Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Alcohol and the People of God

The Bible has been used to justify or condemn many argued point. And rightly so. When believers are confronted with a situation that the revealed word of God has spoken to, there is a need to speak boldly to that issue. Sometimes, though, we encounter a situation or an issue that isn't clearly justifiable or condemned.

Alcohol and drinking alcohol seems to be one such issue.

Before I attempt to lay out a Biblical argument regarding alcohol, I want to deal with some myths that I have heard related to the subject.

Myth #1. Water wasn't healthy enough to drink so wine was drunk regularly.
Wine was a common drink at meals and there was a thriving wine industry in Israel. But you also have to taken into account that wells and cisterns were common for water. There are many accounts of wells in the Bible itself. Isaac's wife was selected when she drew up water to give someone a drink. Jesus even talks to a woman at a well about drinking the water there.

Also keep in mind that rivers and creeks were clean enough to drink. It may not have been "crystal, clear, mountain spring" looking. It may have been a little muddy. But water was still healthy enough to drink.

Myth #2. Jesus only drank unfermented wine.
The Hebrew and Greek words for "wine" in the Old and New Testaments cannot be clearly divided between unfermented and fermented. Since Jesus isn't shown in the Old Testament, we can only look at New Testament use of "wine" And there are  references to occasions where Jesus may have drunk wine. Of the 3 cases where it is possible that Jesus drank, we don't know what he did.
  • Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) - Jesus was there. There was wine being served. When the wine ran out, Jesus transformed water into wine. The wine is attested to be "the good stuff". 
  • Last Supper - Without getting into a detailed argument, it is likely that this was the Passover meal (in at least the Synoptic Gospels). The Passover tradition required the use of wine at multiple points in the course of the liturgy/meal. The head of the table drank as part of the liturgy/tradition. 
  • Feasts with Matthew and Zacchaeus (Luke 5:29-30; Luke 19:1-10) - I put these together to represent Jesus attending feasts held in his honor. The people hosting the feasts were wealthy individuals. They invited their "non-religious" circle of friends. We can gather that Jesus developed a reputation because of this. Jesus was accused of being a drunkard by the Pharisees (Matt 11:19) meaning he associated with people in places where alcohol was being consumed.

Myth #3. The Bible only condemns drinking alcohol.
The Bible has been used to justify an abstinence only policy regarding alcohol. In my own family of tradition, the Methodists have been famously involved in abstinence movements. And many have tried to make abstinence a "gospel truth". But we must fairly consider all of the texts where alcohol is dealt with to answer this consistently.

  • There are 234 mentions of wine in the New American Standard translation of the Bible. 
  • There are 21 uses of the phrase "strong drink".
  • Hebrew has 12 words used to talk about wine or strong drink.
  • Greek has 5 words it uses to talk about the same.
  • Of all of the uses, one Hebrew and one Greek word are used the most often. The bulk of the references to "wine" in the Bible are these two words
There are clearly condemnations against drunkenness and getting drunk in both the Old and New Testaments.
  • You have examples of the evil that comes from drunkenness (Noah, Lot).
  • You have instructions to avoid drinking too much - Proverbs 23:20; Isaiah 5:11; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:18.
  • There are arguments supporting that the leaders of the church are to avoid alcohol completely in1 Timothy 3:3, 3:8.
  • We have the text in Romans 14:19-5:3 regarding the weaker among us; by an example we should avoid alcohol.
But the Bible also uses wine in symbolic ways or neutral ways.
  • God's wrath is seen as a cup of wine poured out for enemies to drink.
  • Solomon compared love to the effects of wine.
  • The Holy Spirit's coming on the disciples was attributed to "new wine"

But of all of the references to wine in the Bible, the most common use is one of acceptance.
  • There are 59 references to wine being use as part of meals.
  • There are 27 references to the abundance of wine as examples of God's blessing.
  • 20 references state that God's curse for disobedience is losing wine and strong drink.
  • 25 times wine is referred to as an offering or sacrifice to be brought to priest.
In all of the references to alcohol, almost 60% are accepting of it.
So What?
If the Bible appears to accept alcohol, does that mean we accept it and its use in all its forms? No, the Bible merely states that alcohol was a part of the culture in which it was written. There is good evidence that alcohol has been a part of every culture in which the story of God's people has taken place. 

Alcohol is also a part of our culture. Just like the people in the story of the Bible, we have to find a way to live with it and the people who consume it. The church in many places has drawn a line of absolute condemnation against alcohol, the places that serve it, and the people who consume it. That is how God's people in more recent history have dealt with alcohol.

If we look closer at the New Testament, though, Jesus didn't draw that line. He ate and drank with sinners, he attended their festivals and feasts, he even brought the wine to one. He didn't separate himself from them and cast scripture at them to change their ways. He sat with them, listened to them, ministered to them, and above all else loved them.

It's NOT about ME!
When we address the issue of alcohol as Christians, we should always approach it from the point of view of "what does this mean to others?" Romans 14 sounds like it is saying we should be "good examples". But it goes much deeper than that.
14:1 Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. (New Living Translation).
14:2, 5,6 For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables... In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God. (New Living Translation).
If we examine this closely, we find a couple of important points. People at different levels of faith live out their understanding of faith in different ways. Because we are surrounded in the church by people who are different than we are, we need to respect one another in those differences. This is not a matter of believer vs. non-believer or righteous vs. sinner. In this passage we are talking about everyone being believers.
14:10, 12-13 So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God...Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall. (New Living Translation).
This is a matter of "disputable" things. We do not get to judge one another in these matters. Paul was convinced that some things that were deemed "sinful" before being in Christ, are not "sinful" for him. 
14:14a  I know and am convinced on the authority of the Lord Jesus that no food, in and of itself, is wrong to eat. 

The issue of unclean vs. clean was, for some Jews, a matter of importance. In Christ, Paul is free to eat things that are unclean (Acts 10:14-15). The non-believing world sees our faith as a set of restrictions. They have gotten the impression that all we care about are the things people can't do. They see us living with nothing but "Thou shall nots".

We who know Christ in maturity know that we live with a wide range of freedom. People of weak faith, new faith, or immature faith live "on the fence". By living out our freedoms in Christ, we can cause others to lose what little grip of faith they have. You are free to drink alcohol within your tolerance and ability to remain sober minded unless by doing so someone may compromise their beliefs.

That's Not Fair!
I can hear people making that "argument". But for believers there is something very important we have to keep in mind.
Romans 14:7-8  For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves.  If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
When we committed ourselves to Christ, we accepted his rule and reign as complete. His word is law and his will is our path. His law and path are simple - love God, love others, love self last. What "I" want comes after we consider what God wants and what it will do to another. 
Romans 14:13,15,17-19, 15:1-2
13 So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.
15 And if another believer is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don’t let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died. 17 For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too. 19 So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up.
15 We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord.
 Putting others needs before our own pleasure is a kingdom rule.