Alcohol & the Christian Life

Last week I was called an alcoholic by someone who has never met me or spoken to me.  Based on circumstances of their life experiences with addiction (first and second-hand) and the fact that I drink alcohol and also serve alcohol to other people from time to time, and based on their interpretation of Scripture, they concluded that I’m likely an alcoholic and that I’m leading others (including my children) into alcoholism.

Today – at my request – I sat down and spoke with that person, as well as her daughter and mother.  I was informed initially that they agreed to the meeting only to share their perspectives and experiences with me so I would understand where they were coming from.  Fair enough.  I arrived prepared to listen to their personal experiences.  However when I arrived, I was informed that their purpose had changed, and that their intent was to convince me that alcohol is evil and an inappropriate thing to either enjoy responsibly personally or to offer responsibly to another person as part of hospitality and generosity.  Especially for a pastor, and especially if a congregation was supporting this activity in some way.   And then to demand that I agree to certain things and that the congregation I serve agree to certain things.

All of this not because anything bad has ever happened at Sunday Happy Hour.  Not because anyone who has ever visited has complained about the presence of alcohol  or the way in which I serve it.  Not because of any actual problem at all.  Simply because some of these folks are convinced alcohol is inherently evil, and some of the folks are convinced that a pastor and a church should never utilize alcohol in any sort of public ministry (other than Holy Communion, I assume) because of our larger alcohol culture.

It hasn’t been a fun week.  Hopefully your end off 2017 and start of 2018 was more enjoyable!

My denomination prides itself on refraining as much as possible from saying things definitively that Scripture itself is not definitive about, just as we strive very hard not to ignore anything that Scripture is definitive about.  We are imperfect in this to be sure.  But if you hold that all of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) then you have to at least try.  So in dealing with the accusations and demands that have been made, my main concern is to go to Scripture and see what it has to say.  I don’t really care if a Happy Hour ministry is unconventional.  There are lots of unconventional approaches to ministry – ask any missionary.  Some mission approaches have elements of risk to them, but that’s not my primary concern at this point either.  Risk is not in itself sinful.  My primary concern is whether involving alcohol in a Christian function is sinful.  And to figure that out, I go not to personal experiences or popular practices or Twitter or Facebook but to the Bible to see what the Bible has to say.

And certainly on the issue of alcohol, Scripture has a lot to say.  Hundreds of verses that refer to wine in one way or another.  And we have to pay attention to all of it rather than just cherry-pick the few verses that support our position.  That’s how I’m attempting to deal with the things I’ve been called to my face as well as in other discussions that I’m not privy to.  I go to Scripture to make sure that I understand what it is saying to the best of my ability, so I can provide my congregation and family both corporately and individually with good theological guidance.  Any of you who wish to weigh in on this topic here are free to do so (including the folks directly involved with this who are likely still reading).  As long as you’re respectful, I want to hear what you have to say and I’ll post it in the comments section of the appropriate post so others can see and hear what you have to say and weigh in as well.

To start my study on this topic, I’m utilizing a basic multi-translation Bible tool called e-Sword.  I’ve been using it for years instead of paying big bucks for the more professional programs that I wouldn’t use very often.  E-Sword is available either as a downloadable program or an app (both free!).  I  think it’s a very good baseline tool for casual interaction with the original languages as well as multiple English translations.

I’m using a public domain derivation source for the Hebrew (Old Testament) verses, and the Textus Receptus and Westcott-Hort translations of the Greek New Testament in addition to the Septuagint (Old and New Testaments in Greek).  While these may not be the best translations, I trust that for basic word study purposes they’re serviceable.  If any of my colleagues out there have anything pertinent to share as a warning about these translations, feel free to let me know.

To start with I’m doing a basic search across multiple (12) recent and historic English translations for every occurrence of the word wine in Scripture.  I’m then going through every single verse individually to see what the original language word is that is being translated as wine.  Since different English translations sometimes translate differently (duh!), I’m getting an interesting cross-section of Hebrew words that are sometimes –  but not always – translated as wine by some, but not all, English translations.  I’m only through Isaiah but there are so far eleven different Hebrew words that are sometimes translated as wine and/or strong drink.  Some of them have only been used once or twice, but there are two that far and away have the most occurrences.  It will be interesting to see how many different Greek words are used in the New Testament!

Once I’ve done that, I’ll research each of the words, trying to determine important differentiations or nuances that govern their usage and occurrence.  That will help me when I attempt to clarify the use of the word within not just the single verse but the overall pericope or section of Scripture.  Sometimes the context is a warning.  Other times it’s a celebration.  Other times it’s a divine promise.  I want to be able to clearly lay out all the different contexts that wine and/or strong drink is referred to in Scripture.

Then it shouldn’t be too difficult to group these contexts into more general categories.  Does Scripture clearly and unambiguously prohibit wine and drink from God’s people?  If it doesn’t (which is my assumption and understanding going into this study), then what should God’s people draw from Scriptural discussions of alcohol?  If it does unambiguously prohibit God’s people from alcohol, I’ll have some major thinking to do about why my particular polity and a good chunk (if not majority) of Christian scholarship through the centuries has ignored or avoided talking about this.

Then the discussion becomes one regarding the role of God’s corporate people – The Church – with alcohol.  Is alcohol something that should be condoned in the lives of God’s people grudgingly or reluctantly, but strictly forbidden in the corporate Church?  All of which drives towards the ultimate question – is it sinful for a Church to sponsor or engage in a ministry where alcohol is served to people, even if it is being done in a prudent and careful manner?

As part of these discussions, there has also been an argument made that alcohol itself – the fermented byproducts of fruit and other organic materials – is inherently sinful in and of itself.  It isn’t part of God’s goodness in creation, but rather something the Devil has injected into the mix.  Again, what does the Bible say on this topic and how do we determine practice based on what Scripture says?

The issue of alcohol is a complicated one because, as I’ve often noted on this blog, it can be so destructive in people’s lives.  My working presumption is that rather than just avoiding the topic and practice completely, the Church can and perhaps even should model what responsible alcohol consumption looks like.  If our culture dominates the discussion about alcohol and dominates it with an insistence that it should be enjoyed to excess more often than not (legal disclaimers aside), is there a place for the Church to say not simply no, but rather not so much?   Again, my working practice has been to say yes, and Sunday Happy Hour is a place where this has and does happen.

There are certainly Christians who insist that alcohol cannot be partaken without sin, or that the odds of sin are so great that it should just be prohibited.  Some of their Biblical arguments towards this end rely on arguments that wine in Scripture isn’t wine like we think of today (fermented and alcoholic), but rather grape juice – negligibly fermented, essentially non-alcoholic freshly squeezed grape juice.  Just in my preliminary foray into the word study it’s clear that the Hebrew is able to make this distinction (but more often than not does not – or doesn’t appear to use it purposefully).  Do their arguments have linguistic merit?  Or is it an attempt to justify their theological conclusions and doctrines by reinterpreting Scripture to their liking?  Is that what I’m doing just because I enjoy cocktails?

Time will tell, but I’ll keep all of you informed as I move along the process.

 

 

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3 Responses to “Alcohol & the Christian Life”

  1. A&tCL I | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] Faith, Culture, Society, Life « Alcohol & the Christian Life […]

  2. Dawn S. Says:

    Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana. I do not believe He would have done that if alcohol is evil. He is a God of love and would never do anything to harm us.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      It is very interesting that this is Jesus’ first miracle! It links with what Jesus says in Luke 7:33-34 – “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” We always want to be careful to distinguish between enjoying God’s good creation responsibly and abusing it to our own harm and the harm of others. But these are key passages (to my mind thus far) that rule out the possibility of an overly simplistic condemnation of alcohol itself as somehow evil. As with much of God’s creation, it becomes evil when it is abused.

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