When it comes to alcohol consumption, one of the biggest questions for Christians is: Should they, or shouldn’t they? This question becomes even more prominent in the midst of Christmas and New Years’ parties and events. Yet while Scripture is clear that murder, marital unfaithfulness and stealing, for example, are all unquestionably out of bounds in the life of a believer, alcohol consumption is not so clear-cut. As a result, Christians today have wide and divergent views on drinking and its acceptability in the life of a Christian.
Here, we talk with Brett McCracken, author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, about a biblical view of alcohol, how different generations approach drinking and why all of this matters for the expansion of the Gospel in the world.
What cues do we find in Scripture about what is appropriate for Christians and alcohol?
There are so many factors that should speak into the question. What is your cultural context? What are your personal, family or community struggles? What are the motivations for your desire to drink or to not drink? I don’t think there’s a universal “should” or “should not” on the question of alcohol. It’s something that is at times appropriate and at other times inappropriate.
The short answer on what the Bible says is simply: alcohol consumption is not forbidden; but drunkenness is. Moderation and self-control are key biblical virtues that should be applied in our approach to alcohol.
We should also pay attention to the “Christian liberty” passages of the New Testament (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8 and 10:14-33), where Christians are advised to consider the “weaker” and “stronger” among them and bear with one another on matters of conscience. Applied to alcohol, we should always be mindful of the fact that some people struggle with intemperance or addiction, while others may not. Both sides need to understand one another and not be stumbling blocks to the other.
My pastor summarizes his position on whether or not a Christian should drink by simply asking: “Does it help or hurt the Gospel?” In his own ministry there have been times and places where he and his wife have abstained from alcohol for the sake of the community, such as the time he pastored a church in a South African city where alcoholism was a major problem amongst church-goers. In that context, drinking alcohol could prove to be a stumbling block to the Gospel. On the other hand, there were times—such as a stint doing ministry in France—where he said that to not drink wine would have been bad for the Gospel. In French culture, wine is a common currency and a point of national pride; drinking it as a point of connection proved valuable for Gospel witness.
Our studies reveal that younger Christians describe themselves as far more tempted by alcohol abuse (28%) than any of their predecessors. You talk in your book about the “pendulum swing” that is created when new generations react against older generations. Do you think that’s what’s happening here?
I think one thing is that both sides of the spectrum on this issue should endeavor to respect and listen to the other side. Young Christians who are embracing their liberty to drink should listen to older folks who may be teetotalers, and understand why they have that perspective. And it should go in the other direction too: teetotalers should understand that there are some Christians who drink and do it responsibly.
Our task is to take what we know of the biblical “big picture” of what it looks like to follow Christ, and then apply that in the myriad of specific scenarios and cultural experiences we encounter daily.
One central, clarifying question that I recommend every Christian asks themselves as they ponder how, or whether, to consume alcohol, is simply: Will this grow me in my faith or will this hinder my growth in Christ? At the end of the day, it all boils down to this.
Can you explain the meaning behind the Latin phrase, absus non tollit usum, and how this might be applied to the relationships of Christians and alcohol?
It means “the abuse does not invalidate the proper use.” Essentially it’s the idea that the wrong use of something does not mean every use of the thing is wrong. Because someone can eat too many donuts and get sick is not an argument against donuts. Rather, it’s an argument for moderation. The same goes for alcohol. Just because people can (and sadly, often do) act recklessly when they’ve had too much to drink, does not means that drinking itself is a necessarily reckless thing. Any good thing can become a bad thing when consumed thoughtlessly or to excess.
The Bible warns against the abuse of alcohol (drunkenness), just as it warns against the abuse of eating food (gluttony). These two vices are often compared (see Deuteronomy 21:20, Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34, among others). But the Bible never condemns or forbids the mere consumption of alcohol or food. The majority of texts referring to eating and drinking are actually connotations of joy, celebration and blessing. The problem resides in overindulgence, not in moderate consumption.
A common argument against social drinking for Christians is that it can be a “poor witness” for the unchurched. And yet, the Christian witness and public reputation, especially among Millennials, is in significant decline. Only 16% of Millennials today say they have a “good impression” of Christians, while the most common perception of Christians is that they are judgmental (87% of Millennials believe this). Do you think this argument backfires when suddenly not drinking in the company of non-Christians is portrayed as a relational hindrance or even prudish?
I’m not all that convinced by arguments that a Christian not drinking would be a relational hindrance or would in some way hurt a Christian’s witness. I mean, sure, if a Christian makes a big scene about abstaining, and does it in an annoyingly legalistic/prudish/I’m-too-good-for-that sort of way, then it can be off-putting. But there are lots of respectable reasons for why someone might abstain from drinking, and in general I think people respect that. If Christians abstain, they should do so quietly and respectfully, in a way that doesn’t make other people feel uncomfortable.
For those Christians who do drink, it should be because we enjoy it and not because it helps repair whatever image or reputation problem we think we have.
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