Recently, Pastor Michael Harding of First Baptist Church of Troy, Michigan was invited to debate the issue of Christians and beverage alcohol on a Moody Radio program called Up for Debate. Mike argued the position of abstinence—while the Bible, in his opinion, does not explicitly prohibit the use of beverage alcohol, Christians should nevertheless abstain for the sake of their Christian witness. Arguing that Christians having the liberty to drink, yea even to enjoy alcohol as a good gift of God, was John Smith, a Reformed Baptist pastor and brewer from Pennsylvania. Harding was invited to this forum because he had been critical of Moody Bible Institute’s decision to remove the prohibition against consuming beverage alcohol from its faculty and staff Christian conduct guidelines last fall.
The debate was conducted reasonably well, with both sides given opportunities to answer questions, mostly from the host, Julie Roys. John Smith gave the standard pro-consumption argument: chiefly Old Testament biblical texts that not only allow for drinking, but even encourage it in certain cases. Harding admitted that he was an emotional prohibitionist, having grown up in a home with alcohol issues, but took an abstentionist position because he felt that such a view was more in line with biblical teaching.
Like Harding, I too wish I could argue for the utter prohibition of beverage alcohol by Christians. I grew up in an alcoholic’s home and witnessed firsthand the devastating consequences of beverage alcohol. However, like Harding, I think that abstention is the best position. I have long said that if I wasn’t a Christian, I still wouldn’t drink, so significant are the problems alcohol produces.
There were two points of the debate that merit further reflection. The first issue had to do with comparing alcohol with marijuana. This subject was raised to John Smith and he basically deflected the comparison. Yet the comparison is warranted, especially in light of President Obama’s recent comment that there is really no difference between drinking alcohol and smoking pot. Given the prospect of legalization, I have to wonder what will keep the drinking Christians from applying their same argument to the controlled use of recreational marijuana. If alcohol is God’s good gift, why would marijuana be any different? Didn’t God create the cannabis plant? If He created them, they must be good. So why shouldn’t a Christian use God’s good gifts?
The reality is that there does not seem to be any real distinction in the mind of the world between alcohol and marijuana. I know there isn’t in the minds of my own family. This comparison will surely put drinking Christians into a quandary. Either pro-consumption Christians (Harding called them “enthusiasts”) will be forced to be consistent with their own arguments for alcohol and marijuana, or they will be compelled to argue for what amounts to a double standard—only some of God’s good gifts are acceptable to Christians.
The second issue in the debate was equally troubling. Near the end of the interaction, the moderator asked John Smith how a person would know when he has had too much to drink. In effect, when does drinking in moderation end and drinking in excess begin? Smith’s answer to the question is one that I have heard before. Rather than providing a straight-forward response, he inserted a red herring: how does one know when he has eaten too many cheeseburgers? Both alcohol and cheeseburgers can be consumed in sinfully excessive ways, according to Smith. Gluttony is a sin and drunkenness is a sin, but eating and drinking are both permitted and good when done in moderation. So John thought that his cheeseburger response was a sufficient to answer the “amount” question. In effect, a person just knows when he has crossed the line.
Now let’s think about this comparison for just a moment. While I would agree that gluttony is to be avoided, eating too many cheeseburgers is hardly a suitable comparison for drinking too much alcohol. What does gluttony look like? Going to a church fellowship and having one more cheeseburger because they taste so good, and then afterward wishing you had refrained? Who among us hasn’t overindulged at a church picnic or a family Thanksgiving or some other feast? But this is hardly the same as drinking too much alcohol.
In the first place, when someone eats too many cheeseburgers, he may “feel full” but eat another one anyway. By contrast, you may not feel drunk until you are well past the point of sobriety. I recently heard a news report that suggested that when people drink socially, they generally underestimate by about one half how much alcohol they actually consumed, and they overestimate by about the same amount how little affected they are by their drinking. In other words, the consumers themselves really cannot tell when they have had too much. Why should they be able to tell? Overuse of alcohol involves a complex of issues, including body mass, the drinker’s weight, time of day, fatigue, kind of alcohol, with food or without, etc. It is simply impossible to know when one has had too much.
But even if it were equally impossible to know when one has had “too much” of either cheeseburgers or alcohol, important differences remain. With alcohol, a mistake in this area can have devastating effects. When is the last time you heard of a person killed in a motor vehicle accident because someone had too many cheeseburgers? When was the last time you were stopped at a police roadside checkpoint and been asked “Have you been eating cheeseburgers tonight?” I worked in an ambulance years ago, and I don’t recall ever attending a bar fight that was brought about by overeating. I don’t think you will lose your license for driving under the influence of cheeseburgers. I do not believe there is a “cheeseburger tank” at the local police station where the cops put you on Friday night after they picked you up at the local Burger King for overindulging. There is no Mothers Against Excessive Cheeseburgers or a Cheeseburgers Anonymous. The comparison is downright silly.
Whether it’s eating cheeseburgers or drinking alcohol, one may really not know when one has consumed too much. In one case, you may need some TUMS. But in the case of too much alcohol, the consequences can be significant and seriously affect many other people.
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
In Thy Courts, O Lord, Assembling
Thomas Kelly (1769–1855)
In thy courts, O Lord, assembling,
We thy people now draw near:
Teach us to rejoice with trembling;
Speak, and let thy servants hear;
Hear with meekness,
Hear thy word with godly fear.
While our days on earth are lengthened,
May we give them, Lord, to Thee;
Cheered by hope, and daily strengthened,
May we run, nor weary be;
Till thy glory
Without cloud in Heaven we see.