The Story: America is in the middle of an alcohol-related death epidemic. And the church has something we can do to help that no other institution can.

The Background: Last week the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research published a study reporting that between 1999 and 2017 the number of alcohol‐related deaths per year among people aged 16 and older doubled from 35,914 to 72,558, and the rate increased 50.9 percent from 16.9 to 25.5 per 100,000.

During that period, nearly 1 million alcohol‐related deaths (944,880) were recorded on death certificates. (But because, as the researchers note, death certificates often fail to indicate the contribution of alcohol, the scope of alcohol‐related mortality is likely even higher.) In 2017 alone, 2.6 percent of roughly 2.8 million deaths in the United States involved alcohol.

According to the study, nearly half of alcohol‐related deaths resulted from liver disease (30.7 percent, or 22,245 deaths) or overdoses on alcohol alone or with other drugs (17.9 percent, or 12,954 deaths). Rates of alcohol‐related deaths were highest among males, people in age‐groups spanning 45 to 74 years, and among American Indians or Alaska Natives. Rates increased for all age groups except 16 to 20 and 75+ and for all racial and ethnic groups. The largest annual increase occurred among white females.

Rates of acute alcohol‐related deaths also increased more for people aged 55 to 64. But rates of chronic alcohol‐related deaths, which accounted for the majority of alcohol‐related deaths, increased more for younger adults aged 25 to 34.

Why It Matters: Over the past decade, American has been so distracted by the opioid crisis that we hardly noticed an even deadlier epidemic. Perhaps we pay attention to opioid-related deaths because overdoses are dramatic, while alcohol is often the cause of slower forms of dying, such as liver disease. (In 2017, opioids were involved in 47,600 overdose deaths, while alcohol was responsible for 72,558 deaths from various means.) But whatever the reason for our inattention, the church should heed the wake-up call to help hurting people.

There’s no quick fix or obvious solution that can be implemented to solve the crisis. But there is a profoundly important way the church can help reduce the problem: be a place where people with alcohol-related addictions can confess their sins.

In his book Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice, ethicist Kent Dunnington argues that the theological category of sin can deepen and extend our understanding of addiction.

“Addiction is not identical to sin, but neither can it be separated from sin,” Dunnington says. “The power of addiction cannot be adequately appraised until addiction is understood as a misguided enactment of our quest for right relationship with God. I argue that addiction is in fact a sort of counterfeit worship.”

Dunnington adds, “In standard cases of incontinent addiction—cases in which we rightly deem an addicted person responsible for his recovery, even while recognizing the limitations placed on his willpower—the category of sin is adequate to the dynamics in play.”

While the church has more to offer an addict, even many Christians turn to 12-step programs (like Alcoholics Anonymous). Why? According to Dunnington, one reason is that churches aren’t calling people to confess their sins or admit they are sinners:

The church has too often been less committed to fostering an atmosphere in which its members feel not only free but indeed expected to publicly recognize their status as sinners and to narrate their lives to others within this paradigm. Theologically the recognition of one’s status as sinner is also an achievement, yet we often do not treat it as such. Obvious logistical challenges crop up here, yet I think these challenges can be overstated. Much more central to the church’s failure to provide fellowship to the addicted persons in its midst is its failure to live out its biblical calling to train disciples to narrate their lives as repentant sinners: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). Biblically the mandate to truthfully and publicly declare our sinfulness is crucial to our growth in holiness: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” righteousness” (1 Jn 1:9, my emphasis).

Burk Parsons makes a similar point in answering the questions, “Is addiction a sign that someone is not a Christian?” Parsons, a pastor and editor of Tabletalk magazine, points out that sin is itself addictive, and we need others to hold us accountable:

Whether they are sexual sins, or sins of substances like drugs or alcohol, we need to take steps to get help and accountability. We need to take things away from our lives. We need to put up barriers and guards. We need friends, and we need to be able to be open about our sins.

We need to be able to talk about our sins. The church shouldn’t be the last place you go; it should be the first place you go. And if you can’t go to your elder in your church and talk to him about your sin because you’re afraid, you probably need to find a church where they’re going to be ready to show you grace, love, and forgiveness, but where they’re also willing to help you get the help you need.

If the church wants to help alleviate our nation’s alcohol-fueled epidemic, there is one thing we can do that no other institution can: We should become havens where people are free to confess their sins to each other, and be a place where they can pray for each other so that all may be healed (James 5:16).