Written by. Tim Challies
The relationship of Christians and alcohol is one of those perennial issues. It has often been the source of heated disagreement and even separation. It is a particularly important topic in the United States, but, since much of the rest of the world is culturally downstream from the U.S., it effects every Christian to some degree. Today I want to discuss the issue of alcohol, or at least one component of it. (Parenthetically, many Americans may not know this, but alcohol is a non-issue for Christians in many other parts of the world.)
A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
For reasons that I will explain in a moment, I believe it would be useful to begin with a personal perspective. I was raised in a Christian home and I was raised around alcohol. While my parents (Christians, both) never drank to the point of drunkenness, or even close to it, there was often wine or beer in our home. My parents never hid this from us and they were never ashamed of enjoying a drink. When we were children and asked if we could have a sip of beer or wine, my parents would allow us (and enjoy our disgusted reaction to it). By the time I was a teen, alcohol had been thoroughly demystified.
There is another pertinent detail. A relative I love was an alcoholic and I saw, up close and personal, the danger excess could bring. The demystication of alcohol along with witnessing the effect of drunkenness left me with no desire to get drunk. I have never been drunk and have never even gotten close.
Even today I don’t really drink. It happens that I really dislike the taste of alcohol, so tend to abstain for reasons of preference. At a wedding I may have a sip or two of champagne with the toasts and perhaps once in the summer on a really hot day I will have a beer or half a beer. But that’s all. Aileen drinks a little bit, but barely more than I do. If you come to our home you’ll probably find a couple of bottles of beer in the fridge. They may well be there still the next time you visit.
Why am I telling you this? I say all this to show that I’ve really got no personal reason to defend the consumption of alcohol. I very happily live an alcohol-free life. Not that I intend to defend the consumption of alcohol, because that is not my purpose here.
Christian perspectives on alcohol range from “the Bible commends the consumption of alcohol so drink in moderation” to “the Bible strictly forbids alcohol so God commands you to abstain.” Those perspectives exist even within this little Reformed segment of the Christian world. As far as I understand it, R.C. Sproul believes alcohol is a gift of the Lord; his dear friend John MacArthur regards the consumption of alcohol as unbiblical; their mutual friend John Piper believes that even if drinking is not a sin, it is very unwise. Three men, three leaders, three perspectives.
In the young, restless and Reformed part of this Christian world, it seems that the majority of people tend to believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with consuming alcohol. There is no disagreement over excess—everyone agrees that drunkeness is sinful. But the younger crowd tends to find freedom of conscience; if they do not drink, they at least do not consider it a sin and do not consider it even unwise.
Now why am I writing about this? It’s for this reason: I believe there is an issue we need to be aware of that goes beyond the simple issue of whether or not alcohol is forbidden by the Bible. The bigger issue, at least in my assessment, is what people do with the freedom they have found. We saw this recently in a series of blog posts written by John MacArthur. Dr. MacArthur was criticized far and wide for discussing alcohol; in my understanding, though, his discussion of alcohol was secondary to his discussion of the nature of the freedom for those who consume it.
We saw this in his opening statement in the now-infamous post “Beer, Bohemianism, and True Christian Liberty.” He wrote, “If everything you know about Christian living came from blogs and websites in the young-and-restless district of the Reformed community, you might have the impression that beer is the principle symbol of Christian liberty.” We all know that Dr. MacArthur is opposed to the consumption of alcohol; but what he said from the outset of that post is that those who consume are making it more than it ought to be. This point seemed to get lost.
What I saw as I read that post is the reality that this older generation sees the younger crowd as celebrating freedom by rubbing it in their face. They hear us saying, “We are liberated by grace; you are bound by law.” They are convinced that instead of respecting them and honoring them, we are sneering at them and looking down at them. Instead of using our freedom in love and respect, we are using our freedom carelessly and even spitefully.
So forget for a moment whether alcohol is good or bad or indifferent. Instead, think about how you regard those who believe the opposite of what you believe.
I am convinced that the consumption of alcohol is a Romans 14 kind of issue that falls within the bounds of Christian liberty. This necessarily means that one abstains because he believes that this is what the Lord requires while another partakes because he believes that the Lord has given him this kind of freedom. Both do it based on their understanding of Scripture and both do it to heed conscience. Even though one has a better understanding of what the Lord demands of us, neither one is sinning and both are required to obey conscience.
This then calls all of us to tread very, very carefully. Thankfully, the Lord has given us clear instruction on what to do in just this kind of circumstance. What we cannot allow ourselves to do is to be seen as despising or condemning the other. The one will be prone to see the other as bound by legalism or immaturity and will, in turn, find anger or hatred welling up within his heart. The other will be prone to see the other as going far beyond what the Lord allows and he will then condemn this freedom as lawlessness. These are the particular temptations laid out in Romans 14. If alcohol truly is this kind of an issue, we do well to think about which sin we will struggle with.
My challenge, then, for those of us who are young(ish) and/or restless and/or Reformed is to use our freedom wisely and to use it respectfully. Somehow Dr. MacArthur and many others like him are perceiving that we are using our freedom unwisely; that we are using it disrespectfully; that we are making it a mark of Christian maturity (which necessarily implicates them as being spiritually immature). We owe it to them in Christian love, we owe it to the Lord in humble submission, to search our hearts to see if this may be true.