Should Christians Drink? – Avoiding the Extremes of Legalistic Teetotaler and Liberty and Lots of Beer for All

Posted: January 27, 2015 in Apologetics, Christian Living, Old Testament, Relativism, Theology

Alcohol_Should-Christians-DrinkAmong Christians, few topics are as hotly contested and polarizing as the use of alcohol. Those who abstain (teetotalers) are usually very opposed to its use, and those who partake usually find the teetotalers as legalistic Pharisees. But in my observation of these two groups, each has a tendency to fall into extremes – unhelpful and unbiblical views – furthering the divide between the drinkers and the nondrinkers. So lets take a look at these two ditches one can fall into and see how we can avoid them.

The Teetotaler – “Drinking is a sin…always”

The Christian who rails against alcohol and places it on the list of the top three sins, along with smoking and cussing, usually has two weapons with which he wages his teetotaling war. First are the Bible’s warnings against those who consume wine and strong drinks. Such verses include:

  • Proverbs 20:1 “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise. “
  • Ephesians 5:18 “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit”
  • Isaiah 5:11 “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them!”
  • Proverbs 23:31-32 “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder.”

The second justification for the teetotaler position comes from Romans 14:21 and 1 Corinthians 8:13 which states that it is better not to partake of something lawful that would cause your brother to sin.

The Teetotaler Ditch

As I see it, there are two problems for this position and several ditches to fall into.

First, if you survey all the scripture verses about alcohol, you will not find one prohibition of alcohol directed to Christians. It is just not there. While there are warnings against its abuse, there is no prohibition of its use. Additionally, the very fact that Scripture warns against its abuse implies by default the use of alcohol may be permissible. While we should not downplay the warnings, we should also not make rules that are not in the Scriptures. This legalism is what the Pharisees did, and Jesus condemned them for it.

Second, as with the legitimacy of the drunkenness warnings, we must seriously consider the warning not to make fellow believers stumble. However, while we love cut and dry rules, this command is a matter of conscience. Certainly we don’t abstain from ALL things that have the possibility of making another stumble. Do we not eat sweets for fear of causing a glutton to stumble? Do we abstain from watching sports with a sports fanatic for fear of increasing his idolatry? The message from Paul is, “Don’t knowingly cause a brother to stumble.” If you know your brother in Christ has struggled with addiction, don’t invite him over for beer. If you know your brother struggles with checking out on his family, don’t buy him an X-Box. I am not implying moral relativism, as there is a definite right and wrong for every person in every situation. But what I am saying is that this issue is based upon the situation; it is not a blanket command to do nothing that could have the potential to cause anyone anywhere to fall into sin. This would render us all immobile.

Finally, I think the primary ditch for the teetotaler to fall into is importing his conscience onto everyone else. The Scriptures often give principles that apply to the intentions of the heart. However, we like to forget the heart and just live by rules. But this is not God’s way. We should be concerned with the spirit of the law and not impose rules on others that add to the letter of the law. While abstinence will be right for some (and it most certainly is), it may not be required for others. Therefore, the teetotaler must resist the temptation to condemn others who do not violate God’s commands, but who violate the teetotaler’s commands.

Christian Liberty – All Things Are Lawful, So Drink Up!

The proponents of Christian liberty regarding alcohol – of which I am one – appeal to two general lines of reasoning for their justification. First, they point out the Bible does not condemn the use of alcohol as indicated above. In fact, they even say the Bible encourages or permits alcohol use in several instances. Consider the following verses.

  • Proverbs 31:6-7 “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter, Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his trouble no more.” This verse encourages one to use alcohol like one would use medicine (perhaps as a sedative or a temporary anti-depressant). Paul likewise commends alcohol for its medicinal use (1 Tim. 5:23).
  • Psalm 104:14-15 “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes man’s heart glad, so that he may make his face glisten with oil, and food which sustains man’s heart…” Here alcohol is said to be a gift from God to cheer the heart.
  • Isaiah 25:6 “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” Here the Lord seems to indicate that alcohol will a part of the feast in the new heavens.
  • Matthew 11:9 “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Here it seems to indicate that even Jesus himself was drinking alcohol. Otherwise, why would they accuse him of being a drunkard?

The second argument for alcohol use is that Christians are free in Christ. We are freed from being justified by the law (Gal. 5:1). While the morals undergirding the Old Testament law remain, we are no longer bound to rules and customs as a means of justification. God’s concern is with the heart. All things are lawful as it were, but not all things are beneficial and derive from a pure heart (1 Cor. 6:1). So while there is not freedom to violate God’s moral commands, there is freedom from feeling the need to be justified by self-imposed rules or by Mosaic customs no longer necessary because of Christ.

The Liberty Ditch

Now while I think the liberty position is correct, I think there are three possible ditches to fall into.

First, I think many Christian drinkers neglect the consciences of others. They assume since liberty allows them to drink, then it allows everyone else to drink. Anyone who chooses to abstain is legalistic. However, drinkers should be sensitive to the consciences of others and realize the Spirit may have bound another’s conscience. You should not claim or feel superiority for exercising your liberty. Rather, you should be thankful for their holiness and sensitivity to Christ. Your gift of liberty should humble you, not give you a prideful spirit and dullness toward the hearts of others.

Second, and related to the first, many Christian drinkers totally ignore the “do not cause your brother to stumble” command. While they may give lip service, they ignore it with their actions. Are you concerned with who you drink around? What is your attitude about alcohol around those who are younger, especially children and teens? Do you teach them a Biblical view or are you cavalier? Jesus said it would be better for a millstone to be tied around your neck and have you tossed into the sea than for you to cause a young one to stumble. Are there recovering addicts in your church? If so, how do you treat alcohol when in the presence of these people?

The final ditch, and I think the most dangerous, is that Christian drinkers often neglect the warnings in Scripture about alcohol. Many of us, coming out of teetotaler backgrounds, are so excited about our newfound liberty that we ignore God’s warnings altogether. Oh how dangerous! As with many great gifts, the potential for calamity is always at hand, therefore great caution and maturity are necessary. Consider fire, how when kept in the fireplace can keep the house warm. But when it passes its boundary, it can burn the house down. It is not a thing for children or foolish, senseless individuals. In similar manner, alcohol is a great gift, but not for the foolish, senseless, uncontrolled individual. It is for the mature, the self-controlled, and those who see its danger. And even then, it may need to be avoided. The grave warnings in Scripture should dispel any cavalier attitude one may have toward alcohol. While alcohol can gladden the heart (Psalm 104:15) it can also lower the inhibitions to the point of making you susceptible to sin, the very enemy of your savior. So if you are cavalier about alcohol, if you flaunt your liberty and treat it as a light thing, then perhaps you are the very one who should abstain.

So I challenge you to consider these points in light of your current convictions about alcohol. If you are a teetotaler, are you adding rules to the Bible to make yourself feel better before God and superior than others? Are you concerned about the souls of those who choose to drink, or are you more concerned with them following your rules. For those of you who see alcohol as a Christian liberty, do you abuse your liberty? Are you cavalier about it? Do you see its danger and guard yourself? Wherever you are, be on guard, for you bear the name of Christ and your soul hangs in the balance.

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