If someone you love has ever been trapped in addiction, you know the pain and devastation that it brings. How can God’s people more effectively help those struggling to break free from addiction?

Dr. Kent Dunnington says it starts with how we view addiction and addicted people. There are two predominant models for thinking about addiction and they both fall short.

“The disease model – that addiction is something that happens to us. It’s not something for which people should be blamed.”

“The choice or moral model – that addiction is nothing more than a series of bad, immoral choices. People are in control of their actions throughout the addictive process, and they just repeatedly choose to do things that they know are harmful to themselves or other people.”

According to Dr. Dunnington both models capture an extreme perspective on how we view addition.

“On one extreme, our agency (our ability to control what we do) is completely taken away in the medical model. On the other extreme, you view addicts as people with full agency and therefore they’re people that are especially morally corrupt.”

To me, both of those models fail. If you’ve ever been an addict, or love someone who is, you know those are both models are oversimplified. So I try to chart a middle way between those two.”

Addiction can be viewed and understood as a complex habit.

“Habits actually do, in some sense, remove our agency, when they have a profound grip on our lives; we lose a lot of immediate, voluntary control over what we do in the domain of that habit. But also, that habit is a part of our character. It’s not something that happens to us in most cases: it’s something that we develop.”

“If we think about addiction as an incredibly powerful and complex habit, we’re in a better position to address it in our lives, and in the lives of people that we know.”

Many well-meaning Christians aren’t personally acquainted with addiction, but they want their church to offer programs to help addicted people. Dr. Dunnington says this approach to addiction ministry, though intended for good, misses out on a crucial element.

“I appreciate that sentiment and I know it comes from a good place, but I think that approach is not only probably not going to be helpful to people with major addictions, but it passes up an opportunity for a church to become a more authentic place of Jesus-following.”

“In any society, addicts are unwitting prophets. They point to all the ways in which our societies and our communities cut people off from lives of flourishing, from healthy lives. We need such people in our communities, in the same way that coal miners needed canaries with them  in the bottom of a coal mine.”

Instead, we should each seek to show ourselves as authentic and approachable people who have no need to hide in shame or judge those outside as unworthy.

“What I want to see happen more than anything is a shift in perspective, where Christians and their church say not only ‘we want programs that help addicted persons in our congregation,’ but rather ‘we want to be a kind of church where a major addict who walks in the front door to the Sunday morning service will know soon upon arriving that this is a place where addiction is nothing to be ashamed of.’

“We need that shift in perspective, in the ethos of the church– not that addiction is a serious problem that we should deal with in the shadows, but to be a church where a major addict could walk in, and begin to feel at home very quickly.”

“We need to ask: ‘what kind of  church would be capable of resisting the powerful pull of addiction in all of our lives? “

Kent Dunnington, associate professor of philosophy, teaches and writes in the areas of virtue ethics and theological ethics. Other research interests include addiction and criminal justice, inspired by his experiences teaching in prison. He’s the author of Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice.

Addiction and Virtue