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Booze and the Bible - Walking in the Wisdom of Good

What is the wisdom of God relating to the use/abuse/abstention from sauced beverages?  About this issue our Presbyterian and Roman Catholic friends are shrugging their shoulders; no big deal. Just practice moderation.  On the other hand, some of our Baptist and Pentecostal friends might be red in the face that we even discuss the consumption of alcohol in any terms other than prohibition. The consumption of alcohol is a large part of our culture and has quite a history. European Christians for millennia have consumed alcohol as did the first settlers to the new world. One of the first things off of the Mayflower was a keg.1 Yet during some of the excess of the late 19th and early 20th century many American Christians led a temperance movement which brought about the rapid passing and ratification of the 18th amendment. This amendment brought a national “prohibition” of the production, sale and consumption of beverage alcohol. The 21st amendment, which passed with some momentum as well, repealed prohibition in the United States in 1933.2 So this issue has been divisive among Christians for some time. I do not intend to settle it completely, but only to present some positions believers hold and practice today in relation to alcoholic beverages.

Before we begin, let me give a bit of context to why we are even talking about this.  Let me say clearly and vigorously that it is not to be followers of Jesus who are known by whether or not they drink beer.  Such a view is immature and can be a bit silly.   I have two reasons for bringing us to a discussion of alcohol.  First, I have concern for us that we have a responsible discussion of the Scriptural teaching on the matter and the strong warnings we have about the devastating nature of drunkenness and alcoholism.  Second, I care deeply about the culture of our community in that we do not have legalistic attitudes about something God might declare a liberty and even a kind gift from his hand. In this essay I want to lay out four positions practiced in various form by those around us.  In doing so I want to make the argument that two of them are out of bounds for followers of Jesus and the other two need to create a culture together of joy, thanksgiving and wisdom in relationship to our life as a community.  Now on to some perspectives.

Libertinism

This position makes no prohibition about drinking and you are free to drink as much as you like. Get a designated driver and hammer down to Liquortown. This position is untenable in light of the clear teaching of Scripture. The Bible is univocal in its condemnation of being drunk with alcohol (Deuteronomy. 21:20; 1 Corinthians 6:10; Ephesians 5:18; Galatians 5:21) and is clear about the results of drunkenness. Mark Driscoll lists several of these in his book The Radical Reformission. Incest, violence, adultery, mockery/brawling, poverty, hallucinations, antics, murder, gluttony, vomiting, staggering, madness, nakedness, sloth and depression, just to name a few.3  There are many behaviors in our world today, which have no other goal than to get drunk, wasted, messed up, etc.  Such a view is unwise and often ends up in places the partyer never portended to go.

Prohibitionism

This position states that alcohol is prohibited for Christians and this is without exception. A follower of Jesus shall never place the devil’s drink in his mouth as some might put it. Usually the references to drunkenness listed above are cited as positive support for the position.  To be clear, there are periodic prohibitions given in Scripture for certain people in certain occasions. In the Old Testament, Leviticus 10 teaches that the priest was not to drink during his ministry in the tabernacle. Proverbs 31 tells us that a king should not drink while adjudicating law and there are specific religious vows which call for abstinence (see the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6; Judges 13;Luke 1). Finally, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego choose abstinence for a time of service in the book of Daniel. However, this position does not deal with the following biblical realities. First, Jesus Himself drank wine and was even wrongly accused of being a glutton and drunkard. He acknowledged that He came to earth eating and drinking (Matthew 11:19). Second, Paul exhorts Timothy to use a little wine to help his stomach instead of simply drinking water for health/medicinal reasons (1 Timothy 5:23). Third, the Last Supper has the disciples drinking wine (Luke 22:14-23). Fourth, the Bible actually teaches that wine is a good gift from God (Psalm 104:15; 15). Fifth, the lack of wine or fruitful vineyards is a motif of God’s judgment in Scripture (Isaiah 16; 24; Jeremiah 48; Lamentations 2; Habakkuk 3:17-20) while wine is a sign of blessing (Genesis 27; Deuteronomy 7). So when looking at Scripture, the prohibitionist position is a difficult one to defend on biblical grounds. It seems this position speaks beyond Scripture and exalts a human tradition or value above the Word of God.

Abstentionism

This position is a bit more balanced in that it sees no blanket prohibition against consumption.  This view urges the believer to choose complete abstinence based on the possibility of the harmful effects of alcohol or being a witness to the gospel in culture. All the biblical commands about drunkenness and the risks of addiction are rightly brought in support of this position. Additionally, arguments against aiding an industry which exalts a non-biblical lifestyle and offending people in certain church cultures (sometimes described as causing people to stumble) are offered as support.4 This view sees drinking as something too risky, too dangerous to participate with and the prudent Christian will just say no. The one weakness I see is that it cannot accept a glass of wine as a good gift from God and purveyors of this view may slide towards legalistic prohibitionism in practice though not holding to this as biblical conviction. However, I do feel this is a valid biblical stance which steers clear of sin and I commend it to those who have a history of alcoholism and exhibit addictive life patterns. One final warning is needed. This view gives no leeway to pass judgment on those who choose a path of moderation and gives no excuse to remain immature always “stumbling” over the biblical practice of others.

Moderationism

The final position would be that of moderation. Though God prohibits drunkenness and drinking in certain circumstances, He by no means prohibits the moderate enjoyment of alcohol. The verses above in favor of alcohol and those warning against excess should both be embraced. This position requires maturity and accountability in community, yet in my view, balances both sides of teaching found in Scripture.5 One final warning here as well. Moderation is not more righteous than those who choose not to drink.  I have seen a self-righteousness from some believers as it they were more pleasing to God because they drink.  Such silliness is a sign not of maturity, but immaturity, and we need to move on from this attitude.

Life in Our Community

A few words in conclusion. First, Romans 13 is clear that we are to obey the laws of the state.  If you are not 21, you do not drink. Period. Second, as we live life together as Jacob’s Well there will be both abstentionists and moderationists among us.  If you find yourself leaning towards mandating your abstinence for others in judgment of their partaking, please cease. You have no biblical warrant and will jack up our church making it a not so fun place to live. Furthermore, if your moderation is leading you towards drinking too much, you need to repent of sin and live differently. You may even need to have others help you move forward and put down the sauce. How can we discern these things?  We must live openly with one another in community.  A healthy community will help one another to avoid the extremes of both legalism and license.  We must be honest with a brother or sister if we know he or she is drinking too much.  We cannot sit idly by while someone begins to drink in a way that dishonors Christ and destroys their life. On the other side of the equation, if someone asks you if you are putting down too much beer/wine, you should thank God for this question, not be defensive that someone would ask.

In short, we must live in biblical love, with biblical wisdom regarding this gift of God.  To not to do so, or to create an oppressive, legalistic culture is simply a FAIL.  The Scriptures carve out a better path.

On that Journey with you,

Reid

Notes

Some of the material here has been reworked from Reid S. Monaghan—Gray Matters: Media, Movies and Miller Time available online at http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/gray_web_jw.pdf

  1. Stephen Mansfield, The search for God and Guinness—A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009) 5-6.
  2. Our friend Wikipedia has an overview outline of this season in our history and the Christian influence of the temperance movement—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_the_United_States
  3. Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformation—Reaching Out without Selling Out (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) 147, 148.
  4. See lecture by Albert Mohler and Russell Moore, Alcohol and Ministry, http://www.sbts.edu/MP3/Mohler/Alcohol&Ministry.mp3 for an example of this.
  5. For a more thorough treatment see Kenneth Gentry Jr., God Gave Wine (Lincoln, CA: Oakdown: 2001).