In a previous post, I discussed Christians and alcohol. I began by making several well-known assertions about what the Bible says, and concluded by making a few lesser-known ones. In this post, I want to continue the discussion by looking at two issues that I mentioned in passing in the last post: (1) causing another brother or sister to stumble, and (2) ruining your testimony by drinking alcohol.

Let’s start with the second one first. Assumption: It’s better not to drink at all, especially in public places, since this could ruin your testimony when unbelievers find out you’re a Christian. The logic, I suppose, is that drinking is unchristian and if caught using the stuff you’ll look like a hypocrite. You’re saying one thing—that Jesus is your Lord—but then turning your back on Him by tossing back a Guinness where unbelievers may be looking on.

Quite honestly, I’ve never really understood this line of thinking. Maybe it’s just me, but most non-Christians I know are turned off by the stringent rules they think constitutes the gospel of Christianity. They think that Christianity amounts to following a bunch of arbitrary do’s and don’ts—and abstaining from alcohol is usually at the top of the list. But I think we would agree, regardless of your stance on alcohol, that the good news about Jesus far surpasses drinking and not drinking. So I’m not really convinced that if my unbelieving neighbor happens to see me slipping into a pub, I would lose much traction to my gospel witness.

In fact, I may increase it. For most unbelievers (the ones I know, at least), when they find out that neither Jesus nor the Bible forbids the consumption of alcohol, this makes the gospel much clearer. When we strip away all the man-made clutter that dims the gospel—such as drinking, watching movies, or voting Republican—the full glory of Jesus tends to shine a bit brighter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one, but I think that if we paid closer attention to how unbelievers thought about Christianity, moderate and responsible drinking would probably open up, and not close off, more genuine avenues for the gospel to be heard. A good chunk of the dying world that’s rejected Christianity hasn’t so much said no to Jesus, but no to a pharisaical version of His message.

And biblically, I can’t see anything in the Scriptures that suggests that drinking hinders our witness. Alcoholism was just as widespread in the ancient world as it is today, and believers were called to be lights in the world then as we are now. But the Bible never suggests that abstaining from alcohol will magnify our witness, keep the gospel unstained, or prevent charges of hypocrisy from being lobbed at God’s people. Otherwise, Jesus really blew it at Cana.

So I’m not really convinced that drinking in moderation will hinder our witness; in many cases, it will strengthen it.

The second issue about causing someone to stumble is more complicated. Assumption: Drinking could cause others to “stumble,” and therefore it’s better not to drink.

My question has always been: where do you draw the line? If I have someone over for dinner and they “struggle” with secular music, do I hide all my Beethoven albums? (Seriously, the dude was a total pagan.) Or—this is one we don’t often consider—if someone struggles with greed and materialism (in other words, if they’re an American Christian), do I hide my iPad, scuff up my furniture, and park my Lexus on the other side of the block? Where does it end? Some people are offended at preachers that wear jeans, others flip out when there’s drums on stage, still others may question your salvation if they hear that you’ve seen and enjoyed the Harry Potter films. Is it even possible to go through life and not do something that may cause someone to stumble?

Perhaps a better question is: What does it actually means to cause someone to stumble? Do a quick word study on the verb “to cause to stumble” (Greek: skandalizo) and you’ll find out that most of our modern scenarios with drinking don’t really correlate with what the Bible warns against. Here’s a couple observations.

First, it is true that Jesus offered some blistering critiques against those who cause people to stumble, as in Matthew 18:6-9. But what Jesus had in mind by “stumble” (skandalizo) is something serious, something spiritually fatal. The idea of causing someone to stumble, in the words of Don Hagner, “is to be understood in the serious sense of causing someone to…fall into sin, or perhaps even to lose their faith in Jesus and the gospel” (Hagner, Matthew, 2.522). This is more than just some personal offense (for that, see Matthew 17:27). You haven’t caused another believer to stumble if they overheard you listening to secular music and they go out and buy the latest Coldplay album, nor have you caused someone to stumble if they have a drink because they saw you slurp down a pint of Sam Adams at Macaroni Grill. Drinking that causes someone to stumble means that you have influenced a person into getting drunk, becoming an alcoholic, or loosing their faith. And I would say that if you drink responsibly, yet publicly condemn drunkenness and enslavement to alcohol, and someone goes out, gets hammered, and blames you for it, then their blood is not on your hands. So I might just leave my Beethoven record out in plain view when you come over.

Second, Romans 14:21 could be taken to promote abstaining from alcohol as the wiser path to prevent others from stumbling. It reads: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (NET Bible). And perhaps in some cultures it is, but we have to keep in mind that Paul’s original situation had to do with eating meat and drinking wine that was used as offerings for idols. The “weaker” brother who may stumble had just come out of a pagan environment, where wine was offered to their former god as a libation and drinking it would reconnect them with their pagan past. So if you’re in a similar situation today, then by all means, obey Paul’s instructions. But I really don’t think we can rip Romans 14:21 out of its context and apply it to most situations today. Where it does apply is where your drinking would cause someone to lurch back into paganism.

Can drinking cause someone to stumble? Yes. Is it typical? No, I don’t think it is as typical as we think. Most of our situations today, such as pastors refraining from drinking in public, are a much softer form of “causing someone to stumble” than what we find in the warnings of Jesus or Paul. Having said that, I certainly do believe there’s a place to abstain from certain liberties, including alcohol, for the sake of your brother or sister, if it will cause someone to sin in the Matthew 18 and Roman 14 sense.

There’s much more to say, and indeed we’ll try to say it in forthcoming posts. But for now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these two issues: (1) drinking that damages our witness, and (2) drinking that causes a sister or brother to stumble.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Hi. I really appreciate your focus on this topic. As some know, I was a Christian bartender and I can honestly say it was more helpful in sharing the gospel than it ever was a hindrance. I emailed you on your EBC email and disclosed more details, thoughts, and questions. I look forward to hearing more from you regarding this subject. Thanks Preston.

  2. I agree that definitely don’t like the idea of “It’s better not to drink at all, _especially in public places_”. I think that comes off more hypocritical to me, in the sense that the emphasis seems to be putting on a show in public but less emphasis on private time.

    As for damaging our witness, in common adult situations I don’t think it would. At the same time, I didn’t grow up in a culture where it was typical to drink wine, or try small amounts as a young man/child (legally). So in that way it’s tough to say “It didn’t ruin Jesus’ witness at Cana” because it’s was not perceived the same way our culture views drinking. The danger I see is more-so in a younger 20s generation where drinking is associated with debauchery the majority of the time. 30+, not as much.

    As for causing a brother to stumble, if we know someone has a problem and there’s a hint of conviction that ‘we should be careful around them.’ We should cast aside any freedom if we know it will help our brother. Especially in terms of missions as you made reference to in the last post about wine.

    Thank you guys for taking the viel off of some of these ‘taboo’ topics!

    • Rob, as far as how alcohol is perceived in our culture, it all depends on where you live. Even in the States, there are very different approaches to alcohol. I’ll never forget hearing about an older lady from the east coast who couldn’t believe youth groups in California “mixed bathed” (i.e. boys and girls went to the beach together). She raised this critique while puffing on a cigarette. When I lived in Scotland, I went to a church that was so conservative that women wore head coverings and they weren’t allowed to speak in church. When I had the pastor offer for dinner, I said “What can I get you to drink?” He said, “I’ll take a beer, please.” “And for you, mam?” I asked his wife. “White wine would be great.” They both had seconds.

      In California, drinking is not nearly as much of a taboo in younger churches as it is in the Midwest and South. When I lived in Ohio, I lived in a “dry town”–it was illegal to sell alcohol in stores. Which means people had to drive to the next town to get a drink, sending off more planet damaging chemicals from their exhaust pipes and risking driving back while under the influence. Most Christians in SoCal–young and old–don’t view alcohol with the same set of lenses as in other parts of the country.

      Point being: know your culture and sub-culture and drink, or don’t drink, accordingly.

  3. Sorry, Preston, but your comparison of alcoholism to secular music and/or materialism doesn’t hold water. Those things don’t have the same capacity to alter your body in a physical way. There’s much more to say about this that I can’t get into here but I would highly suggest you speak with an alcoholic (preferrably a Christian one but not absolutely necessary) who has several years of sobriety to get a better grasp on this than I can give you in this short summary. Alcoholism is a disease. Most non-alcohoics think that using the term “disease” is only an excuse for lack of willpower but I assure you that’s not the case. Alcohol is, as AA puts it, cunning, baffling, and powerful. Believe me, AA is right about this and it’s way more than just having the willpower to abstain.
    I’m not saying that drinking is wrong and that Christians shouldn’t do it. That’s not my stance at all. But I am saying from first hand experience that being a Christian and being around Christians that are having, say, a nice glass of Cabernet, can be extremely difficult for a recovering alcoholic – so much so that not only could it give cause to stumble but, as in my case (at times), it could give cause to just sit home (and not fellowship) rather than be subjected to the temptation.
    As I said, there’s much more to this than I can write here so, once again, I would implore you to seek out a sober brother or sister who can glean more light on the subject…over a cup of coffee.

    • Thanks for dropping in and offering some healthy push back on the post. I’m very sorry to hear about your past addiction to alcohol and yet am overjoyed at God’s deliverance of it! Regardless of any disagreements we may have over our views on alcohol (I’m not sure we actually do), we can celebrate God’s grace in your life. Another trophy of God’s redemptive power.

      Two things in response. First, while you are correct that alcohol is chemically more addictive than, say, music or materialism, I’m not ready to give up the parallel, at least with greed/materialism. As stated in the first post, the Bible condemns the misuse of wealth and addiction to greed just as much, if not more, than addiction to alcohol. Yes, we are dealing with two very different addictions, and yes, one is chemically addictive and the other is not (at least, I’m not sure that it is). But should we elevate sins that are chemically addictive over others that are not? I’m not convinced that we should. I don’t think the Bible does, does it? I’d be quick to call both the addiction to wealth/materialism and the addiction to alcohol cousins of the same disease called sin—both are fiercely condemned in Scripture; both have addictive powers that are warned against; both will destroy your soul. It’s just that in our culture, even our Christian culture, alcohol is much further up on our value scale of sin. Not so in the Bible, however.

      Second, you bring up a good point about not drinking around alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, or those that struggle with alcoholism. This is a great point and I tried to affirm it when I said: “I certainly do believe there’s a place to abstain from certain liberties, including alcohol, for the sake of your brother or sister, if it will cause someone to sin in the Matthew 18 and Roman 14 sense.” As far as getting input from former alcoholics, I know plenty. Some of which I don’t drink around, others who I do only because they’ve told me that they’re ok being around the stuff, they just choose not to drink it themselves for obvious reasons. Others have even gotten to a point where they can drink in moderation, after having an alcoholic past. So I would say that each recovering alcoholic is different and as a good sister or brother in Christ, we need to do whatever is best for them in order to prioritize “the other” and not our liberties.

  4. Preston,

    My only objection to your post is that you seem to equate Guinness with Sam Adams. The former is in a class of its own and shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same article with the latter. Other than that, well stated.

    Blessings,

    Jack

  5. Good stuff, Preston. Indeed, I have had many amazing spiritual conversations with unbelievers over a drink that I would not have been able to otherwise. In fact, having a drink with a non-believer can actually act to break down walls that they have built against you or your faith. It is often a symbol of companionship, which leads to trust, which leads to them listening to the gospel without thinking that you are out to get them.

  6. Preston,
    Back in the 80’s I spent 5 months working in Alaska with my best friend in canneries and on fishing boats. We had a 4th of July party and invited a bunch of folks who were summer jobbing it there. We had BBQ, played U2 “Under a Blood Red Sky” and “War” albums and drank Bass Ale (no Irish beer in Kodiak). One of the guys that came was with some buddies, the were “Dead heads”, working summer jobs to support their travels following the Grateful Dead. This guy came over to me and asked about one of the songs and what I thought it was about, leading to a long discussion about U2, the Grateful Dead and Jesus. As we sipped our beers he said “I’ve never met a Christian that would think about having a beer with me and talking music. Tell me more about Jesus.”… there have been so many incidents like this ever since. Peace and Happy New Year!

  7. I agree with Preston on the issue of alcohol. If you know a brother will be stumbled by your drinking you should not drink at that moment. The same if you know someone to be an alcoholic. However, you should not be blamed if someone did not disclose that they had a problem and by your drinking you got them off sobriety road. What about witnessing to someone with a beer in your hand and one in theirs? Well that person may be surprised and more attentive to your message. However, if you say I don’t drink let me tell you something- then maybe they won’t be so surprised. They would expect you to be against it in the first place. Neither, if you are not a drinker of alcohol and you want to witness to someone who is drinking should you all of a sudden take up alcohol at that moment. As Christians we find great freedom in the Lord. However, we must keep mindful that while all things are lawful not all things are profitable to the gospel of Christ.

  8. In considering the “causing another brother to sin” issue you raised. It seems this discussion should be more focused on I Cor 8 where the comparison is made between a weaker brother’s conscience (in this case that drinking alcohol is bad) and the actions of the stronger brother (in this case having a drink), which, according to the passage, may become a stumbling block to the weak.

    I have always understood the passage to relate to a believer who has a “better informed” conscience as it relates to, in this case, Christian freedom, not doing anything that would encourage the weaker brother to act in a manner that is contrary to what he believes (conscience) is wrong.

    However, I encourage you to look at I Cor 8:7-13 as it appears that some PASSIVE conduct by the stronger brother is directly related to sinning against one’s brother (the weaker brother). I agree this can be taken to ridiculous ends as you aptly pointed out, but must note the language in that passage appears plain.

    • Tim,

      Great thoughts, bro! I thought you were a lawyer and not a Bible scholar?

      I’ll take a closer look at that passage. My hunch, though, is that it’s still situated in the context of wine used as libation to pagan gods (as was meat), which would distance that situation from ours quite a bit. But let me look at it again. Thanks brotha!