Evangelical Drinking Stories

It’s grape juice. You know, the kind that Jesus made.

If you do an internet search on “drinking stories” you’ll see hundreds of entries of stupid or dangerous things that people do when they are as drunk as can be.  Well, you’re not gonna find that here, so just keep on surfing if that’s what you’re looking for.  This post is different.  It’s about leaders in the church risking dismissal because they drink occasionally and responsibly.  They are an example of self-control and character…and should be disciplined.  Weird, huh?  So before you partake here, just know that the punch is spiked.

A friend called me recently having a little problem he needed help figuring out.  He’d been serving in his local church for many years and was a well-respected leader.  His influence was growing and the church leadership wanted to give him more opportunities.  But when they discovered that he liked an occasional glass of wine, all bets were off.  He would be lucky to lead anything anymore.  To be fair, the leaders were as loving as possible to him and wanted him to stay regardless.  A pastor of the church sent his arguments from the Scriptures exercising his best expositional skills to ‘prove’ why the consumption of alcohol is always wrong and why the wine of the Bible was simply grape juice.  My buddy wanted to ask my opinion about the whole situation.  He didn’t feel that anything was wrong with alcohol as long as you avoided drunkenness.  Character is measured by a person’s behavior, not what he consumes.  Of course, I agree.

I was disappointed and angry.  Why was this great church cutting off one of its most influential lay-leaders?  And why were the pastors so quick to denounce something that isn’t condemned in the Bible?  The best explanation I could muster was the cultural influence in the church and just bad hermeneutics.  If you work hard, you can unearth what the Scriptures are saying; if you work even harder, you can make it say something else.

I wish this was the only instance where a simple and responsible consumption of alcohol shut down opportunities to serve in the church, but it isn’t.  Many years ago, I helped out in a ministry of a large church where I knew fantastic married couple who was eager to serve.  They helped direct a Sunday school class, but the church wanted to have all the leaders sign a leadership agreement to continue.  The agreement included a clause that forbade any consumption of alcohol.  The husband told me they couldn’t sign with a clean conscience…and I had to tell my pastor why they couldn’t.  They enjoyed wine with their meals but were responsible and did not over-consume.  They couldn’t understand why the church thought their character made them stand head and shoulders above others, but a responsible consumption of alcohol quashed all of that.  I didn’t either, but I sat in the inevitable meeting with that gentleman listening to the pastor make his case from passages like Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 in a rather slipshod manner.  My layman friend made a great argument to defend himself, and I eventually chimed in.  The pastor argued that these Bible passages forbid us from doing anything that would offend another–like drinking alcohol; but I replied that offence is inevitable no matter what you do.  Such passages are used by legalists and fundamentalists to assert control other people all the time.  Anyway, Paul was not talking about the kind of offence that simply makes people uncomfortable, he’s talking about something that will grind a fellow believer’s faith into powder.  [It’s my experience that teetotalers don’t abandon their faith when they see others drink, they just openly condemn them, congratulate themselves about being better than the boozers, and get on with their lives.  In a way, seeing people drink alcohol actually feeds their misguided vitriol!]

That’s me in the middle.

After that meeting, the pastor was concerned about me (I mean, I probably got in bar fights all the time!), so he gave me a sermon tape of the senior pastor‘s lesson on abstinence from alcohol.  I was dubious, but listened anyway.  As I expected it was a 40 minute prohibition commercial.  It was what you would expect a great and misleading sermon to be: oratorically brilliant, hermeneutically misguided.  After I thanked my pastor buddy for the tape, I shared my points of disagreement.  I thought I was charitable overall, but my disagreements with the pastor must have made him uncomfortable since he looked around at one point and said “easy, buddy!”  I suppose he didn’t want to be in a conversation with someone who was disagreeing with the pastor’s sermon.  You don’t disagree with the boss.  That’s the way business goes, I guess.

The short of it is, the pastor denied the Sunday school director the opportunity to serve because he regularly and responsibly drank; and he distanced himself from me because I openly disagreed with a sermon on abstinence even though I didn’t drink at all!

How about another heartwarming story?  One of my best friends from high school got married years ago and pursued work on the mission field.  After filling out the lengthy applications, things looked quite promising…except for the troubling comments they made about their alcohol consumption.  The question was something simple like: “When was the last time you drank an alcoholic beverage?”  They answered honestly: during their honeymoon just over a year ago and maybe only once or twice since then.  This led to a long conversation with the mission group who ultimately turned my friend and his wife down.  We can’t help but think that their ravenous winebibbing of a few drinks per year had something to do with it.

Would you like another round?

I could mention the professor who studied in Europe.  Over there, the theology/divinity professors drink without fear of reprisal.  They too drink responsibly and know that drunkenness is to be avoided.  They get a good laugh at my American friend who talks about the paranoia about all things alcohol in many Evangelical churches.  In fact, some pastors there use casual drinking illustrations positively in their sermons!  [Those boozers!]   My friend drank all that info in (did you catch that?) and went back home with a new attitude.  He talked about it lightheartedly with his new friends at church.  They got a kick out of it.  As a joke, he brought a 6-pack of non-alcoholic beer to a gathering…but nobody laughed.  He got in some hot water for that.  I imagine that discussing issues like wine/alcohol in class can be difficult for him after that.

I could also write about an acquaintance of mine that publishes all kinds of Bible studies who has to take a teetotaler position or he could get in trouble with his publisher.

Or maybe we should address the educational organization that makes it clear that it is not a sin to drink, but they forbid it under any circumstances because of policy issues.  How can you effectively teach that the scriptures teach one thing but your institution does another?  What kind if integrity does that communicate?

There are plenty of great studies that make the Bible’s position on alcohol clear.  This one is my favorite and is the most sobering examination (heh! I kill me!).  The gist of all these studies is this: wine in the Bible is alcoholic and a gift from God, so enjoy it insofar as it doesn’t negatively affect your relationship with God and your relationship with others.  Getting drunk will  lead to poor decisions and will jeopardize these relationships.  If you choose not to drink, that’s a fine decision!  But you have no right to impose that rule on everyone else.  You may have good intentions, but remember that legalism always has good intentions and is always wrong.

I wonder how many great folks have been denied, how many effective leaders have been dismissed because they actually enjoyed God’s gift to us with restraint.  I long for a day when we can stop these silly witch hunts.

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Categories: Alcohol, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Evangelical Drinking Stories

  1. Jim Aldridge

    Excellent post! It would do the modern evangelical church well to look into how the pharisees began. Essentially, they were a group of people who were concerned with maintaining the righteousness of the people of Israel in the face of the Hellenistic influence that came through with Alexander the Great. That is a good thing! but the method they chose to keep the people righteous was to add to God’s law, making things more restrictive than even God required in order that the Jews would avoid even coming close to breaking one of God’s laws. The problem with this method is that it assumes that one gains a new heart by performing righteous actions. Christ’s view was clearly the other way around, namely, that one gets the ability to perform righteous actions by gaining a new heart. In short, we sin because we are sinners, we are not sinners because we sin. Enforcing extrabiblical prohibitions against alcohol, far from being evidence of one’s extraordinary commitment to Christ, actually put one dangerously close to abandoning the gospel of grace altogether, just as the Pharisees had. There are many who will disagree with me, but even Christ said to the pharisees, “John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking and you called him a madman; the Son of Man comes both eating and drinking, and you call him a drunkard and a glutton.” Sounds like the people who were wrongly excoriated for their occasional use of alcohol are in good company.

    • Good points, Jim. It’s pretty funny that they called him a drunkard and glutton compared to all the good things Jesus did. It looks more like a big PR campaign rather than serious theological dialogue.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts and the sobering stories. I especially like the Bobble-Head Spurgeon next to the bottle. I have thankfully found myself in a room of evangelicalism where this is not really an issue any more. (I hope you find the same here). In the past year I have found myself venturing back into certain circles I thought I had left for good. It has been a reminder of how fierce this issue is for some people. I hope your post is one of many that will help break down some of our fears and misgivings about drinking. And just to show my convictions about the subject, I am doing my part to help the next generation of evangelical thinkers to do away with the taboos and legalism on the subject altogether. Naomi (my oldest daughter, 3yrs) has already been to 11 breweries. Viva la Vino.

  3. Katie Becton

    Couldn’t agree more.

  4. Steve Cook

    I agree with your premise about an occasional glass of wine with dinner, and the comment about responsible drinking, but here’s the other side of the issue that I don’t see mentioned. For me personally, by the grace of God, this is day 642 without a drink. I’ve been in Celebrate Recovery for 22 months now, and have a number of friends who are alcoholics and addicts. We struggle daily and I don’t dare take even one drink, because I know I won’t stop there. While I support your view and agree that God gave us wine as a gift, for those of us fighting alcohol/addiction to see church leaders endorsing the view, well it makes recovery that much harder for us. There’s no such thing as responsible drinking for a recovering alcoholic. The ememy tells us the lie that it’s okay to take one drink, see pastor John has wine with dinner. That’s my drinking story, hope it helps clarify things.
    Steve C.

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