Freedom to Drink And Not Drink

I went to an evangelical Christian college that did not permit the consumption of alcohol. I grew up in a household and a conservative church culture–Midwest to boot–where drinking was out of the question and seen as bereft of goodness. I’m the child of an American evangelicalism that has had a decidedly contentious (to put it mildly) relationship with alcohol (see “Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline”).

But as I grew older, left home and left college, I came to see that drinking alcohol is a) not forbidden by Scripture (as opposed to drunkenness, which is) and b) actually quite wonderful. Like many of my peers who grew up in similar environments, I became rather fond of drinking fermented beverages in social settings, whether a Cabernet with dinner, IPA with friends or a single-malt scotch on special occasions.

Over time I noticed that it seemed increasingly popular amongst my fellow “twentysomething Christians” to embrace the fullest extent of liberty in the area of alcohol. I attended church small groups where beer and cocktails were regularly consumed; I went to parties where dozens of Christian college students and alumni were drinking from kegs and doing Sake bombs; I visited churches that met in bars; I went to Christian conferences where the “after parties” were raucous affairs at pubs; I met Christian beer critics, bartenders, pub owners.

I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. In fact much of it is to be celebrated as harmless, good-old-fashioned “exhilaration,” as in the famous Martin Luther quip, “we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

What worries me is this question: Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a “liberty” and more a shackling legalism–something we can’t, or won’t, go without? As my pastor Alan often says, are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?

Other questions I think many of us would do well to ask ourselves:

  • Is alcohol a “nice to have” or a “must-have”? Can we go out to eat without ordering an alcoholic beverage? Attend a party and only drink soda? Dare to not have some booze in our house for a stretch of time?
  • Are we mindful of those around us, and if they struggle with alcohol in any way are we willing to abstain for their sake? Drinking alcohol may be a perfectly biblical, perfectly Christian thing to do. But if for others in our community it is a hardship or a temptation, then shouldn’t we abstain? As Christians, the ascetic call to deny ourselves perfectly good things for the sake of a community or a commitment is a worthy pursuit.
  • Do we wear our freedom as a badge of honor, as “proof” that we are under grace and thus can drink and party to our heart’s content? If so, we should check ourselves, because reducing grace to a sanctioning of pleasure is tragic; furthermore, if we are talking about freedom under grace, then what about the freedom to deny ourselves and go without? Grace makes this possible too.
  • Do we have a serious-enough understanding of how dangerous alcohol can be? Alcohol has a long and tumultuous history as an addictive wrecker of lives. We all know people who’ve been ruined or nearly ruined by it. We must be careful that our incremental habituation of it in our lives doesn’t become a controlling idol. Alcohol is not something to be trifled with.

Christians have the “right” to consume all sorts of things, though we are told not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23). Rather, we are instructed, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32).

This last part is key, something the Apostle Paul routinely emphasized (especially in Rom. and 1 Cor.). Because it is true that Christians have differing tolerances (“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables,” Rom. 14:2), we should not pass judgment on or treat with contempt those with different liberties than us.

But we must also be real with ourselves. What’s the point of freedom if it doesn’t free us to enjoy, but also to abstain from, something in culture? And it goes beyond alcohol. There are all sorts of good items and activities in culture that we are free to enjoy in moderation. Food, fitness, movies, music, travel, sports, gaming, and on and on. But the minute any of this becomes something we can’t live without, or something we excessively consume to the point that we need it more than we enjoy it, we should be concerned.

Because ultimately, the goodness of something that we might consume is at its most good when we enjoy it in a God-centric way rather than a me-centric way. That is: when we see it as a gift from God and something to reflect glory back to him, rather than something that serves us and our needs.

Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation, which includes man’s creative (fermenting) genius. The freedom to drink should not be a freedom to drown one’s sorrows, prove a point or get a fix; it should be a freedom that fixes our eyes ever more on Christ, the giver of life who turns water into wine and makes all things new.

This is the third in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my new book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books). See also: part one and two.

4 responses to “Freedom to Drink And Not Drink

  1. Alcohol is one of the greatest curses if not the greatest curse to humankind.
    Yeah I know Jesus turned water to wine but it was…in that time. He used the tools to teach. But look at the history of alcohol. It has been the curse of all nations and all people. Alcoholism is a psychic disease. Alcohol is excellent whiles used as a medium In making pharmaceutical preparations. But as a spirit it is ruthless when taken within. Alcohol is the spirit of conviviality and good fellowship…through all of the stages of drunkenness as it leads its victim. You can make alcohol out of any plant because its spirit is of the earth and in time paralyzes the spirit in conscious inertia. The only way to master this beast and not be a slave to this spirit is to set a firm mental attitude not to take it, not to drink it…..ever. If not it can master you rather than you master it. U will be tested. MMR

  2. When I read your article, I felt as if I had traversed a bridge and shook hands with someone that, I might not always agree with but I can respect. I’ve read similar articles that have the mocking undertones for those who choose not to drink but I don’t see any of that in your article. I grew up much like you Brett in that, I was taught wine should be abstained from and could cause us to be a stumbling block to others. I know this is a matter of argument among many Christians and each of us have our reasons for or against alcohol. I still abstain to this day for many different reasons (another day and time) but I can honestly say I do not judge others who choose to drink wine. It doesn’t bother me if I go to lunch or dinner with a co-worker and they choose to order a glass of wine. I do not sit there and prepare an argument or sly quip about “slippery slopes”, etc. However, sometimes I see a reverse trend in that because I abstain, I am judged because others believe that because I choose not to drink, I am judging them. I wanted to say thank you for asking these real and honest questions and posing thoughts that I myself have often wanted to voice. I don’t want people to judge me just because I choose to take a different path than they. What I appreciate is the fact that I very rarely see someone who has honestly asked these questions while still being of a differing opinion than myself. It’s rather refreshing. I feel if all Christians took this approach, we would have a lot more constructive discussions and a lot less bitterness, resentment and judgement. Thanks!

    • Thanks for your comments Ashley! I’m glad the article was refreshing to you. I definitely hope that you are not judged for abstaining. I think it’s a perfectly legitimate and honorable position to take; there are many, many valid reasons to NOT drink. I hope that both sides on this question are quick to listen and slow to speak, before they judge the other side.

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