The Disease Concept of Alcoholism

What about the “disease concept” of alcoholism and drug addiction?

A. Rationale for using the term “disease”   – A simple definition of “disease” is any “unhealthy condition.”   Addiction has a well-established and recognizable set of “symptoms” with characteristic behaviors and similar effects upon every person who suffers from it.   Also, reliable scientific studies have established that many individuals have an inherited predisposition to alcoholism and other drug dependencies.   For secular researchers, who do not acknowledge the spiritual roots of addiction, using the terms “disease,” or “illness” is a logical approach to defining and understanding this condition.

The American Medical Association defines alcoholism as …

.. a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences,  and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Each of these symptoms may be  continuous or periodic. *

B. What the Bible says While this all may be true, we must reject an extreme application of the “medical model.”   Through it, some would imply that the individual didn’t have a choice in the matter and was somehow not responsible for the choices that led to his condition of addiction.   Because real repentance is essential to re-establishing a relationship with God, it is dangerous to accept any approach that removes from an individual personal responsibility for his own actions.

The process leading to full-blown addiction starts with the sin of drunkenness — which is a moral choice even for those with a family history of alcoholism.   As Christians we must be careful not to use an extreme definition of the term “genetically predisposed.”   This concept simply refers to the condition of some individuals who, because of an inherited bio-physical make-up, have bodies that process addictive substances in a manner that causes them to progress more rapidly toward compulsive use and chronic addiction.   While there are many physical, emotional, and social contributors that lead to addiction, the Bible is quite clear about the fact that choosing habitual sin eventually results in slavery or bondage for those with a genetic predisposition.

Being “genetically predisposed” to alcoholism refers, basically, to those individuals whose biological make-up causes them to progress more rapidly in the physiological aspects of the addictive process.   The Bible is quite clear about the fact that choosing habitual sin eventually results in slavery or bondage.   Actually, the Bible says the sin of “drunkenness” prohibits those who practice it from entrance into the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21)

C. Scriptural terminology The Greek word “bondage” (douleia) is a very appropriate Biblical term that sums up the condition of addiction to alcohol and drugs.   It is used extensively in scripture portions like Romans 6, and translated “servants to” and “slaves of.”   This term carries with it the connotation of a condition that, while it may have begun through personal choices, results in a state that supersedes the free will.   Just as the slave in Bible times could not break free of his state of bondage, which may have resulted from indebtedness due to his own choices, so is the addict bound in a condition that he will not escape on his own power.

D. Don’t minimize the problem! This bondage has dramatic and lasting effects on people who suffer from it.   Life-consuming sin has an impact on the total person.   As Christian counselors, we know that God’s power is able to deliver individuals from the compulsion to drink, and to set them free from the emotional, psychological, social, spiritual, and physical consequences of an alcoholic lifestyle.   Yet, we must never forget that enslavement to drugs or alcohol goes far beyond a simple habit.

After an addict is saved and stops using mood-altering chemicals, he must work through a special set of problems that are the “fall-out” or on-going consequences of the addicted lifestyle upon the individual and his primary relationships.   Usually, without the proper help, the addict will either fall back into use of alcohol and drugs or will transfer his addiction to some other compulsive behavior.   Thoughtfully combining insights from the secular research into these dynamics with scriptural principles can equip us to effectively help addicts and their families.

*   Journal of the American Medical Association, 1992


Originally published in RESCUE Magazine, the journal of the AGRM, Fall 1995

Updated   July 17, 2012

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