In recent years, it has become increasingly common—even trendy and vogue—for contemporary evangelicals to imbibe the produce of the vine and extoll the virtues of craft beers and specialty mixed drinks.
Growing up, my parents weren’t drinkers, but I still understood that the Bible didn’t strictly forbid drinking alcohol. Paul exhorted Timothy to take some wine to aid in digestion (1 Timothy 5:23) and Jesus’ first miracle was winemaking at a wedding celebration in Canaan (John 2:1-11). It was wine—not Welch’s grape juice—the disciples drank at the last supper with the Lord as part of the inauguration of the New Covenant.
It was clear enough to me that a Christian could be a social drinker and not necessarily sin—provided drunkenness was not the result (e.g. Ephesians 5:18) and the drinker was of legal age. But in my mind, it was an ill-advised behavior nonetheless. I had heard too many stories of people whose lives and families had been shattered by the abuse of alcohol. So in the end, I never really gave much thought to the idea that I would take up drinking.
In particular, I was never all that tempted because, 1) I was able to have fun and blow off steam without it, 2) I didn’t like the taste, 3) I had seen too much from the side of sobriety to want to find myself a victim of some of the situations my drinking friends found themselves in, and 4) I somehow saw abstinence as linked to my walk with and witness for the Lord. In short, not drinking was one of the distinctive ways I demonstrated to others that I was a Christian.
Now regarding the fourth reason above, I admit that on the face of it, this is a bad argument. There is no direct-line relationship between abstaining from alcohol and being a godly Christian. To my defense, I did need to wait until I was 21 in college before I was technically “legal,” and it did give me an opportunity to explain why I was different. But it also gave the wrong impression that the only good Christian was one who abstained from all alcoholic beverages.
Additionally, there were many other ways—better ways—I could have been a witness for Christ with my peers. I honestly hope I was. But at the time, I was only vaguely aware of a concept made explicit by Paul in Romans 14, namely the stumbling block principle. Here Paul speaks about the concern every Christian must have for those around us who are watching, especially other believers.
Verse 14 is clear enough: alcohol (for example) is not “unclean in itself.” However, love for one another does create boundaries around our freedom. Paul suggests that the real point of our walk with God is not license, but the pursuit of love and “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (vs. 17). We have liberty in Jesus, but our passion should be godliness and loving concern for others. That’s a good place to start when considering any behavior.
But then Paul goes on to make a curious appeal to what could be called the “privacy principle.” Verses 21-22 state it this way: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.” In other words, if you do something you know to be morally permissible that has the potential to be a bad witness or cause a fellow believer to stumble in their young faith, it’s better to keep that practice private—between yourself and God.
In view of this principle, I am concerned that some evangelicals, in their desire to be culturally “cool” in an increasingly hostile climate, have lost sight of this important principle of concern for the welfare of others, especially those believers who believe drinking alcohol is a sinful activity.
Does this mean that in view of the dangers, we must not drink anymore? Of course not! But drinking alcohol is neither strictly personal, nor merely social. It requires a genuine concern for personal and social responsibility that takes into account the possibility that others might come to harm or stumble in their faith over the choices that we make.
In short, as mature Christians, we must be wise and circumspect in our exercise of Christian freedom. Whether we like it or not, people are watching, and Romans 14 makes it clear that we are accountable not only to God, but also to others. With regard to drinking, He calls us to show real care for others because we are called to a higher standard of social propriety and concern.
I’m not tempted to drink irresponsibly. My temptations come in several other socially acceptable and unacceptable forms. But many others are greatly tempted by the dangers of drinking too much and are often led away from God and toward the ungodly when they drink. We have to keep that ever in mind as we exercise our Christian liberty. We have freedom, but we must use it in service of and concern for others, not merely ourselves.