At the outset, let me state that this post is not a defense of nor an attack on conscience or liberty. Meaning that if you’re looking for ammunition in a fight your having with a brother in Christ over whether drinking is good or bad, I hope that you won’t find any here. So, move along, nothing to see here. It’s also important to note that while there will be some universal applications, this post is directed at those who hold Christ as preeminent in their lives. All who do so would of course be called Christians, but not all who call themselves Christians hold Christ as preeminent. For that second group there are more important things to focus on than the subject below. Regardless, my goal even in the paragraphs that follow is to raise the focus of the discussion from the earthly and sensual (dealing with the senses) to Christ.
As Tim Challies points out in the intro to his article Christians and Alcohol, the issue of alcohol consumption is a “source of heated disagreement and even separation.” But where does this heat come from? When I linked his article on Facebook a 66 comment discussion ensued with parties demanding black and white answers to an issue that the Bible paints in shades of grey. Let me be clear: The Bible no where prohibits the child of God (Old Testament or New) from consuming an alcoholic beverage, though in some places and for different reasons it commends abstinence. By the same token the Bible no where commands consumption, though in some places and for some reasons it commends the ingestion of strong drink and wine to make the heart glad.
I have read articles that come just short of saying that if you don’t drink you’re sinfully avoiding part of God’s creation that we were intended to enjoy. And of course there are plenty of articles saying that any imbibing, perhaps even of Nyquil, will probably call down the wrath of God, and definitely call down the wrath of the author (full disclosure…I had a shot of Nyquil last night. Well…two tablespoons in that little plastic cup they give). And, of course, there are countless articles in between.
Most articles will cite Romans 14, as they ought, but usually focus on one of two points. The abstainers will focus on how people shouldn’t drink so as not to offend the weaker brother, though some will chafe when you point out that Paul labels the abstainer as the “weaker”. The imbibers will point out Paul’s focus on liberty, but some will squirm when you point out that Paul showed that there is a time to abstain. But the point of the chapter I believe is laid out in verse 19-20.
Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense.
From this passage I think that most of our debates about alcohol miss the point. It seems that we debate in order to justify our position – rarely are those debates edifying. Oft times labels are thrown around (immature, foolish, legalistic, unwise, condescending, etc.) with the aim of, intentionally or not, tearing down the opposition and fortifying our own. If we aren’t labeling the opposition, we engage in judging the motives of the opposition: ”If they weren’t so selfish they wouldn’t drink” or “You’re just trying to impose your standards on everyone else”. And if all else fails we appeal to the emotions: ”But all the potential dangers of alcohol obviously make it a sin!” Regardless of which side of the debate we find ourselves on, when we employ these tactics we risk, at best, destroying “the work of God for the sake of food” (or drink).
How then do we approach the issue? In making his point in Romans 14 Paul is demonstrating a very important fact of Christian life: God is working in each person in unique ways. There is a black-and-white issue in this area of alcohol: Drunkenness is repeatedly condemned as sin. But due to the uniqueness of each individual the line where drinking becomes a sin is different. I’ve come up with four categories and an analogy that will hopefully prove beneficial.
#1 The person who can, and does.
This is the Christian who is self-controlled, sober-minded and free of conscience as he enjoys his adult beverage of choice. He knows his limits, and is in no way held in bondage to alcohol. He can enjoy his drink as a gift from God and would not want to take glory away from God by over indulging in any way. This person also recognizes his responsibility not to cause others spiritual damage and goes out of his way not to boast or wax eloquent about his liberty recognizing that such boasting in no way brings glory to God and is far more likely to do damage to a brother. This person would eagerly refrain from all refrence of alcohol in order to enjoy the fellowship of a brother in category #3. I would place Tim Challies and R.C. Sproul in this category.
#2 The person who can, and doesn’t
This is a person who, if he chose to could enjoy an adult beverage of choice in the same manner as person #1, chooses rather to abstain because of providential circumstances in his life. These circumstances could include being in a position of leadership and influence where his drinking could be misunderstood or misrepresented by those he is leading. Perhaps he just despised the taste. Whatever the circumstances, he believes it would be better for him to abstain than partake. It’s important for this person not to boast about how he could if he wanted to, or assign to himself some sort of extra-spiritual status because he “chooses” to abstain, when the truth is God has providentially hindered him. I would place myself, John Piper and probably John MacArthur in this category.
#3 The person who shouldn’t, and doesn’t
This is the person who would in some way be held captive by drinking. This captivity could include (though not be limited to) an alcohol addiction, a lack of self-control, or a simply conscience that won’t let them take a sip. The person in this category must know himself and refuse to put himself in situations where stumbling is likely. I would stress that this person has also been providentially hindered from drinking whether by choices in his past, or genetics in his body. The person in this category is no less spiritual than the person in categories 1 and 2, rather he has the opportunity to glorify God through triumphing over temptations that others don’t face…at least to the same degree. This person however needs to be careful not to hold others hostage to his own conscience. Or to put it another way, this person should not demand that others avoid alcohol the same way he must. The mature brother in this category can rejoice with others over the path that God is leading him on without demanding that others leave their God-given path. I would place Josh Hamilton in this category (player for the Texas Rangers).
#4 Those who shouldn’t and do
This category is inhabited by members of each of the other categories who give in to their own selfishness rather than seeking the glory of God and the edification of others. This is the category 1 individual who feels it his duty to let everyone know how much he’s had to drink recently, being known for what he drinks instead of the Savior who loves him. This is the category 2 individual who despite the conscience issues or negative influence he will have, drinks anyway…and probably boasts about it to his category 1 friends. This is the category 3 individual who knows he should avoid the bar or those friends but gives in anyway. Category #4 should have a high turnover rate. When we sin and find ourselves in this category our reaction should be one of repentance, thus turning away from the sin that put us here and moving ahead on the path God is leading us down. However, there are people that seem to like it here, and have camped out in this category. For them the issue is no longer alcohol, but an eclipse of the Son by their own selfish desires.
These categories are best used for self-inspection. They are observations and hopefully can be beneficial in directing our gaze to our heavenly Father. I believe that in a lifetime God can providentially move a person through the first three categories, and by his grace and forgiveness out of the fourth every time it’s entered.
Finally, an analogy. If, after all this, you’re still struggling with how to accept Christians who drink, or Christians who abstain. Let me provide an analogy regarding another “grey” area….the internet.
Is using the internet a sin? Well…the Bible doesn’t prohibit it, yet how many families and lives are destroyed by internet porn, gambling, etc. – and the Bible has lots to say about adultery and stewardship! Shouldn’t we as Christians avoid all appearance of evil? Some would say this is a very black and white issue? Others would say that the Bible no where prohibits the internet but it should be used cautiously, and for some it might be a sin to use because of their propensity to stumble.
So to complete the analogy, and thinking of the four categories mentioned above:
Just as, the Bible nowhere prohibits the use of the internet, but does speak strongly about the sin of lust and other vices easily obtained by using it and therefore caution should be used by those who have liberty to use it and benefit from it for God’s glory, while those who cannot not show restraint should abstain for the glory of God:
The Bible nowhere prohibits the use of strong drink for every person, but does speak strongly about the sin of drunkenness and therefore those who have the liberty to use it should do so with caution in order to bring God glory and those who cannot use it without causing spiritual damage should abstain in order to bring God glory!
And as this discussion will no doubt come up again many times in our lifetimes, let us abide by the Word of God via the pen of Peter (well..technically the pen of Sylvanus as dictated by Peter):
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:5b–8, ESV)
May our satisfaction lie not in our liberty or conviction but in the God who gives them.