American Christians’ attitudes toward drinking are changing. You can see it at schools such as Wheaton and Moody, where bans against alcohol consumption by faculty have been recently lifted. You can see it in the increasing numbers of Christian young adults want to loosen up and maybe “have a beer with Jesus,” à la Thomas Rhett Akins. They find the argument that the Bible forbids drinking to be unconvincing.
So do I. But I also think that it is not enough to say that Christians have the liberty to drink. D.L. Mayfield, in a thought provoking article in Christianity Today, shows why.
A fresh perspective
Like many young adult Christians, Mayfield discarded her fundamentalist upbringing by drinking moderately, enjoying her new freedom. Then a few years ago, she and her husband joined a Christian order working among the poor and moved into a low-income apartment in the Midwest. She was shocked by the daily drunkenness. She came face to face with the degrading and enslaving effects of alcohol in those she was trying to help.
Surrounded by the misery and destruction, Mayfield found that drinking was “no longer fun.” She finally stopped. “In my neighborhood,” she writes, “it was becoming clear: ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ were tied to breaking the chains of my neighbors’ addictions. Since so many were caught in the cycle of stumbling and picking themselves up again, it became good for me to not drink, as a way to stand with the brothers and sisters I was learning to love.”
Mayfield also noticed how common it is for her peers to use social media to keep each other posted on their need for wine after a long day with the toddler or their parties at hipster whiskey bars. Dismayed she asks, “Isn’t anyone friends with alcoholics?” Her question exposes a huge hole in most discussions of Christian liberty.
Where are our neighbors whom we should be loving?
Mayfield puts her finger on what she suggests is “the real sin” of many American Christians, drinkers or not. Typically in our churches and other social circles, we surround ourselves with others like ourselves: middle to upper-middle class, comfortable, and with plenty of social and spiritual safety nets. We assume that our churches are diverse because of different opinions about matters such as drinking.
But that is not what the apostle Paul meant in his comments on Christian liberty. He assumes that his readers had truly diverse backgrounds: former idol worshipers, former coveters, former adulterers, former swindlers, former homosexuals, former drunkards, and so forth (I Corinthians 6:9-10).
We pay a heavy price for managing true diversity out of our churches and lives. In our narrow subcultures of sameness, the rich Biblical teaching of Christian liberty makes little sense. Many of us would be hard pressed to identify a single person in our churches or close acquaintances whose background might cause her or him to stumble because of our drinking. It is often said that Christians who drink are leaving their isolated fundamentalism and “engaging the culture.” But in this context they are really engaging the part of culture that invites self-indulgence while disengaging from the part in greatest need. How is that progress?
Is it that the culture is engaging us?
And what of that culture? Gabrielle Glaser, in her book, Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink–and How They Can Regain Control, notes a cultural shift that encourages drinking to celebrate drinking. Whether relieving stress or seeking a bigger thrill, the highest value of Americans is feeling good, and we are increasingly dependent on drugs to make that happen.
For most, alcohol is the drug of choice for that purpose. One has only to look at the marriage of sports and alcohol to see the ever-present and incessant pressure not only to drink, but to drink excessively. Major corporate sponsorships are integral to major league baseball, NASCAR, and America’s largest religious denomination, the NFL. The implicit message, that you can’t be truly happy unless you’re drinking, is not lost on devoted fans, who in businesses across the land anticipate the end of the workday at “beer-thirty” and “fifth o’clock.”
Can we honestly say that this pressure does not affect us? Is a glass of wine with dinner or beer with friends purely an independent choice, motivated only by a desire to enjoy God’s creation. Or is it chosen because it’s hip? Is drinking an example of engaging the culture, or swimming in it?
There is a deeper question that helps put these thoughts into perspective. In Scripture, wine is used in celebration and mentioned as a sign of God’s blessing (e.g., Isaiah 25:6). The Bible also warns of the deceptiveness and destructive power of intoxicating drink (e.g., Proverbs 20:1). How should we think about that paradox? In his discussion of Christian liberty Paul says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (I Corinthians 10:23). To my thinking, the important question is, “What is most profitable?”
Godly Christians will not all arrive at the same answer. But we should be asking better questions. In the drug/drinking culture where we live, even the Biblical condemnation of drunkenness is challenged. Where is the line between sober and drunk? More than half drunk? Almost, but not quite drunk? Are we taking seriously the ease with which alcohol can be abused, a reality shown by Scripture and experience? One commentator observed, “There might be a long way between drunkenness and abstinence, but there is little distance between a healthful intake and a hazardous one.”
Youth and young adults are likely to be caught in the vortex between healthful and hazardous. The New York Times reports that about 80 percent of college-age adults drink, and half of them binge drink regularly. It’s axiomatic that they are more susceptible to social pressure, and also tend to overestimate their strength and underestimate risk. “Only weak people get drunk,” as they say. Odd, though. The ones that I’ve heard say that repeatedly get drunk.
Many Christian young adults have grown up in settings where alcohol was forbidden. They don’t see any danger that they will “jump off the deep end” because they are living off of a borrowed experience, perhaps also someone else’s character and beliefs. So I ask young Christians who want to drink to reflect on this: What leads you to believe that you are ready for this freedom?
Where I end up
All this considered, I drink as much as I want, which is none. Here are some reasons.
1) I have “neighbors” whom I am seeking to love who are enslaved by alcohol. Their freedom from drink is more important than my freedom to drink.
2) Alcohol is easy to abuse.
3) The health problems from drinking outweigh the benefits. Here is one example: both the American Cancer Society and the Cancer Council report that drinking even small amounts of alcohol increases the risk of cancer in nearly the entire digestive tract. The risk rises with increased intake. This is too much for me to swallow.
4) I have an over-abundance of healthy and enjoyable alternatives. I can walk into most grocery stores and see a greater variety of non-alcoholic drinks in a few seconds than most people in the world see in an entire lifetime. Throw in some chocolate chip ice cream and I’m set.
5) “It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles . . . . Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not to please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself . . . . ” (Romans 14:21; 15:1-3)
6) Best reason: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” (Psalm 4:7)