Thursday, May 29, 2014

How Should We Then Drink, if at All?

I don't drink alcohol.

But when I hear about other evangelicals who do, or don't, I'm curious as to why.

Often, the reasons why they don't seem a bit legalistic.  And the reasons why they do seem less about liberty and more about independence.  In other words, evangelicals who drink do so not simply because they're spiritually free in Christ, but also because they believe they're independent of other believers who might be led astray by their drinking.

In the case of D.L. Mayfield, a wife and mother who serves with her husband in an inner-city poverty relief ministry, the reason she doesn't drink stems from her relationships with people who drink way too much.  In the Midwest city where she and her family live, they know a lot of alcoholics, and have seen what abusive behavior towards alcohol can do to a person's body and soul.

Although, as a preacher's daughter, she grew up believing that drinking was a sin, she eventually found her parents' secret liquor stash.  Coincidentally, her discovery of her parents' duplicity on the subject of drinking took place as evangelicals in general "began to see that having an occasional drink was a grown-up way of enjoying yourself," as she puts it.  Along with Mayfield, her parents, and her sister, the broader world of Christianity has been adopting the practice of alcohol consumption as a way to transition from a fundamentalist view of religion, and towards a more socially-acceptable construct of faith.  Indeed, for many evangelicals, drinking has now become a way of refuting the legalism from which many of us want to disassociate ourselves.

Being drunk is still a sin, supposedly, but drinking in moderation isn't.  The appeal is in trying to find the difference between the two.

Yet for Mayfield, the question of whether it's appropriate for believers to drink hinges on how much we respect the genuine struggles alcoholics have.  After all, the Apostle Paul warns that we may have freedom in Christ to do something, but if that freedom causes somebody else to stumble in their faith, then we should refrain from exercising that freedom, at least in their presence, or with their knowledge.

And that, of course, is true.  Some evangelicals, particularly those who bristle at the idea of sacrificing what they want to do for the sake of somebody else - what we'd otherwise call petty selfishness - derisively call this notion the "tyranny of the weaker brother."  And isn't it hard to argue that viewing Paul's admonition in a negative light can still align with the Fruit of the Spirit?  Particularly in our day and time, when modern water purification systems have rendered alcohol consumption virtually unnecessary.

Not that Mayfield doesn't have a point.  "If you wear an 'I heart bacon' T-shirt," she reasons, "I will have to assume you don't have many Muslim or Jewish friends.  Likewise, if you are posting about how 'Mommy needs her wine,' I will assume you don't know anyone struggling with alcoholism.  At best, the progressive Christian social media world appears tone-deaf to many realities at the margins of society.  At its worst, it speaks to a relational divide that is much more problematic than the question of whether or not Christians should drink alcohol."

I agree that many believers insulate ourselves from people who either aren't like us, or who we don't want to admit are like us.  Besides, people who drink tend to be less inhibited in other ways as well, and they're usually more popular.  After all, who wants to spend their free time with somebody who doesn't want to be a little buzzed?

At least that's the reason I've figured I hear more about parties after the fact than in advance.

Mayfield, however, draws a correlation between the question of whether we should drink at all, and the worst manifestation of alcohol consumption, which is alcoholism.  She doesn't imply that everyone who drinks is an alcoholic, but by drawing a narrow perspective, she almost takes the personal responsibility of the alcoholic out of the equation.

"I didn't give up alcohol because I wanted to flee the evils of the world," Mayfield explains.  "I gave up alcohol as a way of engaging the evils of the world."

Say, what?  I can see how giving up alcohol can help somebody who's main ministry is outreach to alcoholics, but would we say that going to the movies is bad because a lot of people are too dependent on fantasy than reality in their lives?

Perhaps what Mayfield is trying to say is that publicly, we evangelicals should tone down our enthusiasm for liquor, so as to not create the appearance of insobriety, or an endorsement of it.  After all, one of the marks of an alcoholic is their glorification of alcohol and their frequent references to it in their lifestyles.  Personally, I tend to agree with an insinuation that Mayfield is making:  that many more evangelicals are closet alcoholics than we want to realize.

But is alcohol the problem, or our infatuation with it?  Our love of it?  Indeed, perhaps even our idolatry of it?  I frequently hear fellow Christians practically bragging about their use of alcohol, like it's some sort of badge of maturity or an emblem of righteous sophistication.  Meanwhile, I know of other evangelicals who quietly sip a glass of wine during their meals without any exaggeration of their freedom to do so.  This is where the difference between liberty and independence comes into play.  With most evangelicals seeming to err on the latter, rather than honoring the former.

For herself, Mayfield believes that abstention is the God-honoring course, and to the extent that she's weary of other evangelicals who feel compelled to assert their independence with alcohol, I tend to agree.  And if you don't, and you claim that Jesus Christ is the Lord of your life, then why not quietly enjoy the fruit of the vine, just as Christ quietly created His new wine during the wedding at Cana?  The steward of that feast, remember, had no idea the best wine was what Christ had produced out of water.

After all, modeling the proper use of something can be one way of demonstrating how beneficial it can be.  Or at least, now non-sinful it can be.  And it's not like liquor causes anybody to be an alcoholic:  alcoholism is caused by physiological factors for which alcohol becomes a punitive balm, and an accessory to a sin.  In fact, Mayfield's point about Christians trying to hide their need for alcohol may also play into the reality that many of us try to hide our dependence on a lot of things instead of Christ alone.  We try to hide our fears, wants, insecurities, and illnesses that aren't socially acceptable.  And if we claim to be saved, the stigma of guilt for not being perfect can often seem to be assuaged by the comforting drink - or two, or several - of something that helps to dull what's bothering us.

I often wonder if evangelicals who drink would actually like to be freed from their need to drink, or their need to appear mature and sophisticated, or their need to be socially accepted.  Or their need to cover up some socially-unacceptable problem.

It may be unAmerican to think that independence isn't a desirable quality, but Christ never calls us to independence.  Can we ever use liberty as an excuse to sin?  And if we're not realistically evaluating how the things we do impact other believers or people who may not yet be saved, how might our behavior, whether it's with drinking, or eating, or going to the movies, or talking about other people, or acknowledging what other people have and do, be compromising our testimony?

We are not under the law, but under grace.  And grace is a two-way street, both as we receive it, and as we offer it to others.  So beware of drunken drivers, who are all about consuming grace, but not dispensing it.

And if it sounds like somebody's offering to call you a cab, take the hint.

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