Should we as Christians abstain from alcohol, or drink in moderation?
The Bible has much to say on the subject of drinking alcohol. Jesus warns the disciples against drunkenness and getting caught up in life's worries, which distract them from watching for the end of the age and his return.
Paul, in his letters, warns the early churches against drunkenness. He frequently includes it in lists of sins which include sexual immorality, idolatry and slander. We are encouraged to put behind us our old sinful nature and therefore this fruit of it. He advises that overseers and deacons should be worthy men and includes in his criteria that they should not drink too much. He tells the Ephesians not to get drunk but instead to be filled with the Spirit.
In the Old Testament, Nazirites, who set themselves apart for the Lord, had to meet these conditions: avoiding corpses, refraining from cutting their hair and not drinking alcoholic beverages. John the Baptist is also noted to have refrained from drinking. In Proverbs, King Lemuel is told that kings should not drink, in case they forget God's law and treat their subjects unfairly.
However, Jesus's first miracle was turning water for ritual washing into wine, and good wine at that. This does not suggest that he disapproved of its consumption. The Lord instructs the priests to offer wine daily as a drink offering. Paul also tells Timothy not to abstain from drinking, but to take some wine in order to help his digestion and ill health.
In all these passages and more, the clear message is that over indulgence in alcohol is both wrong and harmful. Alcohol of itself is not seen as an evil, nor is it banned outright and therefore we are left with a choice in how we treat it. How should this choice be made?
Firstly, I think it is important that we scrutinise our motives. Why is it that we drink? There are several possibilities. We drink to celebrate, to relax, as part of general recreation. We drink to be sociable, to enjoy ourselves. We do it to be accepted as part of the crowd, to gain respect by 'handling' our drink. We do it to lose inhibitions, to find that extra courage. We drink to drown our sorrows, to anaesthetise ourselves, to find escape. As with most things in life, the effects of alcohol depend on ourselves and our motives. There is a very large divide between a glass of wine with a meal and having a few too many to go home and abuse wives or children. Some reasons for drinking are inappropriate for us. Self-control is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit living in us and is therefore something to be desired, not something we should try to lose. We should not aspire to fit in with the world's (or society's) mould by drinking. In difficulties we would be better to turn to our Father, who loves us and will help us, rather than seeking solace or oblivion in alcohol.
As Paul says to the Corinthian church, everything is permissible for us, but not everything is beneficial. One of our considerations must be whether the effects of alcohol are beneficial. Excessive alcohol intake has been implicated as an aetiological factor in many diseases as well as in trauma. Acute effects include dose-related detriment to consciousness, sensation, motor co-ordination and a generalised depression of the central nervous system. With chronic ingestion, for example, dependence may occur as well as damage to the kidneys, liver, pancreas, stomach and brain. We have a duty to care for our bodies as they are the temples of the Holy Spirit, therefore we need to be careful with alcohol Drinking alcohol also affects mood and behaviour. We all know that it can make a fool of those who drink it and lead them to actions which they later regret. In the book of Proverbs the consequences of drunkenness are cited as poverty, sorrow and strife.
Although we need to please God and not men, we need to be conscious of what others think of us. If we abstain from alcohol, how will it be perceived? Some people may respect us, while others may feel we are being self-righteous and disapproving of them. To illustrate this point, I heard a guy say that before becoming a Christian he didn't believe Christians when they sympathised with him because he felt the distance in experience was too great. After alt, these people 'had probably never had a hangover'. Some people think of Christians as 'goody-goody' or 'squeaky-clean' or just not human. We must not distance ourselves so far from our peers that we make our witness ineffective. Alternatively, having had a few drinks are we true witnesses to our Saviour?
What does alcohol lead us individually to do? If it causes us to sin or makes us more vulnerable to certain temptations, then we should avoid it. As Jesus said, we should cut off the hand to save the rest of the body from hell.
As to the practicalities, how easy is it to say no to the third drink? Would it be easier just to say no to the first? Should we be hanging out in pubs and clubs anyway? Do these places and situations expose us to spiritually and morally unhealthy influences, or do they provide ideal opportunities for outreach?
Whatever we each decide, it is a personal choice and we must respect the stances taken by others.
Ultimately, it is not to each other that we should have to justify our actions. We must be sensitive, put others' welfare first and, as Paul says, avoid any behaviour that will cause any of our brothers and sisters to fall. Our freedom, though purchased at a great price, is not worth so much that it should cost another's salvation.