I am, and have been my entire life, teetotal. I do participate in communion when I visit churches where the wine is alcoholic, but with that one exception, I never drink alcohol. That makes me very unusual in the church circles I inhabit, and in the minds of some, a de facto legalist.
The reasons for my abstinence are mostly due to my upbringing. The pastor of my church strongly advocated abstinence, and as a result, my parents, who joined the church when I was a baby, also became teetotal. Other Christian organizations I had contact with, such as UBM, took a similar stance.
It was a position I had no problem with, and had no real incentive to question until I went to sixth form college, where I first met other Christians who drank. It was during my time there that I saw the destructive influence of alcohol in a number of my friends, both Christian and non-Christian. One friend fell off the roof of a multi-storey car park after a drunken night out and a run-in with a police. He died a few weeks later. A Christian friend ended up pregnant after a night partying with too much to drink. To her credit, she courageously rejected the recommendations of her friends to abort the baby, whose father was a convicted criminal, but the trajectory of her life was irrevocably changed. Another friend, who I regarded as a particularly sensible and conscientious student, foolishly drove home after one too many to drink. He killed a girl and ended up in jail. It scared me. If someone like him could do something like that, what could I be capable of?
At the same time, many of my peers from my own church were beginning to revel in the freedom they had now they were legally old enough to drink. Whilst some found the balance of drink in moderation, sadly it seemed for others to be a first step in a journey away from God.
Another factor was my knowledge of own lack of self-control. I knew from experience how easily I could become addicted to things, whether following the football results or listening to 60’s music. If I bought a multi-pack of extra-strong mints I seemed incapable of not eating the whole lot in one sitting. What would I be like if I drank? Would I really have the self-control to avoid doing something I bitterly regretted?
The Biblical Case
So I chose to remain teetotal due to my own weakness and to seeing the effects of alcohol on my friends lives (doubtless there were other factors, such as my preference for nonconformism). But I haven’t mentioned the Bible yet. And that is simply because I don’t believe the Bible teaches or requires believers to abstain. It does forbid getting drunk, it does repeatedly warn of the dangers of alcohol, and there are several examples of people dedicated to the Lord who are asked to abstain (for example Old Testament priests, Nazarites and John the Baptist). But abstinence is simply not commanded for believers.
My reason for writing about this now is that my former pastor Stanley Jebb has blogged on his reasons for abstinence. Also John MacArthur recently took the “young, restless and reformed” crowd to task for their attitude towards drink. My wife, though not teetotal herself, was saved into an Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) church. The AOG have a position paper which vigorously argues for a total abstinence position.
On the subject of alcohol, I have seen both sides often severely distort the biblical evidence, throwing exegetical principles out of the window in order to defend their position. One side attempts to turn all the wine in the Bible back into water, while the other has the disciples drinking vodka at the last supper. One well-known visiting speaker at Southampton University Christian Union shocked me by declaring that “Jesus turned the water into wine so that the disciples could get smashed out of their faces.” And then there is Mark Driscoll who says he “repented” of the “sin of abstinence”.
I think I can honestly say that I have never heard a sermon warning against the folly of drinking too much in a church that doesn’t teach abstinence. Those Bible passages are effectively ignored, presumably for fear of sounding legalistic. Of all the biblical virtues, there can’t be many less well loved (at least in charismatic circles) than sobriety. The result is a generation of Christian young people who regard getting drunk as a joke.
Having said that, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Bible often uses wine as a symbol for joy. Even as a child in the church I grew up in, it always struck me as deeply ironic that we would sing “I will extol your love more than wine”, knowing full well that no one would dare speak a good word about wine. In those days we would often say about spiritual gifts – “the solution to abuse is not disuse, but proper use”. And yet it is this very principle that Martin Luther uses to dismiss the case for abstinence with typical biting sarcasm:
Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and the stars have been worshiped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky?
And I think he is right. Yet at the same time I believe that a failure to prophetically speak out against social evils of alcohol amounts to cowardice. And failure to warn our children (whether as parents or youth leaders) of the dangers is abnegation of our God-given responsibility. When the time comes for discussing this with my children, I will not require them to be teetotal, but I think I will recommend it. Maybe they will be much more wise, mature and self-controlled than me, and will be able to honour God while enjoying alcohol in moderation. But I have no intention to do anything that will lead them into temptation, or cause one of these little ones to stumble (Rom 14:21).
Finally, whatever your view on this topic, whether you drink or abstain, do it to the glory of God (Rom 14:6, 1 Cor 10:31).