Legalists always have the best intentions for you. They want you to avoid this and that, so that you’ll be a good Christian. A Christian should strive for perfection (1 Peter 1.16) even though it is not actually possible (Romans 7:19). And though only a few are called to be elders of their church community, we should all strive to be “above reproach” (Titus 1.7)
7. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8. but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1.7-9 NASB95)
I have believed these things for years, and have quietly tolerated the people who abuse these scriptures–especially Titus 1.7-9. But now, for the sake of Christian liberty, I feel I must speak up. Such a topic is, after all, an important component of sound doctrine; and we should challenge those who contradict it (Titus 1.9).
Many sermons and lessons I’ve heard over the years, argue for a person’s total abstinence from wine or beer or liquor. When they come to Titus 1.7, they will take a strange approach. The first is the erroneous claim anyone who drinks alcohol is a “drunkard.” The English definition for that term is “a person who is habitually drunk” (COED, 11th ed). The Greek term is “pert[aining] to one who is given to drinking too much wine, addicted to wine, drunken” (BDAG, 70). It couldn’t be clearer, but let me spell it out for us all. The overseer must not be a drunk.
So folks who use this verse to support total abstinence are clearly in the wrong. According to this verse, even your pastor is free to pick up a six-pack at the grocery store. If you see him there, you should be impressed and inspired at his responsible embrace of Christian Liberty–unless, of course, he has slurred speech and there’s an intercom call for clean-up on the beer isle. When you see a deacon in the liquor store, smile and say hello. You are not condemned, and neither is he.
But the legalist is worried. He’s concerned that any consumption of alcohol can lead to either occasional drunkenness or a lifestyle of alcoholism. And he can’t bear the thought of that. He wants to protect you from that needless risk, so he’ll teach Titus 1.7 with an addendum: “For the sake of being above reproach, we abstain from alcohol all together!” You see, as their brothers’ keeper, they want to protect you even from the risk of drunkenness. You might not be able to control yourself, so they’ll control you for you. These rules are only there because they love you and want the best for you. And I really believe they do love you. But as the saying goes, when you love someone, you have to set them free.
Now, they insist that it’s not really legalism, preferring to call it a commitment for the sake of wisdom. And to be fair, I think that it really is wise for some individuals to abstain from alcohol completely. If your right hand offends you, you might need to lob it off (Matt. 5.30); but my hands are doing just fine, so kindly put your knife down. Cut your own hand off, and leave mine alone.
Personally, I think that Titus 1.7-9 has something to do with self control and character. You know, strong leadership qualities, and not a superstitious idea that an occasional drink poisons your soul and disqualifies you from ministry completely. …but that must be the liquor talking.
I think policies to abstain from alcohol are actually a sign of immaturity! After all, legalism appeals to the spiritually weak and more rules are needed where there are few responsible people. As a person’s character and responsibility develop, the rules don’t need to be spelled out as much. People of character understand the parameters of a good life, and strive to live them out. They don’t need someone to bark out rules to follow. No, I’m not antinomian. I just value my liberty, and legalists are willing to take that liberty for my own good. [and I still don’t understand why the most vocal legalists are often the most patriotic limited-government Americans. Figure that one out for me!]
So you see, the ‘above reproach’ card has been played by many folks, but what it really means is ‘meet my own personal expectations, or else.’
Even though you are Biblically free to do so, don’t drink alcohol or else:
…we’ll talk about you behind your back.
…you’ll never get any opportunities to lead.
…you may become a sermon illustration.
Am I going too far? What do you think?