When Our Freedoms in Christ Collide:
Some Thoughts on Alcohol Consumption and the Zion Baptist Community
Posted on September 10, 2014
There is a sizeable number within our church community who have concluded that they have freedom to consume alcoholic beverages in some measure without compromising their relationship to God or their witness to the world. There is also a sizable group that have found freedom in Christ to abstain from alcoholic beverages. For some in this second group, it is the claiming of freedom from the brokenness they have experienced due to alcohol abuse in their own past or that they endured in other family members.
There is a third group of individuals at Zion who drink regularly but who show no evidence of having considered the spiritual implications of that habit. They are of pastoral concern both because of the risks of their behavior and also because of a pattern of living without discernment.
There is also a layer of cultural heritage that is evident here. Many Christians of European heritage came here with the view that consuming wine and beer as a beverage with a meal is an activity that is quite distinct from the use of such beverages as a social lubricant and destination activity. That distinction is not made so clearly in other cultures and in such environments, total abstinence is more common among Christians.
There are a number of areas of life where the people of ZBCC do not share common convictions: parenting practices, use of credit, dress codes, political involvement, etc. For the most part we do well in allowing the center of our faith to hold us together while respecting and upholding each other in spite of our differences in other areas. But sometimes our different freedoms on matters like alcohol consumption bump into each other and create discomfort and the potential for division.
This calls for wisdom and grace, which we should express first of all in a commitment to maintain a respectful attitude toward those who do not share our personal convictions on this matter and a kind manner of speaking about them. Those who are spiritual leaders in the congregation cannot monitor every conversation, but we can lead by the example of our own speech and we can be sure to counter inappropriate comments made in our presence.
A second wise and gracious commitment we can make is to keep all events that are done under the auspices of the church, completely alcohol free. This would include social gatherings, small groups, retreats, fishing trips, etc. Such a position is based on the teaching of Romans 14:17-23. Key ideas in this text include the following:
- Our priority whenever we gather is to foster peaceful relationships and to edify one another, not to insist on the right to enjoy our personal freedoms. (verse 19)
- Matters of food and drink are hardly priority matters in the kingdom of God. Righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit are. (verse 17) It should be no more difficult for us to stop using alcohol at a few events than it is for us to stop serving peanut butter or wearing perfume in order to avoid possible negative consequences to others.
- Paul writes about food which is a human necessity. His principles become even more emphatic when it comes to alcoholic beverages which in our context are pure luxury, not necessity.
- There are people who attend our events who are alcoholics. May we never put them at risk or prevent them from coming because of the beverages we serve. (verse 20-21)
- When it comes to practices for which there is not a shared conviction, Paul counsels us to keep our own freedoms as private as possible (verse 22). You may enjoy a cold beer with your barbeque in the privacy of your home and with friends who you know to be of similar perspective. But, by way of illustration, to insist on your right to have a beer on the men’s fishing trip is to insist on far too much. Our calling is much higher and broader than to provide for our thirst in our preferred way whenever we want.
The spiritual leaders of the church will implement this directive by their own example and through personal communication with those planning events in their area of ministry. We will not put this in writing and include it in our policy and procedure manual. There are two reasons this would not be advisable. First, consumption of alcoholic beverages is but one of dozens of similar issues that Christians face in developing a Christ honoring way of living. There is no way that all can be written up in adequate fashion without creating volumes of code that tend in the end to promote attitudes of judgemental legalism rather than mature decision making. It is better to teach the principles of the word of God and then prayerfully guide individuals in the application of those principles in their context. Second, any such directive inevitably leaves areas of uncertainty. Is an informal, spontaneous gathering of members of Zion an official church event or a private gathering? It may be hard to tell at times and we do not want to address one concern by creating other unresolved issues.
Why do Christians come to different conclusions on this matter?
The simple answer is that the Bible does not give a simple answer. There is no direct instruction that “yes you may” or “no you must not”. In addition, what the Bible does say on the matter must be translated from one culture and environment to another. For example, in ancient times it was common for grape juice to naturally ferment before consumption and for wine to be a safer beverage than water. It was often served in a diluted fashion, which made intoxication less likely. Such factors must be considered before making direct application of biblical practice to our very different context today.
Generally speaking, those who have concluded that they are free to drink alcoholic beverages point to scriptures like the following:
- Wine is presented in scripture as a blessing from God (Psalm 104:14-15)
- Fermented beverages are described in Deuteronomy 14:26 as an appropriate menu item in times of celebration of God’s goodness and faithfulness.
- There is implied approval of wine consumption when Jesus made more of it at a wedding (John 2).
- Even when the high standards for church leaders are outlined by Paul in I Timothy 3, the requirement is not total abstinence but “not given to drunkenness” (v.3) and “not indulging in much wine” (verse 8).
- There is the famous recommendation of Paul to Timothy to use wine for health reasons (I Timothy 5:23).
- There is a general caution in the New Testament about assigning spiritual merit to the practice of abstaining from food and other things that are part of the good creation of God. (I Timothy 4:1-5; Colossians 2:20-23)
Those who conclude that it is best for Christians to abstain from all consumption of alcoholic beverages have done so through application of other teachings of scripture. These include:
- The many warnings about drunkenness as a grievous sin. E.g. Proverbs 20:1
- Drinking alcohol communicates a passive endorsement of a practice that has brought immeasurable suffering into the lives of millions of people and at great cost to all of society. Ephesians 5:8-11
- Anything that diminishes the ability of the Holy Spirit to be in control of our lives is to be avoided. Ephesians 5:18
- A desire to be supportive of those who struggle with alcoholism. Romans 14:19
- Our bodies have now become temples of the Holy Spirit. I Corinthians 6:19-20
It is therefore inappropriate to deliberately cause harm or disability to our bodies. Anything beyond very moderate alcohol consumption carries significant health risks.
- It is better to pursue what is beneficial than what is permissible. I Corinthians 6:12
- As people continue to find new ways to enslave themselves, abstention from alcohol can be a powerful witness of the kind of freedom Christ brings to our lives. John 8:36
It should be noted that many of these references are not specifically addressing the consumption of alcohol, but are valid applications of general principles. At the same time, while principles of scriptures are infallible, we cannot automatically claim the same for the applications that we draw from them.
This is an example of what Paul refers to as a “disputable matter” (Romans 14:1), as opposed to a core doctrine of our faith. Both positions rest on some fairly solid biblical support, which is why there is long standing disagreement on this matter among Christians. If nothing else it behooves us, whichever side we come down on, to view those who disagree with respect. We should never automatically think of those who hold the opposite perspective as foolish indulgers or legalistic prudes.
Is it not odd that something could be called a gift of God when there are some significant risks attached to it? But is it not also true of every gift of God including things like knowledge and perhaps the riskiest gift of all, our freedom to choose. Given that alcoholic consumption is basically a luxury with nothing essential about it, we should if nothing else be particularly cautious in our enjoyment of this gift and encourage and admonish one another on these matters freely.
These ideas are still fermenting in the old oak recesses of my mind, so your thoughts and comments in response to this are most welcome.