Romans 14 has always been among the most interesting chthose whos in the Epistle. In it, every Bible obedient Christian is instructed to handle food consumption with care. Alcohol consumption has always been a cultural taboo in the East Asian context, more so in areas of Muslim majority.

Consider this video by Ahmed Deedat:

 

There, Deedat absolutely mopped the floor with Jimmy Swaggart. America, a bastion of Christian supremacy in the nineteen hundreds, is found to have 55 million drunkards. Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol. To Deedat, he sees the Christian’s lack of self control over alcohol as a means to criticize the faith to the embarassment of the churches. Are there counter arguments that can be mounted against Deedat? Of course! Alcohol has been a constant stream of income in Muslim majority countries such as Turkey. The point of this post however, is not to mount an apologetic against Deedat, but rather a means to show that many Christians today sacrifice the tenets of their faith on the altar of pleasure.

Here’s the thing about alcohol. Those who confess that Jesus is Lord with their lives abstain, not because the Bible prohibits it, but to safeguard those observe from the sides so that they can stand on morally superior ground over those who see it as taboo. Consider Muslims. It is explicitly stated in the Qur’an that alcohol consumption is Satanic and avoidance is essential:

O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing on] stone alters [to other than Allah ], and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful.

- Surah 5:90

How then, can a Christian who consume alcohol evangelize a Muslim who thinks he holds a moral high ground against the Christian? To a concerned Muslim, Christians are tolerant, undisciplined bunch who confesses that since Jesus has already saved them from their sins through faith, they are now free to indulge in all forms of immorality such as immodest outfit, alcohol consumption, or even gambling. I’ve heard this so many times in debates that while I disagree with its misrepresentations, it cannot be denied that such words come with a kernel of truth.

Even the Bible has not been thoroughly supportive.

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?

 

Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.

 

Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly!

 

In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper.  Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things.  You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging.

 

“They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt! They beat me, but I don’t feel it! When will I wake up so I can find another drink?”

Proverbs 23:29-35

It is interesting that three important verses are pointed out often by Christians who choose to argue over it. The most frequent one is where Paul asks Timothy to consume wine.

“No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”

1 Timothy 5:23

Notice however the wording. It is shown quite evidently that Timothy abstained from alcohol and therefore Paul had to ask him to take a little wine for medication. The earliest Christian author that talked about alcohol outside of the New Testament was Clement of Alexandria. In his second work, Paedagogus, he made several striking statements:

I admire those who have adopted an austere life and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance. I admire those who flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire. (2.243)

Origen makes a similar comment

Bread nourishes and makes a person strong. It is said to strengthen the heart of man. In contrast, wine pleases, rejoices, and softens man. (9.314)

Methodius, writing in the late third century noted,

… he who has devoted and offered himself to the Lord will not take of the fruits of the plant of evil, for its natural tendency is to produce intoxication and distraction of mind. (6.327)

In the Apostolic Constitutions written around 390 AD, it says

“If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon indulges himself in dice or drinking, he must either leave off those practices or else let him be deprived. If a subdeacon, a reader, or a singer does the same, he must either cease to do so or else let him be suspended. And the same is true for one of the laity. (7.502)

In the Synod of Laodicea at around 390 AD, Rule 55, it says

Neither members of the priesthood nor of the clergy, nor yet laymen, may club together for drinking entertainments

This shows that Christians living in East Asia who want to live authentically with the pedagogy from church tradition has to live in abstinence of alcohol in general, not because it is prohibited, but rather in doing so, especially in the cultural context, risks himself to be a stumbling block, not just to new Christians, even outsiders. And speaking of being a stumbling block, Jesus warned in Luke 17:1-2,

“Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.  It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.

Notice what I am not saying. I am NOT saying that alcohol in itself is wrong. I am NOT saying that consumption of alcohol at a time and place where it is not considered a social taboo is wrong. I can mount a powerful argument in favor of the other side through the Bible and the church fathers. I am saying that if one risks stumbling another in his consumption with alcohol and yet still drinks, then he is sinning. In this Paul agrees. He wrote, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:21)

Now suppose a Pastor confesses that he drinks, leading one visiting Muslim to think that Christians are immodest for drinking. What then has the pastor done to the newcomer? Hasn’t he, instead of drawing the man to Christ, instead put a stumbling block on his path? Romans 14:17 says that

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

How difficult is it to abstain? How difficult is it to forego one’s right for the benefit of those who keep a close eye on his testimony? In 1 Corinthians 9:12, Paul relinquishes his right to financial support. Does he have the right to ask for support? Yes. He foregoes such because he decided to “put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. ”

What have we done then when we do not put up a strong objection against Christian drinking? We have relinquished our moral high ground of following Paul as he follows Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). We’ve lost it. The Kingdom of God is not about eating or drinking. It is about righteousness—calling sinners to repentance, not eating, not drinking. It is about peace—a practice of mutual edification. Not eating, not drinking. It is about joy in the Holy Spirit—not in eating, not in drinking. Joy in the Spirit… because finding joy outside of God is a lesser pursuit.

Now some would argue in favor of social drinking. “But Jesus did drink wine in John 2 didn’t he?” One, there is no direct evidence. Even in modern day wedding, a large number of attendees do not consume alcohol. Be that as it may, I do not think that it is a powerful argument. The other argument however is that, even if He did, will anyone in that cultural context fall into sin because The Son of God consumed alcohol?

Wine, as seen in ancient near east context is a beverage used almost in a manner as to how Coke is used these days. It is so ubiquitous that it is the most commonly known flavored drink adults consume. In those days, the taboo against alcohol has not been established in the same way as it is today. It can be argued thus. Why don’t Christians today buy slaves? Isn’t slavery condoned in the Bible? The reason among others that we do not indulge in slavery today is that modern eyes no longer see it as a social norm. As the world now sees it as an abomination and abstaining from it brings us no harm, why do it? If such argument can be set forth against slavery, why not alcohol consumption? Thing is, we build our Christian convictions with convenience as the foundation. NOT SO. We should filter our convenience with Christian convictions as the foundation.

It is also helpful to note that Biblical definition of slavery and modern day definition of slavery are different. But discussion of it requires a different post altogether.

I sincerely believe that long time Christians who consume alcohol without feeling any guilt at all in the East Asian context has done very little evangelism, perhaps even not at all to the hard Muslims or atheists. I also sincerely believe that many of those who condone such acts have done little in contributing to the great commission to the hard nosed and to those who think they stand on moral high ground by refusing to practice cultural taboos.

We have become so weak as a church because we allow subtle compromises through lack of discipline and self control to pervade the church. Thus we see Christian women showing more skin than coverings and men indulging in worldly things more than spiritual matters. We are seeing a huge majority of Christians today sacrificing their testimony on the altar of pragmatism. I have had one Christian woman who told me she wears less coverings because the place where she lives is hot… and while Christians justify their compromises instead of aspiring for holiness, Muslims on the side such as Zakir Naik laugh at us because he thinks Muslim women are more Christian than the Christians because they uphold Biblical teachings on modesty that modern Christian women deny. How embarassing. Instead of being a light to the world, the world is being the light to the Christian laity.

One remaining major objection remains unanswered. In the eucharist, didn’t Jesus offer wine for all to drink? Sure he did. But notice what Justin Martyr wrote about it. In his First Apology where he detailed the sacrament of the eucharist, he wrote that the wine used is mixed with water. It is not for pleasure, not for socializing, but for ceremonial rites. This shows that in the New Testament, at least as to how the early church fathers believed it to be, wine is used ceremonially (in the eucharist), evangelically (at the wedding in Cana), or medically (in reference to Paul’s advise to Timothy).

Now, do early Christians drink wine for socializing? You bet they did. It would be absurd to deny such. One has to note however, and again, that they live in a cultural context where wine consumption is not seen as taboo. Thus even if they did drink wine, they do not cause anyone to fall into sin in their cultural context. In fact, the writings of the church fathers tell us that the cultural norm in those days is that drinking in moderation is seen as a virtue.

Notice, cultural norm. Drinking wine was not a taboo in their days. Getting drunk is. Today, where we live, even drinking is seen as taboo by many, forget about drunkenness. It has to be further noted that in 1 Peter 4:1-5, the apostle claims that presence in drinking parties and clubbing is un-Christian. The Greek words κωμοις and ποτοις used by Peter in verse 3 is so specific there is hardly any way to misinterpret.

A Christian’s abstinence from alcohol in the modern day is to be seen as how Paul had Timothy circumcised in Acts 16:3 but not Titus. Was Paul contradicting himself? No he doesn’t. He had Timothy circumcised to produce an open window for evangelism. It was a strategy he employed in 1 Corinthians 9:20. It can be terribly frustrating for those who sit at the gates of the Kingdom trying to win souls while people from within the kingdom push them away.

Long time Christians who lives with Spiritual Apathy towards their neighbor is one who fails to love. Love is not obfuscation of truth but rather the propagation of it. Many Christians today demonize legalism in favor of licentiousnesss. Prudence is where all must come down to.

Most stumbling blocks come in the form of harmless compromise.

 

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Galatians 5:13-14

 

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