Anyone who reads What’s So Confusing About Grace? will learn that I grew up within a teetotaling fundagelical church. Teetotalism is not simply the personal observance of total abstinence from alcohol but the advocacy for abstinence: i.e. I abstain … and here’s why you should too.
We had a blunt reason why you should give up alcohol: drinking is sinful. In short, we somehow turned “Be not drunk with wine” (Ephesians 5:18) into “Do not drink wine … or beer, spirits, or coolers.”
In my early years I had a conflicted reaction to teetotalism, but I finally gave it up completely when I was in high school. However, I don’t think a Christian should drink just anything. In my article “Would Jesus drink a Budweiser?” I gave an emphatic no, Jesus would not. The reason, however, was not because Jesus was a teetotaler but because Budweiser is insufferably bland. Jesus would support complex local microbrews.
Teetotalism has concerned me for years because I know its effects from the inside. I can still recall from my youth the sense of judgment and the air of superiority when we would see people drinking a beer or a glass of wine in a restaurant. I now recognize this attitude for what it was: a deeply corrosive legalism.
So when I saw that Michael Brown had written an article titled “Why I Never Drink Alcohol” I was intrigued. What do the ethics of teetotalism look like today? Has it escaped the shadow of legalism?
Brown begins his article by clarifying that he is simply stating his own personal reasons for abstaining from alcohol. He is not claiming that the consumption of alcohol is inherently sinful. I appreciate the qualification. Nonetheless, while Brown concedes that a Christian can drink alcohol, I read the deeper message of the article to be this: when all the risks and costs are calculated in, abstinence is the morally preferred option.
Brown lists several reasons for teetotalism. In the remainder of this article I want to consider the fourth because it strikes me as having particular rhetorical force:
A former alcoholic sees another brother or sister have a glass of wine with their meal, or they visit your house and see that you have beer in your refrigerator. They then think to themselves, “Well, if it’s OK for them, I guess it’s OK for me,” and they have one drink—just one—and quickly find themselves enslaved again, sometimes for years.
So, your liberty, which might be totally fine between you and the Lord, ends up destroying a precious brother or sister.
Paul addressed this in the context of food sacrificed to idols, but the principle is the same: “and by your knowledge [meaning, the knowledge that food itself doesn’t defile us] shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? When you thus sin against the brothers, wounding their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat, least I cause my brother to stumble” (1 Cor. 8:11-13).
The lesson here is that we should put greater emphasis on helping weaker brothers and sisters than on enjoying our liberty.
I don’t take the general caution lightly. Brown definitely has a point: we should always consider the needs of those who struggle and we should put those needs ahead of personal interest. As a result, if I was out for lunch with an alcoholic I would refrain from ordering a beer with my meal.
But I am at pains to think how this point alone can possibly support abstinence and teetotalism. Consider my situation. I occasionally enjoy a rum and Coke on the back deck. Should I refrain from doing so on the off chance that one of my neighbors is (unbeknownst to me) a former alcoholic who might peak over the fence, inquire as to what I’m drinking, and thereby fall off the wagon?
Occasionally I meet friends for a beer at one of the local pubs. Should I refrain from doing so on the off chance that a struggling alcoholic might inadvertently see me walking into the establishment?
My answer is no. The risks of a person lapsing into a cycle of self-destructive alcoholism based on seeing me drink a rum and Coke or walk into a pub may not be zero, but they seem so negligible that this is simply not a reasonable concern.
And imagine if we did agree with Brown. Where do we stop? In his article Brown mentions the danger of being addicted to sweets. Should I abstain from ever eating chocolate on the off chance that somebody might otherwise fall off the dietary wagon and contract Type-2 Diabetes?
I love taking my motorcycle for Saturday afternoon cruises. Should I park it on the off chance that a former speed demon might see me riding and then decide to buy another motorcycle on which he shall end up losing his life in a fiery crash?
Clearly this is absurd. The lesson is that we do not make sweeping ethical decisions based on such far-fetched scenarios and negligible risks. To sum up, while I agree with Brown that we should exercise our freedoms with consideration for the struggles of others, his teetotalistic reasoning in support of abstinence appears to me suspiciously like a lingering legalism in search of a justification.