Total Abstinence... I'll Drink to that!

I don't drink alcohol, not even socially. That makes me a legalist to some of my readers, and a conservative to many of my boomer peers, who think it is totally uncool to be a teetotaler. So, in the interest in being more popular with my liberated boomer peers, and accepted as cool by the generation X wine cooler crowd, I've reconsidered my hard line position on alcohol. Maybe I should loosen up a bit and chug-a-lug along with the rest of 'em so that 'I might by all means save some.'Therefore, after considerable [sober] thought on the matter I've made my decision. I am not going to start drinking... I'll stick with 'total abstinence.' I know many of you will be disappointed that I'm still up here on the wagon, but I remain unconvinced of alcohol's usefulness. I'm sure you wonder why and are breathlessly waiting for my rationale. I find many nowadays are seeking for good rationale for total abstinence, heh heh heh. So, knowing of this hunger for sound argument, I herewith share my own reasons for sticking with diet Coke (except for an occasional shot of that nighttime sneezy stuffy nose cold so you can rest medicine). Here's why I don't drink:

1. I don't need it.
I realize that alcohol is the social lubricant of American business culture. And I know that when evangelicals' clientele came from skid row this was a clear-cut issue - reformed drunks know exactly where to draw the line. But we've moved up town now. Or, rather, to the edge of town. Evangelicals don't run many missions any more - we let Roman Catholics and the main line churches do that. Instead we cater to the dire needs of suburbia, and have been populating our churches with social climbers and 'quality people.' These folk use alcohol like their Daytimers - as a social and political tool greasing their career tracks. So, of course, following our newfound market share, most evangelicals will eventually come to approve the drinking habits of our wealthy patrons. The customer is often right. In fact, my own denomination will probably 'open up' and 'abandon legalism' sooner or later, adopting a more contemporary and pragmatic approach to alcohol. Not right away, but eventually I suspect. After all, 'some of our best people drink.' They also tithe. But even if my church legalizes drinking, I still won't drink. I just don't need it. It would take more than alcohol to grease my career tracks.

2. Social protest.
This is really the major reason I don't drink. To me, the alcohol industry is merely a group of drug pushers dressed up in suits. I think they are pushers running their dirty little industry at the expense of other people's pain. So I boycott them. Sure, I know it won't break 'em. I don't do it to run them out of business. I do it to keep from supporting them. I do it for me, not against them. Yeah, I know, their super bowl frogs are cute, and their 'I love you maaaaan' commercials are delightful. But when you strip away all the ad man cleverness, they are simply liquid drug traffickers and I won't support them. It doesn't matter to me that their customers want the drug, or even that it is legal. I just boycott them. Here in Indianapolis where I live and write there is a huge chain of liquor stores that purposely preys on poor people. I don't care if the owner of this chain dresses in classy $500 suits and attends a respectable church - he's no better in my mind than a street corner drug pusher is. I'm an old hippie who went without California lettuce for several years, to support the migrant workers. That was about fair wages. This is about destroyed families, and ruined livers, and perpetuating poverty. I know my abstinence won't change things, but I do it anyway. This is one industry that introduces plenty of hell on earth. So, I just boycott them.

3. Abstinence is a clear line.
OK, OK, I know the Bible doesn't forbid alcohol. It condemns drunkenness. But drunkenness is a foggy thing. When does a social drinker get drunk? After one drink? Three? Six? A dozen? See? I can't say for sure. Most Bible students agree that drunkenness is sin, but when does the drinker get drunk? In college I wondered what it would be like to get drunk. So I hustled a jug of wine out of a Jewish friend's party and pulled off the road in Allentown, Pennsylvania and glugged down the entire jug. Discarding the empty jug in a nearby trash can, I then drove 40 miles home. Was I drunk? Who knows? I didn't know. That's my point. Since then, I don't touch it at all. Total abstinence is an easier line for me to enforce on myself. If drunkenness is sin, and I therefore shouldn't get drunk, then how am I going to know when I've crossed the line? Carry my own Breathalyzer?

4. My denomination.
I am a member of a denomination who 'requires' tee totaling (as much as any denomination can 'require' anything any more). Indeed, many [American] evangelicals have a similar heritage. For 150 years, four generations of folk in my denomination have pretty well agreed that total abstinence is the way to go. Hey, I don't want to toss that overboard without a bit more thought. I like my denomination on most days, so even if I wanted to drink myself, if it is important to the people in this church for 150 years, I can think about it a little while longer.

5. Church History.
Not that I am locked in to the past. I recognize that the church has not always been against alcohol. In fact, abstinence [for the masses] is a rather recent notion, given 2000 years of Christian history. But, then again, so is opposition to slavery and the notion of ordaining women. So, while I respect Christian tradition, I am not locked into it, especially if the thing in question were eliminated from society, we'd all be better for it. That was true of slavery. Is there anyone who would argue it would not be true of alcohol?

6. For the kids.
I can't imagine drinking - even in moderation - then being a hypocrite enough to tell kids to abstain. 'Hey, kids, do what I say, not what I do.' Suuuuuuure! I don't want kids to drink - my kids or yours - so I don't drink. It's that simple.
Now I know I'll get some helpful responses from my fine readers who want to broaden my thinking and help me understand how a good stiff drink each day will delay my heart attack by three months and 13 days. Thank you very much for your concern. But, I'll give up eggs instead.Will most evangelical churches loosen up their tradition of total abstinence in the coming twenty years? Should they?
So what do you think?


Marc said...

Here are my concerns on the total abstinence of alcohol in our denomination.

As a Wesleyan pastor I have readily agreed to abstain from alcohol. As one who previously 'partook' on occasion it was a mild sacrifice. But, I never saw the use of alcohol as one to fuss over - for my own sake.

I see significant value in all six of the points Keith makes, but...

First, our denomination has been known more for being teetotalers than Christ-bearers. If we want to become all things to all people to save some - maybe we need to compromise on this man-made doctrine for the sake of saving some. I have personally encountered people that I have no luck inviting to worship or church functions because (somehow) our church became known more for it's alcohol stance than it's bearing of the Light. Although I rarely discuss the Wesleyan stance on alcohol (except to members and member candidates), my own sister and her 'significant other' will not step foot in our church because of our position. I even try to reason with them that most of the members of my church do drink - but they fear the extra-biblical judgment that may pass their way. I want to be the pastor of a church that can redeem a drunkard, not cause them to feel judged.

B., we are setting ourselves up for failure. I am a Wesleyan pastor in a Reformed Church region. I have a difficult time finding board members who do not drink. My board warns me against mentioning the prohibitions to alcohol use for fear of losing much of the church. Just as we can teach people to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves and still not steal and be dishonest - we can also teach people that drinking alcohol has its limits too. People point out the difficulty in defining this limit - but isn't that much the same for other sins?

III., I have yet to see a church successfully hold members accountable to this standard. We can rightfully say that is a problem with the church's efforts and not the rule. But, I have yet to see a church willing to hold people accountable to this standard in a redemptive manner. Thus, we compromise the integrity of our members with an implicit wink.

Even if drinking were suddenly allowed in the Wesleyan Church, I do not think I would start again (for much of the reasons Keith spelled out). But, I do not think it is a wise prohibition from the organizational level because compromises our missional efforts.


ordinary radical said...

We Wesleyans love debating the alcohol and tobacco issue because it takes the focus off our real lifestyle issue--obesity. I'm curious if there will ever be a movement towards total abstinence....of doughnuts, or french fries, or cheesecake. Look around at General Conference, Dr. Drury, many of our leaders are obese; some of them are in the "morbid" category. I have been to my fair share of country-church Wesleyan potlucks, and I can assure you, alcohol is NOT our problem. Shall we apply your line of reasoning to our real issue? "I don't need it." Hmmmm.... "Abstinence is a clear line" Where do you start with that one? "For the kids?" Amen, brother! Talking about alcohol and abstinence is so safe...and so 15 years ago. Let's start talking about temperance...in ALL areas of our lives. And while we're at it, let's start at the top, in Indianapolis.

Nolan said...

I respect your personal decision to abstain from alcohol and as someone who used to have an occasional drink; I fully understand the gray, fuzzy line issue. It all depends on your definition of “drunk.” But your comments seem to focus primarily on personal abstinence and never really addressed the issue of corporately required abstinence.

I am a member of the Wesleyan Church myself. But while my membership in this denomination means I have personally agreed to abstain, I certainly don’t agree with the requirement to abstain. Why do we as a denomination abstain from alcohol anyway? I know the PC answer, but for most people is it really an issue of personal abstinence or has it devolved into self-righteous contempt toward alcohol and anyone who drinks? The message I seem to be getting from my local leaders is that you either abstain or you’re an alcoholic; there is no middle ground. Would any of the Wesleyans you know be willing to attend a bible study in a bar; or would the idea of the Word of God being taught in a bar be considered sacrilege? (Mt 11:19) Their response would reveal their hearts. Besides, isn’t a person’s heart more important than what they consume? (Mt 7:14-15)

I apologize if I come across as brash. My views of the Wesleyan church might be a bit skewed considering my 27 years of experience are rooted in what is arguably the most antiquated Wesleyan church west of the Mississippi. Many in my small church consider me a radical liberal because I believe that the Word of God is superior to all man made rules; so therefore, if Scripture doesn’t teach it then the church shouldn’t require it.

If Scripture really is the Holy Word of God then why do most denominations create requirements which are outside the Word? When we do so, we only reaffirm our hypocritical, self-righteous image in the eyes of those outside our own little cliques. Even our own constitution contradicts the requirements for abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, dancing, etc. (unless it is possible to be sanctified in the eyes of God and yet not be welcomed into the Wesleyan church.)

From The constitution of the North American General Conference:

5. The Sufficiency and Full Authority of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation

218. We believe that the books of the Old and New Testaments constitute the Holy Scriptures. They are the inspired and infallibly written Word of God, fully inerrant in their original manuscripts and superior to all human authority, and have been transmitted to the present without corruption of any essential doctrine. We believe that they contain all things necessary to salvation; so that whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man or woman that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. Both in the Old and New Testaments life is offered ultimately through Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and humanity.

So really, we could say that required abstinence (not an individual’s personal decision to abstain) is both unbiblical and unconstitutional. (Mt 7:8)

As far as the impact this issue has on reaching the lost; I’ll just say that Marc views and experiences reflect my own. We can’t continue to let our “Christian religion” continue to get in the way of the Christian Faith. If legalistic religion is allowed to reign over Christ Centered Faith I’m afraid we will become spiritually insignificant to those we are supposed to be leading to Christ.

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists (Wesleyans) should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
-John Wesley


Anonymous said...

As a Nazarene, We are going through the same struggle on this issue. There was a time when I felt as strong a Brother Drury, but I have had a change of position on the issue. I have this problem, not that I want to drink (don't like the stuff), but the problem is this: Any denomination the believes that the Bible is their sole infallible authority can not mandate an ethic that is not supported by scripture. Period!!! To do so is to deny the sufficieny of the scriptures and to yield to man-made legalism. No matter how sincere the ethic may be. God has spoken and thus saith the Lord, drunkness is condemned, moderation and abstinence are both permissable choices. All the argument for abstinence of alchohol are culturally, socialical, and emotional arguments. Is alchohol danger? When abused, absolutely! The same with food, we call gluttony, and hardly hear about it all in our holiness churches. Even Sex can destroys lives (aids, unwarranted pregnancies)But evangelicals are clear that it is the abuse of sex not its proper biblical use that is destructive. Please don't retort with food and sex are necessary for survival where alchohol is not necessary. Jesus,Paul, and none of the apostle made that argument for abstinence and neither do I. If someone can not handle alchohol, then by all means, abstinence is the way to go not moderation. But I know many christians who drink sparingly and in moderation. To castigate them as being immoral is a judgementat unchristlike attitude that is more destructive to the souls of man than a responsible use of alchohol. Also the using the argument of slavery to defend abstinence is the same argument liberals use to defend homosexuality.