“The Christian and Alcohol” A Response to Land & Duke

The topic of the Spring edition of the Criswell Theological Review (CTR) was ‘Christians and Alcohol.” The opinions expressed in the journal demonstrated the gamut of beliefs surrounding the ‘controversial’ subject of alcohol consumption.

In the Journal was an article written by Richard Land (president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) and Barrett Duke The Christian and Alcohol. Land and Duke take the traditional prohibitionist stance, arguing their case from scripture, society, and a good witness. Essentially the authors establish 3 things and nothing more.

  1. The abuse of alcohol in America has had terrible effects (financially, socially, etc.)

  2. Prohibition is the historic stance of the Southern Baptist Convention, and

  3. The Bible forbids the abuse of alcohol

In fact, throughout the article, Land and Duke seem to make a terrible mistake in reasoning, namely equivocating the Bible’s message by muddling the distinction between alcohol use and alcohol abuse. The author’s seem to transfer the condemnation of one act to the other. As I read the article I couldn’t help but wonder whether the two were clear about whether they were trying to convince the reader about the Bible’s message of being drunk or the Bible’s message about drinking at all.

Here is one such example: “Solomon compares alcohol to a snake. A snake can be nearly mesmerizing with its slow, graceful movements. Its true nature can be completely overlooked. Yet, if one fails to respect its nature, that snake will surprise the unwary person with a bite that could possibly be deadly (v. 32)…” Based on the author’s judgement, the warning here is in respecting the drink’s nature, in the same way we should respect a snake’s (i.e. not carelessly- don’t abuse it!). However, they continue, “Solomon says the user of this snake-like substance will experience visual and mental impairment (v. 33) and severe physical instability (v. 34). It can even make one so unaware of his environment that he cannot even respond to physical danger and attacks (v. 35).” (my emphasis- p. 24)

See the sleight of hand? The author’s jump from Solomon’s warning to those that abuse the drink to any ‘user of this snake-like substance…’ I have to assume that neither Land nor Duke have ever ‘kissed this snake’ since, if at communion or a wedding or anywhere else, they had (i.e. had become ‘a user’) they would be shocked by the fact that they didn’t immediately experience ‘visual and mental impairment’ or ‘severe physical instability’, etc.

The article continues by showing the different Hebrew words used to indicate drinks with alcohol in them and their various uses (Noah, proverbs, certain sacrifices, etc.) and then moves on to the New Testament to conclude that “except for the handful of references in the Gospels that speak of wine… one encounters only negative statements in the NT about the non-medicinal use of wine.” (p. 28). After all, Jesus may have made the wine at the wedding feast in Cana, but he didn’t necessarily drink it (footnote 8). And furthermore, Jesus may have drank wine (Matthew 11:18-19), but he was certainly never drunk, as his enemies accused him of being. (p. 31)

Land and Duke point out that according to the passages outside of the gospels we can’t say that drinking is inherently sinful, but that it was really probably used more for medicinal purposes than anything else (so, don’t worry if you need to take some cough syrup. Rest assured, it does have alcohol, but you are not sinning). The authors go on to say “In fact, there appears to be a clear movement in Scripture toward a rejection of alcohol use. We pointed out earlier that the OT had more positive references to alcohol use than the NT. This could be evidence that the Bible‘s principles were gradually undermining the practice of alcohol consumption…” They continue on to cite a few passages, of which a full explanation of each was beyond the scope of their article as well as my response, but a look at what they said is worth noting:

Romans 14:21 counsels Christians not to engage in any behavior, including drinking wine that would cause a fellow believer to stumble in his spiritual life. Ephesians 5:18 is a command to the Christian not to get drunk… In 1 Tim 3:3, 8 and Titus 1:7, Paul gives instructions about the role of alcohol among church leaders, whether pastors (1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7) or deacons (1 Tim 3:8). While the Greek phrases differ in these two passages, Seesemann concurs that both constructions warn against over-indulgence” (p. 28 )

If it is true, and it seems to be, that the Old Testament has more positive references to alcohol than the New Testament, why would that be? If we think about the nature of the Old and New Testament scriptures there is one fundamental difference. The majority of the Old Testament is narrative, while the majority of the New Testament is comprised of epistles written to churches. Now, an epistle was written usually because the author was prompted by a controversy or an occasion needing correcting in the church. In light of this, it wouldn’t make any sense for, say, Paul to write a letter commending the church on their appropriate use of alcohol. Rather, if Paul were going to write to a church regarding their drinking habits, it was usually provoked by the fact that they were in need of correction.

The passages cited above shows, again, nothing new, that over-indulgence is wrong and that if drinking causes your brother to sin (the meaning of which can be debated elsewhere), then one ought to abstain.

Land and Duke go on to say, “Those who cannot find chapter and verse to justify consuming alcohol still argue that their freedom in Christ enables them to imbibe. It is certainly true that Christians are no longer under the bondage of the Law. However, the freedom that Christians enjoy is not to be confused with license.” (p. 33) However, it seems clear that the confusion is on the part of the authors, not their audience. I have never met a committed Christian that has argued for the right (or license) to get drunk. If that is who this article is addressing, the authors are wasting their time by addressing an audience that doesn’t exist (‘you don’t have the license to sin!’) or is, at least, the extreme minority. Otherwise, Land and Duke are saying that Christians don’t have a license to do things that they have admitted that Jesus did. It seems that Jesus’ critics would have accused him of gluttony and a chronic tummy-ache if the reason Jesus was drinking alcohol was for medicinal purposes!

The authors use the last few pages of their article to show that abstaining from alcohol is a great Christian witness. They illustrate this point with a recent situation that Dr. Land was in. Land and his wife were on a trip with other evangelical leaders (‘non-SBC’). It became apparent that Land and his wife were the only ones not drinking alcohol. When approached and asked by another leader why that was, Land informed him that he was of the abolitionist persuasion. The non-SBCer told Land that he also used to abstain ‘but had now come to a place where he enjoyed his liberty in Christ.’ Land responded “with a summary of the arguments contained in this article and shared with him that if the greatest sacrifice Jesus ever required of him was not to drink alcohol and be considered odd as a result, he would be fortunate indeed.” (underlying premise: Jesus commanded Land not to drink alcohol. Really? Where?) After this, Land noted that the other leader did not drink for the remainder of the trip. Land and Duke considered this a successful witness.

Was it successful? The man may have indeed not drank because he felt convicted or guilty, or maybe it was because he thought he was ‘making his brother stumble’ but regardless of why the man chose to stop drinking, the point is, it doesn’t change the fact that he had the freedom to do so. Moreover, I wonder how many such encounters Land has had with people who aren’t Christians? Is this really a way of attracting people to Christ, reciting ‘a summary of the arguments found in this article’? Give me a break.

If there is an argument for Christians abstaining from alcohol it isn’t found in this article. Land and Duke continually confuse the issues. If the majority of America abuse alcohol it doesn’t mean that Christians do. If the Bible condemns the abuse of alcohol, it doesn’t mean that it condemns the use of it (Jesus drank, the authors admitted this). If not drinking can cause a non-SBC evangelical leader to feel bad about drinking, it doesn’t mean that unbelievers are going to act the same way (since they don’t recognize the same authority) and repent to enter the Kingdom of God.

This is the kind of thing that Derek Webb is addressing in his song ‘A New Law.’ I think he sums it up when he says, “what’s the use in trading a law you can never keep for one you can that cannot get you anything?”


15 Responses to ““The Christian and Alcohol” A Response to Land & Duke”

  1. 1 Emily Hunter McGowin June 10, 2008 at 2:53 am

    Great insights, Joel. As usual. And, I think you know that we’re on the same page. Well done.

  2. 2 Dennis Miller June 10, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    My books(found at oakdown.com), God Gave Wine, by Gentry (exegetical approach), and Drinking with Calvin and Luther! (historical approach), by West, argue your points perfectly. I published these 2 books hoping to help the Evangelical Church to move into a Scriptural understanding of the issue. Our faith was given once for all (Jude 3). It needs to be lived and not brought up-to-date–it is timeless! It is risky business to try to be more spiritual than Jesus!!

  3. 3 Kris June 11, 2008 at 1:31 am

    Excellent post, Joel.

    Maybe a better witness WOULD be to have a drink with non-believers.

    Of course the person who did may be accused of being a glutton & drunkard. But someOne somewhere has heard that before?

    It seems a majority of non-evangelicals seem to have a better handle on freedom in Christ and enjoying things freely given by the Creator while evangelicals have a better handle on evangelism.

    Maybe thats why mix breeds make better pets! LOL

  4. 4 joelpatrick June 11, 2008 at 6:31 am


    I agree. For some reason a lot of christians think they can guilt someone into wanting to follow Jesus. Does that approach really make any sense at all? Or they want to demonstrate that they are holy by not participating in something that the world (and a large percentage of the church) doesn’t even view as wrong.

  5. 5 Barry Creamer July 3, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Glad to finally get to your site. I like it a lot, and am pleased to read your views. Of course, I couldn’t disagree more with what the previous comments and even your own comment say, although I do think you did a good job in your original post of not overstating your point.
    But it is easy to see passages like Proverbs 23 making the obvious point that “abuse” is the ultimate problem and that therefore total abstinence is the solution. Like many illicit drugs, the essential attributes of alcohol are its intrinsically (not simply subjectively psychologically) addictive, directly mind-altering characteristics. Those characteristics are what lead to the Proverb’s point not simply to avoid drunkenness, but to avoid any drink at all, and even to avoid those who drink. To illustrate, you will not manage to make any argument for the moderate consumption of alcohol which does not also apply to the moderate consumption of marijuana–if it were legal. Do you seriously think Jesus would have sat down for a joint with his homies?
    And, your comment takes a really cheap rhetorical shot at holiness. Talk about equivocation! Guilting people into salvation implies all kinds of unnecessary, overbearing psychological manipulation. Discovering how God expects us to behave as disciples and living within those boundaries is liberating from sin. Are you going to share in a small porno film with your lost friends!? Of course not. Because you have a standard of holiness which you hope will draw your lost friends toward a loving Savior.
    Just had to share a word. I love and appreciate you and am always glad to hear from you. And thanks for the recent links to philosophy sites you sent.

  6. 6 joelpatrick July 3, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Dr Creamer,

    It is a pleasure to have you disagree with me on my site! Thanks for the comment. When I read proverbs 23 what I see is the charge to avoid the drunkard and glutton (v20), tarrying long over wine (v30) and being lured by, and or longing for, wine (v31). I don’t see where it says that one ought to avoid anyone who drinks or avoid any drink altogether.

    Do I think that Jesus would have sat down and had a joint with his homies? Highly unlikely. However, the reason the argument for moderation can be made and not applied to other drugs, such as marijuana, is because the affect of the latter is far more adverse than the former. It is possible to have a glass of wine with a meal and feel no effect whatsoever. I wouldn’t know, but I doubt that is the case with a joint. And, even if Jesus didn’t/wouldn’t share a doobie with the disciples, it doesn’t change the fact that he did sit down and share food and wine -Matthew 11:18-19: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners …” Even if the accusers were wrong by calling him a drunkard and glutton it was Jesus, not the accusers, who said that ‘the Son of Man came eating and drinking’

    As for my comment, it was a reference to what Land described in the article about causing his non-sbc friend to feel bad about the fact that he was drinking and then called it a great witness (‘witness’ seems to be a word typically reserved for unbelievers). If a Christian felt guilty (we can even say ‘convicted’, though that is not what came across to me when I read the article) about something like this, that is one thing, but it just doesn’t work that way with people who aren’t Christians. They don’t care.

    The point of my response was not to argue for a Christian’s right to drink. It was to respond to, in my opinion, a poorly written article.

  7. 7 Darrie October 30, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Hi Joel,

    Read your article, as someone who had a huge problem with alcohol from aged 13 and went into rehab aged 21 before I was a Christian and also drank after 10 years sobriety as a Christian for a short time. I now don’t drink and as a result find Christian ‘parties’ boring because of the over emphasis on drinking, and usually no good music just standing around drinking. I think you will find that a lot of ‘Christians’ who are not necessarily alcoholic drink to excess, ie suffer hangovers, have ‘one too many’, drink more than is the recommended medical limit etc. Alot of young Christians in age and salvation years also are still into the world’s heavy drinking culture ie clubbing and partying and many of them will pay for it physically and mentally as they get older – saved or not. You will also find there are ‘hidden alcoholics’ in churches ie people who drink alone and are secretly dying of it. Alot of churches also have a ‘drinking culture’ oddly and if you don’t drink you may be considered ‘excessively holier than thou’ even if you are not drinking to stay healthy and sane. I have to agree however, that the bible does not prohibit wine and the Jewish culture clearly celebrated it. I just think that in our culture the place of alcohol is very different, family and community has broken down and celebrations are a very different thing. Therefore to conclude the Western church could, in my opinion, benefit from an injection of holiness in relation to drink (and also to sexual matters on a different note) because it is so ‘slidden’. I think many christian people find the line between having a social drink and getting into the altered euphoric mood state of alcohol, very difficult to walk. Bear in mind alcohol abuse also carries with it a symptom of denial. That’s where the protection of the ‘weaker brother’ comes in. Also many young christian people will miss out on huge opportunities with God and in this wonderful life from the hours and money spent on booze and will not be able to reclaim these years. Plus bearing in mind what a room or pubful of slightly inebriated christians looks like to the Muslim community – ok there is some hyprocrasy there because there is ‘secret’ drinking in the Muslim community – but I would urge you to be careful of evaluating those who are opposed to Christians drinking, and check out the actual reality of the Western Christian church. Best wishes.

  8. 8 James McGrath December 11, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    I wrote a chapter in a book entitled Religion and Alcohol: Sobering Thoughts, edited by C. K. Robertson, on the historical Jesus and alcohol, which I think you might enjoy.

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  1. 1 “The Christian and Alcohol” A Response to Land & Duke Trackback on June 9, 2008 at 3:28 pm
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