“Gray areas” in Christian ethics: A case study

This post is the beginning of a series discussing “gray areas” in Christian ethics. I take ethics to be moral absolutes applied as rules to specific contexts. I have recently been thinking a lot about a “gray area”, so I want to pass on some of my reflections. I was searching the internet to explore the breadth of Christian opinion on the subject of drinking alcohol in order to carefully consider my own position. Wikipedia provided a sort of table of contents for my search.

St. Wiki of Pedia, in his writing “Christianity and alcohol,” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_and_alcohol) lists three main viewpoints within Christianity on the topic:

1. Moderationism: You can drink, just don’t get drunk.
2. Abstentionism: You are allowed to drink, but it is best that you decide not to.
3. Prohibitionism: Drinking alcohol is a sin and must therefore be avoided.

I find it humorous that there are labeled positions for whether Christians are permitted to drink alcohol. It goes on the shelf right along with all the eschatological positions: pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib, premillennial, postmillennial, amillenial, so forth and so on.

That said, my searches uncovered everything from slightly warped abstentionism to outright promotion of alcohol as a good thing that God made for his people to enjoy. On the one hand, I found that writers made the error of backing away from a snarling dog into the path of a moving car, while on the other hand I writers who would go as far as to hug the snarling rotweiller.

From warped abstentionism to pushy permissiveness, here are some examples of what I found, plus a highly subjective and inadequate pro and con evaluation of the articles in question:

Strong abstentionist or outright prohibitionist

Response to the question, “Alcohol and Christianity: Did Jesus really turn water into wine?” by Terry Malone on http://www.calvaryprophecy.com at http://www.calvaryprophecy.com/q130.html (last updated December 5, 2009)

Pros: Emphasis on living for the glory of God. Concern for holy living. Concern for the conscience of a fellow believer.
Cons: Asserting that the Bible is talking about grape juice when it says “wine”. Takes the position of an embattled minority on a side issue. Piecemeal treatment of Scripture, not accounting for genre types. He begs the question a lot. He is too certain of a controversial point. Sort of makes consumption of alcohol an issue for admission to heaven.

Strong abstentionist

1993 Sermon by John F. MacArthur, Jr., “Not Addicted to Wine,” posted on http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/wine.htm

Pros: Emphasis on living for the glory of God. Concern for holy living. Concern for conscience of a fellow believer. Demonstration of the need for Christian leaders to show self-control.
Cons: Relativizes the level of alcohol in “wine” described in the Bible, but stops short of Malone’s grape juice assertion. Blurs the lines on prohibitions of alcohol at certain times in the Old Testament to support his position (he cites Leviticus 10:9).

Abstentionist

John Piper answering the question, “Is it OK to drink alcohol?” at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/resources/is-it-ok-to-drink-alcohol and the question, “Is it a sin to smoke or eat junk food?” at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/is-it-a-sin-to-smoke-or-eat-junk-food

Pros: Emphasis on living for the glory of God. Concern for holy living. Concern for the conscience of a fellow believer. Emphasizes self-control. Balanced understanding of “high standards” for Christian living. Balanced use of Scripture. Does not insinuate the “right answer”.
Cons: I can’t find any.

Moderationist

Article “Does the Bible permit drinking ANY wine or alcohol?” by Norman Reeve on http://www.biblestudy.org at http://www.biblestudy.org/basicart/does-bible-permit-drinking-wine-alcohol.html

Pros: Emphasizes balance and self-control. Opposes “grape juice” assertion. Lists times when the Bible makes positive references to wine (as opposed to listing only negative references). Balanced use of Scripture.
Cons: Does not really talk about watching out for the consciences of fellow believers.

Moderationist

Blog post by Chad Hudson entitled “Is drinking alcohol a sin?” on the blog Christian Beer Connoisseur at http://christianbeerconnoisseur.wordpress.com/2008/08/06/is-drinking-alcohol-a-sin/ (originally posted August 6, 2008)

Pros: His position is clear from the very beginning. Exhaustive list of Scripture references. Leaves resolution of the question to the reader’s conscience. Terry Malone says that no Christian online article condoning alcohol that he reviewed included something to lead a reader to Christ or indicated that the writer was a believer, but this site includes such a thing.
Cons: Does not explicitly lay out his own position on concern for the consciences of other believers, but he does address this in the Scripture reference list. Perhaps assimilates enjoyment of beer into Christian subculture.

If you briefly scan all of the links that I have provided, you will see that there is a broad range of opinion on the topic of Christians and drinking alcohol. I most enjoyed John Piper’s opinion on the subject because he stated that he actually opposed listing alcohol consumption as a specific sin in his church’s covenant, favoring instead a broader exhortation toward self-control in all areas of life. He himself is an abstentionist, and staff members at his church agree to abstain from alcohol, but he does not list consumption of alcohol as a specific sin. He strongly advises Christians to abstain from alcohol, but he more strongly urges them to master the sin issues behind lack of self-control and abuse of alcohol.

I believe that we should not relativize or rationalize alcohol if we choose to drink it, yet we should not glorify it either; I also believe that we should not demonize alcohol itself if we choose to abstain. When I was a child, I said, “I don’t even like the TASTE of beer, so I will never get drunk!” As I got older, I found that I liked beer! Simply calling beer bad tasting or unnecessary for social enjoyment was not enough for me to keep from sin; I wanted to firmly decide what I would do when confronted with alcohol. I ultimately decided to drink moderately.

I want to further discuss “gray areas” in Christian ethics in future posts. You know my position on drinking alcohol, but there are significant issues that bear continued discussion. There are valid viewpoints other than mine, so I want to address them further other posts. For instance, it is necessary to watch out for the consciences of fellow believers, and it is necessary for Christians to maintain righteous lives. For now, this post is too long and I must end it.

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    • Samuel D. Smith
    • June 14th, 2012

    Thank you for your efforts on the research of this topic. A long time ago I came to the decision as a Christ follower to drink alcoholic beverages (mainly beer) moderately and have reconciled that debate within me and with the Lord. I can’t say that I have done the amount of biblical research that you have done, but nonetheless I have reached the same conclusion and have closure on it. I am also very much aware that the bible does not expressly forbid consuming alcohol and the topic must be considered objectively and in context. To me, and according to scripture, one of the most important issues in a Christian’s life is our sinful nature and how it relates to our attitude. Given that we as humans are of a selfish nature we must be on guard against this in whatever activity we are involved in. I think that consuming alcohol is wrongly viewed by many as strictly a self indulging act. That is somewhat understandable given the fact that many use alcohol to become intoxicated and regularly drink to excess. “The fact” is that our self indulging sinful nature can come into play no matter what we are doing whether it be drinking a cup of coffee, a soft drink or even eating a good meal for instance. We must always watch and be aware of that. As long as the activity we choose is not scripturally wrong, it’s not necessarily what we choose to eat or drink, or what activity we involve ourself in, it’s our attitude that accompanies that activity that is of utmost importance. I have other viewpoints on this topic but I will not get into those now. Thanks be to the Lord for the work He has done in my life. We all need Him desperately. Acts 4:12

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