Jun 062014 14 Responses

Alcohol: For or Against? (A Reader’s Question)

Partly in response to a side-note mentioned in a sermon and partly because of several articles being shared on Facebook, a reader asked, “What’s your opinion on the use of alcohol by Christians?” Here is my response:

As a non-drinking pastor from the Bible belt, I have two opinions regarding the use of alcohol in American culture:

1. Too many people abuse alcohol on a weekly basis to the detriment of themselves, their families, their church, and the cause of Christ.

2. Too many pastors, particularly in the region in which I live, ignore the Biblical teaching on alcohol and exchange it for a much more restrictive teaching whose effect has not alleviated the problem but has actually made it worse.

What Does the Bible Say?

On face value, the issue of alcohol from a Biblical sense is fairly simple. In no way does the Bible forbid the use of alcohol by a Christian. While there are a few instances where the Bible does limit the use of alcohol for some–the Nazarite vow, Old Testament priests in the Tent of Meeting, John the Baptist–it does not forbid its use for everyone. (See: The Most Confident Christians)

Actually, the Bible nearly encourages the use of wine.

In the Old Testament:

  • It’s used as a drink offering to God.
  • It’s a key marker of abundance in the Promised Land.
  • It’s often a sign of God’s blessing.

In the New Testament:

  • Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding.
  • He drank sour wine on the cross.
  • He used wine as an illustration in his teaching.
  • He used wine to symbolize his suffering and assumed his disciples would continue to drink wine.
  • Paul actually encouraged Timothy to drink a little wine.

While alcohol is clearly not forbidden in the Bible, the text does clearly communicate the dangers of drinking too much. From Proverbs to Paul’s writings, the text forbids getting drunk. At the same time, the Bible clearly commands we obey the laws of our culture if they are not in conflict with Biblical teaching. (See: Three Lies Christians Tell Themselves)

In American culture, this leads to two clear commands regarding drinking:

  1. Do not get drunk.
  2. Do not drink while underage.

The only Biblical teaching I can understand for the vast majority of individuals is moderation. Clearly if someone has a history of alcohol abuse, they should never drink. Anyone who struggles with moderation should stop drinking. While abstaining from alcohol would be a choice for all people, mandating abstinence is proclaiming a message the Bible does not seem to teach.

Objections to Moderation

The idea that the Bible allows the drinking of alcohol is offensive to some. Like me, many have grown up under teaching that says that the Bible outlaws all drinking. Their objections would vary:

Some would say that the Bible doesn’t allow drinking because the wine referred to in the Bible would be considered a watered-downed wine compared to today. While it is true that today’s wine may have a higher alcoholic content, the New Testament description of wine is not a description of grape juice. It is wine. It is wine that a person would clearly get drunk on if they disobeyed the Biblical teaching and drank too much.

Some would say that we shouldn’t drink because of the example it gives our kids or teenagers. They say that we have no authority to tell our kids they can’t drink if we are doing so. It sounds like a legitimate argument but don’t we use it in other areas? We still drive, while telling our kids that they can’t drive until they reach a legal age. What’s the difference with alcohol? Very clearly a parent can drink wine and still have the authority to instruct their children. However, if they abuse alcohol, if they violate the commands of Scripture, then they have lost all authority in instructing their children. (See: Why You Don’t Submit to God)

Some would say that since alcohol has caused tremendous pain and abuse to countless people that Christians should stay away. This is a legitimate argument. It is perfectly fine for an individual or family to have this viewpoint and not to drink. However, this argument cannot cause us to add to Scripture and forbid all people from drinking. Consider our inconsistency in this area. Some say that since alcohol can cause abuse, we shouldn’t partake. Yet something that causes just as much, if not more pain and abuse, is sex—is there anyone totally abstaining from sex because of its possible abuse? The point is that some things are right in some contexts and wrong in others. Just as sex should be saved for marriage, alcohol should only be enjoyed within its prescribed Biblical context.

Some would say that because Scripture tells the strong to not use their liberty to make the weak stumble, that people shouldn’t drink. On one occasion this is a very good argument. If you are with an alcoholic and by your drinking they could be tempted, you shouldn’t drink. However, this argument is most often taken out of context. In many cases, if a person moderately uses alcohol, that could offend many church goers. It would offend the people that are supposed to be strong—supposed to see food and drink in a neutral realm in relationship with God. So if your drinking could cause harm to another person, don’t drink. If your drinking could cause another person to judge you, they need to get over it.

So What?

What does all this mean? As we think about the alcohol issue, what are we called to do?

1. Choose.

The first thing we have to do is to choose how we are going to handle the issue. A choice must be made before opportunity presents itself that way we can make a conscious well-thought out decision and not simply succumb to the pressure of whatever crowd we are with. (See: A Dangerous Assumption About God’s Will)

We must choose obedience to what the text says. This means we must choose that we will never get drunk. We will never drink when the civil laws forbid us to do so. We will never drink in a way that will knowingly cause another person to stumble.

We must choose if we will drink or not. The Bible neither commands us to drink nor forbids us from doing so. In response to the Biblical teaching we must make our personal choice as individuals and as families as to what our approach will be. Some will choose to drink on a regular basis. Some will choose to drink on occasion. Some will look at their own pasts or addictive personalities or personal preferences and choose to never drink. The choice is ours and we must make it.

2. Don’t Apologize. After we choose what approach we are going to take, we should not apologize for those choices. This is an individual choice and we should make those decisions ourselves and not delegate them to our culture or tradition.

We must never apologize if we choose not to drink no matter what the response. In some settings choosing to abstain from alcohol will be frowned upon. At no point does the Bible command us to drink and we should not worry if other people judge us for doing so. (See: What I Mean When I Say ‘You Are a Sinner’)

We must never apologize if we choose to drink. In this specific region of the country many people come from a religious background where it is taught that drinking is forbidden. If the Bible teaches that so would we, but it doesn’t so we don’t. Yet they will judge you and often say things. Again, this is a personal choice. Make it and don’t feel judged by others for your decision.

We must never apologize for how we choose to raise our kids. If you choose to keep your kids away from people who drink and your best friends choose to drink when kids are around, you should be willing to deal with the consequences of not hanging around those friends any more. And you shouldn’t feel bad or feel like you have to apologize when you no longer hang around them. Conversely, if you choose to have alcohol around.

3. Don’t Judge. After we choose and after we don’t apologize, the final thing we have to do is to refuse to judge others for their decisions. This is an issue where Christ followers will choose different actions. It is a choice that the Bible has given to us. Just because we see it one way, doesn’t mean that everyone else has to see it that way. A sign of spiritual maturity is understanding what issues are essential and what issues are non-essential. This is a non-essential issue where people can have differing opinions. (See: Why We Don’t Like Grace)

It’s important to note, refusing to judge is not a vow to keep silent on Biblical teaching or watering down what the Bible says. When a fellow church member gets drunk and you lovingly call to their attention the Biblical mandate, that’s not judging, that’s truth telling. When your underage child takes a drink and you remind them of the law and the Biblical mandate to the follow the law, that’s not judging, that’s truth telling. When a man is having his life destroyed because a glass has become more important to him than his family and job, pointing that out is not judging, that is lovingly telling the truth.

A Personal Note

If it were up to me, the Bible would forbid the use of alcohol. It’s not necessary for a satisfying life and the potential harm it can create is tremendous. However, the Bible does not forbid it (and might actually encourage it) so I cannot add to what the Bible says. (See: Friends Don’t Let Friends Misquote the Bible)

I have no problem with pastors who advise people not to drink as long as they explain that is their personal conviction and not a Biblical teaching. I do struggle to understand pastors who claim the Bible forbids the use of alcohol. In my opinion, that teaching actually hinders the message.

 

 

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