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ARE CHRISTIANS FREE TO DRINK IN MODERATION? Print E-mail
Written by Kevin L. Howard   
Throughout this article, I'll be responding to the article by Richard Land and Barrett Duke, "On Alcohol Use," posted on the ERLC.com website on July 25, 2006.  They argue that Christians should not drink alcohol for social purposes.  According to Land & Duke, Christians are not free to do so.  (I've italicized my longer quotations of them.)

 

While I disagree with their main premise, we agree on several issues.  Alcohol use can easily lead to abuse.  Millions of lives worldwide are destroyed by its abuse.  However, none of these constitute the stand Land & Duke take.

 

Before we go further, it's important to note that I don't drink alcohol.  In fact, I have never taken a drink.  No one in my immediate family drank, and I grew up in a church culture that taught that drinking alcohol, in any amount, was wrong.  I've also had close relatives who abused alcohol, so I've seen the dark side of alcoholism.  But I've had mature Christian friends who drank in moderation.  When I first encountered them, I struggled with their behavior.  Their drinking didn't cause me to develop a weaker view of God or tempt me to become an alcoholic.  I wasn't used to seeing people who called themselves believers drink.  With that said, let's plunge ahead and examine Land & Duke's arguments.

 

Let's start with a statement of theirs, "Even those who are able to control their drinking should recognize that they are engaged in a behavior that is destroying millions of lives, and choose to abstain rather than encourage by their behavior someone to drink who will not be able to control his drinking."  This proposition just isn't true.  People drinking in moderation aren't engaged in behavior that's destroying lives.  People engaged in drunkenness are. 

 

To Land & Duke's credit, they admit that alcohol is used in medicine.  "Of course, one must be careful when speaking to the issue of alcohol consumption.  After all, many medicines contain alcohol.  One can find it in fairly high percentages in cough syrup, for example."

 

Then they move to the heart of their discussion, "What is of concern when it comes to alcohol consumption, however, is its recreational/social use." 

 

As they examine the Old Testament treatment of alcohol, they conclude, "Practically all of the uses of these words speak of alcoholic beverages in a negative context. However, it appears that the negative aspect is principally related to the debilitating effects on people, not on the alcoholic beverage in itself.  Alcohol as a substance is not evil.  For example, Psalm 104:14-15 speaks of wine, 'which makes man's heart glad,' as one of God's provisions for man."  Land & Duke concede "...it was not an 'evil' substance."

 

They acknowledge that people drank alcohol in the early days of the Church but go on to say, that, "...except for the handful of references in the Gospels that speak of wine...and the neutral and metaphorical references in Revelation...one encounters only negative statements about the non-medicinal use of alcoholic beverages.  Except for one reference to its medicinal use (1 Tim. 5:23), all of the remaining references, to the actual fermented juice of the grape are warnings or prohibitions to its use or abuse, (see Rom. 14:21; Eph. 5:18; 1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7; 2:3).  In addition, the New Testament calls Christians to sobriety, which while not alluding solely to the issue of alcohol abuse certainly includes it (1 Thess. 5:1-11), and to lifestyles contrary to those of the debauched culture...."  Calling for sobriety isn't the same as calling for abstinence.

 

Land & Duke make an important point when they say, "The alcohol content of beverages referred to in the Bible was considerably lower than many of today's alcoholic beverages."  Even though the alcohol of ancient times was likely weaker than today, one could still get drunk on it, something Land & Duke admit.  To my knowledge many people can drink one beer without getting drunk or buzzed.  So the question still remains, can Christians drink in moderation? 

 

The two writers distinguish the prevalent use of alcohol in ancient cultures because of sanitary reasons, which is true.  It is legitimate to ask, since we have so many other kinds of non-alcoholic drinks today, do we need to drink alcoholic beverages?  (We'll deal with this question later.)

 

Land & Duke write, "When one wants to find a positive picture of alcohol in the Bible, one must look at it from a much different angle-the angle of abstinence."  But they're not being truly honest with Ps 104:15, which says, "wine makes man's heart glad."  Instead they discuss the abstinence of the Nazirites (Num. 6:1-21).

 

They admit that some dedicated servants of the Lord in Bible times drank beverages containing alcohol.  And they reason rightly by saying, "...it would have been very difficult not to do so, simply because the means to maintaining a healthy level of hydration required drinking beverages that contained at least trace amounts of alcohol." 

 

Reluctantly, they admit, "...there were times when the beverage placed before him [Jesus] probably contained alcohol."  Notice the passive "placed before" as though Jesus never would have reached for it himself.  Yet Land & Duke also acknowledge that Jesus appears to have called attention to his use of wine.  Then they quote Matthew 11:18-19, where Jesus said, "'For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He has a demon!" The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, "Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard...."'"  Rightfully, Jesus wasn't a drunkard, which would have been a sin.  Again, Land & Duke reluctantly admit that Jesus "...did not totally abstain from beverages that had any alcohol content...."  Their way out of this tight spot, however, is to say, "Jesus wasn't engaged in drinking alcoholic beverages because He felt it was His right to do so, He was doing this to make a point-that the unbelieving just looked for excuses not to believe."

 

The two authors make several points to discredit those who use John 2:1-11 in favor of Christians drinking alcohol:

  • "First, we cannot be positive that what Jesus created had alcoholic content."  Admittedly this is so, but since Land & Duke have already conceded that Jesus drank, why the hesitation?  Do they really think Jesus made grape juice?
  • "Second, John tells us that Jesus performed this miracle as a 'sign' (John 2:11)." Just because Jesus had a greater purpose for the wine than mere consumption doesn't make it less fermented.
  • "Third, the text never says that Jesus drank any of this wine."  Assuming it was alcoholic (a good assumption), are Land & Duke suggesting it's fine for Jesus to make wine but not drink it?  Could we argue that Christians can sell alcohol but not drink it?

 

Land & Duke find it inconceivable that Jesus ever drank socially.  Of course they find it inconceivable, they've just dismissed the Jn 2 story, which almost certainly argues against their case.  And they've left undealt with the Last Supper in which Jesus surely would have drunk wine.  Even though this feast, associated with the Passover, would have been done out of tradition, can the social element be removed?  Jesus and his disciples would have drunk wine just as much for the pleasure of the occasion as they would have for the ritualistic aspect.

 

The two authors acknowledge that not every reference to alcohol in Scripture is negative but say, "...when one examines the full counsel of Scripture regarding alcohol use, there is little doubt that it warns against its use and unequivocally condemns its abuse."  They claim that, "...there appears to be a clear movement in Scripture toward a rejection of alcohol use."  But I don't see it.  Where is the specific evidence?

 

Land & Duke acquiesce the medical usage of alcohol in Scripture and say that we have better medicine now.  And I can go along with this.  But then they say, "What is clear in these passages, however, is that there is no hint that one can use alcohol for recreational/social purposes."  Here they argue from silence.  Drinking alcohol was a common part of ancient culture.  Why would we expect a verse that says believers can drink, when many, if not most, of them were already doing it?  There's no hint in Scripture that we can have anything like a website, but that doesn't mean websites are wrong.  Besides, isn't Ps 104:15 ("wine makes man's heart glad") more than a hint?

 

Without denying alcohol was used in the Lord's Supper, Land & Duke make big of the references made to "cup" and "fruit of the vine" rather than wine.  But this argument is a desperate grasp for straws.  Their words, "we think it is significant that there is no direct reference in Scripture to an alcoholic substance in connection with it," don't support their point.  Every Christian in that culture knew the "cup" and "fruit of the vine" referred to wine.

 

Then Land & Duke say, "Those who cannot find chapter and verse to justify consuming alcohol still argue that their freedom in Christ enables them to imbibe."  Again, the two authors invoke an argument from silence to aid their position, but they have less biblical ground to stand on than those who argue for moderation.  Do Land & Duke expect the absence of a verse that says, "It is OK for Christians to drink alcohol in moderation," to prove something when the ancient culture was rife with alcohol consumption? 

 

I agree with them that, "...the freedom that Christians enjoy is not the same as license. The Christian must weigh his freedom against his responsibility in order to determine the appropriateness of certain behaviors."  This proposition, however, falls short of proving their point-"...there are overwhelming reasons for abstaining from the consumption of beverage alcohol."

 

The three main reasons they give for self-restraint are:

  • Witness to the lost
  • Service to the saved
  • Appropriate treatment of the body

 

If drinking alcohol causes a believer to stumble, or causes a non-believer to think less of Christ, then, by all means, a Christian should abstain when around those vulnerable people.  But Land & Duke go too far.  They say, "While some have argued that they find greater acceptance among a certain subset of the population because they drink with them, this is not the case for the vast majority of people who need to be reached with the Gospel.  In fact, many lost people have certain expectations of Christians, and one is that they do not drink."  How do they know what the majority of the world thinks about Christians drinking?  I've lived overseas and in every major region of the U.S., and I'm not so sure lost people have a problem with Christians drinking. 

 

I'm afraid Land & Duke's statement, "Many of the lost recognize this as a distinguishing feature between Christians who are serious about their faith and those outside of the faith," is just odd reasoning.  Suppose it's true.  Who cares?  That many think this way doesn't prove the point that drinking in moderation is wrong.  Isn't that what this discussion is about?  Are Christians free or not?  Is drinking alcohol in moderation permissible?  That people abuse alcohol fails to make the case that drinking socially is wrong.  People abuse TV constantly, even if they're watching shows that seem fairly innocent.  Watching too much TV is a bad thing.  It's a waste of time and can lead to moral corruption.  But just because some people watch forty plus hours of TV a week and because many shows contain evil content doesn't mean it's always wrong to watch TV.

 

Land & Duke say, "It is inconceivable that one's concept of Christian freedom could include the freedom to engage in any behavior that has become so devastating to millions of those in and outside of the church."  The use of a slippery slope argument also fails in this case simply because it assumes that drinking in the first place is wrong.  Driving a car has the potential to ruin lives, especially if one spins out of control, but we wouldn't ban driving unless we had proof that it is wrong to drive at all.  The two authors have yet to make their case. 

 

But they speak truth when they say, "The Christian must also keep in mind how the example of his own lifestyle influences others."  I disagree, however, with their conclusions-to be a good example Christians can't drink in moderation.  If drinking is causing another brother to stumble, Christians must stop drinking in the weaker person's presence.  But the question on the table is, does drinking always, in every place, and in every culture, cause weaker Christians to stumble? 

 

Again Land & Duke take too harsh of a stand when they say, "We disagree with those who say they can drink alcoholic beverages in the privacy of their own homes because they are not influencing anyone to follow their example.  Parents, for example, must understand that their children will likely follow their example."  While they might be right about parents with children in the house, it doesn't make the case that parents must always abstain.  This behavior influences their children, but we can't assume it's always for the worst.  What if their children grow up to drink in moderation?  What about single Christians who drink in the privacy of their home?  Are these singles negatively influencing others?

 

Land & Duke again reach for straws in their scenario involving a drunken pastor.  Their sentence reads, "It would be a terrible disservice if a family had just experienced some tragic loss, and their pastor could not offer the spiritual counsel and support they needed because he had to sober up first."  Unfortunately, their scenario is too eager, assuming drunkenness when the discussion is about moderation. 

 

For their third argument-appropriate treatment of the body-Land & Duke say, "God created the human body.  That in itself should be sufficient reason to abstain from alcohol use."  I agree that God created the body, but their conclusion is based on their assumptions, not Scripture.  If we make Land & Duke live by their own criteria-having a chapter and verse-they fail to make their case.  Just because the Holy Spirit dwells in believers is hardly an argument for never drinking.  Ephesians 5:18 says "don't get drunk with wine" not "don't drink wine."  And surely Paul could have said "don't drink wine" if that's what he meant. 

 

Land & Duke are correct when they say, "Alcohol consumption is purely a lifestyle choice.  It is not a necessary part of one's life, like eating."  We have many other drinks to choose from today.  And that could be reason enough for many Christians to stay away from something that could easily lead to abuse.  But the question here is not, should Christians always stay away from everything that could be dangerous?  Rather, the question is, should Christians always choose a non-alcoholic drink?  That's for Land & Duke to establish, which they haven't done yet. 

 

Land & Duke conclude with five points:

  • "Christians are not free to do anything they please."
  • "Selfishness should be shunned."
  • "Sacrifice is a Christian virtue."
  • "God's glory is the most important concern for Christians."
  • "The Christian must remember that he will be judged for his every deed, both those that affect his own life and those that affect the lives of others."

 

I agree with all of these principles, but none individually or collectively prove that Christians should always abstain from drinking alcohol.  These five points assume drinking socially in moderation is wrong but don't show it to be so.  Who says you can't drink a beer to the glory of God?  Can I drink my soda to the glory of God?  (Some people would probably argue no regarding my soda, but I would disagree.)

 

My main contention with Land & Duke's article is that frequently, while acknowledging that the Bible doesn't condemn the use of alcohol in all cases, they seem to confuse drunkenness with moderation.  Too often they argue against drunkenness and assume their arguments refute the case for drinking recreationally in moderation.

 

I can respect a position that says, "I choose not to drink because I don't want to ever be in a situation that might cause someone else to stumble or put myself at risk of an addiction."  And some Christian organizations choose the safer side of the debate by requiring their employees to abstain, which is fine.  But that's quite different than saying, "A Christian can't drink because it's wrong."  Such a stringent position, the one Land & Duke take, without using those exact words, moves close to the beliefs and actions of the Pharisees.

 

The Pharisees followed the traditions of men rather than God.  But Jesus warned the Pharisees about some of the beliefs they held dearly (Mt 9:13; 15:1-14; 23:1-15).  He said they loved the praise from men more than the praise from God (Jn 12:43).  And Jesus showed in Mt 15 that good intentioned religious people are capable of being led astray and of leading others astray.  Many of these Pharisees meant well, and were conservative people, wanting to protect the Scripture.  So they erected laws around God's Word.   But Jesus condemned them for it.

 

Consider the warning Paul issued to believers confronted with people trying to entrap them in vain traditions: "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle!  Do not taste!  Do not touch!'?  These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings" (Col 2:20-22).

 

Note the freedom of 1 Tim 4:4-5, where it says, "For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the Word of God and prayer."  Alcohol isn't mentioned in this context, but rather things more necessary in life, like food and marriage.  Perhaps, however, the freedom principle can be applied to drinking alcohol in moderation.

 

Several passages, especially Psalm 104:14-15 and Ephesians 5:18, lead me to believe Christians can drink alcohol in moderation.  We don't have to be more spiritual than God. 

 

Of course, I'd clarify a few conditions.  You can drink if you:

  • Do it in moderation (no drunkenness or getting buzzed)
  • Don't cause others to stumble
  • Are the legal age
  • Aren't a recovering alcoholic (nor, perhaps, have an addictive personality)
  • Haven't given your word to abstain

 

Just as some Christians can take their convictions too far and burden others with them, some take their freedom too far.  An example would be of a Christian friend who said to me years ago when she found out I didn't drink alcohol, "You don't know what you're missing.  You should definitely drink just to express your freedom in Christ."  Her advice was inappropriate.  Our goal isn't to coerce people to drink who've never done it before.  Our goal is to honor Christ in how we treat each other.  Loving others as we love ourselves is something we can do, no matter whether we choose to abstain or imbibe.

 

See section on legalism in Rethinking the Church

 
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