10 January 2014

Time to Rethink the Drink

I don't know what you think about Christians and the consumption of alcohol.  Maybe you're a Christian who thinks alcohol is the Devil's brew and you're uncomfortable with even sparkling grape juice because it looks too much like the real thing.  Maybe you're a Christian that has a sense that the general public thinks Christians ought not to drink, but you believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it as long as you don't get drunk.  Maybe you call yourself a Christian and you neatly separate your recreational drinking from your church attendance; when you drink you don't talk about your church attendance and when you're at church you don't talk about your drinking.  Maybe you're not a Christian, but you really do wonder what Christians are supposed to think about drinking alcohol.  With such diverse opinions the church struggles to give a consistent position on alcohol to the broader culture.
As I've stated in previous posts, we first have to differentiate between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity.  One of these days, I'll devote a post to just this subject.  However, let it suffice here to define the former as a version of Christianity that accommodates itself uncritically to the moral and ideological trends of its culture.  The latter attempts to steer through its culture with a fidelity to the precepts and principles of the Bible, believing it to be the very Word of God. 
I would like to attempt to address this issue of Christian drinking from the point of view of biblical Christianity.  It is my hope that I can offer you a few thoughts to rethink the drink if you are a Christian who has inherited or become accustomed to the behavior of social drinking.
First, let's just get it out that the Bible nowhere prohibits the consumption of alcohol or prescribes total abstinence for Christians.  In addition, we are well familiar with the fact that Jesus' first miracle of His ministry was turning water into wine - real wine.  So, let's look quickly at what the Bible actually says about alcohol.
In Proverbs we get strong warnings against indulging in alcohol.

Prov. 20:1 “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise.”

Prov. 23:19-21 “Listen my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way.  Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, or with gluttonous eaters of meat.  For the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags.”

Prov. 23:29-33 “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes?  Those who linger over wine, those who go to taste mixed wine.  Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper.  Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind will utter perverse things.”

The Lord had strong words for drunk priests through His prophet Isaiah:

Isa. 28:7 “And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink: the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink; they are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; they reel while having visions, they totter when rendering judgment.”
In the New Testament we see similar warnings against excess.

Rom. 13:13 “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness…”

1 Tim. 3:2-3 “An overseer, then must be above reproach…not addicted to wine…”

Eph. 5:18 “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation [self-indulgence], but be filled with the Spirit.”

What we find in Scripture are strong warnings against the indulgence in alcohol and reaping the bad consequences of drunkenness.  We can find examples of this, such as in the case with Noah and Lot.  We do have examples of total abstinence, but these seem to be the exception, not the rule.  In Numbers 6, we read about the special vow of the Nazarite – “to abstain from wine and strong drink.”  We see the example of Daniel who refused the king’s wine and drank water.  And we observe John the Baptist.  The angel announced to his father Zacharias, “he will drink no wine and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
So what are we to think about this topic as believers.  Should we stand strongly against any consumption?  Should we promote moderation?  Maybe you're wondering if we should care at all.  Maybe it's just not that important.  
I believe this issue is a big deal for the church.  I believe earnestly that Christians who drink need to rethink their habit.  However, I believe we have to think about this issue correctly.  We can't just shout louder, we have to know biblically and persuasively why we shouldn't drink. Two pieces of knowledge can guide us – one is historical and the other biblical.

First, we need to understand the history behind teetotalism that is the common perception among those in my Baptist denomination and many of our Protestant brothers.  Second, we need to understand and apply an overarching biblical principle that will give us tremendous guidance on the issue.

The temperance movement of the early 1800s began as a movement against distilled liquors that created an unnatural, much higher alcohol content.  The movement was not aimed at first at wine or beer.  In the 1800s it has been said we were a nation of drunks.  Christian women and preachers led the charge against strong drink, trying to get it regulated.  As the movement grew in the century no one could deny the bad effects that alcohol was having on the culture, such as it's influence in crime, domestic abuse and unproductiveness.  Eventually this temperance movement grew into a prohibition movement that included all kinds of alcohol.  In the late 1800s there was even a short-lived Prohibition Party that ran presidential candidates.   The move to get rid of alcohol gained wide support.  Ultimately, the US Congress passed the 18th Amendment that went into effect in January 1920.  This prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”  This was the law of the land until 1933, when it was repealed by the 21st Amendment.

Baptists and other groups joined the Temperance and the Prohibition movements.  In the process we became teetotalers.  We became convinced that in our culture that total abstinence was most appropriate for a faithful Christian lifestyle.  A popular “church covenant” even included the topic. The Brown Covenant became popular in the 1830s, and continues to be the covenant that many churches use today.  This is the historical explanation of why Baptists and others understand that Christians are not supposed to drink.   But with this history gone from our memories, we have a hard time understanding the attitude. And frankly, many today find the attitude prudish and legalistic.

Now with all that said, let me be clear and plain.  Even if you know the history of temperance and prohibition and even if you know the Bible does not say “thou shall not drink” but only warns of drunkenness and its consequences, I still believe that abstinence is the right Christian approach to alcohol in our culture because of a key and clear biblical principle that a mature Christian cannot ignore.
I am a 1 Corinthian 8 teetotaler. The context of what Paul tells the Corinthian believers has nothing to do with the consumption of alcohol.  In context, he is addressing a problem of some believers being offended by other believers buying and eating meat that had been slaughtered and offered to idols in pagan ceremonies.  The meat-eating Christians believed they were in no wrong, and Paul technically agrees with them.  However, Paul's greatest concern is for the offended Christians, whom he calls the "weaker" brothers whose consciences are violated.  You might expect that Paul would simply tell the meat eaters to go ahead and teach the weaker brothers to think correctly.  Surprisingly, Paul tells the meat eaters to sacrifice their own liberty for the sake of the weaker brothers who have taken offense.  Why?  Because the overarching concern was to avoid causing your brother to stumble and be the cause of dissension.  In other words, I should care more about the other guy than my own liberty - a clear call to self denial.
Beyond this reason is a more sobering and compelling reason. Paul says that the cavalier Christian who disregards his "weaker" brother does not merely sin against his brother, but against Christ himself since Christ died for the weaker brother too.  DO YOU HEAR THAT?  That gets my attention.
What's Paul's conclusion?  If eating a certain meat among certain folks causes him to be the reason of dissension, then he will gladly become a vegetarian.  End of discussion! Herein lies our relevant biblical principle related to the question of drinking alcohol.  If my drinking of alcohol becomes an offense and poor witness to others, then it seems that the Bible does indeed speak clearly to me.  I shouldn't do it.  This is not legalism. This is liberty choosing to sacrifice itself for love of God and others. 
Maybe your not convinced.  Maybe you think this is an inappropriate application of the text.  If so, I would encourage you to read it and meditate on it and see if God may reveal something to you that you hadn't considered seriously before.  I believe wholeheartedly that the principle that emerges from the context of 1 Corinthians 8 is absolutely clear and completely sufficient to give us needed spiritual guidance on the question of alcohol consumption.  It remains to be seen if we will listen and obey.
To me the choice is clear.  If you are a Christian who drinks in our culture, which tends to view Christian drinking as compromise, then you are arrogant and unloving when you understand this and do it anyway.  Even though you see nothing biblically wrong with the social drink, you don't care about the offense you are giving.  You may indeed be correct that it constitutes no sin.  But being right is not the point.  Being obedient to God and loving your brother through your behavior is the point.  But if this is your attitude, then ironically, in the end, you're wrong. You hurt your own reputation, the reputation of your church, and you most grievously sin against Christ.
It's time to rethink the drink. I can give you all kinds of practical reasons that a Christian ought not to drink (it's addictive; it's destructive; if you take one drink, there will probably be a time when you take too many drinks; it's expensive; you'll pass it to your children; you've got plenty of beverage options; you've got bigger problems if you need it to relax or have a good time, etc.).  But the one biblical principle that God has given us in His Word ought to be all we need.  If you are a Christian drinker, maybe it's time to evaluate if the practice is congruent with who you want to be and the witness for Christ you should want to have.  Maybe it's time to rethink the drink.   

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