Despite the Biblical evidence that wine is a gift of God and a blessing to be enjoyed, many are still opposed to the Christian use of alcohol. In this chapter, we will examine a few of popular arguments for abstention.
The Weaker Brother
Many argue for abstention out of concern for the weaker brother, based upon Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. This is an important issue that ought to be seriously considered by all who claim to love the brethren.
Paul writes that those who are mature ought to be careful not to cause weaker brothers to stumble into sin:
But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak (1 Corinthians 8:9).
Paul even mentions wine specifically:
It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles (Romans 14:21).
The primary teaching of these passages is that we should put love for our brothers in Christ ahead of some concern for our “rights.” If that means voluntarily abstaining from the public use of some food or drink when a brother with a sensitive weaker conscience is present, we should not object.
The weaker brother argument is a legitimate concern and a legitimate reason for voluntarily abstaining from the public use of alcohol in certain situations. However, two caveats are required.
The Weaker Brother and the Lord’s Supper
First, the weaker brother argument does not affect the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. There were alcoholics in the early church, yet this did not stop the apostles from using alcohol in the Lord’s Supper.
More importantly, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with wine. Those who advocate removing wine from the Lord’s Supper are implicitly condemning Jesus.
Jesus loves his church far more than we do. He instituted the Lord’s Supper with wine. We ought to assume that Jesus knew what he was doing. Woe to those who attempt to be smarter than Jesus.
Weaker Brother or Legalist?
Second, we must distinguish between the weaker brother and the legalist. Although these two categories of people look similar, they are miles apart, and are to be treated differently.
Paul portrays the weaker brother as one who has a weak and sensitive conscience. The weaker brother is probably new in the faith; he is not confident about what to do in every situation. He is not sure if certain things are Biblical or unbiblical. He is impressionable and tempted to copy another Christians’ behavior, even in violation of his own conscience.
We should love such weaker brothers so much that we are willing to give up our own liberties so that we do not cause them to violate their consciences. This may mean abstaining from the consumption of alcohol in certain situations.
However, the legalist is not the same as the weaker brother. The legalist is arrogant and unteachable. He has appointed himself as judge. His conscience is not weak, but cold and hardened. Unlike a weaker brother, the legalist is confident that he knows exactly what is right and wrong in at all times.
While the weaker brother is tempted to imitate an action even though he thinks it might be wrong, the legalist would never violate his conscience. Whereas the weaker brother’s conscience may be wounded by seeing mature Christians drink alcohol, the legalist’s conscience is offended. Herein lies the crucial difference.
So, what is the church’s response to the weaker brother? The church has the responsibility to help the weaker brother to grow into maturity. The church is to instruct him, rather than coddle him and allow him to remain a spiritual infant forever.
What is the church’s response to the legalist? The church should not be afraid of offending the legalist. Jesus went out of his way to offend legalists.
Additionally, the church has the responsibility to confront the legalist on his sin of substituting a man-made standard for the word of God. To add to or subtract from the word of God is an abomination.
The weaker brother should be a legitimate concern for moderationists. We should not hesitate to give up our liberty for immature believers.
However, concern for the weaker brother cannot be stretched into a universal principle of abstention. The weaker brother applies to specific situations, not all situations.
Even abstentionists know this, as they eat meat without giving much thought to the weaker brother. Paul says that we should be willing to give up both drinking wine and eating meat for the sake of the weaker brother (Romans 14:21). Abstentionists who eat meat are inconsistent; they ought to be teetotalers and vegetarians.
Defiling the Temple of the Holy Spirit
In the Old Testament, the priests were not allowed to drink alcohol when they were serving in the temple. Many well-meaning Christians argue that we should likewise refrain from consuming alcohol because we are now the temple of the Holy Spirit:
Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19).
We do not want to defile our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. However, this passage has nothing to do with alcohol. The context of 1 Corinthians 6 is sexual immorality, as seen in immediately preceding verse 19:
Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body (1 Corinthians 6:18).
Sexual immorality defiles our bodies; the consumption of alcohol does not. Jesus drank wine while the Holy Spirit was dwelling in him. He was not defiled.
Jesus even stated that we cannot be defiled by what we eat or drink:
Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies (Matthew 15:17-19).
Sin comes from our hearts, not from consuming alcohol in moderation.
Fencing our Liberties
Most of the popular arguments against the consumption of alcohol are motivated by wanting to eliminate its abuse. This is certainly a worthy goal, but the means employed are often inconsistent with how we handle other sins.
For example, compare alcohol with food or sex. God created both food and sex our enjoyment. However, our enjoyment must be confined to God-ordained parameters.
Food is fine when enjoyed in moderation. However, over-eating is the sin of gluttony.
Sex is fine when enjoyed within marriage. However, sex outside of marriage is the sin of immorality.
Likewise, alcohol is fine when enjoyed in moderation. However, a large quantity of alcohol produces the sin of drunkenness.
With food, sex, and alcohol, there is both a godly use and an ungodly use. Unfortunately, the abuse of this triad is rampant in our society. Gluttony, immorality, and drunkenness are all widespread sins.
Yet, does anyone argue for the prohibition of food or sex? Does anyone call for Christians to abstain from food or sex in order to prevent gluttony and immorality?
Of course not. These are good gifts that are to be enjoyed in their proper contexts: food in moderation, and sex within marriage. Why, then, is alcohol treated differently?
Martin Luther said it best, “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?”
Sin comes from our hearts, not from food or sex or alcohol. Sin cannot be controlled by external rules. In fact, God says that external controls have zero impact on our flesh:
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations-- “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using--according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh (Colossians 2:20-23).
Man-made regulations are of no value against our flesh. Abstaining from alcohol has no effect on the desires of our heart. Prohibition may suppress some instances of drunkenness, but it does not keep us from sinning. In fact, external regulations only increase our sinful desires.
Each of these three objections largely ignore the copious Biblical evidence that alcohol is a gift from God to be enjoyed in moderation. Unfortunately, most who argue against the Christian use of alcohol are unwittingly more influenced by the Temperance Movement than the teaching of the Scriptures.