THIS IS THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF FIVE “STICKY CONVERSATIONS”
By Tim Harlow
It’s such a beautiful sentiment, but how do we know which is which? There wouldn’t be 30,000 different sects of Christianity in the world if it were really that easy.
Consider the subject of alcohol.
It’s always been confusing to me because, as I grew up in the Christian church, I was always told alcohol was bad/sinful. But Paul told Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach (and my name is Timothy). And Jesus made wine. And Jesus drank wine.
So what happened? It’s really pretty simple. We followed cultural and moralistic reasoning, instead of scriptural reasoning, and turned a matter of opinion into a matter of doctrine.
I was always taught that the wine in Jesus’ day was watered-down, but the reaction to Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine (John 2:1-11) was, “Hey—usually we get the bad wine after we’re drunk—but this stuff rocks” (author paraphrase). Jesus didn’t just make wine—he made good wine.
And besides, if you take wine—which is usually 14 percent alcohol by volume, and water it down—a lot—you might be able to get it down to 4 to 6 percent, which is the alcohol content in beer.
Please hear me—I’m not saying alcohol is good. We all know the pain that can come from drunken driving and the many other abuses of alcohol. I know a lot of people who have been hurt by the abuse of alcohol. Personally, I think the planet as a whole would be a better place if God had not made the fermentation process.
There is also the deeper calling of being an example of Christ and not to be a “stumbling block.” We have freedom in Christ, and that freedom allows us to make our own decisions—either way—on this issue. We should choose to partake or abstain based on our commitment to Jesus Christ.
But can a person drink alcohol and still be a Christian? I hope so, because I’d like to think that Jesus was a Christian. Jesus drank alcohol.
Jesus said in Luke 7:33, 34, “John the Baptist came neither eating bread or drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’” (So, not drinking must be bad?) “The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors, and sinners.’”
Jesus just admitted that he drank alcohol. Does that make you uncomfortable?
He didn’t get drunk, obviously. He wasn’t a glutton either, but they would have had no accusation at all if he was like his cousin John.
I don’t mean to belabor the point. I don’t think it’s a big deal. Drinking alcohol is a matter of opinion. If you want to be like John the Baptist, don’t drink. If you want to be like Jesus, then drink in moderation. It’s a matter of opinion, so have liberty—either way.
Alcohol is just an example of an issue that is much more important.
Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).
How is it possible to make “double Hell” boys? I want to know that.
Jesus was saying that by turning matters of opinion into matters of doctrine, these religious leaders were getting in God’s way. They were trying to get people to believe “their brand” of religion, instead of encouraging a relationship with God.
Jesus said, in the preceding verse, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).
The verse indicates people were actually trying to get in! By teaching manmade traditions instead of God’s truth, the teachers of the law and Pharisees literally closed the door to salvation.
This is not direct application to us because in that passage Jesus also says, “You yourselves do not enter, either,” but the principle is the same. It’s this key phrase, “shutting the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.”
How do we do that? Just like the Pharisees—by making matters of opinion into matters of doctrine.
Because if we don’t have liberty in matters of opinion, we could be in danger of making “Hell boys”—in danger of shutting the kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces.
So whether it’s alcohol, politics, our view of creation, or war, capital punishment, eschatology, tattoos, music styles, dress for worship, etc., we must have liberty—and a lot of it.
[Jesus speaking] “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).
Why did Jesus give us this verse on judgment? Because that’s how people see us. The stereotypical Christians on TV are Maude and Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. In one episode, Maude Flanders went to Bible camp to “learn to be more judgmental.” Those were her words. Why is that funny? Because too frequently that’s who we are.
A Barna Group research study showed that 87 percent of 18- to 35-year-olds who are outside the church think the church is judgmental. Eighty-seven percent! Now in many cases, that’s just not true. If the church takes a stand on moral issues, we’re going to be perceived as judgmental.
However, most of the world sees Jesus as being full of grace while his followers are full of judgment. I’m guilty of it.
Alcohol is not the No. 1 health problem in America—it’s obesity. So it’s a tad confusing to the world when we invite people over for a potluck supper of high-calorie casseroles and carrot cake and Kool-Aid made with white processed sugar—and look down our noses at someone who has five glasses of wine a week—which the American Heart Association says is good for you.
We’re losing touch with the people Jesus wants to save.
Which brings me back to the John/Jesus decision. John the Baptist chose to abstain from wine and carrot cake to set himself apart for service to the kingdom. Jesus chose to eat and drink with the people with whom he wanted to have a relationship.
Our oldest daughter, Rachel, drank her first beer on a mission trip—on purpose. As a matter of fact, we all had to really wrestle with this drinking issue before she went. She was only 20 and not legally old enough to drink in the United States. But she was going to help start a campus ministry in Birmingham, England, and things are different there. If she went to invest her life there and didn’t go into the pubs or drank Diet Coke in the pubs, she would never be able to reach the culture. Jesus realized the same thing.
And many of the people Rachel was able to connect with in a pub over a glass of Guinness decided to follow Christ. One of them became her husband!
So when the father of my future grandchildren comes to visit my house, there will always be beer in the fridge even though I don’t drink it, because I want to live my life trying very hard to never shut the kingdom of Heaven over a matter of opinion.
Tim Harlow is senior pastor at Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois. He contributes to CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s “Ministry Today” column every other month.
Becky Ahlberg (Anaheim, California): As a Christian college administrator, I had many a discussion about alcohol and “freedom in Christ.” The discussion usually ended as a legal question—“You’re not 21!” Tim is right, there’s nothing in Scripture that will uphold the teetotaling party line—and judgmental Christians are certainly obnoxious. I don’t drink, so this is not a personal issue for me. My personal bias is that it’s an unnecessary luxury. But here’s the way I think of it: I’m not going to sit in judgment over someone who has a glass of wine at dinner or a beer with their pizza. My job as a Christian is not to judge others, it’s to be discerning in my own life so as to be “above reproach.” I’m guessing there’s not one among us who couldn’t use a little grace in the areas of our lives that are less than they could be—especially the ones we struggle with.
Bob Mink (Moreno Valley, California): The subject of a Christian’s usage of alcohol has been a matter of discussion, concern, legalism, and freedom in every youth ministry, Bible study, fellowship group, and church of which I have been a part. I do not disagree with anything Tim has said, but simply add that, for me, attitude is most important. I am equally irritated by believers who flaunt their freedom as by those who are legalistic and judgmental. Tim only seems to mention the latter. And while he does refer to Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Pharisees, I would like to have read at least something from Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8, both of which are equally applicable to the references he cited. Finally, when my grandson comes to visit there will not be a beer in the fridge. And I don’t think that will shut the kingdom of Heaven.
Tom Claibourne (Winchester, Ohio): Like Tim, I have stated publicly that taking a drink of alcohol is not forbidden in Scripture, and also that sin and horrendous consequences result from drunkenness. But the simple fact is that, if I abstain from alcohol, I don’t have to worry about the sin of drunkenness and the ugly destructive behavior related to it. (Proverbs 23:29-35 offers a tragic picture.) Likewise, I won’t hinder or confuse countless recovering alcoholics, both inside and outside the church.
In the same sermon that Jesus spoke about judging others (Matthew 7), he also vividly warned about doing anything that can lead us down the road toward sin, and ultimately, Hell (Matthew 5:27-30). One of Jesus’ overriding themes in the Sermon on the Mount was that his disciples should choose to live by a higher standard than the world. He was not exalting legalism, but strong, healthy discipleship that positively reflects Jesus and lovingly points the world to his saving grace.
Toney Salva (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania): I agree completely [with Tim]. In many instances not having a beer can actually be a stumbling block. It is a matter of opinion, yes, but it is also a matter of contextualization. Thanks, Tim, for speaking where the Bible speaks.
Danny Schaffner (Tampa, Florida): Great perspective on opinions and liberty. We often get confused in the 3 P’s—precepts, principles, and preferences. Consequently, the church and Christians reactively shift to “policy” or even “policing” to regulate their people. It’s such a convicting perception to realize we often create “double Hell boys” rather than empowering people with freedom in Christ.
ABOUT THIS FIVE-PART SERIES: One workshop at this summer’s North American Christian Convention was called “Sticky Conversations.” Five panelists each offered a perspective on an issue that troubles Christians today, and then workshop attendees shared experiences and asked questions.
We’ve decided to open these discussions to all our readers. Beginning this month, CHRISTIAN STANDARD will consider one of these topics in each issue, till we’ve dealt with all of them. This month we take up the subject of alcohol: Is it ever right or always wrong for a Christian to take a drink?
In future months, watch for discussions of homosexuality, Calvinism, pornography and sex addiction, and divorce and remarriage.
Each month we will ask a few readers to join the “sticky conversation” started by our writer. We invite you to contribute to the discussion by posting your comment below.