This morning I received a copy of the 'Sword and Trowel' magazine from the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. While the magazine contains some useful material, every so often a hobby horse comes up. This is inevitable with a single editor, of course, but it can be unfortunate. This copy was a case in point, as it contained the 'distilled' version of Peter Masters' book Should Christians Drink?
Peter Masters is well known as an advocate of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks; which is fair enough, he is entitled to his opinion, and I am entitled to mine. I have no objection to total abstinence as a practice, and share with the total abstainers a horror at the level of alcohol abuse in our culture; where young people destroy their health with alcohol, we have a problem. Where we differ, perhaps, is in our response.
Peter Masters and those like him say that because of the high level of alcohol abuse in our society Christians ought not to drink any alcohol at all, and by implication that Christian parents should forbid alcohol to their children; this will be a great witness to a drunken society. On the other hand advocates of Christian Temperance (self-control) such as myself, while agreeing that Christians may abstain from all alcohol (which is why the title of Dr. Masters' book is misleading, the true question is 'May Christians Drink?'), hold that a sensible and moderate use of alcohol, avoiding the sin of drunkenness and refusing to be a slave to drink, may also be a great witness, displaying as it does a mastery of our desires, and a true use of God's good gifts.
The fact of the matter is that my mother drinking a glass of wine with her Sunday lunch cannot be compared in the slightest with a student getting drunk out of his mind on vodka, and it would be a most bizarre leap of logic from, "she drinks a little wine, I can fill myself with spirits". Perhaps it would be possible, but is not temperance really as much a rebuke as abstinence?
All too often the advocates of total abstinence have gone too far; out of a misguided zeal they have branded advocates of Christian temperance aiders and abettors of drunkenness, when we condemn intoxication as firmly and as absolutely as they do.
The great argument for total abstinence is that it is inexpedient, in the present state of things in this nation, for Christians to drink alcohol, since this might lead the ignorant to drink to excess while pleading the pastor's glass of sherry as a defence. That has some validity. What has more validity is the argument that we should be careful because of people who have had alcohol abuse issues in their past. What worries me is books that go beyond the argument from expediency to argue that it is now absolutely sinful. That and the appropriation of the 'temperance' label by the total abstinence camp as if it belonged to them alone. The great evil is being enslaved to alcohol, and that is what all Christians must oppose. To demand more than that is to introduce a needless division among the Lord's people.
Sadly Dr. Masters crosses that line in his book, as he argues that under the New Testament, because Christians are all priests, and in Leviticus 10:8-11 the Levitical priests were forbidden from drinking on duty. The trouble with this argument is that it tends to bring in the rest of the ceremonial law with it! If this law that related to the Levitical Priests is binding on all Christians, then what other laws relating to that priesthood are? All of them? Some of them? Should all Christians wear linen trousers at all times (Exodus 28:42-43, the Mormon 'temple garments' worn under their clothing come from this passage)? The whole argument is based on the premise that part of the ceremonial law is still in force, but part of it is not; and as is usually the case when one comes across such an argument, it is always the part that the writer wants to enforce that is in force, and the rest is not.
Finally, there is a false dichotomy represented by the title of Dr. Masters' book; the question is really 'may Christians drink?' The answer to that must be 'yes', because God has no-where forbidden all alcohol, contrary to the beliefs of some people. I am firmly of the belief that we are not to call that sinful which God has not himself called sinful; we do not have that authority. The Pope may claim the right to define new sins, I trust no Protestant will try to follow him down that path. If Jesus made wine at Cana in Galilee, then I need an explicit New Testament passage to tell me that it is now a sin for Christians to drink in any and all circumstances (clearly in a situation where it is liable to cause a brother to stumble it is wrong). Dr. Masters' argument ironically resembles hyper-dispensationalism in this respect!
Contrary to the statements of some over-zealous folk, alcohol is not evil; alcohol never killed anyone, its abuse did. The problem is not the bottle of wine, but the man who drinks that whole bottle in one sitting and then follows it with another bottle until wine inflames him. It is not alcohol that causes drink driving, it is irresponsible and wicked people who drink to excess and get behind the wheel.
Drinking wine or beer in moderation, so as to avoid intoxication, is allowable, for Jesus came 'eating and drinking'. It is not however mandated; if you feel that you would be a better witness as a total abstainer, then that's your decision. I'm having goose for Christmas dinner, you can have turkey, I will not judge your turkey, don't judge my goose. I may raise a glass of wine, you can raise your glass of non-alcoholic drink, I do not judge your diet at all! And let me say to those Calvinists who are over-zealous in their championing of wine, you do no-one any favours by opposing total abstinence. The fault is in the enforcing of it as a law, not in the observing of it as a practice. On this point we should live and let live, and advocates of total abstinence and of Christian temperance should work together against the dreadful evil that is drukenness.