You know what the difference is between Catholic and Baptist communion? When the Catholic priest prays for the wine it becomes the blood of Christ. When the Baptist pastor prays it becomes grape juice!
Okay, maybe it isn’t the funniest joke in the world. Theological jokes do tend to be a bit on the stale side (kind of like the Halloween candy you still have lying around from last October). But the joke does effectively lampoon the irony of teetotaling conservative Christians given that the central sacrament of the Christian tradition involves the consumption of wine.
Sadly, this irony seems to be lost on many of those conservative Christians as they continue to perpetuate the tired legalism that real Christians are those who abstain from alcohol. As a case in point, consider Olabode Ososami’s recent blog article “Winehouse, Deadliness of Alcohol and the Bible.” Ososami states his incredulity that, given the potential for alcohol to kill if drank excessively, “most consider it relatively harmless in manageable doses.” Ososami does concede that “the Bible accepts the medicinal value of little quantities of alcohol in exceptional cases” but, he adds, it “largely frowns at its general or widespread consumption.”
Wait a minute. What is that supposed to mean? How does Ososami define “general or widespread consumption”? And what does he mean by “largely frowns at”? Is that supposed to mean “condemns”? What is Ososami exactly claiming here?
Ososami has adopted deliberately vague terminology. But reading through the article makes it quite clear what he does mean. He believes the Bible frowns on the consumption of alcohol in social settings or indeed for anything other than a medical (and perhaps sacramental?) purpose. As he puts it:
“Someone had asked me once “Pastor how much is safe to drink ?” and I gave the safest answer “none at all” and asked “what could you lose if you got the threshold level wrong – assuming you decided to manage your drinking?…and the answer was a lot – if a fatal situation arose…” Then I probed again ” what would you lose if you withdrew completely from alcohol….”
Now if this question were asked by a person who comes from a family of alcoholics then I’d agree with Ososami. For that person no amount of alcohol is safe. But that advice is irrelevant to the millions of people who drink alcohol responsibly with the occasional glass of wine at dinner or a beer with friends at the pub.
But what about the Bible? What does it say? While the Bible condemns drunkeness, it never condemns the consumption of alcohol in social settings. This command is one of Ososami’s own invention. To be sure, I admire Christians who decide to abstain from alcohol. More power to them. But the minute they begin to think that by doing so they are somehow better, or more Christian, than other Christians who like their ice wine and pale ale, they have fallen into a trap that the Bible actually does frown upon: moralizing, eisegetical hypocrisy.
Paul dealt with precisely the kind of moralizing hypocrisy that Ososami represents. As he narrates in Galatians 2, the problem was with the claim that real Christians don’t eat with Gentiles:
11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Sadly, that was far from being the only moralistic invention in the early church. Elsewhere Paul dealt with another problem, Judaizers who claimed that real Christians are circumcised:
Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence. (Philippians 2:2-4)
Strong words to be sure. But Paul recognized how these kinds of ethical additions to the gospel were a fertile ground for hypocrisy, legalism and the evacuation fo the very gospel of grace he sought to proclaim. Whether the claim is real Christians don’t eat with Gentiles, or real Christians are circumcised or real Christians don’t drink alcohol, the teaching is just as false and just as damaging to the gospel.
Here’s what this kind of ethical hypocrisy looks like in practice. A table of Christians from the nearby church have gone out to Chili’s Restaurant on Sunday night after church. They’re sharing a plate of nachos and drinking Coke when across the room they spot an usher from church sitting with his friend and drinking a, a (gasp) a beer! So they start talking. “I didn’t know Jim drank beer!” “Shocking, positively shocking.” “What kind of witness is that?” And yet here is the irony. Scripture doesn’t condemn Jim for having a beer at Chili’s, but it does condemn the self-righteous gossips who are too busy judging him to see their own hypocrisy.
So abstain from alcohol if you wish because you don’t like the taste, or because it is too expensive, or because you have a predisposition to alcoholism, or because execssive alcohol consumption has adverse social consequences. As a follower of Christ you have that freedom. And remember the other Christians who live out their freedom of Christ by abstaining from fast food, contraceptives, meat, or rock and roll.
But remember that other Christians like the occasional McDonalds meal, they opt to use non-abortifacient contraceptives within a marital covenantal relationship, they prefer their steak medium well, they turn up every Supertramp song that comes on the radio, and yes, they like a beer with their meal at Chili’s.
Would Jesus really drink a Budweiser? Probably, but I bet he’d prefer a bottle of La Fin du Monde.