others had of us is based on a lie. We need to count our own goodness as loss, in order to be found in Christ’s righteousness.
It would take a great deal of trust in God for the first members of the church to step out to admit their sins. But it would pave the way for others to make their sins known. Now imagine a congregation where everyone openly acknowledges their sins without judgment from others. It would certainly be a transformed church where the members practiced true humility before God and others.
A congregation where everyone freely admitted their sins would be a place of social liberation. Such a church would be a safe place for addicts to admit their own problems, both to themselves and others. This would help them move through the stages of change, until they were finally ready to take action and seek treatment. In this way, the church would be able to put people with addictions in touch with the healing that is found in Christ Jesus.
1 All quotations from the Bible are taken from the English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).