Alcohol: It’s about the Mission not Morality

REPOST(TOP 10 POST OF YEAR) #1 most viewed read post of the

The use of alcohol among conservative Evangelicals has been in the news lately. Famous pastor confessed to abusing it as way of handling stress. Missiologist, Ed Stetzer, has observed that this new openness might come with an increase in similar issues.  (Click Link) We were once a “full abstinence people.” But recently, younger Evangelicals are moving away from the stances held by our predecessors.

I am regularly asked my position on this subject. Our school has a strict policy and it is enforced across the board. When our younger students come in contact with this policy they are full of questions. Their questions generally revolve around issues of morality – is it wrong to drink alcohol? Is it a sin? Is it a matter of wisdom or conscience?

I could answer the question in a number of ways, but honestly, I don’t feel a need to engage in exegetical exercises about what Jesus turned water into, or what Paul told Timothy to drink for his stomach. Frankly, I find those discussions unhelpful.

Instead of engaging the topic on those levels, I usually tell a story. Very early in my missionary career I had a friend from a closed, Islamic country. We spent hours talking about religion, the gospel, and how a to be right with God. In the course of our discussions he once argued that his country was not oppressive of Christians. “We have religious freedom,” he said. I knew Christians were persecuted and missionary activity was illegal in his country so I asked what he meant by that. He said, “In our country, we allow Christians to drink alcohol and defile themselves.” In other words, he saw Islam as a more moral, and therefore more Godward religion, than Christianity, and the use of alcohol was his proof-text.

At that moment it hit me. This issue could be a matter of eternal importance. He would never believe that a man who drank alcohol could be speaking the word of God.

My answer to anyone who asks about alcohol consumption is not about morality. My concern and my convictions run much deeper. For me, alcohol consumption is about the mission. God’s mission to make disciples of all nations. As Christians, we need to learn to ask ourselves the right questions. Our primary questions should not be, is this [whatever ‘this’ is] “right or wrong.” Rather, we should ask, “does this advance or hinder God’s mission?”  I think we should be consumed by the final marching orders of our King – make disciples of all nations – and I know that alcohol consumption can be a hindrance to this mandate.

NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION

This post is actually about more than alcohol. Sure, if you are fuming right now about your scotch or beer, you have a real problem and need to do something about it. However, for the rest of you who are bobbing your head like a doll on a hot dashboard, I have you right where I want you.

You have just agreed that the mission of God should determine lifestyle choices. There is no question that Christians are free in Christ, but you have just agreed that, for the Christian, the mission of God, not selective morality, should be our driving force.

SO – let’s think about other things.

Your time is your investment of the hours in your day contributing to God’s mission or is it a distraction for you or others.

Your money – What does your use, or misuse, of money and “things” do to accomplish the mission? Are you leveraging your finances to advance God’s kingdom or your own?

Your Family – are you raising your kids and leading your home as a Great Commission stewardship, or are you chasing the American dream and living in fear of complete obedience.

Your job, your reputation, your experiences – Get the message?

The Apostle Paul wrote: “You were called to be free, brothers; only do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love.” (Galatians 5:13

6 Replies to “Alcohol: It’s about the Mission not Morality”

  1. Found this challenging. As an evangelical, and a drinker, I sometimes find myself defending my position to tetotallers as an opportunity to engage one of God’s good gifts and to teach others how to interact with it so as to not abuse it.

    Do you find this argument to be as plausible in an American or even European culture? It seems to loose some strength unless your in a predominantly muslim country. Thoughts?

    1. Aaron,
      Thanks for reading and for your question. I completely understand your point.

      I don’t think that the argument loses any strength in those contexts. I lived in Europe (Germany) for many years and I was often in situations where most people were using alcohol. I have also been in many situations in the US that are similar. I never found my not drinking to be a stumbling block to relationships or even evangelistic conversations. I think that if a person reads my post and it causes them to avoid places where he or she could be in conversations and have opportunity to live out and share the gospel, this would be a mistake. However, I think there is a difference in being with people and drinking alcohol.

      I have never been in a situation where my drinking water, soda, coffee, etc. has created any problems at all. Plenty of people do not drink alcohol, for many different reasons (driving, alcoholism, don’t like the taste, etc.). The purpose of this post is not a call for teetotaling. I am simply trying to move the discussion about this (and many other issues) into a different context. Rather than arguing from freedom or about morality, I think we should look at our life’s choices through the lens of God’s mission and ask if we are advancing or hindering.

      Honestly, your final decision on these questions might be different from mine. But, it is best if we are all seriously considering the question and its eternal implications.

      Blessings and thanks again fro writing. Feel free to let me know if you have other questions. Feel free to write me directly if you’d like.

      – Scott

  2. Scott, I have a few thoughts after reading your blog. I want to respond to both the method you used in reaching your solution, and the specific issue you raised, use of alcohol by Christians.

    Andy Johnson defines evangelical pragmatism as: “an approach to gospel work that values results more than faithful obedience to the Word, especially when the Word’s teaching may not be attended by immediate, visible fruit.” He continues saying, “Now, I am not suggesting that everything we do which is pragmatic is ill-advised (taking airplanes overseas instead of boats, for instance). Rather, I’m talking about a willingness to overlook or even contradict what the Bible says for the sake of what appears to work visibly and immediately (Pragmatism, Pragmatism Everywhere!, Feb. 26, 2010, 9Marks.org).”

    This article continues by pointing out the attractions and dangers to this missiological approach; one that I see operative in this blog about alcohol use by Christians. For example, “I don’t feel a need to engage in exegetical exercises…I find those discussions unhelpful.” I actually think biblical exegesis is absolutely needed and extremely helpful for this discussion.

    Does alcohol use negatively impact a Christian’s witness to non-Christians. The Bible records people drinking alcohol, and commends, while regulating, its proper enjoyment to the glory of God. If Scripture allows it, then Christians are not enhancing their witness by disallowing it thereby “promoting a false morality, a morality presumably “higher” than the Bible, a morality in contradiction to Scripture” (Kenneth L. Gentry, God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says About Alcohol (Lincoln: Oakdown, 2000), 142.) Instead of assuming moderate alcohol use would have a negative effect, why not see it as an opportunity to model biblical norms to a watching world that is steeped in hedonism or self-righteousness?

    This approach means choosing which individuals you are going to accommodate, without any guarantee such behavior will earn their favor, and at the same time risk offending others. I think Paul’s circumcision of Timothy recorded in Acts has some bearing on this discussion, and it would be interesting to hear your thoughts about what informed Paul’s decision and what enduring principles emerge.

    1. Logan,
      Thanks for reading and responding. Let me address your comments in two separate points

      1. You are 100% correct in your observation that exegesis is necessary and important. No disagreement from me there. My statement about “discussions being unhelpful” was never meant to imply that the scriptures were not sufficient or that exegesis is not necessary. Actually, my point was the opposite. In my experience, when I am discussing the use of alcohol with someone, one of the first points they make is, “Well Jesus drank wine and Paul told Timothy to drink wine so who are you to forbid it.” What I intended to communicate in this post was, that when these discussions are reduced to just such proof-texting, I find that unhelpful. It is true that the Bible says Jesus turned water into wine, etc. However, I have not found that this debate is helpful in determining whether or not someone should drink alcohol today. That is not exegesis, it is using a proof-text to justify behavior.
      My post is not pragmatism, rather it is an attempt to reflect theologically and missiologically on what Paul meant when he wrote: “You were called to be free, brothers; only do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love.” (Galatians 5:13).

      2. I am not sure what your second question is intended to communicate. When you ask “Does alcohol negatively impact a Christian witness…” The answer to this question is clearly “Yes.” The illustration in my post highlights that it is possible that the Christian witness to more than 1 Billion Muslims could be negatively impacted. We also know that there are people in ours, and other cultures and countries, for whom, alcohol use could be a stumbling block to hearing and receiving the gospel. This answer is in no way promoting a “false morality higher than the Bible,” but rather an observation of reality. I wonder if I am misunderstanding your intent here; it seems you are saying that Christians should drink alcohol and, if it offends unbelievers, this is ok. I think this is a violation of what Paul meant when he wrote “Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is helpful…” (1 Cor 6:12)

      Also note that the point of the post is much larger than the use of alcohol. So, I think it is a mistake to get hung up on that one point. The point is that it is important to make sure that our lives and our life choices advance, rather than distracting, from God’s mission to save the lost. This is what Paul meant when he said, “I become all things to all men that I might save some…” (1 Cor 9:22)

      1. Scott,

        I appreciate your reply and the CGCS blog as a whole since it has relaunched. What I’ve read so far has been thought provoking and insightful.

        Here is how I understand what you are saying: the determining factor for a Christian’s morality is its effect on a particular person’s or group of people’s reception of the gospel. To me that is results-driven and pragmatic. I don’t presuppose that one’s acceptance of the gospel is contingent on their approval of all of my moral decisions including use of alcohol. In fact, I fully expect to disagree with non-Christians on a host of moral issues; ones that could prove offensive to them. Still, how can I trade in my convictions for what I suppose will please this person or group of people? If you adapt your morals to satisfy one person or group, isn’t it possible to inadvertently cause offense to another person or group? Also, I can’t possibly imagine winning someone’s approval by adapting to all their moral or cultural norms; surely they can accept me with all my differences just as I can accept them.

        1 Cor 8:9 says “But be careful that this right of yours [to eat meat offered to idols] in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak,” in reference to offending other believers, not non-Christians. Why would non-Christians be offended by Christians eating meat? Worse than offending non-Christians (which is inevitable), is not modeling Christian, biblically-based morality in the face of contrasting views. Regarding alcohol, I won’t go so far as to say Christians should drink, because its matter of personal choice, legality (age, prohibition laws), health, and other factors. However, I hope anyone who abstains will also accurately represent the Bible’s teaching on this subject.

        Finally, the main issue you are raising is how lifestyle choices impinge on the mission of God. Alcohol use is just one of many lifestyle choices, and in my opinion is relatively inconsequential one. I’m not committed to this conversation with you because of my love for strong drink. It’s just that I see this issue as an example of how determining moral issues based on “the mission of God, not selective morality” can be problematic. I’m in Ethics this semester, so maybe I’ll learn something that will shed light on this for me.

        1. Logan,
          Thanks for your comments and questions. I also appreciate your kind words about our new blog initiative.

          I can see you are interested in probing these ideas further. Since you are on campus, why don’t you come by my office and let’s chat about them in person. I think this would be a much better format for a deeper discussion.

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