Alcohol & Christian Liberty
by Jason Hinrichs
Any Christian with a background in fundamentalist circles can resonate with the difficult topic of alcohol, its effects, and its right and wrong uses. A common approach to the consumption of alcohol by Christians is to avoid it entirely, and that is commendable if for the purpose of holiness and avoiding temptation.
The issue is when a believer forces their personal decision based on their conscience on another believer. While it is commendable and wise for a Christian susceptible to the temptation of drunkenness to abstain altogether, it is theologically and biblically incorrect to apply this as a broad-brush principle for all Christians. Likewise, the one who enjoys God’s good gift of alcohol—and yes, its effects—is in sin once they push it on the one abstaining or cause them to stumble.
Furthermore, alcohol is unavoidable in one circumstance: communion. That is not to say that communion is completely invalid when given with grape juice instead of wine, but it is to say that wine is what was intended when the ordinance was instituted. While this is a subject for another time, there are many stories of how the wine of communion is a means of grace to the recovering and former alcoholic in more ways that one.
While the rough draft of this article was written prior to the JD Hall / Apologia debacle, it has deep application as it pertains to personal conscience and the Christian’s responsibility to flee temptation while enjoying liberty in Christ.
All of this to say, alcohol isn’t inherently sinful. A shocker for some, old news to others, but true for all.
We know that alcohol consumption to the point of drunkenness is sinful. There are many verses of Scripture that remind us of the dangers of drunkenness, and also provides us with examples. The Bible does not say, however, that alcohol consumption of any kind is sinful. In Judges 9:13, the Bible reads, “And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?”
In reading the text clearly, we see that wine not only brings joy to man, but to God. In fact, Jesus commanded us to drink wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. In this sense, we see that wine is a blessing that communicant members of the body of Christ are to partake in when taking communion.
We know that Jesus drank wine because in Luke 7:33-34, the pharisees called Jesus a winebibber because He drank wine. To make the claim that something is a sin which Jesus Himself partook in is to infer that Jesus sinned when He drank alcohol. We know that Jesus was sinless, so the consumption of alcohol is not a sin.
Alcohol consumed in excess to the point of drunkenness however, is sinful; the same can be said of overeating. Food in and of itself, is not inherently sinful, but eating beyond satiation enters into the realm of gluttony. In that same passage in Luke 7, the pharisees called Jesus a glutton because he ate with sinners.
EXPEDIENT OR EDIFYING?
All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.
— 1 Corinthians 6:12 (KJV)
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.
— 1 Corinthians 10:23 (KJV)
In the aforementioned verses, Paul is talking to the Corinthians, who were living as unrepentant sinners and who blatantly ignored the moral law. Paul is making the point that we have freedom to act in any way that isn’t contrary to the moral law, is profitable, and does not bring us under the power of anything other than Christ. The last point is a reiteration of the adherence to the moral law, being that allowing something other than Christ to be a power over us is simply idolatry.
Is it possible to be brought under the power of alcohol? Absolutely. This is why the scriptures speak against drunkenness. This often moves the question to the state of drunkenness, and the rate and amounts of alcohol a person consumes before they are considered biblically drunk.
It is important though, that we remember not to deem something as sinful that God does not deem sinful. Calling alcohol sinful, in and of itself, is no different than calling clay sinful. I don’t know of anyone that would say that clay is a sinful substance, but if someone was to mold that clay into an idol, and give it power over themselves, that would absolutely be sinful.
As we saw in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, those in Corinth were using their liberty as an excuse to sin; this is ultimately the death of liberty. The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the abuse of christian liberty:
They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life.
— Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 20.31
With christian liberty comes responsibility; we are to be dead to sin and alive in Christ. Old things and the marks of our old life are to pass away, and all things are to become new. We have been washed in the blood of the most perfect sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
Because of this, many Christians are naturally led to do away with anything that even slightly resembles the world; this isn’t a bad thing. To be perfectly clear, I have no problem with teetotalers who choose to be based on their own convictions. The problem is when people either push their convictions onto the conscience of their brothers and sisters in Christ without a basis for doing so.
In a similar camp is those who won’t come out and say that drinking alcohol is a sin, but rather, use 1 Corinthians 6:12 to say that the consumption of alcohol is not expedient. Again, this is a matter of conscience, and should not be imposed upon others unless actual sin is occurring, in which church discipline would be in order.
We run into problems when we attempt to be more pious than the Scriptures dictate. This was part of the problem of the Jewish authority in Jesus’s day. The pharisees held strongly to the oral traditions which incorporated extra-biblical law. The Bible warns us of subjecting ourselves to the doctrines of men in order to please God.
An example of this can be found in Deuteronomy 5:32-33, where we see that we are to obey specifically what God has commanded, without deviation, and that blessings come from obedience.
Ye shall observe to do therefore as the Lord your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.
Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess.
— Deuteronomy 5:32-33 (KJV)
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.
— Colossians 2:20-23 (KJV)
What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.
— Romans 6:15 (KJV)
PUTTING SIN TO DEATH
For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds;
And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.
— Colossians 3:5-11 (KJV)
The death of sin is vital to the life of a believer. People with genuine saving faith, will want to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord. Due to the prevalence of alcohol abuse and the ripple effect of destruction that often accompanies it, there is an appeal to want to abstain. This also may be in part due to a strong urge to make an idol out of alcohol, and the inability for temperance in the individual, in which case I would agree that they should abstain outside of communion.
It cannot be ignored that there are many believers that put alcohol on a pedestal, which can be viewed as a flaunting of liberty, and could be indicative of a problem. There is a grey area between exercising our liberty, and abusing it. This brings up an important point that cannot be neglected. The argument of the stumbling block, or the weaker brother argument.
As mentioned previously, there are people who abstain from consuming any alcohol due to substance abuse in their past, or the current struggle over their conscience and convictions regarding it. We should respect their decision, and not exercise our liberty while in their presence, the same way they should not make the matter of their conscience a matter of ours. Part of loving our brothers and sisters is understanding them where they are in their Christian walk, and not doing anything that could lead them into sin.
Response to JD Hall on Apologia by James White
What Does the Bible Teach About Alcohol by The Village Church
Episode 97: Tattoos and Skinny Jeans with Joe Thorn by The Reformed Pubcast
Liberty in Christ: Further Freedom by Josh Sommer