A common issue that I have had to address over the years is the question of whether Christians should drink alcohol. I think this recent Washington Post article adds some interesting insight to the discussion.
I was brought up in a home where we just did not drink. It wasn’t that my parents thought that alcohol was in itself sinful (Galatians and 1 Cor 10:23 are pretty clear on that!), just that they believed it was not wise to drink.
The argument went like this:
As a Christian, our morality must move BEYOND simple “right or wrong” legalism to a life of love that seeks the maximum good of all people. A life that seeks the welfare of others – even in what it “eats and drinks” – brings glory to God (1 Cor. 10:31). So, Paul declares, “While all things are lawful for me, not all things are beneficial (10:24).” Thus, the question to consider with alcohol is, “Is it beneficial to my life and to society at large?”
Proverbs 23:31-32 says that only fools play around with intoxicated drink. Why? Research tells us that 1 out of 7 people who drink become an alcoholic. I wouldn’t keep a dog in my house that bit 1 out of every 7 people who entered, and I won’t play around with a drink that has a solid chance of sabotaging and destroying my life or the life of someone I love! Think of it this way – we all influence people. If seven people follow my example and drink socially because I do, and one of them becomes an alcoholic, God holds me responsible. Is that a chance I am willing to take with my children, or in those who look up to me? Would Christian love really put others in this kind of risk?
Every year, 1700 college students die of over-drinking. That’s over 4 jumbo jet liners packed with college students. What would the implications be for an airline industry that had that happen in 1 year? The dean of students at Duke says that easily 1/3 of all discipline related issues that come through his office are alcohol related. If you could eliminate 1/3 of the problems on your campus by changing one thing… would you not think soberly about doing that (pun intended)?
Does the slight pleasure I may get from drinking warrant the chance I take with my life or that of others (i.e. that they or others may be weak in self-control and become an alcoholic)? In fact, it seems to me quite selfish to take that chance with others if I don’t absolutely need to. To note, this is why John Piper says he won’t drink, even though Christians have a right to.
And now the counter argument:
Almost every good thing can be abused. If we avoid anything that can be abused, then we’d have to hide ourselves completely in a cave. And quit thinking altogether. Rather than avoiding these things, shouldn’t Christians be redeeming them?
Furthermore, drinking fermented wine is clearly “endorsed” in both the Old and New Testaments. Isaiah and Psalm 104 talk about the joys of wine, and imply that it is a good creation of God.
Deuteronomy 14 says, “Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice” and Isaiah 25 says, “The LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine– the best of meats and the finest of wines.” Proverbs 31 says that alcohol lightens our hearts and relieves some of our sadness. John 2 and Luke 5 both talk about the drinking of “aged” wine. In the coming kingdom, the Bible promises us, we will drink “aged wine (Isa 25:6).” Age does one thing to wine: ferments it.
So, if imbibing any alcohol in a beverage is a sin, Jesus could not have been our sinless Savior.
On the teetotaler side, however, some respond by saying:
The kinds of alcohol “endorsed” in the Bible were different than most wines today. Un-refrigerated grape juice naturally fermented a little, and this was a good thing, because that alcohol cleansed the water of a lot of harmful bacteria. But this kind of “wine” was dissimilar to what you buy at the ABC store today. Wine back then would have been somewhere between 20 parts water to 1 part wine to 3 parts water to 1 part wine. In other words, you couldn’t have gotten drunk off the wine Jesus made in John 2, or so the argument goes. The Jews had another word for wine used to make one drunk. They called it “strong drink.” The Bible never records Jesus or any of his disciples drinking “strong drink.”
The alcohol within the wine of Jesus’ day served a very important purpose—to keep water pure. Today, with our abundant clean water supply, and our ample refrigeration, our alcohol no longer serves that purpose.
Furthermore, they say, Proverbs 31 is not encouraging or affirming that we drink “strong drink”. The wine in this passage is for relieving the suffering of those in despair. (Prov. 31:4-7; Prov. 23:29-30). No Christian should ever be in this category. If they are, alcohol is not their answer, the gospel is.
So… where am I?
To be frank, I no longer find the argument that ‘drinking wine in Biblical times was fundamentally different than in our time’ to be that compelling. It may be true that grape juice naturally fermented a little, but, nonetheless, they drank some alcohol. There were teetotalers in those days (e.g., the Nazirites–Num 6, Judges 13; John the Baptist and his followers–Luke 7:33–34), which means that it was possible to drink water without fermentation mixed in. Jesus and his disciples were not, however, among that number. Indeed, his enemies contrasted Jesus to John the Baptist on this issue (Matthew 11:18-19)!
The positive biblical references to the beauties of “aged” wine (e.g. Isa. 25:6) have to be a reference to fermented wine, because what else does age do to wine? Furthermore, Paul’s instruction that a deacon (1 Tim 3:8) not be addicted to “much” wine implies that it was possible to become addicted to the wine they imbibed, which argues against the “only enough alcohol to kill the bacteria” argument. Paul never instructs them to abstain from such wine altogether; rather not to be addicted to “much” of it. He gave the same instruction to elderly women (Titus 2:3). And if the wine they were drinking in Corinth was not the kind you could drunk off of, how then were the Corinthians getting drunk on it (1 Cor 11:21)? And if “wine” was only grape juice, why would the Bible warn so frequently against abusing it?
So, I just don’t see how the “wine really = grape juice” argument holds up. (For more on this, see the article by Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary)
With that said, in this discussion we have to think about more than simple “right” and “wrong.” Can anyone argue that removing alcohol from our society would not be a great benefit (especially in light of the Washington Post article noted above!)? Alcohol is the number one killer of teenagers (in car accidents); and one of the biggest causes of broken marriages, battered children, and unemployment. It often leads to irresponsibility, poverty, depression and even suicide. Why did God speak to us as He did in Proverbs 23:31–35?
Do not look on the wine when it is red, When it sparkles in the cup, When it swirls around smoothly; At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart will utter perverse things. Yes, you will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, or like one who lies at the top of the mast, saying:“ They have struck me, but I was not hurt; they have beaten me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake, that I may seek another drink?”
So yes, a Christian is “free in Christ” to drink alcohol… but of course, they are also free in Christ to disassemble a belt-fed machine gun and eat it piece by piece. That doesn’t mean either of those are automatically (pun not intended) a good idea. The poppy plant is not inherently evil, but that doesn’t mean smoking crack cocaine is a good idea and profitable for Christians, even if they live in Amsterdam. It is not technically sinful to leave a loaded crossbow sitting on our kitchen table, but that doesn’t mean it would be wise to keep one laying around, especially with 4 curious kids. Freedom to do a thing and the wisdom of doing that thing are not the same thing.
Of course, fermented drinks are not in the same category with loaded crossbows. The biblical passages above indicate some believers have drunk alcohol without sin. But drinking alcohol is also not in the same category with caffeine or sugar. It is a potentially mind-altering drug. No one gets loaded up on 3 lattes and goes home and beats their children. As such, our use of alcohol requires special consideration.
If a Christian’s drinking influences someone else to drink, and that person becomes an alcoholic, is the original Christian held responsible? Paul is pretty clear that if our “freedom” causes the destruction of another, we indeed will be held responsible (Romans 14). I think this point is worthy of weighty and sober (again, no pun intended, but I’m on a roll!) consideration. That said, the context of Paul’s words have to do (specifically) with one believer influencing another toward a violation of his conscience. Paul is talking about “destroying’ somebody by influencing them to do something they genuinely see as sinful, in which case it is sinful to them even if its not sinful in itself (i.e. if you think you’re disobeying a rule, you are possessed by a heart of rebellion, even if you are in actuality not disobeying the rule). We certainly can apply the principle of Romans 14–i.e. that we should always conduct ourselves in a way that seeks to protect our brothers–to abstaining from practices that might lead them to bad habits, but this is not technically what Paul is talking about in Romans 14.
Furthermore, I am not convinced that the best way to protect others from alcoholism is the public posture of teetotaling. I saw many emerge from the teetotaling environment in which I was reared to become binge drinkers. Here’s how it usually went: at some point when they were out from under the rules they became convinced that drinking a little alcohol, in and of itself, was not wrong. Having never learned the principles of moderation or seen them practiced, however, they had no framework or example for how it could be practiced maturely. By contrast, many reared in environments that fostered responsible moderation seemed (by my observation) better equipped to treat alcohol responsibly. (To be fair, I don’t have data to prove this either way.) Isn’t that maturity, learning to live responsibly in the world? Regardless, the argument that if we were all teetotalers no one would ever abuse alcohol simply did not pan out for the people I grew up with. Creating a “hedge about the law” works insofar as you have clear biblical justification for your hedge. Because the Bible doesn’t create such a hedge for drinking alcohol, I don’t think it’s wise for us to do so, either.
Bottom line (at last): At this point, I choose not to drink socially for the reasons I note above. Around our church, I would rather have a culture of non-drinking than one of drinking. And some of the Christians I fellowship with would have a real (even if perhaps unreasonable) problem with me if I did drink, and I value my relationship with them. So, for these reasons, I abstain from social drinking.
I do not feel that it is wise for anyone to make rules for other Christians about this. If Paul had thought a rule was necessary, he’d have given us one. Believers who turn abstention into a rule come very, very close to the adding to the law that Jesus and Paul so clearly condemned. If Paul didn’t make the rule, why should we? Are we wiser than he? Thus, it is not a rule for Summit Church members nor for its leadership that they abstain from alcohol.
All that said, I am still praying and learning. What is your take on all of this?