IN THE ARENA: Is It Fitting for Christians to Drink Alcohol in Moderation? (No)
IN THE ARENA: Is It Fitting for Christians to Drink Alcohol in Moderation? (No)

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.”)

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By Ken Idleman

As I address this question, it is day four of the weeklong FBI investigation into the allegations of sexual assault leveled by Christine Blasey Ford against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. A formal hearing featuring testimony from Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee a week earlier was telecast by major news networks.

The process has been humiliating for both the accuser and the accused, to say the least. It has also codified the political rancor that exists between Republicans and Democrats in our deeply divided nation. But take a moment and walk it all back 36 years. What likely contributed to the events of that night, as alleged by Blasey Ford? The answer is beverage alcohol.

Both parties acknowledge drinking alcohol as teenagers (though Kavanaugh denied ever drinking when he was underage and denied the alleged encounter with Blasey Ford). Two additional women also made sordid accusations against Kavanaugh (which he also denied), saying the alleged events occurred at parties where large amounts of beverage alcohol was consumed. Clearly, drinking is at the center of all of these accusations. And clearly, alcohol, not abstinence, was the common stumbling block for the principal figures in this investigation. 

Watching these proceedings and listening to newscasts caused me to reflect on my own high school years. Beer drinking was deeply ingrained in the teenage culture of our small, rural Illinois communities. German Lutheran farm families had a liberal attitude toward drinking. It was widely accepted. The fact that drinking was unlawful for kids under age 21 was ignored by teens and parents alike. But, I had watched the lives of two of my uncles implode because of alcohol addiction. Then I watched close friends become problem drinkers because of accessibility of beverage alcohol in their homes. I had also watched Red Skelton’s humorous television skits that poked fun of drunks, and I decided I wanted no part of it.

Of course, some of my peers marginalized me because of my decision. I had teammates in baseball, basketball, and football who wanted to go out and drink a couple of cases of beer after winning our home games. (And we never lost a home game in basketball or football in three years, so we are talking about a lot of drinking!) I chose never to participate, and so I was judged by some of my friends who were drinkers as “thinking I was better” than them . . . because, you see, the “judging” is not always done by the nondrinkers.

Of course, not everyone who is a drinker becomes an alcoholic or problem drinker. But, it’s reasonable to conclude, virtually everyone who becomes addicted to alcohol started by consuming it in moderation.

No one starts out with the desire to become an alcoholic. Most everyone who drinks starts with this defensive attitude: “I’m just a social drinker and there is nothing wrong with it!” “The Bible says moderation in everything!” No one who is just starting to drink says this: “It is my ambition to someday lose my job, my health, my self-respect, my marriage, and my family. Someday I want to be dependent on alcohol to get through my day.” And yet, several million people are alcoholics. And why? It is because drinking alcohol is promoted and elevated as a normal and sophisticated activity in daily life. Never mind that it is expensive and potentially enslaving.

People get hooked on American’s number-one, best-selling legal drug. And just like all of the illegal drugs, alcohol finds its way quickly into the body, into the bloodstream, and into the brain of the user/abuser. 

One in eight adults, or 12.7 percent of the current American population, are alcoholics . . . up a shocking 49 percent from the first decade of the 2000s. A total of 88,000 people die of alcohol-related causes every year, according to the Washington Post; that is 30,000 more than the total number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. Alcohol, not abstinence, is a stumbling block for millions.

I was captivated by the testimony of Elizabeth Vargas, former ABC News anchor, in her 2016 book Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction. She wrote,

Today, when I walk down the streets of New York City on a warm evening, passing bars filled with people enjoying glasses of wine, it’s a very different experience for me than it once was. I don’t look at them and think, “I want one.” But I look at them and I think, “I miss that.” I miss that time when, you know, I felt so innocent and romantic. But that’s just me romanticizing something that turned out to be really monstrous for me.

In a subsequent interview on 20/20, Vargas said,

I started out with just a glass of wine at bedtime to relax and sleep. Then one became two; and two became three. Occasionally I wore knee-high boots so I could stick a bottle of wine in the boot. Nobody looks in the boot. I got to the place that I would give my life for my [two] sons, but I would not give up drinking for my sons.

As father to 3 adult children and grandfather to 11, that last sentence is stunning to me. It illustrates the addictive potential of strong drink. Alcohol, not abstinence, was the stumbling block for Vargas’s marriage (which did not survive) and family.

Vargas had turned her life around by 2016, but that was a tragic year for the Rinehart family: Ruth Ann, 74, her son David, 45, and granddaughter Sophie, 17. David was like a third son-in-law to me. He was the outstanding worship pastor at Crossroads Christian Church, Evansville, Indiana, where we were yoked in ministry leadership for a decade.

I got the call on a Sunday morning as I sat in the parking lot of Harborside Christian Church in Safety Harbor, Florida, preparing to go in and preach. It was a gut punch. David, his middle daughter, and his mother were killed in an automobile accident in central Indiana earlier that morning; their disabled car, pulled to the side of the road, was rear-ended by a pickup truck traveling 70 mph driven by a 19-year-old man who had been drinking beer that afternoon and evening on the campus of Indiana University. It was the first, and I hope the last, triple funeral I have conducted. About 4,000 people attended the service to deeply grieve the senseless deaths of three amazing Christian people.

Months later, in a courtroom not far from the accident scene, the young man who drove the truck was sentenced to a lengthy prison term for vehicular homicide. His blood-alcohol level revealed he was driving impaired, and that drinking was the determining factor in the tragedy. So, alcohol, not abstinence, was the stumbling block for the young man who victimized the Rinehart and Crossroads Church families.

Paul wrote in Romans 14,

Therefore, let us [those who choose to drink and those who choose to abstain] stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. . . . It is better not to eat meat [that had been sacrificed to idols . . . nothing wrong with it really] or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall (vv. 13, 21).

With one in eight Americans being alcoholic, and who knows how many problem drinkers out there, can we risk being a stumbling block to them and others by insisting on exercising our Christian liberty to drink in moderation? What if you can handle it and they—members of your own family or someone else’s family—cannot? Can you live with the knowledge that you may have even passively contributed to their fall?

As a Christian leader committed to willingly sacrifice my liberty to avoid being a stumbling block, I won’t take the chance. The stakes are too high in the lives of real people in this life and real people’s souls in the greater life to come. 


Ken Idleman served as the fourth president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, was senior pastor for 10 years at Crossroads Christian Church, a megachurch in Evansville, Indiana, and is presently mentoring pastors as vice president of leadership development with The Solomon Foundation.

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  1. St. Franky
    January 4, 2019 at 11:18 am

    So why do you eat meat around vegetarians, pork around Messianic Jews and Muslim-background believers, [view the] Internet around porn addicts, [eat] sugar around diabetics, gluten around Siliac folk, text or browse on your phone around those who have lost loved ones due to distracted driving, or anything else?

    And why don’t you address the other 50,000 car-related deaths a year?

    Because, deep down, you believe in temperance and carrying your weaker brother. Romans 14 says “carry them” as in “bear them up,” and we are all weaker sometimes and all stronger sometimes, and it takes a person-by-person analysis to know how to respond around friends and foes. The stronger brother who doesn’t bear up the weaker is flaunting his arrogance. The weaker brother who judges the stronger for practicing freedom is flaunting his insecure hypocrisy. Both are wrong because both aren’t carrying one another.

    And that includes this response.

    “Of course, not everyone who is a drinker becomes an alcoholic or problem drinker. But, it’s reasonable to conclude, virtually everyone who becomes addicted to alcohol started by consuming it in moderation.”

    It’s also reasonable to conclude that every ax murderer started with chopping trees. And every adulterer started out by sleeping with his own wife. And every liar started out knowing the truth. And every thief started out with property of their own. And every workaholic started out wanting to have a safe and secure place for his family to lay their heads.

    Simply because a minor premise is predicated on a major premise does not mean that all potential minor premises connected to the major premise do as well. This is a clean logical fallacy and, frankly, nonsense.

    And since the heart of your article rests on this — all drunks once had one drink, therefore everyone who has one drink is on the path to be a drunk — it’s nonsense.

    You give data on the percentage of alcoholics and conveniently leave out the data on social drinkers. Or even just Catholics who have a sip of wine at Communion once a week.

    Which leads me to think that the problem of alcoholism, both nationally and personally, could just as easily have been solved in your youth had you shared your first beer at 21 with a godly, temperate minister.

  2. Joyce Bolandr
    January 19, 2019 at 7:14 pm

    Regarding drinking in the church. I remember the first time I was taken back by this subject. My husband and I went to a mission meeting and a leader in the church was so engaged in the prospect of drinking the “good” stuff after the meeting that we almost decided not to go on the mission trip. Maybe this wasn’t even the church for us, we thought. Then, upon re-entering the United States, two men from one of our groups could not wait to beat it to the airport bar and get drinks. As they sat at the airport bar with our mission trip T-shirts on, our hearts sunk! This was not the image we felt [was] pleasing nor representative of] us. It did not represent us in any [good] fashion to strangers in the airport.

    These are two of the many reasons I feel strongly that if one feels compelled to drink, let it be at home behind closed doors, not out in public, as it doesn’t represent me and others who disagree with drinking as part of a walk of faith. That’s my feeling; thanks for letting me share.

  3. MattC
    January 26, 2019 at 10:47 am

    Responding to St Franky, and in agreement with Mr. Idleman:

    In discussions of the strong and weak, we should not forget that the “weak” can refer to the well-meaning and naive youth who observe us, as well as those who are in a frail state of sobriety (having fought the battle personally already), and not just those who are written-off as overly temperate with insecure hypocrisy. Causing someone to “stumble” is not about offending someone . . . it’s behaving in a way that leads others to sin.

    Alcohol is both mind-altering and addictive. And it’s not necessary*. For some the effect is mild, for others it’s not. The point is the degree of these risks is unknown to the first-time drinker, and they are unknown to the person who sets an example to others who then bear those risks. It’s like jumping onto the back of a horse without knowing if it’s been tamed — or encouraging your child to do the same.

    When I’m tempted to drink, I consider this scenario: The megachurch preacher who cracks open a beer and drinks on stage (to make a point about moderation) and also stations dozens of kegs at his men’s retreat (these examples are real) values the benefits of drinking (and the exercise of liberty) more than he appraises the risks to himself and others. Statistically, the risks are real in his church (30,000-plus) and for those who read his books. Is this responsible? Is it the love Paul speaks of? These are sincere questions. I’m not a megachurch preacher, but I in my drinking would bear all of the same risks . . . just for fewer people.

    I don’t want a millstone hung around my neck simply for alcohol.

    And I’d rather pluck out my right eye and live than be cast into destruction with both eyes.

    *necessary — yes, most things in life are not absolutely necessary for survival and can be used as “what-about” counterpoints when discussing personal liberty in the context of the risk of harm or sin: Internet usage, automobiles, mobile phones, etc. Yet these three things are overwhelmingly beneficial as tools for the college student, for the parent, and in many lines of employment; the same cannot be said of alcohol.

    – A helpful sermon on Romans 14 with a special emphasis on alcohol:

  4. SJ Rogers
    March 21, 2019 at 9:06 pm

    I grew up thinking anyone who drank beer, wine, whatever was sinning. I felt this way until my mid 50’s. I began to think about Christ changing the water into wine at a wedding. I mean, if we are going to judge someone because they had a glass of wine or mixed drink … are we judging Christ because he made it available …? Not to mention a verse or two in the Bible … 1 Timothy 3 gives ref to elder selection … not a drunkard …! I would never want to make anyone stumble … yet is the hurtful judging of another person in church looked down on as much as this? I will no longer feel sinful IF I choose to have a drink.

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