Just in Time for New Years: Christians and "Drink"

I recently read a piece at Christianity Today about prominent conservative Evangelical Christian colleges relaxing their rules about alcohol for staff and students.  I think this is basically a good development but, perhaps from spending too much time with members of my own generation who are probably more permissive than our elders as a general rule, I was rather surprised to read the accompanying research that only 22% of all Protestant pastors and 39% of all Protestant laity say they drink alcohol.  This reminded me of a recent conversation with an older (early 60s) clergy colleague who said he thought it was inappropriate for a pastor or a church volunteer to keep lots of alcohol at home.     

When I attended LSU we were rated (according to the Princeton Review) the #1 "Party School" in America the preceding year.  The word on campus was that we got this distinction because a student and drunk himself to death (i.e. died as a result of acute alcohol poisoning) that year.  That is probably just hear-say, but it does tell you a bit of the attitude that then existed (and no doubt does today) among many college students: the party is "better" if people drink more so as to engage in more extreme and dangerous behavior.  This attitude is both common and also morally deplorable. 

As a young evangelical Christian on LSU's campus who wanted to be a good example to others and who wanted nothing to do with the death-dealing party culture of the modern college campus (and as someone who was under the legal drinking age for much of my college experience), I resolved never to drink any alcohol while in school and, apart from the Communion wine at St. Alban's, I never did.  

I had good Biblical reasons too: the Scripture clearly tells us that drunkenness (and "getting smashed" seemed the only purpose in drinking among my fellow undergraduates) is the behavior of a fool (Proverbs 20:1) and, if one thinks about it a bit it should be clear that God created humans in particular as rational creatures - creatures capable of reflection and creativity - and this aspect of what it means to "bear God's image" is precisely what is inhibited by alcohol intoxication.  More pointedly, God's Word commands us not to be drunk, and implies that our doing so can hinder our openness to the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18).  So, due to over-consumption of alcohol, there is the danger of potentially missing our full human potential as divine image-bearers and vessels of the Holy Spirit and (connected to this) we also have a positive command to abstain from intoxication (and breaking God's commands is sinful - though we are obviously not at this point talking about medical scenarios wherein alcohol intoxication is used in lieu of anesthesia).

There are also common-sense reasons, social/family cohesion reasons, and good medical reasons to avoid excessive drink, that I'll not list here, beyond saying that everyone who looks can see that drinking too much is bad for your body, bad for your family, bad for your business, and bad for your community.  Because of excess drink women and children are abused, cycles of poverty are perpetuated, crimes are committed. 

But avoiding excess drink is not the same as total abstinence from alcohol (or "tee-totalism" as it is called).  Many Christians have insisted that total abstinence is the only right way to go, and I think they are quite wrong (a classic case of avoiding one extreme by running straight into its opposite). 

When I got to seminary, I did take up drinking a beer (and later, a glass of wine) on occasion.  Now some might attribute this simply to the deleterious effects of a liberal mainline seminary on my soul. But in reality my context had changed.  My classes were now filled with mostly older students (30s-50s) who had no interest in "the party scene" (both by reason of their season in life and also their commitment to Christian discipleship).  Of course, I was now legally old enough to drink, so breaking the law or encouraging others to do so by my example were no longer considerations.  Plus we had a great, and really classy, Irish Pub called Trinity Hall (named for God himself?) within easy walking distance of the seminary, so this was a natural place for some of us to get together over fish-and-chips and a pint to talk about (as we in fact did) the nature of the baptismal vows or the nuances of Trinitarian theology.  This was, indeed, a very life-giving experience; a celebration of fellowship among brethren and indeed of God himself. 

It is said that Martin Luther once told his scrupulous friend, Philip Melanchthon, "You can worship God, even while drinking beer."  And that is true.

So today you will often (but not always) find beer and wine at the parsonage.  I do not drink every day, or even every week, but I do enjoy a glass of beer or wine and am coming to appreciate the some of cultural traditions associated with these drinks.  I never drink liquor - only beer and wine (more wine lately as it offers greater health-benefits).  I am very aware that my own position as a pastor does indeed mean that I am an example to others and this is one reason that I generally limit myself to a single drink and I do not serve alcohol at events that have been promoted from the pulpit (like the meals we served in our first year here).   

For me the question is still one of what promotes "Scriptural Holiness" both in myself and in others - a holiness that avoids Pharisaical legalism on the one side or self-indulgence and excess on the other (both of which the New Testament repeatedly warns against).  Indeed, I believe that my being open about my drinking occasionally yet within certain boundaries and never to the point of intoxication provides me an opportunity to model the true (and original) meaning of "temperance."  I respect that other Christians (a great many US Protestants, if CT's statistics are accurate) prefer total abstinence for themselves (the official position of The United Methodist Church applauds, but does not require, this); and I myself sometimes choose to abstain for particular time periods as a type of fast.

How do some of you approach this issue?  



Anonymous Todd Stepp said...

The Church of the Nazarene, through which I hold my orders, has a position of total abstinence, and I abide by that (unless visiting a Eucharistic service where wine is used).

At our recent General Assembly a reworking of our statement was presented (and, unfortunately, rejected). I say, unfortunately, because, while it maintained our position, I think that it gave the very best explanation for it. It placed our position in the context of loving solidarity with those for whom alcohol has resulted in the destruction of lives (whether this be drunkenness, alcoholism, genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism, divorce/family destruction, loss of financial stability, abuse, death, etc.) - I don't have the resolution in front of me, so I can't quote it (or even paraphrase it).

It likely was too long, but the reason it was defeated was the completely false perception of some that we were changing our stance. (Though the statement did acknowledge that some of our Christian sisters & brothers in other denominations may not share our total abstinence position.)

I will hold on to that resolution and use it as a means of explaining our position to prospective members. It is not a legalistic position, but a positive, loving form of standing in solidarity with others. - I understand it is not required by Scripture, so it is not a means of putting down other Christians who hold a different position. But I like it. I think it is Christlike, and so I see it as an expression of that holiness (not legalism!) to which we are called.

7:21 AM, January 07, 2014  

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