By Chuck Sackett
I’ve recently become deeply concerned over what appears to be a trend toward drinking among young church leaders.1 I hear about young leaders who have repented of the “sin of abstinence”2 and headed off to the pub. I’m concerned for the church, their congregations, and their families.3
I’m told one of the most frequently asked questions in interviews is, “Is it OK to have a beer?” As some young leaders seek potential staff members, they ask, “How do you feel about going to the pub?” The right answer used to be the wrong answer.
Admittedly, my baggage in this area is heavy. My father owned a bar. Each year our high school football team competed with the local parochial high school. My father had a standing bet with the local priest. The wager—a case of beer. When my aunt became a Roman Catholic, my father’s response was a cynical: “She’ll still get drunk on Saturday and go to confession on Sunday.” For my father, drinking and being a Christian was inconceivable. Therefore, any Christian attempting to witness to my father “over a brew” had already lost the battle.
The congregation where I was converted was intolerant of drinking.4 Fortunately, their attitude wasn’t pharisaical; they simply assumed that Christians didn’t drink. And even though I came from a totally unchurched background, it quickly became clear to me that Christians, especially Christian leaders, didn’t drink.
One particular Christmas tipped the scales for me. I spent the bulk of the day sitting on top of our small barn, away from the drinking inside the house. I’d grown up with alcohol, but its effects had never been as devastating as they were that holiday. From that moment on, I hated alcohol and everything associated with it.
I made a decision to abstain from alcohol of all kinds. I’ve kept that commitment for 40 years, with the only exception being the Lord’s Supper in some eastern European churches. Perhaps I’m simply so biased about the situation I simply can’t see any other point of view, especially the supposed value of sharing a brew and Jesus.
I’m not suggesting the Bible teaches that wine is really unfermented grape juice (how would you ever make sense of 1 Corinthians 11:21?). Nor am I suggesting that “social drinking” is directly addressed in Scripture. And I’m certainly not countenancing judgmental attitudes. Drinking should never become an issue that causes hard feelings between brothers and sisters, much less an issue that divides us from one another. Drinking (sans drunkenness) clearly falls into the category of personal preference.5
But the Bible is clear on a number of points6:
–Drunkenness is a sin (Deuteronomy 21:20; Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:11; Ephesians 5:18).
–Elders cannot be drunkards (1 Tim-othy 3:3; Titus 1:7).
–No drunkard will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10; Galatians 5:21).
I believe we all agree on these conclusions. But what about the inferences drawn from other, less obvious, and less direct texts? Are the hermeneutical deductions from those studies equally valid?
Following Abram’s rescue of Lot7, Melchizedek brought out bread and wine (Genesis 14:17-20) for what appears to be a celebration. Since that is all the text says (it doesn’t actually mention celebrating; it doesn’t say who ate and drank), does that indicate we should occasionally break out bread and wine to celebrate? Following this, Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of his spoils, but no commentator uses that to suggest a modern-day equivalent practice. My hermeneutical question is, “Should we do something just because a biblical character did it?”
John 2 remains the most troubling text for me. There, Jesus turned water into the finest of wines. In that cultural context, under those circumstances, having wine was acceptable. That neither justifies nor condemns contemporary practices. But it does establish that the Bible is not clearly and unequivocally against it.
So, does the Bible say anything beyond “prohibition” or “permission” when it comes to this matter? The Wisdom Literature proves most helpful from my perspective. And to be hermeneutically fair, Wisdom Literature must be approached appropriately. Wisdom Literature does not, as a rule, provide clear-cut prohibitions and permissions. It simply casts issues in “actual life realities.” These are truths generally held. They are designed to make us wise.
In that light, Proverbs provides helpful insight into the situation. There, wine is a mocker (20:1), a snake (23:32), that which deceives and confuses (23:29-35). Additionally, Solomon gives wine mixed reviews in Ecclesiastes. It appears to have both positive and negative results, yet the end of every pursuit is vanity—meaninglessness. Solomon concludes that the only “substance” that produces satisfaction, contentment, and joy is “to obey God and keep His commands.”
In the end, Wisdom Literature appears to say, “Be extremely careful. Many people who drink get caught in a vicious trap.” I would add, “If you never drink, you can clearly avoid those dangers.”
Travel has forced me to rethink many of my earliest conclusions about various issues, including this one. It’s clear that in some contexts (global and local), drinking is a nonissue. Christians imbibe and to do otherwise would appear elitist (potentially divisive). In other situations, drinking genuinely offends believers and nonbelievers alike. Cultural sensitivity must be balanced with wisdom. In the end, our motive proves to be as strong a factor as any.
Questions for Christians
I may be encumbered by so much baggage that I can’t see the truth for the clutter. If so, please be patient with me and help me see what I’ve missed (I genuinely long for honest dialogue—email@example.com). Whatever the reason for my apprehension, please at least consider my concerns. While I’ve aimed the following questions primarily at leaders, all Christians may profit by answering them.
What are your real motives? Why do you want to drink? Is it really because you want to celebrate the goodness of God and this is the best means possible? Is it because you can connect with lost people in such a way that you have a genuine opportunity to introduce the redemptive nature of God to them? Is it because it enhances authentic Christian community and produces transparent accountability? If so, then by all means (within common sense and biblical boundaries), enjoy.
Do you know for sure you can handle it? Are you absolutely positive you can refrain from drunkenness (even once) and addiction? If you cannot guarantee that, then for God’s sake (and your wife’s, your children’s, and your congregation’s) have an accountability partner to rescue you, and be prepared to pay the high price of recovery. Or, just don’t take the risk (and don’t be ashamed of that decision).
What are the potential negatives? How will this impact your marriage? What will this do to your children? What about the person at church or in your small group who chooses to emulate you? What conditions are in place to protect you from the long-term outcomes of your decision, should they prove negative?
If you are going to the pub to “talk theology,” is that really happening? Do you really talk about God, Jesus, and the church? Who has come to faith in Christ who would not have come to faith had you not had a drink with them? Could you have befriended them on the softball diamond just as effectively?
I’m afraid of drinking and so I want everyone else to be afraid. But more than that, I’m afraid for young leaders. I’m afraid they’ve swallowed the lie that you must be like the world to engage the world. I’m afraid that Christians have allowed their desire for self-indulgence to cloud their exegetical and/or ministerial vision. I fear the kingdom of God is going to pay dearly for our decisions.
I pray that my fears are unjustified. I pray that lives will not be damaged. I pray that leaders will not be lost to the kingdom. I pray that churches will not be destroyed. I pray that one’s future family will not suffer. I pray we will all have the courage to seek the truth and stand for truth (even when it’s different than what we first believed). I pray we will not be judgmental toward those who choose either abstinence or moderation. I pray our highest motive is God’s honor.
1I could document several of these “rumors” but won’t for the sake of anonymity.
2This a phrase used by Mark Driscoll in an excellent book, The Radical Reformission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 146.
3There isn’t room to recount the stories of broken homes, ministries, and churches that have occurred because of alcohol abuse.
4Driscoll borrows Kenneth Gentry’s term for this group: “prohibitionists.” Driscoll, 149.
5C.S. Lewis, in “The ‘Cardinal Virtues’” in Mere Christianity, makes a strong case for moderation (as opposed to teetotalism) in all areas of life.
6This list is abbreviated from Driscoll, 147. He also has a fine list of “Biblical Problems Caused by Drunkenness,” 148.
7For other examples of texts used to justify drinking, see Driscoll.
Chuck Sackett, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is preaching minister at Madison Park Christian Church, Quincy, Illinois.