In a previous post, I discussed Christians and alcohol. I began by making several well-known assertions about what the Bible says, and concluded by making a few lesser-known ones. In this post, I want to continue the discussion by looking at two issues that I mentioned in passing in the last post: (1) causing another brother or sister to stumble, and (2) ruining your testimony by drinking alcohol.
Let’s start with the second one first. Assumption: It’s better not to drink at all, especially in public places, since this could ruin your testimony when unbelievers find out you’re a Christian. The logic, I suppose, is that drinking is unchristian and if caught using the stuff you’ll look like a hypocrite. You’re saying one thing—that Jesus is your Lord—but then turning your back on Him by tossing back a Guinness where unbelievers may be looking on.
Quite honestly, I’ve never really understood this line of thinking. Maybe it’s just me, but most non-Christians I know are turned off by the stringent rules they think constitutes the gospel of Christianity. They think that Christianity amounts to following a bunch of arbitrary do’s and don’ts—and abstaining from alcohol is usually at the top of the list. But I think we would agree, regardless of your stance on alcohol, that the good news about Jesus far surpasses drinking and not drinking. So I’m not really convinced that if my unbelieving neighbor happens to see me slipping into a pub, I would lose much traction to my gospel witness.
In fact, I may increase it. For most unbelievers (the ones I know, at least), when they find out that neither Jesus nor the Bible forbids the consumption of alcohol, this makes the gospel much clearer. When we strip away all the man-made clutter that dims the gospel—such as drinking, watching movies, or voting Republican—the full glory of Jesus tends to shine a bit brighter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one, but I think that if we paid closer attention to how unbelievers thought about Christianity, moderate and responsible drinking would probably open up, and not close off, more genuine avenues for the gospel to be heard. A good chunk of the dying world that’s rejected Christianity hasn’t so much said no to Jesus, but no to a pharisaical version of His message.
And biblically, I can’t see anything in the Scriptures that suggests that drinking hinders our witness. Alcoholism was just as widespread in the ancient world as it is today, and believers were called to be lights in the world then as we are now. But the Bible never suggests that abstaining from alcohol will magnify our witness, keep the gospel unstained, or prevent charges of hypocrisy from being lobbed at God’s people. Otherwise, Jesus really blew it at Cana.
So I’m not really convinced that drinking in moderation will hinder our witness; in many cases, it will strengthen it.
The second issue about causing someone to stumble is more complicated. Assumption: Drinking could cause others to “stumble,” and therefore it’s better not to drink.
My question has always been: where do you draw the line? If I have someone over for dinner and they “struggle” with secular music, do I hide all my Beethoven albums? (Seriously, the dude was a total pagan.) Or—this is one we don’t often consider—if someone struggles with greed and materialism (in other words, if they’re an American Christian), do I hide my iPad, scuff up my furniture, and park my Lexus on the other side of the block? Where does it end? Some people are offended at preachers that wear jeans, others flip out when there’s drums on stage, still others may question your salvation if they hear that you’ve seen and enjoyed the Harry Potter films. Is it even possible to go through life and not do something that may cause someone to stumble?
Perhaps a better question is: What does it actually means to cause someone to stumble? Do a quick word study on the verb “to cause to stumble” (Greek: skandalizo) and you’ll find out that most of our modern scenarios with drinking don’t really correlate with what the Bible warns against. Here’s a couple observations.
First, it is true that Jesus offered some blistering critiques against those who cause people to stumble, as in Matthew 18:6-9. But what Jesus had in mind by “stumble” (skandalizo) is something serious, something spiritually fatal. The idea of causing someone to stumble, in the words of Don Hagner, “is to be understood in the serious sense of causing someone to…fall into sin, or perhaps even to lose their faith in Jesus and the gospel” (Hagner, Matthew, 2.522). This is more than just some personal offense (for that, see Matthew 17:27). You haven’t caused another believer to stumble if they overheard you listening to secular music and they go out and buy the latest Coldplay album, nor have you caused someone to stumble if they have a drink because they saw you slurp down a pint of Sam Adams at Macaroni Grill. Drinking that causes someone to stumble means that you have influenced a person into getting drunk, becoming an alcoholic, or loosing their faith. And I would say that if you drink responsibly, yet publicly condemn drunkenness and enslavement to alcohol, and someone goes out, gets hammered, and blames you for it, then their blood is not on your hands. So I might just leave my Beethoven record out in plain view when you come over.
Second, Romans 14:21 could be taken to promote abstaining from alcohol as the wiser path to prevent others from stumbling. It reads: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (NET Bible). And perhaps in some cultures it is, but we have to keep in mind that Paul’s original situation had to do with eating meat and drinking wine that was used as offerings for idols. The “weaker” brother who may stumble had just come out of a pagan environment, where wine was offered to their former god as a libation and drinking it would reconnect them with their pagan past. So if you’re in a similar situation today, then by all means, obey Paul’s instructions. But I really don’t think we can rip Romans 14:21 out of its context and apply it to most situations today. Where it does apply is where your drinking would cause someone to lurch back into paganism.
Can drinking cause someone to stumble? Yes. Is it typical? No, I don’t think it is as typical as we think. Most of our situations today, such as pastors refraining from drinking in public, are a much softer form of “causing someone to stumble” than what we find in the warnings of Jesus or Paul. Having said that, I certainly do believe there’s a place to abstain from certain liberties, including alcohol, for the sake of your brother or sister, if it will cause someone to sin in the Matthew 18 and Roman 14 sense.
There’s much more to say, and indeed we’ll try to say it in forthcoming posts. But for now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these two issues: (1) drinking that damages our witness, and (2) drinking that causes a sister or brother to stumble.