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Friday, July 01, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Which Beer Do Christians Drink?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Everybody’s favourite political football Bristol Palin has written a column on the subject of the Guinness Beer Company and its Christian origins.

Tom: This is not the first time I’ve come across this story, Immanuel Can. In another generation, a Christian brewer turns out to have been the voice of moderation and societal self control. But in some evangelical circles today, Arthur Guinness would be taken to task for corrupting the faithful. I mean, he sold alcohol for a living!

Is there a less cartoonish and more biblical position to be taken on the subject of alcohol consumption, IC?

Not So Asked-and-Answered Anymore

Immanuel Can: Hmm. Tricky subject. If you look around the Internet, a lot of articles on Christians and alcohol are focused on questions like, “Can Christians drink?” That’s an old one, and pretty much an asked-and-answered one. The alcohol advocates hold their position, and the anti-alcohol people hold theirs, and there’s little movement on the record. The general assumption is that conservatives don’t drink, and more liberal churches allow it.

But that general assumption isn’t true now, if it ever was. It seems that for better or worse, alcohol consumption is now thinkable, even in historically conservative groups. In fact, I know a Baptist pastor who posts his favourite barley beverage on his Facebook page. His congregation doesn’t blink. I think that twenty — or perhaps even ten — years ago, he’d probably have been sent packing on a rail.

Tom: The question obviously arises: Were they right then, or are they right now? Do we need to go through the scriptural motions?

The Strongest Case Against

IC: Well, let’s take a quick pass through. I don’t think we need to dwell long, because the relevant scriptures are well-known. But I’m going to jump right to the passage that, to me, makes the strongest against case. I would say that’s Romans 14:20-21.

Tom: Right. So consuming alcohol in a way that causes your fellow believer to sin is wrong. I don’t think we’ll fight about that. And really, I don’t think it’s a huge problem. It’s not like the pro-alcohol forces are up in the pulpits en masse saying, “Hey, you should all enjoy a craft beer or a glass of vino with me”. If your Baptist barley fan has a problem, it’s not that he enjoys the occasional pint, it’s that he encourages others to do so who may have self-control issues.

IC: Yes. And for me, that’s a reason not to post your preferences, even if you do drink. I know brothers in Christ who have escaped addiction. As they say at AA, if you’re an alcoholic once, you are always potentially an alcoholic; no amount is safe. For me, that would not only be a reason not to advocate drinking in public, but even to choose to serve non-alcoholic juice at the Lord’s Supper. It’s just not worth the risk, and we mustn’t destroy the Lord’s people for the sake of food and drink.

Between Yourself and God

Tom: Agreed. There’s probably a whole social media issue that extends far beyond one’s preferences about alcohol consumption that we could get lost in if we wanted to. But it should be clear that whatever you or I may think about having a drink, promoting that view can be tremendously destructive. There’s a reason, I think, that Paul says, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God”.

What exactly would be the conceivable value of convincing another believer that it’s okay to have a drink or two?

IC: None I can see. However, in fairness, there are a lot of professing Christians today who are quite enthused about the issue. There’s a sort of cachet to the idea that a church can meet in a bar, which some actually do. There’s a sort of exuberance in that liberty, but not much thought for weaker brethren and sisters-in-Christ.

The Church in the Pig ’n Whistle

Tom: I see what you’re saying, but only because you sent me the link. I had no idea this was a thing. To be honest, I don’t have a problem with Christians who have a lot of self-control sharing a drink or two with unbelievers in a responsible way or letting the waiter pour them a glass of wine at a wedding reception. Provided those you are with are not so plastered they don’t remember your conversation the next day, and provided you’re not embarrassing yourself and your faith by pounding back the pints and passing out on the bar yourself, I don’t really take issue with Christians reaching out like that, though I recognize there’s plenty of potential danger involved, and not all Christians could pull it off.

But really … having a church meeting in a bar?

IC: Yes. For some, it’s almost a point a pride, a personal “Declaration of Independence”. An odd way to think, I think. But maybe their reaction is the backlash of many years of too many rules and not enough exercise of discernment.  When the rules fall, it might feel like liberation. Unfortunately, discernment only comes with exercise, so the collapse of a legal requirement tends to leave nothing behind by way of good judgment.

From One Century to Another

Tom: Now, in another culture and another time maybe I could see that. Stephen Mansfield indicates that in Arthur Guinness’ day, water was so polluted it was undrinkable. In England in the 1700s, having a pint with your supper was the safer, more responsible, lower-alcohol option. So you’d have monks brewing beer, Christians brewing beer. It was socially acceptable and not an indicator that you were dissolute and out of control. But we’re not living in the 1700s today, and there are plenty of options. Nobody has to drink of necessity. And as you say, for some people, the risk of temptation is way too great.

IC: Yes, that’s true. The Guinness Company was actually founded by a forefather of the apologist Os Guinness, apparently. And it seems one of the Guinness ancestors paid restoration costs at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, where there is a stained-glass window depicting Rebecca at the well, with the inscription “I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink”. All of this history doesn’t make drinking “Christian” anymore than the decision not to drink makes one a Christian.

Tom: Quite. I’m just saying that question of what is right for you in your circumstances or me in mine is not to be answered by the creation of some general rule of thumb. What is right in one time and place and for one person may be wrong for another, or for the same person in another situation.

Rules vs. Discernment

IC: Right. What I’m advocating here is not rules one way or the other, but rather discernment of the circumstances and the will of God for the individual. For I would argue we have neither a complete prohibition of alcohol in scripture, nor a free license to drink openly and recklessly, but a situation for good judgment. It is not always possible to prescribe good judgment in advance, or in the absence of knowledge of local circumstances. And it is not desirable: for to provide us such discernment is up to the general parameters scripture itself lays out, plus the practical understanding of the right principle through the Spirit of God. To force closure on a question upon which the scriptures themselves do not close would be mere legalism either way.

Tom: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” It’s the motive that matters.

Define “Weaker”

But as long as we’re on the subject of stumbling the weaker brother (and I’m thinking particularly here of 1 Corinthians 8), who is this “weak person” Paul is speaking of? Is it everyone who takes a different view — in this case about whether a fellow believer should or should not drink?

IC: I don't think so, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because while a Christian must always put the needs of a genuinely weaker Christian before his own, he is also the sworn adversary of legalism. The book of Galatians would never have been written if legalism and holiness were compatible. The right of individual Christians — and indeed, their responsibility — to learn to discern through the Spirit is truly sacred.  Legalism destroys that.

As Paul asks, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” By the way, the anticipated answer is “No”.

Tom: Agreed. I don’t think the legalist is “weak” in the sense Paul is referring to (although his understanding of the difference between law and grace may need work). The “weak person” Paul is talking about is the sort who might follow your example and have a drink and be led into sin by it, something that poses no danger to the legalist, who takes pride in the fact that he would never touch the stuff.

But I ask because while older Christians of a legalistic bent are generally quite comfortable expressing their concern about the perceived sins of their fellow believers, the genuinely “weak” person may not say anything at all, while still being deeply affected by our example. So what I’m saying, I guess, is that we need to be conscious that we’re being observed and that what we choose to do with our freedom may have consequences.

IC: Now, that’s the truth ... and well worth pointing out.

Looking for the Silver Lining

Tom: If alcohol consumption is becoming increasingly acceptable among evangelicals, there might be a silver lining in that cloud, and that is this: If you bother to ask me why I just politely turned down your offer of a drink, fifty years ago the answer “Because I’m a Christian” would probably have ended the conversation. But if lots of Christians drink, and if you are the curious sort, a mere platitude won’t do it anymore. My answer is going to have to be a lot more honest, detailed and personal. It might even make me vulnerable (“Before I knew the Lord, I had a real drinking problem”, or whatever).

I have trouble seeing that sort of real-world, personal Christian testimony as a bad thing.

IC: No, it’s not bad at all. And in fact, if a strict prohibition against all forms of imbibing any alcohol is not part of scripture, then the answer “I’m a Christian” was actually never really an answer at all. Rather, it was misleading as to what being a Christian really means. It reminds me of those older folks who used to think that a thing like wearing of makeup was a deal-breaker; there was something terribly wrong with their understanding of salvation.

Tom: We have such a tendency to try to resolve these questions by making hard and fast rules, but Paul reminds the Galatians that in Christ Jesus what counts is “faith working through love”. And in Romans, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law”. If we can keep that perspective on things, we shouldn’t have any problem with the question of what to drink and when to drink it.

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