Since the time of the New Testament drinking has been a controversial topic within the Christian church. Jesus, Himself, was placed into this dilemma when He was with groups of people who were always trying to find ways to mess Him up. On one hand, if He stayed far away from the “sinners” and didn’t drink people would see Him as self-righteous, and yet on the other hand, if He hung out with those on the bottom rungs of society they automatically labeled Him a “wine-bibber” and a “glutton” – or as we would say today – a drunkard, someone who was completely smashed, maybe even an alcoholic. (Matthew 11:19).
In the writings of Paul we are also introduced to some attitudes behind drinking. Paul never said NOT to drink and I believe that is important to note. In fact, Paul once told Timothy that he should not just have water, but that he should also have a little wine to go with it (1 Timothy 5:23). Lest you think I am completely taking this out of context and distorting the truth, I do fully recognize that this had to do with the fact that the water in that time period was likely not drinkable. So Paul is not going right out and saying “get drunk out of your mind”, but rather it is about a health concern. Nevertheless, Paul was not a teetotaller and neither was Jesus.
What I find interesting, however, is how so many churches today misrepresent the use of alcohol. They view it as bad and believe open bars at weddings to be in sin. What I want to do in this post is not so much to normalize the experience of alcohol or to explain why it is beneficial, but rather I want to share with you a strange turn of events I witnessed one Saturday October night when I discovered that alcohol could actually be used as a form of evangelism.
Since as long as I can remember, I have always felt this push and pull going on inside my own mind and my own soul as I thought about how a Christian should relate to alcohol. Growing up, I remember that one of the churches I attended (which was Baptist) really had some problems with drinking. Period. I mean, the idea of communion wine was a big no-no to them. And I guess a part of me may have rebelled against that type of thought pattern. After all, Jesus turned water into wine as His first miracle so clearly He was not against drinking. Now, there are many arguments about what wine in the New Testament was like. One of the most favoured arguments is that the wine in that time period had a much smaller alcohol concentration than today. Well, I have studied the Bible significantly in and out of the academy, but I do not find this to have much weight. For one, we know that it was possible to get completely smashed from this wine. Noah himself, who was a very righteous man, got so drunk from the grapes in his backyard one day that he did something completely stupid and made a fool of himself. He was so drunk that he didn’t know he was walking around naked and that got him into quite a bit of trouble. His poor children who had to see that! (Genesis 9:20-25). We also know that in Jesus’s day running out of wine at a wedding was a big deal. It was more than just an embarrassment, it meant to be inhospitable and hospitality in that time period was a huge deal (and still is in many cultures of the world especially in the Middle East). When Mary approaches Jesus about the wine running out, Jesus at first seems to give it some consideration, but upon turning the water into wine everyone marvels. What they are essentially saying is, “Everyone knows that the good wine goes first when we are still sober enough to enjoy it. Then the cheap alcohol goes last when everyone has already knocked back a few and probably won’t remember or care. But you have saved the best wine for last! You have saved the best wine for when people are already drunk out of their mind!” Lest you think I am taking the Bible out of context, remember, THIS IS A PARTY! It’s a party that goes on for days and even weeks! It’s a time of celebration. Just like we go to weddings today and enjoy wine and champagne that time period wasn’t much different. Now, do I know that Jesus was drunk beyond a shadow of a doubt? No, I do not. Nor would I wish to make assumptions about Jesus. However, Jesus was fully man and he was tempted in the same ways as we are tempted and yet He did not sin. So, I guess that depends on your definition of what sin is.
So, this is the type of inner conflict I have had with myself for many years. When I went to Tyndale I became friends with many people who had very different beliefs and attitudes around alcohol. A few of my friends drink, some of them get drunk. Many times I have been to parties where alcohol is served, and yet there is something different about those parties than there is about going to a secular party. People may drink but there is an understanding and respect around the drinking. There isn’t the social pressure to drink, it’s about taking care of the person who wants to limit their drinks. I have also made many friends at Tyndale who believe that drinking is a sin. Period. And I can completely understand this viewpoint. You don’t need alcohol to have a good time. Alcohol can be very addicting and when you are going through a difficult time it’s all too easy to turn to the bottle instead of to good friends and to God. Alcohol also has the potential of being dangerous. There are many good things about alcohol – it can relax you and wine definitely has many health benefits. It’s lovely to enjoy a nice glass of red or white with a fancy dinner – it really sets the mood, or to make a toast with champagne. However, it becomes all too easy to blur the lines between enjoying wine and possibly being a bit buzzed or relaxed and then getting to the stage of being drunk. So, when I am with my friends I always have a social rule: if one of my friends does not believe in drinking or it causes them to stumble than none of us will drink. I definitely don’t drink or suggest bars or pubs when I’m with my friends who feel it will compromise their faith. In fact, at my 19th birthday I specifically requested that we go to a restaurant and enjoy some pop instead of drinking.
My belief has always been that it’s okay to drink, but it’s not okay to get drunk. Yet, when you are living the Christian life and then you begin to move into the secular spheres this can become a challenge. If you don’t know your limits and you begin drinking with people who don’t have the same mindset as you this can become a danger zone. In fact, there are so many times when people get drunk and don’t even realize they are drunk because they don’t know what being drunk feels like. They have this mindset that if you are still standing on two feet, can still walk in a straight line, can still remember everything, and haven’t passed out that you are sober. But that’s simply not the case. And so, I think that our churches do us a disservice by keeping this a taboo topic – we aren’t teaching our youth how to really recognize when they are crossing the line or when the boundaries are becoming blurred.
For as much or as little a problem as alcohol can be for some, I still believe that it has its place in the Christian church, that is, if you are able to exercise the needed self-discipline and control your intake. When I was a student at Tyndale I used to find the local Lutheran church where I interned a bit strange because they did pub Theology. I asked myself in all seriousness how anyone could have a fruitful discussion about God while knocking back the beer. And although I considered myself a liberal Christian at the time and remained open minded about almost everything, drinking was the one area where I became a bit…shall we say…judgmental.
So I’d like to compare and contrast my two Oktoberfest experiences here. Both were at the same place and the exact same event, but two different years, and two different mindsets that I held in my own head because of the circumstances I found myself in.
October 2011 – It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the leaves have fallen from the trees and my friend from Tyndale and I decide that we have always wanted to experience the Bridal Path in Toronto and so we take a fall hike. Much to our disappointment we learn that the Bridal Path is not really a beautiful garden but simply a collection of rich homes. After walking around for an hour or two we decide we want to head to the local Lutheran church and enjoy the Oktoberfest. At this time I did not drink beer. I hated the taste and felt it was low-class. I know, I was a bit judgmental at the time. I did, however, enjoy a nice glass of wine, but only in moderation. No hard liquor had reached my lips. For all intents and purposes, I was basically still a “virgin drinker”. My friend, however, did enjoy a nice beer. She felt that it was a sin to get drunk and she never overdid it, but she just liked the taste. She knew that at that time I was in student leadership and at Tyndale there was an agreement that student leaders would not drink with other students or something like that. Tyndale’s wording was very vague and I was not the only person to misunderstand what they were trying to say… I kind of wish Tyndale could just be clearer about it. Their argument was something along the lines of that because Tyndale was interdenominational there were many people who disagreed with drinking completely and so we shouldn’t cause them to stumble. I occasionally thought this was a ridiculous rule, but for the most part I could tolerate it and even respect it. So, my friend told me that she wouldn’t drink if I didn’t feel right about it or if it would cause me to stumble. But I told her it was okay, I didn’t like the taste of beer anyways.
We show up at the Oktoberfest and I remember sitting there drinking hot apple cider and eating German delicacies and being a bit judgmental… remember, I was an immature 20 year old who grew up thinking drinking was bad. I remember wondering what kind of attitude towards drinking we were showing the kids who were around. We were telling them it was okay to drink…in a church of all places. This church had a liquor license – what kind of church does that? So, I felt this whole thing was a little silly. How was this church possibly serving God by knocking back the beer? The least they could do was have a classy wine.
October 2013 – Fast forward 2 years. I’m now 22 and have become more immune to alcohol and people drinking around me. The idea of drinking beer no longer seems to go against my Christian faith, though personally, I still hate the taste and so I prefer wine. My co-workers and I decide we want to spend our free Saturday doing something fun and adventurous. They suggest hitting up a local Oktoberfest. When they first brought forth the idea, I recommended we go back to the Lutheran church. I knew that compared to the other Oktoberfests in Toronto this one would be a lot more tame and although beer would be served no one would drink to the excess of getting drunk. At first when I brought my co-workers I was a bit nervous. I thought they wouldn’t enjoy their time and think it was lame that we weren’t going to a pub, but they actually really enjoyed it and said they wanted to go back.
We got to the church and sat down next to one of the pastors. He began to make small talk with us and then asked my co-workers some questions related to their faith background. He shared with them how church is not about being an institution, it’s about a relationship with Christ, and he shared with them how we can’t just make faith convenient to us – deciding when we are in or when we are out, but that’s it’s an all around gig. He was downright evangelizing to them (minus the tacky tracts, the fire and brimstone, and the evangelicals who give us a bad name) – but he was explaining the faith to these guys while drinking beer!
It was at this time that I truly realized that there is a place for Oktoberfests in church after all. I know that many of my secular friends have no interest in the church and they would never have attended for any other function, and yet, the promise of cheap pre-drinking before going to a pub lured them in. As I sat sipping my hot apple cider I realized that God can use these types of churches for His glory. So many Christians come across as judgmental. They are seen as uptight in their beliefs, and being so backwards from the world. It’s funny how God could use this event which had almost no religious purpose to bring me to a new knowledge and hopefully my co-workers to a new knowledge as well. My co-workers kept saying over and over again how this pastor was so cool – he was so unlike any other pastor and how they wanted to come back next year. It was lots of fun and a great night.
As I think back upon how my views of alcohol have changed over the years, I thank God that He did give us the sweet taste of wine, but I also thank Him that He provides us with enough knowledge to know how to drink in moderation. If we are truly going to be on fire for Christ, we don’t need to avoid the stuff all together (unless it’s causing us to stumble), we simply need to learn how to find outlets so that even when we drink it can bring Him all the honour, glory, and praise.