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Should Christian leaders refrain from drinking in public?

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Question:   Robert, I have enjoyed your studies and Q + A so much. I would love your input on Youth pastors or Senior pastors (or any Christian) drinking in public. Obviously not drunk, but "a glass of wine, a beer, a margarita"?

Response:  It is certainly clear from Romans chapter 14 that everything we do as Christians needs to be done with wisdom, even in the case of actions which are definitely not sinful in and of themselves. If eating meat (not a sin) can in some circumstances be an offense to a brother (who may see the association with idolatry as the issue), then clearly there are applications here for other practices as well. Note in the case of the Romans 14 example that the real issue is one of protecting the weak believer from stumbling through observation of conduct on the part of other Christians which might lead that weak believer into sin whether or not the observed conduct is sinful (i.e., v.21: "It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else that will cause your brother to fall NIV). By implication, therefore, the issue in that passage is not the way we may look to outsiders or unbelievers or even to believers who may not agree with what we are doing but won't be tripped up by our behavior (whatever the non-sinful behavior we are talking about may be). Rather, the issue is the spiritual welfare of our fellow believers who may have preconceived notions about certain behaviors and who may be tripped up in their faith when they see us violated these notions (whether through over-reaction or emulation).

Clearly, it is important for Christians to do what is right and to avoid what is wrong, to have a good reputation and to comport ourselves in a respectable way. But it is also important not to be so intimidated by "legalism" (i.e., the practice of turning Christianity into a system of behavioral rules which are not found in scripture), that one is no longer free to serve the Lord in whatever way we have been called to serve Him. For example, there are many cultures in the world where drinking (without drunkenness) has always been part of the social norm. An evangelist in such cultures who made a point of abstaining might be sending exactly the wrong message. This, however, is not a valid defense for recreational drinking under all circumstances in our own culture (which can on occasion also send the wrong message – the point of Romans 14).

As you certainly know from your studies and intimate from your e-mail, though it does prohibit drunkenness, the Bible does not prohibit drinking. Virtually every great believer you can name in scripture drank wine. Proverbs 23:29-35 outlines some of the dangers of drinking, but elsewhere Proverbs commends wine under certain circumstances (cf. Prov.31:6; cf. Eccl.9:7 et al.). There are New Testament passages which condemn being unduly under the influence (e.g., Eph.5:18), but Paul actually tells Timothy to have some wine on account of his ailments (1Tim.5:23), and, of course, our Lord turned water into wine (Jn.2). These and similar well-known passages would seem to indicate that drinking is acceptable as long as one does not become drunk. And that is fine, as far as it goes. But it is important to note that the culture of the ancient world was different from ours. For instance, the water could be very bad, and mixing in some wine with the water was known to have a very salubrious effect (i.e., it neutralized some of the bacteria) - that is the point of Paul's command to Timothy. Also it was rare in Mediterranean culture to drink wine "straight", so that it took a greater conscious effort to become drunk than is generally true for us today (i.e., nothing close to drunkenness would occur with only a few glasses of watered-down wine, to use our measure). Finally, the culture of that day was very much oriented to wine as a staple (much like our milk or orange juice). The idea that someone might deliberately refrain from drinking wine would have struck the average person in biblical times as peculiar in the extreme and worthy of note (cf. the Nazarites and John the baptist). What I am getting at here is that the message sent by a Christian who drinks in our culture here in the contemporary USA is very much different from that of Peter or Paul having wine in their water at mealtime.

For us, drinking is more of a specific choice than a societal norm, and since drink is more concentrated, and since we are not generally acclimated to drink as small children, taking a drink is not exactly the same thing for us as it was for them. Now if there were no such thing as a sin nature ("sin in the flesh" of Rom.6-7), then there wouldn't be any problem at all. But as it is, alcohol generally has the effect of lubricating a person's desires and weakening their restraint – to greater and lesser degrees, of course. It is certainly possible for a person to naturally have or to learn the art of drinking without drinking too much, and to never have any problem with drinking throughout his/her lifetime, in spite of the culture of excess in which we live and the highly concentrated and attractive variety of alcoholic beverages so readily available. However, in my experience, this type of person is in not necessarily in the majority. Many people who drink at some time have at least some problems with drinking, however minor these may be. And among those who have ever taken a drink, it is very rare for anyone to be able to say in truth that 1) they never got drunk, and 2) they never thought or said or did anything sinful that was not attributable to alcohol.

More to the point, there are many people out there who, for whatever reason, are very vulnerable to any run-ins with drink. Just as some people are compulsive gamblers and others given to gossip (we all have our own unique weaknesses, after all), there are some people who will never be able to engage in drinking without it doing them terrible harm. This brings us back to Romans 14 as it applies to our culture today. For especially in the case of those who are looked up to as leaders, I have to wonder what kind of message it sends in to those in the Body of Christ who are vulnerable in this way when they see said leaders having a drink, given, as I say, the unique problems of our society and differences between it and the ancient world. Because, here and now, it is not true that "everybody drinks some watered-wine", it would seem to me that leaders who drink send the message, at least to some degree, that drinking is acceptable. And while this may be true on some abstract level, it is certainly not true for those who are weak in this respect, especially in light of the times and culture we live in. And there is a difference for leaders – in Proverbs 31:4-5, kings (leaders) are singled out for abstinence (the reasons are different from those developed above, but this passage makes the point that who you are does make a difference as to how you ought to behave, and specifically in respect to alcohol consumption).

Here is my own personal application of this principle. I try and make it a point not to judge other Christians who drink or who abstain from drinking. I am clear from scripture that it is not fundamentally wrong to have a drink, but that it is wrong to intimidate other believers into giving up alcohol (or dancing, or cards, or movies, or you name it), even when it might be better for them to do so. For doing something which may be right for the wrong reasons (i.e., guilt, intimidation, peer pressure) can cause almost as much harm as the wrong one is trying to right. For these reasons, I would say that the decision of whether or not to take a drink has to rest with the individual's own conscience. But I would also be very reluctant to say that it is always acceptable to drink on any occasion, as long that drinking is done responsibly (especially when we are talking about those in a position of leadership or influence). It boils down to this: we are "free" as Christians to do many things, but not all things are profitable (1Cor.6:12). We have tremendous leeway in how we live our lives (Gal.5:1), but the whole point of our lives is to serve our Master and His Body, the Church (1Cor.10:23-24). The reason we have been given the freedom and leeway we have been given, therefore, is not for self-indulgence, but for greater service. Only when we keep these principles in mind can we hope to do what is right for the right reasons.

If we could drink and never ever go over the line and never ever give offense, then there would be very little problem with drinking. If, on the other hand, this is a standard which we deem difficult to uphold, then we should give the issue of drinking, and public drinking in particular, some serious thought (especially if other Christians are looking to us as an example).

Please also see the following links:

Imitating Christ

Drinking in moderation

Did Jesus drink wine at Cana?

Some sensitive issues

Some sensitive issues II

The Gospel and the Kingdom

In Him who gave up everything that we might have everything forever, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

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