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FIRST-PERSON: Alcohol & the church (part 3)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third column in a three-part series on alcohol and the church.

CARROLLTON, Ga. (BP)–If we could, allow us to finish out this mini-series by making a brief case for Christians to abstain from intoxicating substances for pleasurable purposes. Due to space, I offer but two of many reasons which could readily be marshaled in support.

— First, abstinence is absolutely preferable. When it comes to ethical options for biblical Christians to entertain pertaining to their moral stance toward consuming intoxicating beverages for pleasurable purposes, there are really only two broad options to consider. On the one hand, the believer may choose abstinence, the view which this mini-series advocates. And, on the other hand, many believers choose what is popularly known as moderation. Obviously, there exist other views. However, surely no Bible-believing Christian considers the undisciplined indulgence of dangerous intoxicants a viable moral option. Hence, we will consider either abstinence or moderation to be the superior moral option for believing Christians.

When we compare the two options, it is our view that abstinence is definitively the moral option believers should both embrace and practice. As I show below, abstinence is not only thoroughly biblical but also fully consistent with other factors bearing on our moral impulse. Contrarily, moderation has more to do with Athens than Jerusalem, to borrow Tertullian’s legendary comparison. That is, moderately consuming intoxicating substances for pleasurable purposes gleans its moral underpinnings more from Greek philosophy than biblical revelation. Aristotle’s “golden mean” between virtue and vice or courage and cowardice fits nicely the moral trajectory of those embracing moderation.

Exactly what do those who embrace moderation mean when they propose the moderate consumption of intoxicating beverages? The catch phrase which sums up the position we call moderation is pithy and precise: the Bible does not condemn the use of alcoholic beverages but the abuse of alcoholic beverages. Hence, to drink a few beers with the boys as they watch the Braves shame the Yankees is not what the Bible condemns. Instead, this viewpoint holds, the Bible clearly condemns drunkenness, the abuse of alcoholic beverages.

As a reminder here, we note that both views fully agree that the Bible condemns drunkenness. A glance at the Scriptures demonstrates this beyond question. Therefore, those who embrace abstinence have no moral reservations in happily agreeing with moderationists on the biblical warnings against drunkenness. The real question is, whether the Bible offers any prohibitive indicators toward the use of intoxicating substances. The moderation view denies that the Bible offers moral indicators against the consumption of alcoholic beverages for pleasurable purposes (“wine” for medicinal purposes is not in question here, as discussed in 1 Timothy 5:23).

But the Bible not only condemns drunkenness, it also puts in place the moral underpinnings to condemn consuming intoxicating beverages for pleasurable purposes. Indeed it is not too much to conclude that if moderationists are correct concerning the Bible’s moral trajectory for moderation, then it proves entirely too much. How so? Consider: If the Bible does not condemn the use of intoxicating beverages for pleasurable purposes, then the Bible does not condemn the use of other intoxicating substances for pleasurable purposes.

For example, if moderationists are correct, how could we morally argue against the moderate consumption of marijuana for pleasurable purposes? Or, for any number of other mind-altering drugs for that matter? Granted, some may respond, “Yes. But marijuana is illegal. Therefore, because we are to obey government (Romans 13), it would be immoral to consume illegal drugs.” Such a response is not only a classic Red Herring avoiding the proposition at hand, but also a socio-cultural consideration not necessarily related to the biblical question. Indeed, all one has to do to avoid its thrust is to suppose an actual and believable scenario in which marijuana for pleasurable purposes is legal, a scenario that may happen in the United States sooner than we realize.

If our laws eventually allow for such pleasurable usage of marijuana, upon what moral basis will the moderationist boldly stand and counsel their congregations to abstain from the pleasurable consumption of smoking pot? Would it not behoove those who have been faithfully taught moderation from their pastor to remind him that it is not the use of pot the Bible condemns but the abuse of pot the Bible condemns? Moreover, would they not rightly insist that only “tortured exegesis” could insist on abstinence from intoxicating substances like marijuana, which, in some important ways, has been demonstrated to be much less dangerous than even alcohol?

It seems, then, that moderation is clearly an inferior moral option for the Biblical Christian. And, if THE choices are either moderation or abstinence, abstinence remains the superior moral position for Christians to both practice and propose.

— Second, abstinence is thoroughly biblical. In fact, abstinence itself is as old as the human race. God instituted abstinence as the first moral imperative demanded of the human pair He had especially made in His own image (Genesis 2:17; 3:17; 1:26-27; 5:3). Clearly, the don’t-eat-don’t-touch structure of God’s moral expectation for human behavior echoes for us the ethical maxim of abstinence (Genesis 3:3). Imagine Eve arguing it was not the use of the fruit God had in mind but the abuse of the fruit. Indeed God’s clear command implied that usage itself defaulted to abuse. Nor is the moral trajectory of abstinence an exceptional principle in biblical norms. A casual consideration of the moral law recorded in the Ten Commandments verifies the undeniable thread of moral abstinence interwoven within Scripture (Exodus 20:1-17; see also Leviticus 11:1-47; Mark 7:18-19).

We might add that signs are rare, if any, that moderation as a moral principle appears in the biblical text. God commands the people to worship Him not moderately, but exclusively (Exodus 20:3). The yardstick by which moral behavior is always measured appears to us in the absolute, not the relative — that is, in abstinence, not moderation.

As with both Eve (Genesis 3:3) and Israel (Leviticus 11:1-2) so similarly with our Lord, the occasion Satan first advances to challenge the Messiah tempts Him to deny abstinence and to indulge Himself (Luke 4:1-4). Indeed, when we consider what New Testament discipleship entails we immediately are confronted with the principle of abstinence. Our Lord on more occasions than one uttered the central hub of practicing the Jesus life: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34; Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23).

According to Jesus, denying self is the bedrock spiritual demand to being His disciples. Indeed, our discipleship to Jesus and His Lordship remains an inward faith-vow, a definitive abstinence from our sinful, self-made lordship toward which we’ve so uncontrollably indulged our spiritual allegiance leaving but a darkened, empty hull behind. Jesus calls us to say yes to Him and no to all competition, again the principle to abstinence in play.

Even so, Jesus was carving out no self-made salvation in these Lordship sayings. Abstinence can no more save one than any other moral behavior we may perform. Being a disciple of Jesus does not begin with us; rather it begins with God’s free grace in justification, as we place our faith in the atoning work of Christ’s redemptive cross. Nevertheless, the grace of discipleship — if it is truly God’s grace and not some antinomian counterfeit — necessarily proceeds from justification into sanctification and ultimately glorification. Our faith in the Lord Jesus seals us to the Father and secures us as living, breathing disciples of Jesus. Consequently, as disciple — true followers of Him — through continued faith in the Lord Jesus and power from the indwelling Spirit, we flesh out biblical discipleship in holiness. The moral principle of abstinence remains crucial in doing so.

While the above represents only a survey of biblical revelation to demonstrate the biblical trajectory of moral abstinence, one may object why no specific texts are used which explicitly prohibit alcohol usage. Perhaps no question comes to the table more quickly and enthusiastically by moderation advocates than, “Where in the Bible does it say, ‘Thou shalt not drink wine?'” Indeed, some appear to think this question is the showstopper which shuts the debate down. However, on a number of levels this question is completely moot. Given what we know about the nature of “wine” on the pages of Scripture (part 2 in this series), one might as well ask, “Where in the Bible does it say, ‘Thou shalt not smoke marijuana’?”

The fact remains, there are many moral issues with which the contemporary Christian must wrestle which are not directly addressed by the Word of God. However, we must enthusiastically insist that all moral issues we face — including issues not touched directly upon in Scripture — are, at minimum, indirectly addressed by the Word of God. The moral position that since the Bible is silent on a matter (i.e. there is no direct proof text to quote) the behavior is permissible is frankly absurd for biblical Christians. It reduces the Bible to a revelation of God shackled in time and chained to the culture of a place far removed from us, offering little help to get through the maze of modern morality.

Nevertheless, we remain convinced that God’s Word transcends not only time but all cultural milieu which divides societies both ancient and modern. We further embrace that God guides His people through His inspired written Word as illuminated by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and does so both directly and indirectly, as we fulfill Christ’s call to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.
Peter Lumpkins is a Southern Baptist minister who lives in West Georgia. He is the author of “Alcohol Today: Abstinence in an Age of Indulgence” (Hannibal Books). To read part 1 and 2 in this series visit https://bpnews.net/BPFirstPerson.asp?ID=32504 and https://bpnews.net/BPFirstPerson.asp?ID=32512.

    About the Author

  • Peter Lumpkins