Tag Archives: alcohol

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.

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Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline

Christians have had a decidedly love/hate relationship with alcohol. The infamous “drink” has been regarded by Christians at various times with awe, horror, religious devotion, fear, obsession, prohibition, addiction, and temperance. It has been one of the most divisive issues within modern American evangelicalism, creating rifts within churches, within families, within Christian institutions. As Mark Noll has noted,

Some evangelicals have made opinions on liquor more important for fellowship and cooperation than attitudes toward the person of Christ or the nature of salvation. This is particularly unfortunate since the Bible speaks clearly about Christ and salvation, but not about the question of total abstinence.

How did alcohol become the subject of such an emotionally charged cultural debate? Have Christians always been so divided about it? (Short answer: no.) Is it significant that followers of Christ were the first people to invent sophisticated wine- and beer-making techniques (in medieval monasteries), but also the people who led the charge to make alcohol illegal in America?

My new book Gray Matters has an entire chapter devoted to the fascinating history of Christians and alcohol, but for a brief overview  of key points between the life of Christ and today’s world, see below timeline:

  • 27–28 AD: Jesus performs his first miracle: turning 120- 180 gallons of water into wine at a wedding banquet in Cana (see John 2:1-11).
  • 30–31 AD: Jesus says of wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).
  •  Second Century: St. Clement of Alexandria publishes Pedagogia, which included the first scholarly treatment of the subject of Christians and alcohol.
  • Fifth Century: St. Brigid of Ireland reportedly changes her dirty bathwater into beer so that visiting clerics would have something to drink.
  •  Twelfth Century: Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen discovers hops in beer.
  • 1620: Ship carrying John Winthrop to Massachusetts Bay Colony also carries more than 10,000 gallons of wine and three times as much beer as water.
  • 1670: Hard cider a staple at ministerial ordinations in apple-rich New England
  • 1673: Increase Mather publishes Wo to Drunkards, in which he says, “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.”
  • 1736: The ill effects of gin in England lead Anglican clergyman Thomas Wilson to publish Distilled Spirituous Liquors the Bane of the Nation.
  • 1759: Arthur Guinness opens his brewery in Dublin; eventually uses money from its success to fund Christian charities, hospitals, and Sunday School programs.
  • 1770s–80s: Spanish Catholics plant first vineyards in California at missions up and down the coast.
  • 1805: America’s first temperance sermon, “The Fatal Effects of Ardent Spirits” is delivered by Rev. Ebenezer Porter in Washington, CT.
  •  1826: Revivalist pastor Lyman Beecher publishes Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasion, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance, condemning liquor for “the moral ruin it works in the soul.”
  •  1840: The Washingtonian Movement, one of America’s first anti-alcohol organizations, is formed.
  • 1869: Methodist pastor Thomas Welch invents a method of pasteurizing grape juice so that it isn’t fermented. He persuades local churches to adopt this non-alcoholic “wine” for communion services, calling it “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.”
  • 1873–74: “Mother” Eliza Thompson—a devout Methodist—leads “crusade” of women protesting American drinking establishments.
  • 1874: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is formed.
  • 1893: Ohio pastor Howard Hyde Russell establishes Anti-Saloon League, a nationwide pressure group aimed at ridding the country of alcohol.
  •  1899: Carrie Nation attacks saloons with hatchets and sledgehammers and becomes an icon of female-led temperance movement.
  • January 17, 1920: Eighteenth Amendment goes into effect in America; Billy Sunday holds symbolic funeral service for “John Barleycorn.”
  •  1933: Twenty-first Amendment ends Prohibition.
  • 1933–1949: “The Inklings” convenes Christian luminaries like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford for beer-aided literary discussions.
  •  1935: Christians “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob” found Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • 1980: Televangelist Jack Van Impe publishes Alcohol: The Beloved Enemy.
  •  2000s: First “bar churches” begin popping up.
  • 2003: Wheaton College changes rules to allow faculty, staff and graduate students to drink alcohol in private, when not around undergrads.
  •  2009: Bestselling author Stephen Mansfield publishes, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World.
  •  August 9, 2011: In blog post, evangelical pastor/author John MacArthur chastises the “Young, Restless, Reformed” community for their reckless approach to alcohol.

The above is an excerpt from Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty (Baker, 2013).

Was Jesus Ever Tipsy?

And if he was, does that mean being tipsy is not a sin? This is a question I have been wondering lately. I’ve been wondering about drinking for Christians. Where is the line? What is appropriate? I’ve been wondering about it because most of the Christians I associate with drink alcohol, some of them love it, and many churches and pastors I’ve visited this year have promoted alcohol consumption in various ways. But this is soooo different from what I grew up in. The conservative Baptist outlook on alcohol (in which I was reared) was strictly prohibitionist—probably a vestige of cultural influences (American temperance movements, fundamentalism, etc) moreso than careful Biblical exegesis.

But what about alcohol is so inherently bad? The obvious answer is that it leads people to lose their faculties and do dumb things. It causes car accidents and drunk texting. It gives you liver cancer. But all of these negative things happen only when alcohol is consumed in excess. Similar negative outcomes are associated with anything consumed in excess. Eating McDonald’s in excess, for example: makes you obese. Drinking soda in excess: gives you diabetes. Playing Halo in excess: numbs your brain and inhibits you socially. Obsessing about Twilight: crowds out more enriching life pursuits.

But all of these things are good in moderation, even (MAYBE) Twilight.
These are good things—the fruits of this beautiful planet that God created and let us live in. Why should we abstain just because these things might lead to sin?

The Bible does not tell us to abstain. Jesus clearly drank wine. He turned six huge jars of water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11). Even the evangelical Pope himself will admit it.

“Jesus drank wine,” Billy Graham told the Miami Herald in 1976. “Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast. That wasn’t grape juice, as some of them try to claim,” he added.

Drinking wine, and drinking other types of alcohol, can be a wonderful thing in moderation. I’ve come to really appreciate good quality fermented beverages myself. I like listening to classical music on a tired summer night while sipping a cool Pinot Grigio. I like picking up aromas of melon & orange blossom and maybe a hint of coconut. I like a good spicy Shiraz from Australian vineyards or a dark, earthy Sangiovese from under the Tuscan sun. The same goes for a good Chimay trappist ale or a sip of Jefferson Reserve 15 year bourbon. These things are just good things. Like rainbows or organ music or aspen trees in autumn. They are good.

Still, there is the question of how Christians should approach alcohol. Should we just abstain from it, in hopes of keeping ourselves safe from sin and the appearance of any evil? Some would argue that this is the true biblical stance. But theologian Scot McKnight says that this is going beyond what the Bible says—and that if one tries to be “more biblical than the Bible,” they are in danger of zealotry.

If God is God, and if God speaks to us in the Bible, then God spoke words that show that wine drinking is fine. One may choose not to drink, but that view is more extreme than what the Bible says. Drinking too much is contrary to the Bible, but not drinking at all is not what the Bible teaches (except for ascetic strands at time).

So we can drink. But is there a line we shouldn’t cross? When we get a little buzzed or tipsy? Is that unbiblical? The Bible is clear that drunkenness is a sin, but what about the “happy” feeling that you get after a few glasses of wine? What about the social-lubricant function of alcohol that makes us more chatty and affable and friendly? Is this always a bad thing? I’m not sure.

On one hand, I would say this: Some of my best, most “heavenly” moments have come in situations where I’m with friends and there is alcohol present. Whether it is in Oxford with friends at a pub, or in Tokyo with friends at the top of the Park Hyatt, drinking Suntory and looking out over the city, drinking frequently shows up in good and wonderful social memories.

On the other hand, I could say this: Christians are to be set apart from the world. Abstaining from a “worldly” thing like alcohol or infrequently consuming it is one way we can be different. Also, it is true that alcohol can easily lead us to situations of sin. It doesn’t take much to go from alcohol consumption being a neutral activity to it becoming a vice. The vast number of alcoholics in the world can attest to this.

But everything in life is fraught with potential disaster. Our nature infuses everything neutral with the potential to become complicit in evil. The world is beautiful and good, but it can quickly become a playground for licentiousness and depravity. Does that mean we should hide away in a cave somewhere, free of all temptation or potential vice? Should the fact that a juicy hamburger is full of cholesterol and other heart-killing ingredients scare me away from Red Robin forever? Does the potential for lusting after a member of the opposite sex mean that we should never go to the beach? Does the risk of death associated with rock climbing mean we should never attempt to scale a rock face? I don’t think so.

There is a thing called self-control. It’s one of the fruits of the Spirit. Christians have it. It’s a virtue that God gives us so that we can enjoy good things without enjoying them too much. It’s the ability to know when things have gone too far, and the ability to stop at that point. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.

And so is a pint of Guinness.