Alcohol serves an interesting, accidental purpose within the body of Christ. For one group of believers, alcohol can serve as a litmus test for whether or not a Christian is “fiery” and “passionate” about Jesus. For another group, it can also serve as a litmus test for whether or not a Christian is “legalistic” and “religious” in the way they live out their faith. Personally, I do not drink – socially or privately. There are a few reasons for this: alcohol abuse had a negative impact on my childhood. As a leader in the body of Christ, I care about what I endorse and influence others to do or refrain from doing. Finally, and most practically, I simply do not care for the taste of alcohol.
How should a Christian approach alcohol?
A Little History
Over the past two centuries, American Christians have enjoyed an interesting love / hate relationship with alcohol. Alcohol abuse was rampant in frontier America. By 1830 – the apex of drinking in the U.S., Americans were consuming, on average, 3.9 gallons of alcohol per year for every man, woman, and child.¹ 15 years later, however, this figure dropped dramatically – to an average of 1 gallon per person, per year. One possible contributing factor to this drastic decline in alcohol use and abuse may have been the Second Great Awakening.² However, by the end of the 19th century, alcohol abuse and many of the negative societal factors that go with alcohol abuse had returned. The Temperance Movement of the early 19th century had given way to the Prohibition Movement.
Prohibition, for all the controversy surrounding it, actually curbed alcohol consumption considerably in America. It would be some time before alcohol consumption would approach pre-Prohibition era levels. Currently, there are over 17 million alcoholics in America. Tens of thousands of fatalities per year happen because of drunk driving.³ No other drug or addictive substance comes close to the negative impact alcohol makes in our nation daily. It is because of the consistent negative impact of alcohol – with few positives to note – that has made alcohol and alcohol abuse an easy target for holiness preachers over the last few centuries.
A deep antipathy took hold within the social structure of the American church from its earliest days. Normally, when generations carry a conviction against certain behaviors, the “what” carries on far longer than the “why”. At some point, a new generation needs to reconnect with the “why” behind the “what” to abstain (or not abstain) according to honest, personal convictions. Social norms and unspoken biases dissipate at some point, apart from fresh voices re-examining the issues at hand.
The Bible and Alcohol
In terms of alcohol use, the Bible does not explicitly condemn it. The exhortations of Paul address drunkenness and a lack of moderation / self-control, but there is no prohibition against drinking in the scriptures. Within the Proverbs, Solomon gives us practical wisdom related to the consequences of excess. For many, the problems with alcohol connect with a lack of mature boundaries and a vision for moderation. Therefore, the scriptures focus on these issues.
Did Jesus drink wine? We know, of course, that He turned water into wine in John 2. It is possible that He drank wine in Matthew 11. The early church used wine for the communion meal (1 Cor. 11). It is important to note that wine would be a safe and satisfying way to quench one’s thirst in the ancient world because of the relative scarcity of potable water. (See: The Quest for Pure Water: The History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century, authors M.N. Baker and Michael Taras) Wine was a common part of a culture in which fermentation processes allowed for safe consumption of a satisfying drink.
What is remarkable is that the scriptures focus on temperance or moderation in an era of history in which it may have been a bit more difficult to actually get drunk than in our day. The ancient world consumed drinks with less alcohol than what is common today. Distillation of alcohol, which makes for a stronger drink, did not become common until the Middle Ages. Once distillation became common, “hard liquor” was introduced into society. Rum and whiskey were cheap to produce, and therefore a common part of colonial life in America, for example. Today, drinking alcoholic beverages is an exercise involving far different risks associated with larger percentages of alcohol in each drink.
Should a Christian Drink?
There are three things, then, to keep in mind:
1. There are cultural dynamics involved with alcohol.
As we examined briefly, there is an aversion in America to alcohol because of what people have either experienced or seen regarding its abuses. Therefore, there are real emotions attached to drinking that one would not necessarily find in other cultures where drinking is not as frowned upon. Amongst believers in Russia, there are similar aversions to alcohol because of abuse of it (and the consequences of abuse) within the culture. This is similar to traveling to Europe and talking to Christians there about guns. For an American Christian, it’s probably normal to either own a gun, shoot a gun, or know someone who does. There aren’t many negative emotions attached to it by Christians here. However, in Europe, using guns is almost on par with abortion, immorality, theft, etc. Some believers react to guns the same way that those from a Baptist background react to alcohol.
2. There are maturity issues involved with alcohol.
However, regardless of culture, I do not think that young adults should ever drink socially. Young people often fit the restrictions the scriptures do give on self-control and drunkenness. Few young adults have the restraint to drink responsibly, and therefore end up in sinful situations because of it. Restraint is a function of temperance and vision walked out over time in wisdom, and the short-sightedness of many young adults causes them to live for today’s pleasure and not a long-term view of tomorrow’s reward.
I have been in ministry for a several years. The number of times I have seen alcohol consumption lead to negative consequences far, far outnumbers the number of positive outcomes of drinking. I have never personally experienced the negative consequences of drinking and driving. However, I have seen many situations where immorality follows alcohol use. This is, of course, a personal observation. It is one that many other friends and colleagues have experienced as well. The restraints that are removed by excessive drinking lead to behaviors and compromises that have devastated relationships, marriages, and families. Beyond my personal observation, hard data is easy to find because of the increase of drunkenness on college campuses and the destructive consequences that often follow. Young adults and alcohol rarely mix well.
There are internal restraints of the conscience that are often hard to honor even when we are of sound mind. Excessive drinking can make it much more difficult to “stay within the boundaries” of biblical morality. This is why Paul urged us in Ephesians 5:18 to “not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit.” We want to do more than restrain from sin. We want to continually access the power of God by His Spirit to live victoriously, and to love differently. We want new desires and new passions. We were made for more than restraining from old ones. While drinking is not prohibited anywhere within the Bible, Paul is urging us in this passage to prioritize something far more important than our right to drink.
It is important to note that I would never suggest refraining from wine privately in family settings. The governing structure of the family is hopefully healthy and more than able to urge temperance and restraint where necessary. To put that more bluntly, it is very hard (in a healthy family) to get drunk and slip into compromise with one’s family. Nonetheless, no leader or minister of the gospel has the right to draw boundaries that exceed biblical commands in a way that usurps the authority of the family unit.
It is also important to note again that drinking wine is not inherently sinful. It is possible to be a fiery, committed, faithful Christian and drink wine. The appeal that I am making is one of wisdom. One can drink, but should we? If we drink, what do healthy boundaries look like, and how will we stay within them? We should not simply brush aside concerns that arise from the downside of excessive drinking, but should take them seriously and (forgive me) soberly. In the same way, guns are not inherently sinful objects. There is no biblical prohibition against them and nothing wrong with firing a few rounds at a shooting range, or hunting in the woods. However, every hunter and shooter I know has great respect for the power of their weapon to bring much harm to themselves or others. Therefore, they tread carefully and within agreed upon boundaries.
Knowing the potential dangers of alcohol abuse, we should attempt to do the same.
3. There are leadership issues involved with alcohol.
Because of these factors, leaders have to be sensitive to both culture and maturity related to the example that they set. Leaders have the liberty to drink, but Paul urged us to set aside our “right” to drink if that right causes those who are new and immature in the faith to stumble. Some stumble because of cultural reasons, others for maturity reasons, but either way, leaders need to be sensitive to that in love. Leaders that exercise their liberty to prove a point are, in my opinion, acting irresponsibly. They are also acting mildly arrogantly. There are ways for leaders to drink responsibly and with sensitivity. I choose to abstain, but that choice is not for everyone. I am not proposing a restriction on drinking. I am proposing a bias towards the higher law of love that wants to fight for all that those who follow us can lay hold of by the grace of God.
I’ve never regretted my decision to abstain from drinking. My decision to abstain does not make me more holy, more “radical”, or even place me to receive “more of God” than those who do not. However, I do believe that it has positioned me to love well without apology. It has positioned me as a father and a husband to be about something more than my own personal pleasure and recreation. It has positioned me as a leader to serve a generation to reach with me for something that is ultimately far more satisfying. It’s not a sacrifice to me, and I do not feel as if I am missing out.
In all my years of ministry, there is no subject that has elicited greater emotion or sharper responses than this one. It is not my desire, in writing this, to provoke strong reactions. I simply had the desire to serve a growing need today for biblical instruction on this subject. There is a growing chorus of voices giving a strong apologetic for drinking and our right to. I wanted to offer another perspective, or an apologetic for abstinence and our liberty to pursue something far more worthy of our time.
¹Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
²Hamson, Darryl. The Rise and Fall of Alcohol Consumption in Early America.
³Caldwell, John. To Drink or Not to Drink. Christian Standard, August, 2012.