Christians and alcohol

February 5th, 2020

“The times they are a-changin’ ”

For my first appointment in the mid-1980s, I was assigned to pastor three little country churches. While I was clearing out some closet space in one of those churches, I happened upon a curiosity — a clipboard with a list of signatures from people who were pledging not to drink alcohol. My guess is that it had been passed around the sanctuary sometime in the ’40s or ’50s. Even then, I thought to myself, “My, how times have changed.”

Recent federal statistics reported by the Associated Press show that American teens and adults now consume more alcohol on average than they did prior to Prohibition, which took effect 100 years ago last month. The average American now drinks 2.3 gallons of alcoholic beverages per year, which works out to about 500 drinks or around nine per week. Prior to Prohibition, that figure was two gallons per person per year. This number has now been steadily rising for two decades and shows no sign of slowing. The AP reports that the most recent apex for alcohol consumption came during a heavy-drinking spell in the 1970s to the mid-’80s when Americans consumed an average of 2.75 gallons per person per year. Interestingly, that was the same time period when I found the abstinence pledge sheet in the church closet.

According to a United Methodist News article about a 2017 LifeWay Research survey of U.S. Protestants, nearly two-thirds (62%) of Methodists “acknowledge taking a drink from time to time.” By comparison, only one-third (33%) of Baptists say the same. This signals a dramatic change in attitude over the last 60 years. In a Methodist survey from 1959, more than half of U.S. congregants (56.8%) believed that all Christians should abstain from alcohol, UM News said. About a decade later, in 1968, the language that clergy should pledge to abstain from alcohol was stricken from ordination requirements. 

Attitudes toward use of alcohol

Frances Willard, a Methodist leader in the Temperance Movement, popularized the saying, “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.” Willard was only one of many women who were deeply involved in this movement to moderate the heavy drinking of the early 19th century, while at the same time promoting women’s equality, including the right to vote, UM News said. While the second part of this legacy is well remembered, the temperance part is often left to history.

There are currently no major movements to moderate alcohol consumption, aside from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has a much more specific aim. In a recent article titled “America’s Favorite Poison,” The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan notes that the predominant attitude about alcohol in our culture is that it’s fine “if you want to join Alcoholics Anonymous or cut back on drinking to help yourself, and people are happy to tell you not to drink and drive,” but any advocacy for alcohol abstinence is deeply frowned upon in the public sphere.

Khazan reports that New York Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig’s view is that “pop culture tends to depict society as split between ‘good guys’ who just want to have fun and ‘bad guys’ who want to destroy all the fun.” Bruenig adds that if you call alcohol consumption into question, “you get kind of recruited against your will into this antifun agenda.” Khazan highlights that there’s no robust discussion about the problems caused by alcohol in our society, as there was for decades during the Temperance Movement and in the years leading up to Prohibition. After the repeal of Prohibition, the promotion of alcohol abstinence gradually eroded, particularly in light of the advertising power of the alcohol industry.

However, this isn’t to say that all news in this arena is bad. Recent statistics show that underage drinking has been on the decline and that Generation Z, those following the millennials, are drinking less than previous generations. This is also anecdotal evidence that millennials are moderating their drinking habits even though they aren’t giving up alcohol completely. 

Where is the guiding wisdom?

Alcohol was taken for granted in biblical times, though there were, of course, warnings about consuming it in excess, such as, “Wine is a mocker; beer a carouser. Those it leads astray won’t become wise” (Proverbs 20:1). Meanwhile, wine was a regular part of celebrations, feasts and weddings and, yes, even was at the Last Supper. Though the Temperance Movement was promoted in churches, there doesn’t appear to be a clear biblical dictum about whether or not a follower of Christ can or should drink alcohol.

Since there’s neither a clear biblical mandate about drinking alcohol nor much public discussion about the wisdom of drinking, the question becomes, What wisdom can we discern and share with those who are wrestling with the question of whether or not to drink? 

Angela Guzman, in a blog post for Beliefnet, shares six parameters that can help guide our use of alcohol. She begins with moderation, which is key in so many aspects of our lives. Moderation is essential so that we can maintain our focus on putting Christ first in our lives. Alcohol can easily become an idol, if it becomes central to our lifestyle.

The second aspect is a question of motivation. Those who choose to consume alcohol should examine whether they’re doing so out of rebellion or as an escape, neither of which is healthy. Guzman’s third parameter is the context in which one drinks. She states that a Christian should avoid dangerous situations, such as driving drunk, and also reminds us that we shouldn’t be a stumbling block to others, whether they’re younger Christians or those recovering from alcoholism.

Her final three parameters are that a Christ-follower who drinks should be able to maintain control, maintain one’s character and maintain one’s dignity. Each of these has to do with the amount consumed, the effects on one’s faith, and the effects on one’s personality. Guzman reminds us of the fruit of the Spirit and asks whether those fruit are still visible in us when we drink. 

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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