Archives For Drinking

It has been a while now since Preston’s thought provoking posts on alcohol. But since the proper use of Christian freedoms in general and alcohol in particular always make for interesting discussion, I will share a real life scenario that happened to me a few years ago (1998 in fact—not sure if that counts as a few years or not).

I was teaching and coaching in the public school system. I was serving as a part of a church body that had a zero tolerance policy on any sort of alcohol. Well, over the course of time I built a good relationship with the parents of various students I had. One dad in particular invited me out one day after practice “to have a beer and talk about life.” I tried the gracious redirect: “I would love to go hang out (without alcohol) and talk about life with you.” He was not interested. This happened in some form three more times over the next month and a half. He would ask to talk about life and partake in some libation. I always tried to find an alternative (drink a soda, have a meal, etc.), but he always declined.

One last bit of information: consuming alcohol did not bother my conscience at all, I was simply trying to be consistent with the church body I was a part of.

So here is the question:

Was I wrong to abstain from sharing a beer with this guy?

Or

Was I right to abstain?

What should I have done?  Have at it…

Often, when it comes to the issue of alcohol, it is only a matter of time before the inevitable point gets made of giving preference to the “weaker brother.” People pull this principle out as a trump card as if it settles the issue once and for all, but some serious thought needs to be given to the idea of the “weaker brother” and how it is that we are to interact with such a one.

First, it is worth noting that the whole principle behind the weaker brother is the issue of maturity. The weaker brother is one who in a specific area of life is by admission weak, lacking, or somehow deficient. Somehow, modern North American Christendom (yes, this is primarily a cultural issue) has allowed this to become the default position. But wait just a minute. Are we really okay with allowing those who are by their own admission weak, deficient, and by extension somewhat immature to maintain such a status? Should we not desire that these people grow in their maturity so they may be strengthened in the area of deficiency?

Paul certainly seemed to be concerned with presenting every man complete in Christ (Colossians 1:28). The text seems pretty clear about how Paul and his entourage were accomplishing this task. The goal for Paul’s ministry was that everyone under his ministry would stand before Christ not lacking anything (having no weakness). The means Paul used to accomplish this are also clearly stated in Colossians 1:28: first by preaching Christ, and also by teaching and correcting those who are in error. An additional means by which we can address areas of deficiency would be to follow and imitate those who are mature. All of these things only happen in the context of relationships where believers are actually walking with each other and living life with each other so they can share one another’s burdens. When it comes to areas of weakness it should be noted that we all have areas of weakness and deficiency. The goal, however, is to grow in maturity and strengthen the areas in our lives that are lacking. The goal is never to stay in a state of immaturity!

Please understand, I am not claiming that maturity is equated with exercising liberties. I absolutely believe that some people should abstain from certain liberties even though the Bible may grant them freedom to participate. In some cases, a past circumstance or struggle with temptation/sin may prevent someone from partaking in a certain activity. I do not think such a person is weak or immature at all; in fact, I think this person could be very wise and incredibly mature.

To go back to the example of alcohol, the point is not to get everyone in the church drinking. All I am suggesting is that the “weaker brother” argument is sometimes used as a trump card. In other words, no one in the church is allowed to use their biblically granted freedom to drink alcohol because someone in the church is offended by it. Let’s certainly be sensitive to these weaker brothers, but let’s also help them mature in their understanding. If they believe that drinking is a sin—even though the Bible does not portray it as a sin—then let’s be careful not to offend them, but let’s also teach them what the Bible says about such matters and help them develop a Christian response to the issue.

Across the board, when we see someone weak, ignorant, or struggling in some area our goal is to help them grow. Why should it be any different with the “weaker brother”?

Belgium Trippel Ale

Preston Sprinkle —  January 4, 2012 — 14 Comments

I arrived at Aberdeen University on a frigid January afternoon in 2004 and headed straight to the secretary’s desk to receive the keys to my new office. This is where I’d spend the next three years, hammering out my PhD dissertation and seeking to keep warm on the Scottish coast—both seemed impossible at the time. “Here are your keys, sir,” muttered the secretary. Not knowing the campus, I asked where exactly my office was located. “Let’s see. Down the street, on the right hand side. It looks like you’re in The Old Brewery.”

Aberdeen University's "Old Brewery." My office window is just above the bush to the right.

I immediately couldn’t wait to tell my friends back home that I would be spending the next three years studying the Bible in a building called “The Old Brewery.” So much for the old seminary library back home.

I later found out that the name reflected the building’s original function. Aberdeen University used to be a school that trained monks for ministry. Up the cobblestone street stood the old hospital, where the students would heal the sick and feed the poor. A hundred yards south was the chapel, and at the end of the street stood the brewery, where the monks would brew vast quantities of Scottish Ale. Monks were the conservative fundamentalists of the day, and yet bread and beer were rationed out at mealtime. And here I am, studying the New Testament between the walls of the malted sanctuary, where Bible College students of medieval Britain once clapped mugs together in an act of worship.

Showing up every day (and many evenings) to the “Old Brewery” connected me with my roots. Throughout Church history, alcohol was rarely a taboo as it is in some circles today. The most legendary leaders drank freely, though I want to assume they didn’t get drunk. Calvin had a stipend of 250 gallons of wine per year written into his ecclesial contract. Luther’s wife was a famed brewer of beer—one of the character traits that won Martin’s heart instantly—and she liberally supplied the reformer with his favorite ales. Luther himself is well known for heralding the absurdity of abstaining from alcohol. Centuries later, the legendary Guiness family, prominent for their Irish stout, began brewing beer as an act of faith. “My family started their brewery as a statement of moderation,” says Os Guiness, the great evangelical theologian and descendent of the original Guiness brewer. “The water was contaminated,” says Os, “and hard-alcohol was consumed by drunkards. So my forefather started to brew his malty Stout out of reverence for Jesus.” You may have heard (though it’s debated) that on route to religious freedom, the pilgrims aboard the Mayflower halted at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer. “We could not now take time for further search,” wrote one pilgrim in his diary, “our victuals [= provisions] being much spent, especially our beer.” Once landed, the pilgrims tapped into the vast supply of maize and built a brewery.

From Bordeux to Berlin, wine and beer have always been part of church tradition. But the Bible goes further than admitting that it’s simply allowed. Saying that it’s okay to drink in moderation is true, but it’s theologically flat. The production and consumption of beer and wine are organically tethered to the covenant drama of the Old and New Testaments.

From the plains of Moab, Deuteronomy announces the blessings and curses of the covenant, and wine is often cataloged as a premier blessing (Deut 7:13; 11:14), while the absence of wine is a curse (28:39, 51). As history unfolds, Israel becomes progressively wicked and ends up breaking the covenant (Jeremiah 11) and finds themselves in exile. Yet God, in His love and grace, promises to restore them and flood them with the blessings that they couldn’t receive under their own strength, and frequenting the list is the blessing of wine. Amos envisions wine flowing from the mountaintops (Amos 9:14; cf. Joel 3:18). Joel looks ahead to vats brimming with fresh wine (Joel 2:19, 24). And Isaiah imagines a great messianic banquet, where God will lay a spread of rich foods and “well-aged wine” (Isaiah 25:6). Throughout the Old Testament, wine was intended to “gladden the heart of man” as a blessing from God (Psalm 104:14-15), and Old Testament saints lived with the hope that one day, salvation would burst forth from the heavens and wine would be harvested in abundance from the hills.

And that harvest was inaugurated on Calvary. In the upper room, when Jesus sanctified a cup of wine as “the new covenant in my blood,” He not only infused a common drink with theological meaning, but tapped into the Old Testament narrative, rich with connotation (Luke 22:14-23). Jesus was claiming that through His death, He would deliver the covenant blessings anticipated by Moses and promised by the prophets. He wasn’t just drinking fermented grape juice; Jesus was boldly claiming that “all the promises of God find their yes in Him” (2 Cor 1:20). Three years before, Jesus anticipated this cruciform blessing when he miraculously produced an over-abundance of wine from water (John 2:1-10). And if we merely wrestle with the ethical implications—is it okay that Jesus made 150 gallons of wine?—we miss the point. Theologically, the wedding at Cana was a foreshadowing of the ridiculously abundant goodness that God unilaterally showers upon us through the cross of Christ. This is why John says that the miraculous wine “manifested His glory” (John 2:11)—the glory that would be showcased on Calvary (John 12:28).

The full consummation, of course, will come when Christ comes back and prepares the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:6-8), satisfying the curious vision of Isaiah (Isa 25:6-8). If Amos, Joel, and Isaiah are correct, then this banquet will be served with well-aged wine—the stuff I only notice on the top shelf but can never afford—and for theological reasons it will be served, as at Cana, in abundance. Its full-bodied presence, enjoyed by resurrected martyrs, persecuted pastors, cannibalized missionaries, and callused knee prayer warriors, will not be served merely to quench our thirst or give us a buzz. It will be, as it was always intended to be, an experienced symbol of God’s overabundant goodness, purchased by the saving blood of Jesus.

Drinking wine and beer, therefore, serve as persuasive reminders of where we stand in the eschatological age. On the one hand, we look back upon the blood of Christ that has inaugurated the kingdom. We also look forward to the second coming of Christ, when that kingdom will be fully realized and the prophetic word, including the covenant blessing of wine, will be consummated.

Practically, then, abstaining from alcohol has its place if done for the right theological reason. If trumpeted as the wiser, more spiritual path, then you’ve missed the point. Yet partaking alcohol without celebrating the cross and kingdom is theologically anemic. Abuse of alcohol leading to drunkenness or enslavement mocks the blood of Christ and is an affront on God’s holiness. But moderate, intentional, celebratory, and reflective drinking of wine and beer—especially the Belgium Trippel Ale, the queen of all drink—which contemplates the cross and anticipates our future glory, is theologically rooted in the counter intuitive grace rained down from Calvary.

Cheers—and Amen!

Cabernet Sauvignon

Preston Sprinkle —  December 31, 2011 — 4 Comments

(c) Cephas.com

In two previous posts (click here or here), I’ve discussed several issues related to Christians and alcohol. If you’re joining us late, it may be better to read those two posts, since they cover some of the more basic issues.Today, I want to look at one particular assumption that pops up from time to time in this discussion.

Assumption: “Wine” in the Bible was nothing more than grape juice, and therefore neither Jesus nor the Biblical writers advocated drinking alcohol.

There’s probably a lot of you who have heard this argument. Perhaps you’ve even heard lots of historical evidence for this view. A milder version says that wine was diluted so much that it hardly contained any alcohol. Therefore, according to one writer, you’d have to drink such a vast quantity of wine that it “would probably affect the bladder long before the mind” (Stein, “Wine-Drinking,” 11).

But neither of these views can be substantiated from the Bible, and here’s why.

First, if wine (and beer) didn’t contain alcohol, or such a small percentage that inebriation was unlikely, this would render the Bible’s prohibitions against drunkenness nonsensical. Did Paul warn the Ephesians: “And do not get drunk with grape juice, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit?” This just doesn’t make sense. Whatever the alcohol content of wine, it was high enough, or people were capable of drinking enough of it, to elicit Paul’s warning to not get drunk (See also Prov 20:1; Isa 5:11).

Second, when Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana, he didn’t make grape juice. Neither did he make Two Buck Chuck. He made the good stuff; “You have kept the good wine until now,” said the steward (John 2:10). And the text clearly says that this “good wine” contained alcohol because the attendants were expected to get smashed at the wedding. Though it’s not translated accurately by most English translations, John 2:10 says: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have become drunk, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Good wine must contain enough alcohol to get people drunk. But most of your translations do not say “drunk” in John 2:10. They say “drunk freely” (ESV, NASB, HCSB), “have well drunk” (KJV, NKJV), or “had their fill” (The Message), but the Greek word methusko is used only three other times in the NT and in each case it means “to be intoxicated” (see Luke 12:45; Eph. 5:18; 1 Thess. 5:7; see Carson, John, 169). Now, if you look closely at John 2:10, it doesn’t say that Jesus got people drunk, nor does it say that people were drunk at the party (though it’s probable that some were). The steward simply says that people usually get drunk at weddings off of good wine. I’ve got some other thoughts about John 2:10, but lets move on.

Third, it has sometimes been argued that while “wine” may have contained small amounts of alcohol, “new wine” was nothing more than grape juice. In some of the passages I checked out, this may be the case. At least, it’s not clear that “new wine” contained alcohol in some passages. But in other passages, it clearly does. In Acts 2 when the Pentecost visitors spoke in tongues, some onlookers mocked them saying, “They are filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13) to which Peter replied, “these people are not drunk, as you suppose” (2:15). In this case, “new wine” was not mere grape juice. It had to contain enough alcohol to intoxicate, otherwise Peter’s reply wouldn’t make sense. Likewise, Hosea 4:11 references “Whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.” There seems to be a difference between wine and new wine here, but both seem to “take away the understanding,” which means that both contained alcohol.

I don’t see any biblical grounds, therefore, to say that wine was nothing more than grape juice, or that it was so diluted that it couldn’t intoxicate.

But even if wine didn’t contain alcohol, clearly “strong drink” did and the Bible does not prohibit drinking “strong drink” in moderation. The Hebrew word for “strong drink” is shakar and it probably refers to fermented barley, which is why some translations go with “beer” for shakar. From the studies I read, shakar had an ABV of around 6-12%, similar to a Belgium strong ale. Like all alcoholic beverages, the Bible prohibits being drunk on beer and warns against its abuses (Isa 5:11; 28:7; Prov 20:1; 31:4). But in moderation, consumption of beer was encouraged (Deut 14:26; Prov 31:6), a truth that is made obvious when ancient Hebrews were commanded to offer up two liters of beer to God six days a week and even more on the Sabbath (see Numb 28:7-10). This is why the absence of beer (and wine) was an outcome of God’s judgment on the nation.

So while wine may have contained less alcohol by today’s standard, it contained enough to get people drunk. And yet the Bible doesn’t forbid the drinking of alcohol in most cases.

Beer

Preston Sprinkle —  December 30, 2011 — 13 Comments

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.