Of Spirits and the Spirit

My hometown is about to have a special election about whether to end prohibition in city limits. Yes, I’m serious. My part of rural Appalachia has never recovered from the Eighteenth Amendment, and alcohol sales are still by and large banned. Only in the last decade has the city allowed for selling alcohol by the drink in restaurants which can seat 100+ people. This measure would allow, within city limits, the sale of packaged alcohol (i.e. alcohol in general). Both sides of the issue are invoking religion to support their cause, and this has me thinking: what is a Christian view of alcohol?

To the majority of Christians in the world (or least a very large minority), this isn’t even a discussion to be had. For the most part, abstention from alcoholic beverages is a Protestant phenomenon, and even then, it varies greatly by denomination. (Were it not for the prevalence of charismatic denominations, I would even say this is an American discussion.) The idea of abstaining from any form of alcohol whatsoever is a fairly new idea in the faith; I doubt the Fathers would have thought much about it. With that said, a wide variety of people throughout church history have held various opinions on the matter, and then there’s the Bible itself.

Working backwards, let’s start with the current (evangelical) bias against alcohol. Baptists of all stripes, Restoration Movement churches, many Reformed and charismatic denominations, and a host of others forbid members from drinking alcoholic beverages. The common rationale is that since getting drunk is explicitly condemned by Scripture, and since the best way to avoid getting drunk is not drinking at all, it’s a good idea to not drink. Following this are social reasons: the number of deaths caused by drunk drivers, the popular association of drunkenness with domestic abuse (and any number of other evils, violent, sexual, and otherwise), and the “stock image” of alcohol’s contribution to the homelessness/poverty problem. For these reasons and many others, evangelicals championed the Prohibition cause in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These groups even went so far as to stop using wine at the Communion table. Removing wine from Holy Communion and substituting grape juice instead was a concession to any recovering alcoholics in the congregation. In fact, as a fun bit of trivia, grape juice exists because of the commitment of one evangelical, a certain Wesleyan Methodist named Thomas Bramwell Welch, to adhering to his denomination’s removal of wine during the Lord’s Supper.

Before Welch and the Prohibition movement, not much is officially on record. (Again, this wasn’t a popular topic of discussion; the answer was assumed.) Even at the time of the Reformation, no major push to remove alcohol existed. Roman Catholic monks continued making wine, and Lutherans joined other monks in producing beer. (This may be the only topic the two have agreed on aside from the divinity of Jesus Christ.)

And . . . that’s it for church history. We have stories of sinners who become saints and in the process moderate or stop their drinking (like Saint Augustine), and we know several of the early Church Fathers (like Tertullian, Origen, and possibly Jerome) spoke against drinking in any fashion. Not all the Fathers shared these views, and during the Middle Ages, the common views permitting alcohol (especially wine, as opposed to liquors [or even beer]). For this reason, C.S. Lewis is quite right to say teetotalism is a thing of the “Mohammedans,” not Christians. (Consuming alcohol is expressly forbidden for Muslims.)

Now for the biblical evidence. Nowhere is drinking expressly forbidden for the general public. In Paul’s qualifications for bishops and deacons, he says they musn’t be drunkards (1 Tim. 3:3,8), and levitical law prohibits priests and Levites from drinking in the Temple (Lev. 10:8-9). Those who took special vows (e.g., the Nazirite vow) were forbidden to drink (Num. 6:3). Otherwise, the general command is simply “don’t get drunk.”  Indeed, people who support consumption of alcohol are quick to point out three texts in particular: Jesus uses wine during the Last Supper; Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine (as some have said, Jesus didn’t merely drink wine; he brought it to the party); and Paul’s prescription of medicinal wine to Timothy (1 Tim. 5:23).

Most scholars agree biblical wine was heavily diluted by today’s standards, and our modern processes of fermentation and distillation to artificially increase the alcohol content weren’t available in the biblical era. Yes, wine was still wine, and liquor was liquor, but the alcohol contents couldn’t approach what we have. To that end, some suggest the biblical authors would be against modern alcoholic beverages. As far as Timothy’s stomach goes, I know a few theologians who claim in today’s day and age, Paul would say, “Continue drinking water, and also go buy some Pepto Bismol.” He was simply prescribing the best medicine of his time.

Whether or not you find those arguments persuasive is up to you. Clearly the field is divided. Still, the principle of 1 Cor. 8:9 is a guide for me: if, in doing something, I cause someone to stumble, I cannot do it. If I drink in front of people and it damages my witness for Christ, then I shouldn’t drink. Plain and simple. There’s a bit of socio-geographical context to flex here, but that’s on you. (I’m in rural Appalachia. I like it.) (Before anyone can cry “Thou hypocrite!” yes, I shall admit I have, like the hobbit, been glad “it comes in pints” previously. But more recently I’ve found myself unable to drink anything save Communion wine [where served]; my conscience bothers me too much. And it tastes bad.)

Now: the specific question of prohibition. Should a Christian seek to ban someone else (even an unbeliever) from doing something they feel is wrong even if it is lawful? Many sins are lawful, but no Christian should allow people to sin freely without letting them know how God feels about it. To do less would be a failure to show a proper Christian love and concern for the other’s soul. If something is in a gray area, as alcohol seems to be, should we try to ban it entirely, even though many other Christians would disagree? I’m one to err on the side of caution. I would rather say “No, none for you” and find out I’m wrong than to say “By all means, do what you want!” and find out I’ve let my loved ones sin against an Almighty God.

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