Some years ago I found myself the leader of a Bible study composed of a group of young adults. One night a young couple came to me to raise a concern. It seemed that the week before, a small section of the group had gone out after Bible study—to the bar area of a local restaurant. Having not been present at this gathering, I can only assume that those who went (1) were of legal age and (2) drank responsibly, at least in the eyes of the state. But this young couple was a bit hurt that a group of Christians would be at a Bible study one minute, and downing glasses of beer the next. And, as I learned, their concern rose not from a background of religious conservatism, but from their prior struggles with alcohol and their desire to remain “clean.”
What was I to say? What would you say?
As Americans we have elevated the spirit of individualism to almost a sovereign virtue. But as citizens of God’s kingdom, we recognize our social obligations within the body of Christ. In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses what we often call “disputable matters.” We might apply this term to a whole range of issues, but naturally the one that often receives the most attention is the question of Christians and alcohol.
One of the core challenges of diversity within the body of Christ is the variety of expressions of the Christian faith. In Paul’s day, there were apparently some who insisted on observing certain “Holy days” (perhaps for their Jewish significance) and others who were strict vegetarians (perhaps to avoid eating meat that had been offered to idols). Whatever their reasons, Paul says that when the Bible is silent on such issues, God’s people should be cautious about insisting everyone follow the same rules:
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.”
12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:1-12)
Paul isn’t saying that these concerns don’t matter, he’s saying that we should be careful to distinguish between absolute moral standards, personal convictions, and cultural practices. In Paul’s day, there were those who insisted upon abstaining from eating meat. Ok, Paul seems to say, but don’t pass judgment on those who celebrate their Christian liberty with a porterhouse.
This, of course, is where I’ve seen many young people’s eyes light up. Because it’s usually here that they realize that hey, if they’re of age, they can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine or two. After all, while the Bible prohibits drunkenness, it never labels alcohol as sinful. Hey, even Jesus turned water into wine. So if we apply this text to this issue, we can see how there might be good, Godly Christians who differ on this issue. And that’s ok. What’s not ok, if we hear Paul correctly, is to apply my own standards to someone else. This means that if I choose to abstain from drinking, it’s not ok for me to look down on someone who chooses to have a drink, But it also means—and young people, take notice—that if I choose to drink, that I look down on others as being prudish or uptight. There may be wisdom, after all, in abstaining. You don’t have to look very hard to find people for whom alcohol (and other substances) have had a ruling influence over their life. I knew of one young man who couldn’t even hear ice cubes rattling in a glass without feeling the desire for alcohol. It’s for these and other reasons that Paul makes clear that we must understand personal freedom within the broader framework of our social responsibilities.
Paul writes that Christ’s followers should go out of their way to ensure unity between one another on these issues:
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:13-23)
It is impossible to be fully human in the absence of other humans, and likewise it is impossible to be fully Christian in the absence of other Christians. Our decisions impact more than just ourselves. Paul doesn’t ask that Christ’s followers cave in to each other’s demands; he’s saying that we should have the sensitivity toward one another not to allow our liberties to do damage to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
How might this relate to the question of alcohol? Consuming alcohol isn’t necessarily morally wrong; harming your brother is. Paul is encouraging his readers to maintain unity even if it means surrendering our “rights.” For love always—always—comes before our Christian freedoms. You will never get me to say that alcohol is inherently sinful, but I fear that many Christians have been quick to celebrate this freedom and slow to consider its implications.
So what about that young couple? To be honest, I don’t remember what I said to them. If I were facing the same dilemma today, this is what I might say:
- To the young couple, offended by the sight of Christians drinking at the bar: You have every right to desire to shield yourself from behaviors—and substances—that once enslaved you. Your desire for purity from alcohol is, for you, a good and noble thing. But not everyone has walked your road, and not everyone has been in your shoes, for which reason we should all be cautious about drawing conclusions based on others’ behavior. And yes, I know that you may not have wanted to be put in this position, but my gentle challenge to you is that if you are invited to a restaurant with a bar there’s a good chance you might be exposed to the sights and smells of your former lifestyle. There may be wisdom in finding out where you’re headed before you accept an invitation, lest you find yourself here again.
- To those who enjoyed your liberties, unaware you were causing offense: I get it; you have your liberties. No one has the right to question your salvation because of this issue. But the fact remains: you have missed an opportunity to love your neighbor. We don’t always know the backgrounds of those around us—for which reason we must be cautious about exercising our liberties in a way that causes others to “stumble.” We need one another, and our goal of love should triumph over any personal liberties we might cling to.
I realize, as well, that this is a conversation that demands nuance. Still, the overall principle is clear: we are at liberty with certain choices, but the gospel provokes us to surrender these liberties for the sake of unity and love.