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A Biblical Evaluation of Celebrate Recovery

Truth In Love 432

Why is Celebrate Recovery antithetical to a faithful ministry of the Word?

Sep 18, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me Ben Marshall. He and his wife have been married for 24 years and they have eight children ranging from 21 all the way down to 11 months. He spent the last 25 years in the state of Washington doing pastoral work, 10 years as a youth pastor, and 15 years as a counseling pastor. He received his undergraduate in Psychology from St. Martin’s University, and his M.A. in Biblical Counseling from The Master’s University and his D.Ed.Min in Biblical Counseling at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He was certified with ACBC in 2008 and became a fellow with ACBC in 2020. His master’s thesis was turned into a help booklet with Shepherds Press, and it’s entitled “Help! My Teen Struggles with Same-Sex Attraction.” He’s privileged to write a chapter in the book “Men Counseling Men” dealing with the issue of teens and homosexuality. During his last 15 years as a counseling pastor, he was able to counsel, train counselors establish certified training centers and oversee two residential homes, started the Damascus House for men and the Damascus House for women. In June of 2022 he left his role as the counseling pastor to become Executive Director of Freedom that Lasts, a ministry which equips churches to welcome, evangelize, and biblically counsel the hurting and addicted to grow in Christlikeness and wisdom in living life. And so, Ben so grateful that you’re here with us, grateful for your service of ACBC and being a fellow there, and now your new ministry at Freedom. So, welcome to the podcast!

Ben Marshall: Thank you. Great to be here. 

Dale Johnson: Now, we’re going to discuss celebrate recovery, and I hear, you know, the influence of celebrate recovery in so many different arenas. So many different areas. And I want us to discuss this. And you’re now working with the ministry that has curriculum relative to those who are struggling with addiction. You’re building a program that is intended to be implemented in churches as well. And so, I thought it’d be good for us to sit down and discuss what’s currently there. And even talk a little bit about what you guys do as well at Freedom that Lasts, but I want to start Celebrate Recovery is sort of modeled after and has similar ideas from different 12-step programs. And so, for some of our listeners, I may not be as aware of Celebrate Recovery or even what a 12-step program is. So, what’s a 12-step program, and what are the goals of this type of approach? 

Ben Marshall: Yeah, so a 12-step program that originated back in about the 1940s and it is touted as a spiritual program, but you work through 12 steps, I think that’s where you get the 12-step idea there and just one progresses to the other and the goal there then is to maintain sobriety. And there are, I would say, you don’t have to dig too hard to see some biblical connections there. I would say, I don’t necessarily think they’re spring up and out of Scripture, but they’re there, issues of forgiveness and restitution and some things like that. So but without just marching through all 12, I think there’s this the 12 steps in the goal is to sobriety. And what I found is most people have turned that into some form of a spiritual experience. So you know what? I’m talking to somebody their 12-step program is their worship service. When I was out in Washington and we had something called Hope Groups and they met every Wednesday night and one of them was hope for addiction for men and you know, we had a number of guys who on Wednesday nights, Hope for Addiction for men, that was their worship service, then Thursday night, they would be at celebrate recovery and then Friday night, they’d be at AA. I mean, it was just every night of the week and they called it work the program, and that was how they were maintaining their sobriety.

Dale Johnson: Yeah and the 12-step program is really built on what’s called the disease model of addiction, and the idea that, you know, there’s some genetic predisposition toward a given thing. And the idea essentially, is that you will always be an addict and that’s why sobriety is the goal. Because they’re saying that they want person to live in sobriety are always in recovery, which means your primary identity really is as an addict of whatever variety, whether that’s, you know, alcoholism or some sort of substance, and that now you’re walking, you’re walking in sobriety is a constant of recovery. It’s very different than the way we would describe a person who can become new, but Celebrate Recovery sort of modeled their idea off of 12 steps and attempting in some way to sprinkle Scripture, and I know some good churches who utilize this model. It’s been popularized by Saddleback Church, came out of Saddleback Church. And so, I want you to talk a little bit about Celebrate Recovery. What it is and what are the goals of their approach? 

Ben Marshall: Yeah, so there’s the stated goals of their approach and then there’s the practice, and I think the practice can be just as broad as probably the number of churches that offer a celebrate recovery program, which by the way, there are 123 thousand programs or chapters around the world. So, this isn’t some small little, you know, group meeting in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty prolific, but their stated goals are going to be to become like Christ, as I’ve read through all of their material and then watched different groups in action, their stated goal, their practice goal is still going to be sobriety. That’s the number one goal. And if I back up just a little bit, they take the 12 steps and they distill it down into eight principles. So, if you read through their curriculum, they’re still going to mention the 12 steps and then they’re going to re-categorize in anywhere from one to two of those steps into one principle. So one or two might distill down into one and three and four, it breaks down that way.

But I think one of my biggest issues, and I might be jumping the gun here just a little bit but Rick Warren as he was marching through, he’s made the statement: “As I was reading through the Beatitudes, I found all 12 steps in the order that 12 steps gave them.” And I’ve looked at the Beatitudes and I can’t find the 12 steps there and definitely then I can’t find them in that order. So he’s trying to make this connection that the 12 steps really are found in Scripture, almost pulling out of Scripture and my argument is I think he’s more reading into Scripture what’s there. And then, as I say that there are a number of faces and relationships that I have of people who have said, you know, “Celebrate Recovery, 12 steps they really have helped me.” I’m not discounting the help there. But as biblical counselors, I think we need to evaluate programs, books, everything that or those types of things that are claiming to be biblical, and then asking ourselves, are they really biblical? And if they’re not, then we need to do some critique. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, we need to reassess. And, so I want to get there right, where we’re talking about the concerns. As a matter of fact, that’ll be my next question. But as we think about celebrate recovery or anyone who’s wanting to go into helping those who have been addicted to some sort of substance. There’s a genuine desire to help and I don’t want to discount that, there’s a hope that somebody can overcome this particular dominating issue in a person’s life. You know, none of this was created out of malice toward particular individuals or anything like that, and even churches, I think that many of the churches who utilize Celebrate Recovery, really have a goal to be a ministry to the community and in their mind, this was the best thing that they could find. And so they run to it. It has biblical language. Maybe they’re a little bit less discerning as far as some of the goals and how to handle these issues of addiction. And so, some people might at this point be saying, okay, you guys, you know, you’re appreciating that somebody’s trying to address issues of addiction and they’re seeing some problems that we would identify as problems as well. So, what’s the big deal? What’s the big deal about Celebrate Recovery? Why are we offering some sort of biblical evaluation of that, so I’ll pitch that to you, Ben, what is concerning about the model itself and the whole idea of Celebrate Recovery?

Ben Marshall: First off, the one idea that you already mentioned, which it really is, it has a disease component to it, meaning, you know, when Paul says in First Corinthians 6:11, “such were some of you,” that doesn’t seem to hold true. Now, if you listen to the mantra at the beginning of each session, if I was there. I would say hi. My name is Ben, I’m a new creature in Christ and I struggle with, you know, and so for Ben Marshall, I would say I struggle with the fear of man, or I struggle with, you know, those in even just listening to it, there’s not really a brokenness over that if that were true. It’s just hey this is what I struggle with and I know they’re trying to kind of normalize this idea of struggling with sin, but there still is this disease model that’s woven into it. And I don’t think that you can break away from the disease model anytime you are connected to a 12-step program, so that’s there.

But I think that Rick Warren talks about six different premises or ideas that are unique to Celebrate Recovery. So he says, “CR tell celebrate recovery people who prefer to celebrate recovery. So CR is based on the Bible. CR is forward-looking, CR emphasizes personal responsibility. CR emphasizes spiritual commitment to Jesus Christ. CR emphasizes the need for community in order to grow spiritually, emotionally, and then CR addresses all types of hurts hang-ups and habits.” So those are kind of his six things. And as I’m reading through, I’m thinking to myself, is it really true? Is CR really based on the Bible? Meaning, did you read through Scripture and find those things in there or did you or somebody else read or become familiar with 12 steps, and then you’re trying to identify some things there? So that would be more of an integrated approach toward that.

The second premise CR is forward-looking. Are they really forward-looking meaning? meaning we don’t dwell on our past yet when I say my name is Ben Marshall. I’m a new creature in Christ, and I struggle with that seems to point back to something and not, we don’t hang out and who I am in Christ. We might give us say, I’m on my sanctification path and here’s where I struggle, you know, and maybe that’s what their intention is there. But as I listened to groups, there’s this, I don’t know, wholesale shift of “Hi, my name is Ben and I’m an addict to… Hi. My name is Ben. I’m a new creature and I struggle with…, it’s the same thing. It’s not, it’s not different. Then Celebrate Recovery emphasizes personal responsibility. That’s great but that doesn’t make it uniquely biblical. There are other forms of therapy that really emphasize personal responsibility, you know, just in the cliche. Dr. Phil, how’s that working for you kind of deal. That doesn’t make it uniquely biblical, so I do think the one component that does seem to hold very true is that CR emphasizes a spiritual commitment to Jesus Christ. So where 12-step programs would say higher power, and then you literally can choose whatever higher power. I do think Celebrate Recovery they do say Jesus Christ is our higher power, but without going much further, what is that higher power going to do for me is kind of the idea there.

And then CR emphasizes the need for community in order to grow spiritually and emotionally. I do think that’s good but that isn’t once again, it isn’t necessarily biblical. There are lots of different programs that would say we need community. That’s kind of a trendy term right now anyway and then Celebrate Recovery addresses all types of hurts, hang-ups and habits and I think that’s what is appealing to it. You can have a Celebrate Recovery ministry and then have literally dozens and dozens and dozens of sub-groups that meet. So you know, there’s my short critique of that, I’ll let you kind of push back on me there a little bit or just unpack a little bit of what I just said. I probably have more information in my head that I need to have right now for what we’re doing.

Dale Johnson: No, I understand. So I wouldn’t get pushed back on the things that you said at this point, I would want to unpack a couple of things. I know the last part that you mentioned hurts, hang-ups, habits, struggles, using that language I think it’s a little bit concerning because we’re not identifying, you know, addiction in and of itself, as a matter of the heart, we’re not identifying it as something that is that we’re personally responsible for relative to sin and the passions and desires that are so at work within, and it seems to be a bit of renaming something in order to address it in a more benign type way, or a pragmatic type way, as opposed to dealing with it based on repentance. And so am I seeing that right? And then maybe they have this principle of crosstalk and having no crosstalk as it relates to their groups.

Sometimes to me that becomes a little bit problematic because it doesn’t allow even the leader to some degree to press in and to admonish where admonishment is necessary, as opposed to, it becomes a session where people are sharing sort of how they feel and what they’ve been through that week and everybody sort of sympathizing and empathizing with where they are, as opposed to, you know, how do we pursue change in some of this? It’s not a yeah, we want to recognize and be sympathetic to where people are. But there comes a point at which I don’t want you to keep living the life that you’ve been living. And so, how do we help you to get out of that? So maybe unpacking, those two things, the habits, hurts, and hang-ups and then the crosstalk issue. 

Ben Marshall: Absolutely. And I would agree 100% there is a relabeling of terms and it could be pragmatic, it could be just that’s the vocabulary of the day. But I think anybody who’s been wandering in the Biblical Counseling world for any amount of time understands the value of staying extremely biblical with terminology, just kind of in an anecdotal example here. If I’m talking to a couple and they’ve been sleeping together, that’s not nearly as jarring as using fornication or adultery or even something along those lines. And I think that jarring effect is needed not just for dramatic purposes but one that’s how Scripture speaks about it. That’s the seriousness with which we need to be taking sin. So yeah, when if they stick with hurts, hang-ups, and habits, and then list the sins underneath there, I think there would be a little bit more understanding, but that’s usually not the way it goes, especially when you’re talking alcoholism that’s a drug-disease model again where if you were to look up alcoholism you find victim mentality. You find all kinds of stuff that does not appear in Scripture and definitely removes responsibility from somebody.

So I think if I were, you know, if I had somebody who was kind of a CR fan sitting next me, they would say, well, we absolutely encourage personal responsibility, but it’s the personal responsibility post-drinking, it’s not personal responsibility leading up to drinking. That’s where they would fit in the same category with any other 12-step program. It wasn’t me. It was my biology or it was my parents or was this, or it was that. So I do think treating different sin issues by labeling them hurts, habits, and hang-ups doesn’t help push people in the right direction, and then that feeds right into the crosstalk issue. But that just makes sense when you’re talking, the 12-step model, whether you go to a 12-step, AA meeting, or a CR meeting, the job isn’t to condemn, it’s to accept, and we’re all in this struggle together, so I’m not going to condemn you, you don’t condemn me and that’s really how they would see any kind of hey, let’s move in the direction of Christlikeness, you need to stop doing that. And here’s what you need to start doing right.

So here’s in our Biblical counseling language put off this and put on this. And here’s all the Scripture for mind renewal that just doesn’t fit the paradigm of what’s going on. And then we’re specifically talking about CR, but there are some other programs that have existed out there, and I think I’m getting the names of those right now. But I have found that with a lot of these kinds of programs, they will take a relatively brand new Christian who can identify with somebody else because I was a drug addict, I was a porn addict, I was a gambler, I was an alcoholic and they’ll say you’re equipped to lead this group because you can identify with that. So now you’ve got a very young person spiritually speaking leading and I have just seen crash and burn after crash and burn on as opposed to a discipleship model, where you’ve got somebody who’s up further down the road and can arms with somebody who needs to move in the direction of Christlikeness. And so you know, as we start to talk about Freedom that Lasts a little bit more, that word discipleship is probably something that’s going to pop up over and over and that would make it very distinguishable from Celebrate Recovery. 

Dale Johnson: No, that’s really helpful and clarifying. And now, you do have a lot of people and you even mention this earlier, who will say, well, I’ve just been really helped by CR. Why are they evaluating it like this? As people say they’ve been, they’ve been helped by CR. What’s the harm? And you have a lot of even maybe pastors asking this question: what’s the harm in using a model like CR? 

Ben Marshall: Yeah. Well, one, and this is probably gonna sound horrible but that’s okay. When there are better programs from a biblical perspective out there, then to say what’s the harm? It’s like saying that you know it’s okay to use something that’s subpar when there’s something that’s better. So there’s one aspect there, but I also think if you just remove the relational context and even for me, the people that I know if I remove that and I just start to dig into the curriculum then that’s where the flag starts to pop up. And I’m not saying that CR is, you know, pure cultish or satanic, but I do know the method Satan uses is he gets really close to sounding biblical, and then he diverts, and when you can have people follow that trail, then they’re willing to buy into anything and maybe even they’re not going to run off the theological deep end, so to speak, but they’re just going to stay put. And I could see Satan being okay with people just staying put, almost going in a circle, as opposed to no no, if we’re talking sanctification, progressive sanctification, we’re moving, we’re moving in the direction one of Christlikeness. And so, you know it might not be tomorrow that I look more like Christ where I can identify it, but definitely within a month, two months, three months. Somebody should be looking, sounding, speaking a lot more like Christ. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, you know, that’s helpful. So maybe the last question, I mean, you have pastors out there who they understand the 12-step model. They’re struggling to even send people to places like that because I know it lacks, you know, spiritual fervor and is this really going to be a genuine help to someone and then they hear something about CR and they read some of the content they’re like, okay, this sounds a little bit closer to where we are and maybe just not knowing that there are other types of ministries out there. They might say okay well, maybe we’ll try CR because we don’t know of anything else. I want you to talk for a second about other alternatives and the reason I want you to bring this up is because, you know, I could say biblical counseling maybe has lagged behind in this area to some degree in, you know, in terms of our history. But we are starting to catch up in organized ministries that are trying to address, you know, this issue of addiction and so on. So what are some of the alternatives to Celebrate Recovery that we would say are a little bit more faithful to Scripture?

Ben Marshall: Yeah. So this is going to sound a little self-serving here but obviously Freedom that Lasts, I would say, is a very biblical viable option. Mark Shaw and his ministry at The Addiction Connection. You can go there and see his material that is 18 months long, very faithful to Scripture and that can be used in individual or on a group level. I know groups in the Seattle area that are definitely using that in a group setting. So, those are two of the big ones that I can think of that would be a very good alternative to CR, and really a number of other 12-step programs. I don’t know if it would be beneficial to mention some of those other 12-step programs. Just in case people are listening, I can do that. If you want, two in particular, I think and really not just those two groups, but The Addiction Connection is a big organization. If pastors are out there and they’re wondering, how biblical is this approach towards addiction? Man, run it through The Addiction Connection, and they’ll give you some good feedback. 

Dale Johnson: That’s really helpful and just to have a place to go because I think sometimes well-meaning pastors and leaders in churches, sort of land, default in some because of what’s marketed better or more popular. And so this this will give them some things to think about and we’ll link these to the show notes. And Ben, I want to make sure that I have you back here really soon to talk about the ministry Freedom that Lasts even a little bit more. So, thank you for your help today with assessing Celebrate Recovery, evaluating it, looking at it through a biblical lens, and then even giving us a taste of what some alternatives to look at. So, thank you! 

Ben Marshall: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

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