Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christian Perspective on Alcohol

I'd like to write plainly about alcohol, and how Christians handle the issues around alcohol. These are tough issues, but I believe the Bible gives us good counsel that we can follow.

The Bible is clear that drunkenness is a sin (Rom 13:13, 1 Cor 5:11, 1 Cor 6:10, Gal 5:21, Eph 5:18). But there are multiple occasions in the Bible where people are drinking wine and no sin is evident. After three days of wedding celebration in Cana (John 2:1-11) - and we know they would have already drunk plenty of wine at that point - Jesus converts water into some especially good wine for them to enjoy. (Can you imagine your pastor thinking, "Yup, what these people need is…more wine!" ? ) This was his first miracle, and it was sufficient that some disciples put their faith in him based on it.

Some Christians have made the argument that Jesus and the disciples weren't drinking real wine. The idea that the wine in the Bible is non-alcoholic isn't reasonable. I can believe that much of the wine produced in that era was relatively low in alcohol by today's standards. Almost certainly wine was often diluted with water. The technology to create non-alcoholic beer, wine, etc. came much later than the biblical eras.

There is no question that alcohol is frequently abused, and the effects can be devastating to individuals and relationships. The testimony of history is clear. The destructive effects should be an easy sign to steer clear of drunkenness and be aware of how your drinking affects others (even if you don't become drunk).

I think churches should be very careful about serving alcohol, out of sensitivity to those who should not be drinking. It's not a good testimony to put beer or wine in front of alcoholics or children who should not be drinking.

There are many different cultural contexts for alcohol around the world. I have acquaintances in France who have been drinking wine since they were young children. It's simply part of meals and celebrations. They aren't getting drunk. John Wesley directed Methodists to abstain from alcohol - which was a perfectly reasonable thing for the Church to do as a testimony against the prevailing culture in England where alcoholism perhaps exceeded 60% of the English population and people were dying in the streets.

Most of the challenges in the Church come when we confuse personal convictions or cultural-based expectations and legalistically extend them as the measure by which to judge others inside and outside the Church.

Let me illustrate this with my own example. I don't drink any alcohol myself. I'm a teetotaler. I grew up in a region where people made excellent moonshine (corn liquor, also known as Everclear), and drank occasionally until I decided one day in college that I didn't need this anymore. I made a personal conviction that I wasn't going to drink alcohol. I believe God has confirmed that for me multiple times since then. But I don't judge others by that standard.

Don't miss my key point: Distinguish between a personal conviction and a rule that you apply to others. It's important and good to develop your own strong convictions. Do not take a legalist approach to judging others based on your personal conviction.

So, if you have a personal conviction on No Alcohol, don't use that to judge the "righteousness" of believers or not-yet-believers if they choose to drink alcohol.

And if you're using your freedom in Christ to enjoy a glass of wine with a meal, don't use that freedom to look down on teetotalers.

I do believe parents are responsible for protecting kids from inappropriate exposure to alcohol. Follow the laws in your country and region (see Romans 13 about living under authority). Train your children to think correctly about issues like alcohol consumption.

Preserving Freedom in Christ and Care Not to Harm Others

In Christ we have great liberty and freedom (Galatians 5:1), but we must be careful not to put stumbling blocks in front of others (1 Cor 8:9). I have met several youth pastors who feel perfect freedom in Christ to enjoy a beer. But they don't drink because their ministry to youth would be harmed. That's an example of not using our freedom in Christ because we might cause harm to others.
Sidebar: Biology Lesson on Alcohol Metabolism

Even casual observers note that some people "handle" drinking with fewer effects than others. You might think the ability to drink a lot is developed over time. Actually, your capacity for alcohol consumption is mostly genetic. There are two key enzymes involved in alcohol metabolism: alcohol dehydrogenase and acetaldehyde reductase. And there is genetic variation from person to person in the level those enzymes operate at. For example, the Irish and Bavarians and some other people groups have very efficient alcohol metabolism; some of these individuals can drink amounts that would put most people unconscious. American Indians have extremely inefficient alcohol metabolism; it doesn't take a lot of alcohol for them to experience the "buzz," and the effects are slow to wear off because the ethanol stays in their system longer. So there is genetic variation in alcohol metabolism.

Question: Who created that genetic variation? Answer: God did. Why do you judge your neighbor or your brother for having genetic variation that God created?

Another bit of biology: there is only weak-at-best evidence that alcoholism is a genetic trait. It does seem to run in families, but it is difficult scientifically to rule out environment effects. I think it's fair to say that the vulnerability to alcohol abuse may be genetic.

Christian maturity means standing on our freedom in Christ, but not using personal convictions as a legalistic standard for others (including other believers). Romans 14:4 is instructive here: "Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand."

I hope this sparks some helpful discussion and insights for you. I look forward to hearing your perspective in the comments.


Paul Golder said...

Actually John Wesley was against strong spirits, not beer and wine. He was known to brew his own beer, and even published an article in the paper on home brewing tips.

Tea, however, he felt was of no benefit, and a waste of money...

Glenn said...

Paul, thanks for the additional information.

Now I'll have to write a post on the Christian perspective of tea and coffee :-)

Cindy said...

Merry Christmas, Glenn and thank you for this very timely post. As I disciple women, there may be one or two who have, as you mentioned personal convictions and do not drink any alcohol at all. And they try to put this standard as the standard to measure another persons spiritual maturity. I have had a big problem with this. Thank you for presenting it in a way that I can explain it. As for me, ever since I was diagnosed with a congenital heart problem, I have been prescribed by the doctor to take a small measure of red wine daily. I try to do so, but many times forgo it when I am around others so they do not stumble. Again, thank you and God bless you as we enter a new year! Cindy

Glenn said...

Thanks, Cindy, I'm glad it's helpful information. Teach to change lives!