Fish drink, but should Christians?

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I recently received emails from two separate people asking my view on Christians and alcohol. Within days, I also noticed this article making the rounds on social media. Then, a co-worker asked what I thought about the same subject (as well as Colorado’s recent green light on recreational marijuana use – but that’s for another blog). There seems to be a revival of the question “Can/should Christians drink alcohol?”

I think at least three factors have contributed to this. First, it’s a perpetual issue among Christians. Some churches teach total abstinence from drinking alcoholic beverages, some allow moderate use, and some don’t have an official stance. The church has been divided over the issue for centuries. Second, since Mark Driscoll’s book The Radical Reformission, younger churches and planters thereof have generally been more liberal in their views of alcohol usage than traditional churches. Third, theological and ecclesiastical heavyweights such as John Piper and John MacArthur, as well as the aforementioned Driscoll, have recently weighed in on alcohol usage among Christians. Because it’s a perpetual hot-button issue, and because there is a seemingly more relaxed mindset toward drinking alcohol, and because it’s being discussed by well-known church leaders, the issue is bound to be on the minds of many “everyday” Christians like you and me.

As a rural, micropolitan church planter and pastor who lives in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I have a vested interest in the issue. Let’s face it: where I’m from there’s probably no perceived greater sin than alcohol consumption by Christians (or anyone). I’ve heard many sermons that railed against the evils of alcohol. Anything less than total abstinence from drinking seems to be the dominant view here by many pastors and their flocks. Tee-totaling is the traditional view, at least it’s the most accepted view I’ve encountered.

I’ve witnessed the abuses of alcohol firsthand. I know  of the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that comes from not knowing when to say when. I’ve seen alcohol contribute to families being torn apart, marriages being wrecked, and even death. I’m well-acquainted with what drunkenness and alcoholism can do.

I myself do not drink, at least not often or publicly. I haven’t had a beer in years, and it’s probably been over a year since I last had a sip of wine. I’m not saying this to toot my spiritual horn. Because of my culture and my past experiences with the destructive nature of alcoholism, my first inclination is to recommend tee-totaling as the best course for Christians (and everyone). Yet, biblically I cannot. I do not have an agenda with this blog. My goal is to simply give my thoughts about what I believe is the most biblical view of the Christian and alcohol. You may agree or disagree and that’s fine. What I’d like to avoid are the charges of liberalism, fundamentalism, hedonism, and legalism that so often accompany discussions around Christians and alcohol consumption.

Wine is called good by God.

Wine itself is never called evil in the entire Bible. However, I have heard alcohol called evil in many sermons. God commanded that the early Israelites drink alcohol, have a great time enjoying it, and to do it as an act of worship.

“Exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose. 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” (Deuteronomy 14:25-26),

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples; a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6).

Finally, wine is mentioned among all the good things God reminds us that he’s given to us as a blessing: “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Psalm 104:14-15).

Wine, which is alcohol, was given by God as something to be enjoyed by his people. In his eyes, it is a good thing. We must start the whole Christian and alcohol discussion with the mutual affirmation that wine itself is a gift from God, regardless of our opinions and preferences towards it, and what should be done (or not done) with it.

The Bible clearly warns against the abuse and over-indulgence of alcohol.

Wine may be a good thing, but like all good things, it can be corrupted and used for evil purposes. Alcoholism is very real and very destructive. Some recent statistics show that about 15 million people in the U.S. are either dependent on alcohol (alcoholics) or are affected by someone else’s alcoholism.[1] The statistics for death caused directly or indirectly by alcohol abuse are staggering. [2]

Alcohol is not something to be toyed with. The Bible is very clear that alcoholism is sinful and destructive. Paul couldn’t have been more clear or direct in Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” Similarly, from the Old Testament onward, alcoholism is frowned upon. Drinking too much alcohol is never referred to as fun, cool, safe, or smart — even if that is a common view in our modern culture. Proverbs 20:1 tells us that drunkenness leads to fighting, talking smack, and it makes us plain stupid! There’s nothing good about that. Likewise, sexual immorality, sorrow, strife, complaining, cursing, and hangovers are all results of alcoholic over-indulgence (Galatians 5:21; Hosea 4:11; Proverbs 23:29-35; Habakkuk 2:15).

The Bible is crystal clear that alcohol isn’t to be abused. Being addicted to drinking alcohol is sinful. Drinking alcohol in any manner that isn’t mature, considerate, and moderate is sinful. Not only is it sinful, it can be deadly, not just for you, but for others.

Because something might be used for evil doesn’t mean we must abstain from it.

With the destructive nature of alcoholism, the knee-jerk reaction from many Christians is to simply call alcohol evil and command that all Christians abstain from enjoying it. However, this is not a thoroughly biblical attitude towards alcohol. God created all things good and to be used for his glory (1 Timothy 4:4; Romans 11:36). This includes wine and alcoholic beverages. It’s our own sinfulness that causes us to use good things for evil purposes (Romans 1:25).

This also goes for good things like sex, money, and food. A popular argument is that because alcohol has been so destructive for so long and to so many people, why place ourselves in temptation’s way? That’s a valid question, but not everyone is given to drunkenness and alcoholism. Contrary to popular opinion, many Christians over the centuries take the Bible’s warnings against drunkenness seriously [gasp! – imagine that], and have known when to say when.

Using the same line of reasoning, one could easily say that because adultery has caused so much destruction, murder, and pain over the years, then we should simply avoid sex. After all, we don’t need sex, just as we don’t need alcohol. God called sex good, yet there are numerous scriptural warnings against the misuse and abuse of sex. The misuse of sex has contributed to sexual perversion, STDs, broken homes, families, and people, wars, murders, downfalls of society, and every other malady under the sun throughout history. But, I’ve never heard a sermon decrying sex as evil and calling for Christians to abstain from it.

Christians are never warned to avoid alcohol, we’re warned to avoid alcoholism. I can only show the positives and negatives about alcohol from the Scriptures and count on Spirit-enabled Christian to make choices that will honor God.

Alcohol in the Bible was… alcohol.

Not grape juice. Not diluted with water. Biblical wine was fermented grape juice. Contrary to popular fundamentalist myth, wine was never added to water in order to sterilize the water.[3] When the Bible speaks of wine and strong drink, it is talking about the fermented juice of grapes. Most ancient cultures drank various wines, beers, ales, and meads. The point is, wine then was as wine is now: alcoholic. At least one scholarly source demolishes the idea that wine in the ancient Middle East was unfermented, and therefore non-alcoholic: “Distillation was unknown in the ancient world (and would not be discovered until the early middle ages); wine, therefore, was the strongest drink of the Romans. Falernian was full-bodied (firmissima), with an alcohol content as much as fifteen or sixteen percent.”[4]

Similarly, wine that was somehow not wine (if you can wrap your mind around that) clearly contained sufficient alcohol content to cause drunkenness if overindulged. Countless biblical passages attest to this. For instance, Paul warned the church at Corinth against drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11: 20-22). Drinking too much grape juice will not make you drunk. The Greek word for wine, oinos, always refers to the fermented juice of grapes. In fact, it refers to the best wine (Matthew 9:17; John 2:9-10), and when being used as a metaphor for God’s judgment, it’s safe to assume that judgment will be pure, strong, and undiluted (Revelation 14:10; 19:15).

When wine is mentioned in the Bible, it is wine that contains alcohol.

Jesus drank wine.

It probably alarms some to read that sentence, but the fact is, our Lord drank wine. The alcoholic kind. Not the Welch’s kind. Matthew records that Jesus was known for drinking wine, to the extent that religious leaders of his day called him a “wine bibber” (i.e., “drunkard,” “alcoholic”): “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” I’m not suggesting that Jesus was a drunk, but I am saying very clearly that Jesus drank. He had no apprehensions about supplying wine for parties, either. Have you ever read John 2:6-10? This is where Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding at Cana. From the host’s reaction, it was very good wine (i.e., well-fermented). Likewise, Jesus partook of the Passover meal. This meal consisted of drinking 3 glasses of wine. One can safely assume that as the consummate Jew, Jesus drank wine (Matthew 26:29). Which leads me to my next point.

Drinking and drunkenness was widespread in Jesus’ day, but

In our day, drunkenness and alcohol abuse is rampant. Alcoholism is directly associated with several diseases, both physical and societal. It would be easy to simply advise Christians not to drink at all, and to continue railing against the evilness and evils associated with alcohol. Virtually all ancient cultures had its share of alcohol abuse. Drunkenness and alcohol abuse was looked down upon in every culture (both ancient and modern). The situation was no different in the first century during the time of Christ.

Though he lived in a society whose views of alcohol were very similar to our own, if not even more permissive, we never see Jesus condemning drinking wine. We see him turning water into wine to bring enjoyment to a newly married couple and their wedding guests. In essence, he originated the phrase “Have a drink on me.” We see Jesus drinking wine with his disciples in celebration of Passover, and in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. We see Paul warning about the sinfulness and destructiveness of abusing alcohol, but we also see him advising young Timothy to “drink a little wine” for medicinal purposes (1 Timothy 5:23).

My point is, though Jesus and Paul lived in a culture in which alcohol and its negative effects were just as real and widespread as in our own day, neither of them commanded or suggested that Christians should stop drinking alcohol because it was worldly or evil, or as a form of prohibition. Conversely, both of them advised that Christians partake of alcohol, provided they followed the principles of grace when doing so.

The “weaker conscience” argument.

When prohibitionist Christians run out of solid arguments against Christians drinking alcohol, they often pull the “It’ll spoil your witness” or card. How many times have I heard this one? To be sure, there is validity in the fact that more mature Christians should watch themselves and their actions, that they don’t cause newer and weaker Christians to stumble. Mature Christians most certainly should never tempt other believers (and unbelievers) to sin, or to partake in something that makes them uncomfortable or violates their conscience. I believe this would apply to tempting someone to drink alcohol.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8 that if former pagans objected to Christians eating food which had been dedicated to idols (as was often the case with market-purchased food in uber-pagan Corinth), then the “stronger” Christian should yield to the will of the “weaker” Christian in this matter. In other words, don’t buy or eat food that would offend the conscience of the weaker brethren, and cause them to stumble in their growing faith. After all, “food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (v. 8).

In the case of drinking alcohol, if a newer Christian, or a Christian from an alcoholic background, is offended by my having a beer in his/her presence, then I, being the stronger Christian, will simply abstain from drinking beer in the presence of a weaker Christian. No big deal, Paul says, it’s just a beer. I can live with it, or live without it. I think it’s inconsiderate for Christians who do drink alcohol to essentially rub it in the face of those who do not. But, I also think it’s wrong for tee-totaler Christians to be perpetual “weaker brethren.” At some point they have to grow up in their faith (1 Peter 2:2; Ephesians 4:14; Hebrews 6:1a), and realize that even if they don’t drink alcohol personally, they can’t be the Alcohol Police and always cry “offended!” when they see another Christian having a glass of wine or a beer at Outback. Grace, charity, and preference works both ways.

The myth that wine and alcohol has no benefits.

Finally, I want to address the myth that alcohol has absolutely no redeeming value, and therefore should be abstained from by all good Christians. Remember, fried chicken has absolutely no value either, except that it tastes good and brings us joy. Too much of it leads to a plethora of health issues, and other sins such as gluttony, abuse, and even attempted murder. Think I’m being extreme? Hover too long in front of the fried chicken plate at the next Baptist church wide dinner.

All kidding aside, alcohol does in fact have benefits. Recent health studies are quite surprising. Among the benefits of alcohol in moderation is: reduces the risk of heart attack, promotes longevity, lowers risk of cataracts, heart disease, strokes, and slows the rate of brain decline. [5] In addition, there are other benefits: it reduces the development of kidney stones, is a great source of B vitamins and fiber, and promotes skeletal health. [6] Here is a great article that gives a history of the benefits of wine as well as links to other helpful information.

So, to say alcohol has no benefits is false. There are health benefits, God says it can be used as worship, Jesus said use it to represent him, and craft beer tastes delicious. See? Benefits.

Conclusion and practical wisdom.

This blog probably isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. I’m okay with that. I simply felt as though I should try to give a biblically and practically balanced view of the Christian and alcohol. In closing, I want to offer a few points of practical wisdom for you to consider.

1. If you’re a Christian who drinks alcohol, moderation is key. Moderation is normally defined as no more than two beers/glasses of wine per day. Just because you can throw back a six pack and not be affected doesn’t mean you should. Anything above moderation is sin. Think of it that way.

2. If you’re a Christian who drinks alcohol, have joy in your freedom and use it, but be careful that your freedom doesn’t harm another’s conscience. Paul said having this kind of attitude is to sin against Christ himself (1 Cor. 8:12). Be discerning where, when, and how much alcohol you consume.

3. If you’re a Christian who does not drink alcohol, be careful that you don’t try to limit the freedom of others to do so. This would be legalism and legalism is atrocious and will eventually hurt you and others. Don’t be a perpetual weaker brother, grow up. Don’t crusade, just live with the fact that not everyone believes as you do.

4. All believers should recognize the destructive consequences of alcohol. All believers must be prepared to minister to those who’ve been ensnared in alcoholism or abused and hurt by alcoholism. Like all social issues, we should have a clear, gracious, and bold voice on the subject of alcohol.

5. All Christians must learn to think biblically, not culturally about alcohol. As I stated earlier, I do not drink, yet I have no prohibition against Christians drinking alcohol for God’s glory because the Bible won’t allow me to. It does allow me to speak boldly against the abuse of alcohol, and I most certainly will when I think I need to.

6. Finally, there must be grace on the part of those Christians who drink alcohol and those who don’t. There may be strong opinions on both sides, even within the same church, but we cannot allow the enemy to use our differing opinions to divide us. This is a perfect issue in which we can develop Romans 15:1-4 in our lives.

___________________________________________

[1] http://alcoholismstatistics.net/
[2] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_04.pdf
[3] http://www.churchhistory101.com/wine-alcohol-bible.php
[4] http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/wine.html
[5] http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/8-health-benefits-of-drinking-wine
[6] http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442463947

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