IN THE ARENA: Is It Fitting for Christians to Drink Alcohol in Moderation? (A. What If Abstinence Is the Stumbling Block?)
IN THE ARENA: Is It Fitting for Christians to Drink Alcohol in Moderation? (A. What If Abstinence Is the Stumbling Block?)

In the Arena

In the arena of ideas and opinions, we offer a place for Christ-centered and Christ-honoring debate on nonessential issues.

This month, Ken Idleman and Zach Spiering give us two opinions on a common hot-button issue among Christians: public drinking.

Tell us what you think on this issue by leaving a comment below. (Also . . . tell us what other debatable issues we should discuss “In the Arena.”)

_ _ _

By Zach Spiering

During the time I taught at a Restoration Movement Bible college, I enjoyed the opportunities to work with wonderful, godly men and women and to play a role in shaping young minds for kingdom work. For me, getting to do those things was worth giving up a few of my freedoms, such as freedom to enjoy alcohol in moderation, something I have done for most of my adult life. I have my faults (as my wife can attest), but I have never been drunk or abused alcohol. Not one time. While I willingly submitted to the leadership of the college when I learned of their expectations, I do not believe the restriction on alcohol consumption had any positive value for our work or the cause of Christ.

Lest I be accused of petitioning merely for my own gratification, I should say that I voluntarily abstained from alcohol and pork for two and one-half years when I lived in a predominantly Muslim country. It was an important part of my Christian witness among a people who viewed these things as forbidden. I found it a joy to do so. But I now live among a people who generally embrace both pork and alcohol. Abstaining from alcohol no longer benefits my Christian witness, and the expectation placed on Christian leaders to abstain is a detriment to our collective testimony to the grace and freedom we have in Christ.

There is nothing inherently Christian about abstaining from alcohol, historically or biblically. Not only did nearly every person in Scripture drink wine, but they wrote about it in favorable terms, even lifting it to a sacred experience. Wine in its naturally fermented form “gladdens the human heart” (Psalm 104:15), and is a comfort to the suffering (Proverbs 31:6). Wine is a blessing that comes from honoring God (Proverbs 3:10); its absence is a sign of God’s wrath (Isaiah 24:7-11). It was also a part of the old covenant offerings to God (Numbers 15:7), and most critically, a part of the new covenant Communion meal. Jesus drank wine and commanded his disciples to do so, as well (Matthew 26:27). (This most certainly was fermented wine, as a reliable method for storing unfermented grape juice wasn’t invented for another 1,800 years.)

Throughout Christian history, consuming alcohol in moderation has been the accepted norm, from our Jewish roots and apostolic fathers through the Middle Ages; alcohol was essential to clean the body from contaminants in the water (1 Timothy 5:23). Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin embraced the drinking of alcohol, as did our Puritan ancestors in America, who never equated abstinence with holiness. Even today, throughout the world, prohibition against alcohol consumption is much more closely associated with Islam than Christianity.

Complete abstinence from alcohol is a relatively recent phenomenon in Christianity. Methodists of the late 1700s were the earliest advocates, and it primarily was embraced by evangelical and fundamentalist groups in the American Midwest and South, and then exported by missionaries to India and sub-Saharan Africa.

The idea of forbidding alcohol took off in the late 19th century as America’s cities filled with people from around the world. Industrialization and rapid urbanization upset the delicate balance of society, throwing off many of the old social restraints. Cities became, for the first time in history, the violent frontier of society, the hotbed of vice and crime. It was the early evangelical progressives (a rather ironic term these days) who decided, in their compassion, not to blame the people or the inhuman industrial systems under which they labored for their lack of morality. Alcohol became the scapegoat, the easy fix to humanity’s problems. If America could just get rid of the drink, it was thought, it could get rid of violence, debauchery, and probably even poverty.

Prohibition—the formal outlawing of alcohol production and consumption in America—lasted from 1920 to 1933, and the concurrent rise in crime and vice proved, in historical terms, the folly of arguments demonizing alcohol. Banning alcohol would not rid evil from the hearts of people; only the work of God’s Spirit will do that. But among the faithful, the vilification of alcohol persisted. For more than 100 years, many American Christians have strived under the assumption that alcohol (not money) is the root of all kinds of evil.

The problem is not that many leaders in our movement abstain from alcohol. Discipline, in general, is dying in today’s Christian circles, and fasting is a lost art; I appreciate those who were willing to make sacrifices for holiness. God certainly honors those sacrifices made from love and devotion to him. The problem begins when leaders elevate these sacrifices to something beyond a personal decision, when they equate abstinence with Christlikeness, and when they pressure or force others to go along (1 Timothy 4:3, 4).

The common argument for Christian leaders to abstain from alcohol rests on the belief that they should exhibit the highest level of Christian character (a sentiment I agree with). Abstinence advocates also contend that drinking alcohol can be a stumbling block for some nonbelievers or new Christians. Therefore, it is argued, Christian leaders have a duty to avoid alcohol at all times so as not to chance causing others to stumble. This line of reasoning is often supported by Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 8:9, though the hermeneutic is applied rather inconsistently. I have never heard anyone preach that Christian leaders should give up access to the Internet because of those who struggle with pornography, or give up all their money because of those who struggle with greed (and much better cases can be made for those).

My non-Christian acquaintances are understandably confused about the Christian position on alcohol. On the one hand, we teach that Jesus changed water into wine—really good wine apparently—and on the other, we advise Christians not to drink it. Nonbelievers do not see Christian abstinence from alcohol as beneficial to them.

When our nonbelieving friends hear from Christian leaders who wear their abstention on their sleeve, they do not feel that person is speaking out of love of them, but rather out of judgment. Such folks often become convinced of the lie that they must give up alcohol to come to Christ, or at the least, must eventually give it up if they want to progress in their faith.

Nonbelievers often accuse Christians of being judgmental, and sometimes the accusation is fair. We tend to define the Christian life by a list of prohibitions rather than as a life of freedom, which is how the New Testament describes it. Yes, our exercise of freedoms could be a stumbling block in some contexts, but Romans 14 makes it clear our judgment of those who exercise freedom can also be the stumbling block.

Max Lucado has been credited with saying, “I have never heard anyone say, ‘A beer makes me feel more Christlike.’” The logic of that statement is itself dubious—one could substitute “beer” for nearly anything and make the same claim. More importantly, guilting or shaming those who partake of God’s good gifts is inherently un-Christlike. It drives people away from God. And if we are willing to keep people away from God to preserve our moral high ground, then we have missed the gospel.

Our judgmental attitudes about alcohol can also hurt the weaker believers in our care. Like it or not, Christians are beginning to embrace alcohol consumption. According to a Barna article from 2017, 60 percent of practicing Christians in America report drinking at least occasionally.

Many Christians who drink are ashamed of it and believe they should hide their drinking from other Christians, or at least from their Christian leaders. Making these believers feel dirty or shameful for exercising their freedom will drive them into the margins and increase the possibility they will abuse alcohol. On what will drinking Christians model their habits? TV and movies? Binge-drinking parties at college? Or will they find a model in a Christian leader who teaches them to enjoy God’s good gifts with gratitude and moderation?

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control [i.e., temperance]; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22, 23, English Standard Version). If we keep alcohol on the margins of the faith community, we only perpetuate legalism and judgment, and we fail to teach true temperance, the self-controlled life of following Jesus.

 

Zach Spiering resides in Joplin, Missouri, with his wife and three children. He is a teacher, writer, community organizer, and serves as an advocate for immigrants and the poor among the community.

You Might Also Like

3 Comments

  1. Jason Stockdale
    January 3, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    Well-written article echoing many sentiments of my own that have troubled me for some time . . . [that many] Christians view abstinence from alcohol as somehow equating to being a better Christian. For anyone else struggling with understanding the complexities of why this has happened, I encourage you to watch the three-part miniseries Prohibition by Ken Burns on Netflix. To summarize, the beginning of the Prohibition movement was a time when a very small group of people thought that if alcohol was abolished it would force people to become better Christians (i.e., bring more to Christ). This is when America switched from drinking 3-6 percent [alcohol by volume] beverages and started drinking primarily distilled 40-50 percent liquor in the same volume. In my experience with alcohol, it makes you more of what you are feeling at that moment. If you are happy, then you will be more happy. However, if you are depressed, you will become more depressed. The fallacy of Prohibition mentality is they are trying to get rid of the effect of the problem of excessive drinking by eliminating the drink. But if someone is behaving badly because of, let’s say, depression when drinking, shouldn’t we treat the depression rather than implying that if they quit drinking then the effect of bad behavior would be resolved?

  2. Matt
    January 4, 2019 at 7:16 am

    Great article. Well thought out.

    As the author points out, [there are] differences in ministry contexts and cultures. We might apply the same rule of thumb to such traditionally held Christian prohibitions. If we do not do so, we make the past affirm something that it may not have been.

    To say that the Bible embraces drinking alcoholic beverages is both true and paradoxically a bit of a stretch. Yes, it is true Paul admonishes Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach. It is also true public water purification treatment was still centuries in the future, as [were] pharmacies. Today we enjoy (and take for granted) not having to fear getting dysentery from a simple glass of water. If we add this basic understanding of the issues facing people during a roughly 4,000-year period to our reading of passages that affirm drinking alcohol, we may arrive at a completely different conclusion.

    If an ancient were perhaps to hear this thread of discussion they would be confused. If water carried with it the common knowledge of getting an upset stomach (or dying), then wine would be the obvious choice with a meal or any other time. Even so the Bible is clear about the misuse of alcohol (wine).

    It would have been rather difficult for the average person to “enjoy” wine as we enjoy it. In the U.S. we know nothing of scarcity. We can obtain a dizzying array of alcoholic beverages on nearly every corner. So what gave an ancient “joy” from something very limited and special to our “joy” from something very common might make a big difference in our reading of these passages.

    PURE OPINION: Having stated the above perspective, I feel it is important to share the following. I recently defended a new believer who is a mixologist (one skilled at mixing drinks) . . . the title pales in light of his level of all things alcoholic. He was being urged by sincere believers to leave his lucrative vocation simply because it dealt with alcohol. He was distressed not knowing what to do — he longed to serve God and yet was conflicted over leaving his knowledge base and, may I be so bold as to say, art form.

    My encouragement to him was this. The only person I would trust with a snake is someone who has been bitten. That person knows how to respect the snake’s power and does not wish to experience it again.

    Of course, all analogies break down under scrutiny.

    The contemporary problem I find with Christians and the issue of alcoholic beverages is one of avocation. It’s not merely having a drink but almost an identity or status issue. The talk is not about getting drunk but about what knowledge is to be had about this IPA or that microbrew … about this certain rum or that special whisky. It’s almost like trading baseball cards … “Got it. Had it. Don’t got it.”

    I’ve noticed the fad sweeping through contemporary Christian circles where clergy and parishioners alike hang out for a “gar” and a “brandy” and a few hands of poker.

    Lest you think me prudish or legalistic, I am not. It’s not the substance I find unsettling as much as the focus.

    Basic point — a lot of nubes are handling snakes.

    Respectfully submitted.

  3. Administrator Author
    January 20, 2019 at 8:21 pm

    The writer attached this comment to “Strictest Sobriety (A Sampling of Articles about Prohibition),” an online-only feature. However, the writer mentions this article in their comment, so we have decided to also post it here.
    _ _ _

    Raised a teetotaler, I had only sipped beer as a teenage experiment. But when a missionary intern as a college sophomore, our group leader, who was French-born, encouraged us to imbibe. There was a thrill of liberation that I was unprepared for and ill-equipped to handle. While I knew that Scripture didn’t forbid it, I also knew there were far more passages of warning than celebration. When I returned to the States, I brought my newfound freedom with me, and assumed that my fellow seminarians would understand. Our first trip to a local pizza parlor saw an opportunity to order a glass of wine, and as I sipped, I waxed eloquent about our freedom in Christ. A classmate was very interested, ordered a glass for himself, and downed it in one gulp! I then discovered that he was a recovering alcoholic. I can’t stress enough the danger of someone in church leadership carelessly giving the green light to his congregation regarding alcohol. It needs to be approached with fear and trembling, and I don’t see that in Mr. Spiering’s article.
    Kelly Boyd
    via website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for Free!

Subscribe to gain free access to all of our digital content,
including our new digital magazine,
and we'll let you know when new digital issues are ready to view!