Drinking Problems—What Can the Elders Do?
SHE tried everything imaginable to cut down on her drinking. Nothing seemed to work. When she met with the appointed elders in the congregation, they were very concerned and gave her Scriptural counsel on moderation. But their efforts proved disappointing. Her problem went deeper. She was an alcoholic.
This raises a very important question: What can elders do to help their spiritual brothers and sisters who are having a problem with drinking?
Clearly, the Scriptures do not in any way condone drunkenness. In particular do Christian overseers have the responsibility to see to it that confirmed, unrepentant drunkards are not tolerated in the Christian congregation; they are to be disfellowshipped. (1 Corinthians 5:11-13; Galatians 5:19-21) But elders should first of all be desirous of helping repentant ones who have been overreached in the use of alcohol. So what should an elder do if he is approached by a brother or a sister who has got drunk and is now seeking help?
First, it should be noted that there is a difference between being unwittingly overtaken by drinking too much on one occasion and being a drunkard—making it a practice to become intoxicated. Consider the example of Noah, who on one occasion drank too much wine and got drunk. (Genesis 9:20, 21) Certainly, Noah was not a confirmed drunkard. There is no other indication in the Scriptures that he ever again got intoxicated.—Compare Hebrews 11:7.
So the elder who is approached would do well to determine: Was it an isolated occurrence? Is the individual determined to exercise care so that it does not happen again? Has he openly acknowledged the wrong and sought God’s forgiveness? Is the incident such that no great reproach has resulted? If these and other factors are favorable, then it may suffice for the elder, “in a spirit of mildness,” to offer loving counsel on moderation, thus strengthening the person in his resolve not to repeat the wrong.—Galatians 6:1.
But what if there had been repeated instances of drunkenness, or notoriety had resulted? In such cases, the matter should be handled by a judicial committee. However, to aid the person it can be helpful for the elders to know if the problem is
What difference does it make? A big difference! As the opening experience illustrates, if the person is an alcoholic, there may be little point in counseling him to drink moderately. Why? Because most authorities in the field of alcoholism recommend total abstinence for alcoholics, since, once they start drinking, they usually cannot control the amount they drink.
In addition, many alcoholics will deny their problem. Does that mean that they are unrepentant, confirmed drunkards? Not necessarily. Keep in mind that alcoholics are usually blinded to the reality of their situation. They are affected physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and these factors must be taken into consideration. Thus, it is by no means easy to get them to see that they have a drinking problem.
In handling such cases, there are various questions that elders do well to consider.
How can you know if alcoholism is the problem? You may wish to refer to the article “Alcoholism—The Facts, The Myths” in Awake! of July 8, 1982. It outlines the symptoms of alcoholism.
Be alert. At times alcoholism may be an underlying problem. For example, in one congregation a sister approached the elders for help in dealing with severe depression. But, despite their well-meaning efforts to help her, the depression persisted. However, the elders later learned that she had a drinking problem. Further efforts to help her revealed that she was an alcoholic. After accepting help for her alcoholism, the sister recovered very well.
How can you help the alcoholic to see that he has a drinking problem? Avoid opinions and generalizations such as, “We think you are drinking too much.” Such comments may tend to raise the alcoholic’s defenses still higher. Instead, perhaps the person can be confronted with specific and descriptive details of his drinking and its consequences. It is important that the tone reflect deep concern: “We are very concerned about what is happening to you, and here are the facts that will explain our concern.”
One elder, who has successfully dealt with his own alcoholism, recommends the following: “I have found it helpful to determine what problems the person may be having, perhaps at home or at work. Then, using leading questions, I help him to see that alcohol may be the underlying problem. I recall one experience that went like this:
‘Has your family life been affected by your drinking?’
‘Have you argued with your wife?’
‘Did drinking have anything to do with it?’
‘Well, were you drinking when you argued with her?’
‘Uh . . . well, . . . yes.’
“After discussing various problems, I was able to help him to see that on nearly every occasion his problems coincided with a drinking episode.”
What about professional help? The alcoholic may require such help to recover. Of course, the elders would not want to recommend a particular form of treatment—that is up to the person involved. Nor would they necessarily look upon his refusal to seek professional help in itself as an indication of a lack of repentance. But at the same time, firmness is necessary. The person must clearly understand that what primarily is at stake is his remaining in Jehovah’s favor as an approved member of the Christian congregation.
What about disfellowshipping? It boils down to this: What is the person’s attitude toward drinking? Does he, despite your patient but firm efforts to break through to reality, seem intent on continuing his drinking? In this connection, it is of interest to note what the book Alcoholics Anonymous advises employers of alcoholics:
“If you are sure your man does not want to stop, he may as well be discharged . . . Firing such an individual may prove a blessing to him. It may be just the jolt he needs.” Similarly, if the individual’s attitude requires that he be disfellowshipped to keep the congregation clean, this may at the same time be just the “jolt” he needs.
What if you are convinced that he really does want to stop? If the individual agrees to accept help, it may take time to see if he will follow through. Professional treatment may be of assistance. Of course, he should understand that it is not the sole answer to the problem.
He will usually need ongoing help, and especially in a spiritual way. In the past he may have handled depression, anger, problems at work, and so forth, by resorting to alcohol. So now he may require your help to face reality with a different way of thinking. Additionally, there may be lingering negative feelings, such as guilt or a lack of confidence. He may feel unworthy of approaching Jehovah in prayer and may need your help to regain a trusting relationship with God. Your prayers with him and for him, coupled with the comforting reminders from God’s Word, can ease his fears and quiet his doubts.a—James 5:14-16.
A person who breaks a leg may need a support for a while. So, too, the one struggling to stop drinking may need an understanding shoulder to lean on, a listening ear. Are you willing to help?
“Both the elders and lots of brothers visited me,” explained one brother who had struggled to stop drinking. “Words just cannot express how much I appreciated all this love and understanding. Wonderfully, I was now able to pray to Jehovah again. What a relief!”
“The brothers helped me in more ways than one,” said another Witness who was aided in dealing with his alcoholism. “They even suggested that I sit next to them at meetings, since I was afraid to come. One brother really helped me. He would come to see me when I needed it most—no matter what his schedule was. I am very thankful for his love and patience.”
In some cases, it can be helpful if the one struggling to stop drinking is able to talk to a brother who has himself successfully dealt with alcoholism. Why? Because such a person can talk understandingly, knowing full well the adjustments an alcoholic must make. But more than that, it shows the one struggling to stop that it is possible to quit. He sees before him an example. Reasonably, alcoholics would rather see a sermon than hear one.
What if there is a relapse? This could happen. Once again, the question is: What is the alcoholic’s attitude? Are you satisfied that he really wants to get over his drinking problem? Does he see the need to double his efforts if he expects to progress in recovery? If so, he will need understanding help.
So an individual need not be disfellowshipped just because he is an alcoholic. If he truly wants to stop, he should be given the opportunity. But what if by his actions he shows that he really does not want to stop? What if there have been repeated instances of drunkenness, and all reasonable assistance has not helped him? Then, according to Paul’s words at 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, he should be disfellowshipped.
To help those who are having a problem with alcohol takes considerable discernment, patience and firmness. It is not just a matter of telling a brother or a sister, “Pull yourself together,” or, “If you love Jehovah you will stop drinking.”
Rather, try to understand the nature of alcoholism, what it is and what it does to people. Keep in mind that you may have to break down the wall of denial that the alcoholic has built up around himself. You must get him to see that he has a drinking problem and that he needs help. He will need your ongoing help and support. But are not the results well worth the effort involved?
As one sister, who was helped to deal with her own alcoholism, put it: “The elders were so loving and understanding that I am thanking Jehovah every day that he sent them. My head is clear now. I can talk to Jehovah with a clear conscience. I am also attending all the meetings and truly enjoying them.” Yes, how grateful such persons are for overseers who give of themselves, caring for the flock willingly, out of “a real desire to serve”!—1 Peter 5:1, 2, Today’s English Version.
a Please see the article “An Educated Tongue—‘To Encourage the Weary,’” in the June 1, 1982, Watchtower. It shows how elders can help those who are depressed due to negative feelings and attitudes.
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The alcoholic may need an understanding shoulder to lean on, a listening ear
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For the alcoholic, total abstinence is a must