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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Alcohol Use and Christian Faith

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism… [In the past,] temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotalers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion.
Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who use them, he has taken the wrong turning. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

After The Mennonite faced the music and dealt with this issue earlier in the year, you would think I would be smart enough to avoid it.  At last, I have to admit I'm not that smart.  The truth is I have nuanced opinions about the issue sufficient to get me in trouble with a wide variety of Christians.  In the end, though, I find ethical conversations help me know and love God more, and give me a deeper understanding of the Christian life as a person in relationship with God.

Growing up, my parents were teetotalers, but they were not teetotalists (a term I believe coined by C.S. Lewis, and appearing in the quote above), that is, they chose not to drink, perhaps they would say as a matter of conscience, but they did not ascribe to the belief that drinking is always wrong for Christians.  I am grateful for their ability to nuance.  I would have learned at some point, anyway, that teetotalism has been a rather marginal perspective in the history of Christian thought and practice related to alcohol.  My parents modeled an honest ethic, and were faithful to it at some personal cost.

A formative experience for me on this issue, took place when my father was pastor of a Free Methodist congregation near San Francisco, California.  I was about the age my own children are now.  Traditional Free Methodists, consistent with the Wesleyan Holiness movement, were teetotalists.  Our church was rapidly becoming a community church, reaching out to its working class neighbors.  This being California, and this being the 1970s, the neighbors were not teetotalists.  The traditional Free Methodists took it upon themselves to enforce their view by inspecting the homes of newcomers, checking the cupboards for contraband.  Needless to say, this story  ends badly.

The scriptures have surprising clarity on the matter of alcohol.  Wine is a gift from God for human enjoyment, to be consumed in moderation.  Like some others of God's gifts (sexuality, for example), it comes with a warning label:  Extremely Dangerous when not used according to directions.  A Christian ethic needs to take seriously both of these things, in short, temperance.  But this is never easy.

Here are four Christian ethics outside of teetotalism which I have come to respect.  I know Christians who have made each of these choices in thoughtful and faithful ways.

1.  Abstinence as a matter of conscience.  "Because alcohol is dangerous, has done harm to many people through alcoholism, drunken violence, and vehicular harm, I choose abstinence as a matter of conscience, to avoid causing harm, or encouraging others to do so.  I recognize the place of wine in the Bible as a gift from God, but cannot in good faith drink myself."  In some cases particular groups of Christians might commit themselves to this ethic.

2.  Abstinence as a matter of spiritual dedication.  "I wish to dedicate myself to God's service, and as part of that dedication, I refrain from consuming alcohol, eating certain foods, and engaging in certain behavior."  The biblical precedent for this is the Nazirite vow, which includes the likes of Samson and John the Baptist, whose abstinence is related to his spiritual call.  Other precedents include celibacy in monastic orders, or calls individuals feel to vocations of celibacy and singleness as part of the Christian life (such as the Apostle Paul).  Again, particular groups of Christians might wish to share in this vocation together.

3.  Non-drinker.  "I don't drink as a rule for similar reasons to number one above, but if wine or beer are served at festive or social occasions, I will partake for purposes of celebration and fellowship."  This position respects both the biblical notion as wine as God's gift, as well as the danger it poses and the harm it does.

4.  Sacramental drinking.  "Wine is a gift from God which I receive with gratitude and joy, consuming in moderation and mindful of its dangers.  Like all God's gifts, it is precious, and I drink it with a sacramental spirit, rejoicing in the giver."  This view recognizes drinking as a pious act, an integrated part of the Christian life, understanding that wine plays an important role in the life of Jesus, the central ritual of the church, and in Christian eschatology.  Such drinking anticipates the wine we will share on that glorious day.

David Bentley Hart notes the differences between Christian partaking, and Dionysian debauchery.  For Christians the purpose of wine is not drunkenness, which is never a Christian pursuit.  Wine is not a means to drunkenness, but is to be savored and enjoyed.  As such taste matters (as in John 2).  Respect for the product being consumed is critical, respect for both its danger and its goodness.  

I am pretty sure that all of these practices, and more, are found at CMC.  I hope no one is scandalized by this fact, but that we can be gracious and understanding of one another, each supporting the other in her/his Christian walk.  I also hope we can teach our children Christian responses to the question of drinking alcoholic beverages.


Anonymous said...

"it is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotalers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion."

While it is admirable that you are trying to urge Christians and Mennonites to behave better, I do not feel it was necessary to defame another religion by using this inflammatory quote by CS Lewis. Mohammedanism is not the religion followed by Muslims, it is Islam. Muslims do not worship the prophet Mohammed and have long objected to this term as offensive..since white Christians first started using it. Secondly, Alcohol is forbidden in Islam because Muslims must be sober while saying their five daily prayers. It is well known that putting others down to make yourself look better will always back-fire.

Phil Waite said...

Good point April. I should say that the quote was meant to be provocative, although not about Islam, and not that I agree with the quote. I have a high degree of respect for Islamic discipline on abstinence and other matters. Thank you for bringing that to our attention.

Mike Garde said...

I remember working at a Rescue Mission in New York and we had to sign a statement that we would not drink, smoke or date women during our time working there. Naturally we were surrounded by a many broken people under the influence of alcohol. I remember our Grace was Come and dine, and feast at Jesus's table all the time. He who turned the water into wine.... We always tried to insert, at this point,grape juice!!
When I was dealing with being an adult child of an alcoholic in Goshen in 1985 I went to an Alon meeting in Elkhart at the First Congregational Church called the happy Hugger's group. Made up women only. Then there was an AA meeting in the Episcopal Church in Goshen. I could never find a Mennonite church with 12 step programme as we did not drink? The rest is history!

Chet Peachey said...

Phil, thank you for offering your insight on this issue and clarifying the biblical perspective.

Harold said...

Alcohol Use and the Christian Faith, Harold Bauman. 11-22-11

I appreciate Phil laying out his four positions on ethics and alcohol use and the Christian faith. I think when one does ethics from the scriptures one needs to discern what it means today. So I am adding a fifth position which may overlap in part some of Phil’s positions. I call it wisdom and alcohol use. I am floating this as a trial balloon.

Howard Charles in his booklet on the subject says that the alcohol content of first century wine was about half of what it is in our wine today. This means we are dealing with a more potent substance today. Wisdom recognizes that New Testament practice needs some adjustment to our day.

Alcohol is an anesthetic to the brain. It slows down brain functioning. As it relaxes the inhibitions developed by a person, behaviors emerge that a person with a full functioning brain would likely choose not to do. Wisdom says that we do not know when regrettable behavior will happen. Why place oneself in such a position?

Wisdom recognizes the cost of the use of alcohol in our society is enormous. The loss in days of labor missed and vehicular loss are very great, estimated in our society to be
. The human suffering spouses inflict on a mate is unestimatible, even when a spouse says I will not leave because I think I can help my mate which makes it even worse. Wisdom says do not expose yourself to such possibilities.

There is great pressure in our society to drink alcohol in order to have fun, to be part of the gang, to not be the odd person out. The dorm floor cheers when the preacher’s son takes his first beer. So the norm is to drink socially, to let people know that you go along with their use of alcohol. Social scientists tell us that one cannot predict which person out of ten will become an alcoholic begun by social drinking. Wisdom says, resist the pressure and do not play Russian roulette.

Wisdom recognizes that alcohol has many good uses while it also is a drug with dangers as are some other items. Warfarin can save my life when it keeps my blood at the right degree of thinness to prevent clotting since I have atrial fib while it becomes poison to rats who bleed to death internally. While one may see wine in the central ritual of the church, using wine in that ritual can send the person who is an alcoholic seeking to be free of alcohol into a tail spin into bondage. As many symbols are used in the New Testament to describe the celebration of Christ coming for his bride, I doubt if alcohol will be used. Maybe our resurrection bodies will have brain cells not affected by alcohol . Wisdom says as we can have gluten free bread for everyone, so we can have the fruit of the vine without alcohol for all.

Harold said...

I failed to put into my comment the figures for the cost of the use of alcohol in the US. The total cost for industry, vehicles, and medical was 223.5 billion for 2006.