Thursday, April 14, 2016

My Alcohol-Free 21st Birthday: Why as a Christian I'm Choosing to Abstain (And You Should Too)

I’ve never been good at remembering birthdays. Not even my own. In fact, before I got a Facebook account the summer before my senior year of high school, I was never the first person to realize it was my birthday. It would usually be one of my parents that would enlighten me. Sometimes I’d forget and have to be reminded again in the afternoon.

Thankfully, Facebook now keeps me out of the doghouse, reminding me to congratulate someone on surviving for another year. Since I’ve never made a big deal of it and have never been thirsty enough to tell everyone I was aging, I don’t do much for my birthday. Just a small celebration with my family.

This birthday, though, has been difficult to forget since so many around me are bringing it up. It’s the big year when I turn 21. For me, this means I can get my concealed carry license (and not get to utilize it on campus) and taking advantage of a few giveaways at restaurants. For most, though, it is a time when their alcohol consumption can finally become public. Instead of having drinks others had to purchase, finally they can drink at restaurants or purchase at stores.

What I am about to dive into has a very specific audience. Obviously, I invite all to continue reading, but I must preface. In the world – that is, people who are not practicing Christians – such an emphasis on being able to drink is to be expected. There are standards God has set in place for Christians that He does not expect others to follow. I also realize that in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, consuming alcohol is acceptable. While I largely disagree that it is, that would be a whole other discussion entirely. I have several pieces on my blog about Catholicism, and invite you to check them out.

One area I did not expect alcohol to be accepted in was the evangelical church. Being raised in churches that held to a strict temperance teaching, I was surprised to come to college and see not only an acceptance of alcohol in the church, but an emphasis on it. The obsession with social drinking is strikingly and alarmingly similar to the world’s. No 21st birthday is complete without social media pictures of the first (legal) drink. This is simply considered part of Christian liberty, and if you disagree, well, you just don’t understand God’s grace, you old-fashioned legalist.

A few more notes are needed before I dive into what the Bible has to say on this subject. First, this is not aimed at anyone in particular. If you’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I put up social media pictures of me drinking on my 21st birthday. He’s talking about me.” No, you’re probably in the majority, so I’m singling no one out. Second, let’s be up front about the biblical distinction: “legalism” is adding a work or works to salvation. Since I’m not claiming that Christians who drink alcohol will still go to Hell, this isn’t legalism. This also is not necessarily a matter of Christian liberty. You can make the argument, but that’s just it – you have to make the argument. Alcohol isn’t a liberty because you say it’s a liberty, it’s a liberty because (and if) the Bible classifies it as a liberty. Clearly there are some things that God does not endorse. Fornication is not simply a matter of Christian liberty. It’s sin. “All is lawful” has a context. Do I think alcohol is as cut and dry? No, and you’ll see that. But an absence of explicit condemnation in the Bible does not make something okay. Otherwise we’d have to say that tobacco, cocaine, and abortion are all acceptable since God doesn’t come right out and say they’re wrong. The Bible is not an exhaustive moral rule book. It’s a guideline. It provides a standard of living for believers, not a reference for what we can get away with.

So let’s take a fair look at what the Bible has to say about alcohol.

I won’t try to prove too much and say that drinking alcohol is an outright sin. This may come as a surprise to some, but I want to have unshakable evidence before I make that claim. (I invite any further proof that I’m missing.) I think it can be considered so, but at the very least I believe it is injudicious and wholly unnecessary.

The foundation of my stance against drinking is that the Bible has nothing good to say about alcohol. When you examine the context and original language used, you won’t find it. I can say a similar thing societally. What good does alcohol do us? “It tastes good.” There are plenty of drinks that taste good that don’t have so many negatives associated with them. Is this honestly even an argument? If human blood tastes good to someone, does that give him liberty to drink it?

But I can think of a lot of bad things alcohol can do. Public intoxication. Embarrassment. Liver damage. Domestic violence. Sexual assaults. Drunk driving. Accidental deaths. Homicides.

“But Joe, that’s only if people get drunk.” Fact of the matter is, that’s the association with alcohol. The best we can say for it is that it (maybe) tastes good, or it is “fun”. But there are a whole lot of all-too-justified associations. Who hasn’t been affected by alcohol? Who hasn’t known someone that has regrets from an experience when they drank too much? Who doesn’t know of someone that has suffered from an alcoholic's domestic abuse or was killed by a drunk driver?

“God has placed alcohol on Earth, and it glorifies Him when we use it.” Says who? Where does the Bible say that? You know what else is on the Earth? Marijuana. Let’s all glorify God by passing around a doobie. Coca leaves are natural; let’s snort cocaine for God’s glory. Opium and morphine. We can shoot up heroin for the glory of our Lord. Hemlock juice:

So then it might be possible that not everything placed on a fallen world glorifies God?

But by all means, tell me how great alcohol is when you watch footage in health class of paramedics extracting corpses from cars after a drunken scumbag took their life. Tell me how laudable drinking is after you ask a woman why she has bruises on her arms and face. Tell me how fun it is after you read about the man who fell on and killed his infant daughter while drunk.

You’re right, a lot of Christians drink but don’t get drunk. But how does that look to the world?

“Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing…” –II Corinthians 6:17

My belief is that drunk drivers that kill
someone should be executed.
“Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.” –I Peter 2:11-12

So we’re to be separate from the world, and have a blameless testimony before them. Yet we associate ourselves with something that causes so much harm?

John Caldwell had this to say in his article, “To Drink or Not to Drink?”:

“I believe this issue is important because it relates to a broader, and thus even more significant subject—that of the modern church’s ongoing move toward becoming more and more like the world.”

We shouldn’t be striving to fit in with the culture. This is not a Christian culture. Look around you. Your actions ought to be radically different from the world's.

Caldwell echoes my point, or I suppose I echo his, about the effects of alcohol in our society:

“Let me ask a simple question: Why should you drink? If you never take the first drink, you’ll never become addicted. If you don’t drink, even if you could handle it, you won’t be a stumbling block to those who can’t handle it (and I believe Paul said something about not causing your brother to stumble). And if you don’t drink, you won’t be supporting an industry that has caused untold heartache for millions of people.
These were the less graphic photos of DUI car wrecks.
If you need further convincing, look at the people in the wrecks.

Try a little experiment. Carefully read a city newspaper for the next seven days. Make note of all the stories of tragedy and heartache that somehow involve alcohol. Then, against that backdrop, try to defend its use. A quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln is, ‘Alcohol has many defenders, but no defense.’”

At this point I want to answer a common argument that tries to justify alcohol from the Bible before showing the negative passages concerning it.

I commonly hear the usage of the word “wine” in the Bible as if it is parallel to our wine today.

“Well Jesus turned water into wine.”

“Paul tells Timothy to drink wine.”

The Greek word translated “wine” in the New Testament is the word “oinos”. “Oinos” is an all-encompassing term for juice from grapes. This can mean fermented wine, or it can mean unfermented grape juice. So this does not necessarily refer to alcohol. Let’s compare scripture with scripture:

“This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine…” –I Timothy 3:1-3

Paul’s Holy Spirit-inspired qualifications for pastors is that they are “not given to wine”. Two chapters later, Paul says this:

“Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.” –I Timothy 5:23

Paul instructs Timothy to “drink a little wine.” Who was Timothy? He was a pastor learning under Paul. So did Paul contradict himself? Or could it be that he was referring to different types of drinks?

Also, would Jesus, part of the Trinity, have Paul write these qualifications if He did not keep them on Earth? Or was what Jesus created not actually alcohol?

History would say it wasn’t. There was a method of preservation in Bible times that involved boiling the juice and making a syrup that could later be diluted with water. This prevented juice from fermenting.
"Student dies after 'downing 16 shots'
as she celebrated her 21st birthday"

Aristotle, who lived in the 300s bc, once wrote about the process of diluting the grape syrup:

“The wine of Arcadia was so thick that it was necessary to scrape it from the skin bottles in which it was contained and to dissolve the scrapings in water.”

Horace, a poet born in 65 bc, penned the following:

“There is no wine sweeter to drink than that of Lesbos; it was like nectar . . . and would not produce intoxication.”

Finally, Albert Barnes’ commentary on the Gospel of John:

“The wine of Judea was the pure juice of the grape, without any mixture of alcohol. It was the common drink of the people and did not produce intoxication.”

So it is hardly valid to say that Jesus and Timothy drank wine.

Even granting they did, which I do not, the alcohol content in beverages is of much higher concentration now than it was in ancient times.

So I’ll repeat what I said before: The Bible has nothing good to say about alcohol:

“Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them! And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands.” –Isaiah 5:11-12

“Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink…” –Isaiah 5:22

“Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” –Proverbs 20:1

20 year-old in alcohol-induced coma
Seeing the attitude the Bible takes on alcohol, I’m not exactly inclined to go out and celebrate my legal ability to partake in it.

There is no moral benefit to be derived from alcohol that cannot be found elsewhere, but there are many problems that can result:

“Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine. Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder. Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things. Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast. They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.” –Proverbs 23:29-35

Not a great picture. Perhaps the average Christian may think he is exempt from this. Ken Idleman, pastor of Crossroads Church in Evansville, Indiana, brings up this point:

“No one starts out to be an alcoholic. Everyone begins with a defensive attitude saying, ‘I’m just a social drinker and there is nothing wrong with it!’ No one says, ‘It is my ambition that someday I want to lose my job, my health, my self-respect, my marriage and my family. Someday I want to be dependent on alcohol to get through my day.’ Yet, this is the destination at which several millions of people have arrived. Why do you suppose that is? It is because alcohol is promoted and elevated as a normal/sophisticated activity in life…It is also expensive, addictive and enslaving. People get hooked by America’s number one legal drug. And just like all illegal drugs, alcohol finds its way into the body, the bloodstream and the brain of the user/abuser.”

Idleman brings out several things that are easy to spot in society and among Christians. One, “Alcohol is promoted and elevated as a normal/sophisticated activity.” There is a strange obsession in the world with alcohol, and it’s becoming increasingly more pervasive with God’s people. Those with “craft beer hobbies” are “sophisticated” rather than “not wise”, as the Bible describes them.

Two, alcohol is expensive. When I traveled to London during my sophomore year of college, I was of legal age to drink there. I was the only person I knew of that didn’t take advantage. And I had fun hanging out in pubs with people; it’s not as if I alienated myself from that aspect of the culture. But I was able to equally try out new nonalcoholic beverages – one of which I still buy from Jungle Jim’s international market – without spending nearly as much money. To me, there would have been no added benefit to drinking alcohol. On the other hand, if I would have, I would have spent more money and possibly had some of the problems I observed when others drank too much.

And alcohol is deceptive. It is something that can be addictive. Proverbs spells that out in chapters 20 and 23. No one smokes their first cigarette, takes the initial look at pornography, or makes their first bet thinking they’d develop a problem. But it’s a realistic danger.

Take these parting words from Barry Cameron’s article, “Can a Christian Drink Alcohol?”:

I have yet to hear from anyone who drinks how alcohol enhances anything or blesses anyone. Max Lucado said, ‘One thing for sure, I have never heard anyone say, A beer makes me feel more Christlike . . . Fact of the matter is this: People don’t associate beer with Christian behavior.’ I’ve yet to see how it improves someone’s testimony or makes anyone a more effective witness for Christ. Quite the contrary, like Shaun White mentioned above, or Richard Roberts, Oral Roberts’ son, who was arrested in Tulsa, Oklahoma, driving under the influence, the result doesn’t enhance your testimony. Rather, it takes away from what testimony you had.”

I’m not trying to be a killjoy. I’m not trying to place additional burdens on you. Here’s the thing: If God doesn’t approve of an action, it’s not me that’s taking away your liberty. You never had that liberty to begin with.

No, I don’t think I’m better than you. I’m not going to distance myself from you if you as a Christian choose to consume alcohol.

But my 21st birthday, besides the concealed carry permit, marks another year God has given me to serve Him. I don’t see how alcohol is a wise part of that plan.