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Alcohol can be a problem for everyone, from the teetotaler to the addict.

Ephesians 5:8-21

July 28, 2013

Things We Don’t Talk About in Church

Today is the first in a series of six sermons at Corinth on “Things We Don’t Talk About in Church.”  For some of these topics, a better description would be “Things I Don’t Talk About in Church.” In some churches these subjects are addressed frequently.

We begin with alcohol.  I asked my men’s Bible study group this week, “How many of you have ever heard what you considered to be a biblically balanced sermon on drinking alcoholic beverages?”  There were ten of us present, and no hands went up.   It’s my goal today to preach that “biblically balanced” sermon.  The Bible truly does present balance.  According to my quick count, about a third of the 240 references to wine in the Bible are negative.  The rest are either positive or neutral.

Among the negatives:  Noah (Genesis 9:21) is one of many biblical characters who acted poorly under the influence. Proverbs offers many warnings like this: “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (20:1). Isaiah says, “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks” (5:22).  Paul says “drunkards” will not inherit the kingdom of God, but he adds that they can be “washed, sanctified, and justified” by Jesus and the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Paul also instructs leaders in the church to limit consumption of wine (1 Timothy 3:8; Titus 2:3).  Revelation (14:19) uses a winepress figuratively for wrath.

But there are many positive mentions in the Bible.  Abundant wine is a frequent sign of God’s favor on his people and their land (Deuteronomy 7:13; 1 Chronicles 12:40; Amos 9:14).  God is the giver of “wine that gladdens human hearts” (Psalm 104:15).  Wine is part of God’s invitation to his free feast (Isaiah 55:1).  Jesus himself turned water into wine (John 2:11), drank wine at the Last Supper, and joins the prophets in envisioning wine in the coming kingdom (Isaiah 25:6; Joel 3:18; Matthew 26:29).

I want to suggest four possible levels of alcohol use: abstinence, enjoyment, abuse, and addiction. Each of the four presents a potential “problem with drinking.”

Addiction

I will spend the least amount of time on the most serious and extreme relationship to alcohol: addiction. I have several reasons for not spending time here.  First, the problem with drinking at this level is obvious.  Second, the subject is very complex, and it involves not only alcohol but drugs (illegal and prescription), sex, tobacco, gambling, and more.  Third, I’m not sure this is the best setting to offer help to an addict or the family.  Fourth, if we spend a lot of time here, most of us will leave thinking, “This sermon was about someone else,” not me.  That’s never a good thing.

So let me just briefly mention some symptoms of addiction and we’ll move on –

  • Tolerance.  You need more and more of the addictive behavior to get the desired effect.
  • Withdrawal.  If you go without you experience unpleasant symptoms.
  • Preoccupation.  Your life increasingly centers around the addiction – planning for it, engaging in it, hiding it, recovering from it.
  • Jeopardy.  Even when you realize you are risking your family, your job, your friends, and everything else, you can’t quit.

If that describes you or someone you love, come see me or a counselor or gather up enough courage to walk into an A.A. or AlAnon meeting.   I can personally tell you of members and family members in this church who are permanently brain damaged, who have lost their spouses and children, who are financially ruined, who are sitting in prison, because they denied their addiction too long.

Abstinence

On the opposite end from addiction is abstinence.  Some of us choose not to drink at all.  Most of you know I’m in that category, along with about 35% of Americans who never drank or have stopped.  But even abstinence can present a problem.

I found out the other morning that I was the only one of the ten men in my Bible study who’s a teetotaler,[1]  and I suspect that I’m in a small minority in this room.  One of my favorite stories is of the first night Linda and I stayed in the home of a Corinth member.  Joe Rowe chaired the Pulpit Committee, and he and Sharon graciously opened their home to us.  Over the bar in their home was a sign that said, “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.”  I figured my candidacy for pastor in this church was in trouble!

I’m not only a minority in my church as a teetotaler; I’m a minority in my family.  My parents don’t drink, but all four of my siblings do.  Linda and I don’t drink, but all three of our children do.  There are a number of reasons I don’t drink.

  • I was raised not to drink, and don’t easily change. 
  • Linda doesn’t drink.  If she liked an occasional glass I might join her.
  • I have never tasted any alcoholic beverage I liked.  If it’s an acquired taste, why should I bother?
  • I can be kind of cheap.  Tea, soda, or water doesn’t run up my grocery bill or restaurant tab.
  • I don’t trust my flesh.  I have an addictive personality and think it would be unwise to test my self-discipline with something as potentially dangerous as alcohol.
  • I am aware that in my cultural context I might offend some people by drinking.  This is especially true in my role as a pastor.

Note that none of these reasons are because I think the Bible teaches it is a sin to taste an alcoholic beverage.  I think the strongest biblical case for abstinence is that the Bible does offer some models of those who chose or were instructed not to drink as part of a higher calling:  Nazirites (Numbers 6), Daniel (Daniel 1), and John the Baptist (Luke 1).  Aaron’s family was instructed never to drink wine in the tabernacle (Leviticus 10).  Proverbs 31:4 says, “It is not for kings to drink wine; not for rulers to crave beer.”  I could make a case that a greater commitment to holiness could include abstinence.

But here’s the problem.  Sin nature given what it is, the devils turns even a well-intentioned spiritual discipline into another form of sin.  It can even contribute to a version of works righteousness – that I’m saved by what I do and don’t do.  Our pride over abstaining from alcohol can also cause us to excuse or overlook other areas of addiction (overeating, spending, and so on) or to justify anger and division.  In our recent study of Romans, drinking was one of the areas Paul identified as “disputable matters” that should not divide the body of Christ (Romans 14).  Yet it often has!

Perhaps the greatest danger for the teetotaler is becoming judgmental and condescending toward those who do drink, and trying to enforce one’s own convictions on others.  The greatest example in history was known as Prohibition.  In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution was adopted, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol.

Prohibition required a fascinating coalition of American Christians to work together, what we would today call fundamentalists and progressives.  Fundamentalists opposed alcohol because of their personal convictions.  Progressives (then called the “social gospel” movement) felt that an abstinent society would reduce crime, unemployment, divorce, and poverty.  Women were prime forces in the temperance movement because women and children were victims of alcohol abuse.

My great grandfather Abraham Lincoln Shute, a Methodist pastor, missionary, and statesman, was neither fundamentalist nor progressive.  But he probably spoke for the Christian consensus when he wrote the following in an essay titled, “What is a Christian?” in the 1930s –

The United States…will yet lead in the fight to give us a stainless Flag and to wipe this monstrous curse of liquor, wine and beer from all lands….Let the heartless defenders of beverage alcohol in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in our land, take notice that all-out war is declared on the liquor power and all its kindred evils thruout the world.

In 1933 the Prohibition amendment was reversed.  Why didn’t it work?  The reasons were many, but from a biblical perspective I would just say you don’t change the human heart by forcing conformity.  And you don’t change it by removing temptation.  It’s as misguided as New York City trying to change waistlines by banning super size soft drinks.  More rules don’t change hearts and lifestyles.

Enjoyment vs. abuse

The main reason alcohol appears on the list of “Things I Don’t Talk About in Church” is that I don’t drink.  I don’t want to inflate my own pride by preaching about sins that are not mine.  Nor do I want to create division in the body.

But there are times that my pastoral calling impels me to address, hopefully with some humility, some issues that others wrestle with.  Silence is hardly the right approach with something as potentially destructive and even deadly as alcohol.

So I want to spend the last few minutes distinguishing between the other two levels of alcohol use: enjoyment and abuse.  Ephesians 5 helps us discern between appropriate moderation and destructive consumption.

Here are some questions I hope will be helpful to you as you ask yourself whether your drinking is enjoyment or abuse.

1. Is my heart set on desiring God?  Paul says, “Live as children of light and find out what pleases the Lord” (8, 10).  I learned a long time ago not to judge another person’s heart by what’s in their glass, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look inside when it comes to this matter or any other.  “In view of God’s mercies,” Paul said in Romans 12:1, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.”  Keep checking your heart.

2. Am I out in the open?  Paul warns that “It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret” (12).  If I have to hide my stash or slip in the other room to take that next drink, it’s more likely to be abuse than enjoyment.  If you’re not sure if your alcohol use crosses the line, be brave enough to ask your spouse, your children, or your friends.  (Just don’t ask someone who drinks MORE than you do!)

3. Am I being wise with my time and money?  The way Paul puts it:  “Be very careful how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (15-16).  My sister shared a story of running into a man at a convenience store complaining loudly about the price of gas while buying cigarettes and a 12-pack.  Elizabeth spoke her piece: “That gas will still be in your car when the cigarettes and beer are gone – and the gas will take you to your home, your job, and your entertainment.”  The man put his hand on his hip, looked her in the eye, and said, “You’re right.  You’re damn right.”

4. Is the Holy Spirit in control?  Paul says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery (a wasted life).  Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (18).  It’s not just alcoholics who lose control from time to time.  Let’s be honest.  In many social settings the purpose of the alcohol is to reduce inhibitions.  If you allow yourself to drink to the point that you are no longer making the same decision you would make if you were sober, it’s no longer enjoyment; it’s abuse.  If you drive when you shouldn’t, if your tongue gets loose, if boundaries with the opposite sex are crossed, if you can’t keep control of your wallet, then the Spirit is no longer in control.

5. Can I say a blessing over this drink?  Paul says, “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything” (20).  It’s quite possible to enjoy a glass of wine the way you enjoy a sunset, or lovemaking, or an ice cream cone.  For those of you with finer tastes than mine, enjoy your glass in that spirit.  This is another of God’s gracious gifts.  It’s hard to give thanks over alcohol abuse.

6. Am I free NOT to drink?    Paul transitions from this section to instructions on the family by saying, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21).   Chris Van Allsburg and Paul Cummings both shared with me this week the link to a blog titled “Are You Free NOT to Drink?”  The article reminds us of what we read in Romans 14 a few weeks ago.  If my freedom to eat or drink causes someone else to stumble and fall, should I not give up my physical pleasure for the other person’s spiritual health?

The question of why

The problem with abuse is similar to the problem with addiction, except it can be even more deceptive.  Alcohol abuse tends to be a social sin. Addiction usually drinks alone, or is perfectly content to drink alone.  Abuse often drinks in a group, generally with others who offer no controls because they are doing the same thing.

The problem with the “enjoyment” relationship to alcohol is that the line between enjoyment and abuse is often thin and fuzzy.  So it requires extra caution and accountability, and usually one needs to step out of the situation or the circle of drinking buddies to have enough discernment.

My point is that the problem with drinking is that it’s potentially a problem no matter how much you drink – from the addict to the teetotaler.  Sin can grab hold of any level of drinking and destroy your relationship to God and to others.

So I want to leave you, no matter what or much you drink or don’t, with one, three-letter question: Why?  Why do you drink a lot?  Why do you drink a little?  Why do you not drink at all?  Have you been willing to dig below the surface of the action itself to the motives and thoughts that lie beneath?  For example, does a drink sometimes become a coping mechanism or an escape that replaces prayer, trusting God, patience, or even facing a difficult situation head on.  I’m reminded that Jesus refused a pain-deadening narcotic from the cross (Matthew 27:34).  Without saying we should never deaden pain, I am suggesting we medicate it too often and too quickly.

If you have a passionate desire to honor God and others by your choices, whether you drink will become a secondary matter.  The bottom line is that as a believer, I don’t ever want the wrong thing in control of my decisions and actions – not intoxicants, not anger and resentment, not loneliness, not the insatiable desire for pleasure, not false righteousness and condescension.  The control switch in my life belongs only to the Holy Spirit.  Amen.



[1] The word “teetotaler” probably comes from a practice in the early 1800s of repeating the first letter of a word for emphasis.  We might say “Total with a capital T.”  Technically, I’m not a teetotaler because I might take a sip of champagne at a wedding or similar occasion.  But in general, I abstain from alcohol.

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