Rethinking the Christian Relationship to Alcohol

The on-again-off-again relationship between Christians and alcohol always reminded me of Ross and Rachel on Friends—an uninteresting plotline involving two dysfunctional entities. For every endearing moment (Trappist breweries), there was a ridiculous one (Carrie Nation taking a hatchet to bars in the early 1900s).

Christians have always had a tempestuous relationship with booze.

During the early part of the twentieth century, American evangelical Christians were often teetotalers (and private imbibers—let’s be honest). I go to a Nazarene church where alcohol used to be treated with extreme prejudice.

I remember hearing a story once about an American women’s swim team going France in the forties. They were scandalized because the women on the French team were publicly drinking wine. But it’s OK. The French women thought the Americans weren’t good Christians either because of all the makeup they wore.

America, Christians, and alcohol today

A lot has changed in the last twenty years. I live in a small Dutch Reformed town in the Pacific Northwest. When I was in high school, there wasn’t a lot of places to hang out and drink. And if you wanted to buy alcohol on a Sunday, forget about it. There was a city ordinance which made it illegal.

Since then, the city has lifted many of these restrictions. We have multiple lounges and a tap room—and I can even go purchase bottle of Jägermeister after church if I’m so inclined. A lot has changed in this little town as it’s adapted to cultural changes.

Bellingham, the larger city about 20 minutes from me, seems to have a brewery for every thirty people. The rise of local and home brewing has given beer a newfound sense of panache and sophistication. Most of the millennials I know wouldn’t be caught dead drinking the gutter swill that I downed in county gravel pits throughout high school.

As culture has shifted, so has the church (particularly evangelicalism). The abstainers aren’t as vocal as they used to be, and that’s a good thing. Too often the message of abstinence just pushes people to partake in private. The problem with the church’s stance in the past was it turned into a hypocrite factory, encouraging people to denounce certain practices publicly while privately indulging in them.

The move toward openness has been healthy, but I’m starting to feel like it might be time to call the church back to the center of the spectrum.

When booze represents freedom

During the emerging movement, I pastored a church plant full of people who had broken away from the Reformed church. After years in the CRC, they were experiencing a lot of changes in their worldview. They had a new-found sense of freedom, and they wanted to be able to express that freedom in a way that communicated that we were a different kind of church.

Alcohol was singled out as one of the expressions of that liberty. Why couldn’t we be a church that served beer and wine at gatherings and barbecues? But after a while, it began to feel like drinking became our badge of freedom. It had to be present at every event. It started to feel unhealthy to me.

I see that same pendulum swing a lot, especially in Christians who have left more fundamentalist backgrounds. It’s not enough to enjoy the freedom that comes from being able to drink (or whatever); there’s a desire to thumb their nose at the institutions that previously denied them freedom. And so every drink gets documented on Instagram.

I totally get that impulse—but maybe there are other issues at play that we need to consider.

Caring for others

My small town is Americana personified. They’re big on Jesus, country music, guns, and beer. It’s always interesting to me that many will offer biblical arguments against a lot of social issues but feel like clear admonitions against drunkenness (Eph. 5:18, Gal. 5:21, Prov. 20:1, 1 Peter 5:8, 1 Cor. 6:10, Isa. 5:11) are completely and conveniently ignored.

The concern I’ve been feeling about drinking lately is less about the personal freedom to do it and more about loving others. The relationships people have with alcohol are complicated. And the trend I see in Christians toward drinking seems to exalt personal liberty over their call to love.

Over the years, I’ve counseled a lot of people worried about a loved one’s imbibing. These are Christian families concerned that someone close to them is in a losing battle with alcoholism. But when I probe deeper, I discover that alcohol is the featured guest at every family or friend gathering. They want this person to stop drinking (or at least stop drinking so much) but not enough to curtail their own freedom.

Sacrificing meat to idols

The discussion Paul has with the Corinthians about whether they can eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8) is one of the most overused arguments in Scripture. Pagan temples were sacrificing animals to various gods and then selling the meat in butcher shops and cafes. There were disagreements among the Corinthians about whether it was permissible to eat this meat.

Paul’s hot take was that these gods didn’t even exist, so it doesn’t really matter one way or another. One the other hand, he argued, we’re all responsible to our conscience. If someone feels like eating that meat would be wrong, they should listen to that voice. And no one should talk someone else into doing what betrays their sense of right and wrong.

In the end, Paul argues that he doesn’t care about the issue at all—meat is meat. But if eating temple meat is going to cause someone to be disloyal to their moral compass, he’d give it up for good. It’s better to lose some liberty than cause someone else to struggle.

This passage often used by busybodies to kill freedom. You can substitute nearly anything for temple meat. I’ve had people use Paul’s argument to say that because they had a problem with secular music, I wasn’t allowed to listen to it. So it’s a passage that I’m extremely sensitive to abusing.

That said, drinking feels like one of those places where the application fits. With alcohol, we’re not just talking about an issue someone might have a moral qualm with—it’s an actual problem that ruins people’s lives.

Consider these statistics:

Does this mean that I don’t think that Christians should drink? No. But I do believe that Christians need to be a lot more wise about how, when, and why they do.

Destigmatizing alcohol

One of the best things Christians could do is remove the stigma around drinking. I don’t think we to demonize alcohol, but it doesn’t have to be glorified either. It would be a good start if we treated it like any other beverage.

I can’t imagine sitting down and pounding a six-pack of Mountain Dews (let alone one). I’ve never asked for my tab to be left open because I planned to drink my weight in V8 juice. I’ve never considered boycotting a family Christmas party because there wasn’t going to be any ice tea. I’ve never posted an Instagram pic of a glass of milk with the caption: “It’s been one hell of a long week. I deserve this.”

Maybe the first step for Christians is to refuse to spotlight alcohol. If you enjoy a glass of wine after dinner, have a glass of wine. But don’t make it the focal point. Don’t make it the center of every gathering. Don’t constantly post funny status updates about how much you need it. Don’t use it as the hook to get people to meet up.

As I said, people’s relationship with alcohol is complicated. And how I treat it, talk about it, and share it on social media has an impact. It’s one thing to post a photo on Facebook with friends where there are drinks on the table. It’s another thing entirely to center the update around drinking. Posting a photo of my drink with an “I really needed this today” caption might be completely innocent, but I have no idea who in my feed is struggling with addiction. I don’t know if I’m inadvertently encouraging someone to sink their sobriety because they’re having a bad day, too.

In the end, this isn’t a post about whether we should drink or not. I’m not a teetotaler. But I do think that drinking (like everything else) needs to be more about love than freedom.

In the end, I think it might be wise to consider this paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 8:9–12:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the struggling. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, posting about your need for a drink after a tough day, won’t that person be emboldened to turn to their weakness for comfort, too? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your freedom. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I casually post causes my brother or sister to fall into their cups, I will never post about alcohol again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

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