Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Christians & Drugs – The Gray Area

This is Part 4 in a series about God’s opinion on drugs through studying scriptures concerning the drug, alcohol. If you have not read the prior three posts, you will likely miss significant context. We have been studying what God has explicitly said (and not said) regarding recreational consumption of addictive drugs through the language that He used (Hebrew). It is reasonably clear from scripture that God is not in favor. However, whenever that position is shared, rebuttals from within the Church usually follow. We will focus this post on those rebuttals, but only those that use scripture. Most scriptural rebuttals lean towards the conclusion that this is a gray area. Sometimes the invoking of the “gray area” view is explicitly stated, while other times it is only implied ("drugs in moderation"). Regardless, with God there are no gray areas. And, gray areas for man are only due to human limitations on understanding (at best). However, we should still address all scripture-based positions reasonably, even if they advocate for gray.

Probably the most popular scripture used to promote “drugs in moderation” is that of Jesus changing the water into “wine” at the wedding in Cana. This is recorded in John 2:6-10, “Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’” Rebuttals using this passage generally claim that Jesus changed water into undiluted, fermented wine for consumption in the later stages of a drunken wedding party after the participants had liberally exhausted the party’s alcohol supply. Given what we know of the scriptures we have studied thus far, does that sound like a reasonable, Spirit-led position? Consider the following:

  • Nowhere in the passage is it ever stated or even conclusively implied that the “wine” Jesus made was fermented. The assumption that it was fermented is probably unwarranted, given the culture and the context of the miracle.
  • The passage, when examined from their culture, reveals exactly what kind of wine this was – “good wine” (probably the best wine). In their culture, wine was not good based on alcohol content; it was good because it was sweet (Nehemiah 8:10, etc.). We also know that the sweetest (and best) wine was “new wine” (Hebrew), meaning fresh-squeezed (unfermented). Whatever wine this was, it lacked any hint of bitterness that usually accompanies yeast and yeast-secreted alcohol.
  • The jars used were for “Jewish rites of purification.” Devout Jews would use jars of water like this to clean themselves ritually and regularly throughout the events on a daily basis. Therefore, these are clearly devout Jews having a devout party.
  • The six jars held up to 30 gallons each. A modern day beer keg holds similarly 31 gallons (and, wine contains more than twice the alcohol content than beer). It is unwise to propose that Jesus, in the latter stages of a drunken party supplied the indulgent partiers with 6 more kegs of high-content alcohol.
  • We know from Habbakuk 2:15 that “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors.” Seeing that Jesus is The Word (John 1:1, 14), certainly He would not violate Himself.
  • The reference to "drunk freely" is not necessarily a reference to drunkenness, and not necessarily to this particular party. It refers to general custom that applies to all types of "wine".
  • That said, every reasonable Christian knows that drunkenness is sin, and that serving drunk people more alcohol is likewise sin. Therefore, why would we promote presumptuous conclusions that would obviously impugn the character of Jesus on both counts? The rebuttal here is self-refuting. It is required of all Christians that in every matter, we give Jesus (God) the benefit of  doubt. And there is ample doubt on either side regarding this passage.

Probably the second most used rebuttal is the sound bite “Paul told Timothy that ‘wine is good for the stomach.’” Sadly, the Bible did not quite say that. The verse in question is 1 Timothy 5:23, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” This passage is not advocating drinking undiluted wine from a wineskin (bottle). It is advocating the custom of mixing "a little wine" in water for sterilization. Remember their custom was to do so in mixtures up to 20 parts water to 1 part wine. Actually, this verse opposes recreational consumption of drugs. To illustrate, consider the following question: Why was Timothy not mixing fermented wine in his water to begin with? Timothy was the Overseer/Pastor in the church in Ephesus. And, Timothy took very seriously, the qualifications of overseers to be “wineless” (1 Timothy 3:1-2 – “nephalios” in the Greek). He was so devout in this that he drank "only water," refusing the custom of even sterilizing his water with wine. Therefore, he suffered from "frequent ailments". So, Paul, his mentor, instructed him to start mixing “a little wine" in his water ("mixed wine"). This is not an instance of choosing undiluted wine as a beverage. Rather, this is more like a doctor’s prescription for “frequent ailments”. And, God is in favor of following doctor’s reasonable prescriptions.

Probably the third most used passage in rebuttal is that of the qualifications of deacons. 1 Timothy 3:8-12 says, “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless…Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.” The use of this passage to promote drugs in moderation is rather curious. In other words, such a position promotes a negative minimum standard as positive for all behaviors that don’t breach it. Well, the FDA requires that the quantity of parasites in fish not exceed 3% - does that imply swallowing parasites is a good thing or a bad thing? This false logic is further exposed as unwise scripture application by comparison to another standard for deacons to “be the husband of one wife.” If we apply the same "minimum standard" logic, does that mean it is acceptable to God for us to have more than one wife, just as long as we are not deacons? Of course not. And, the same logic is also false concerning wine. Singling out wine and polygamy reveals God's negative opinion (not positive opinion) on both issues. This passage is certainly not supporting drugs in moderation but opposing it. Remember that deacons were not leaders, but servants of the church. This represents a minimum standard for those who wish to serve at the lowest level. To that end, Christians are never called to pursue minimum standards or loopholes as if the Bible is a tax code to be exploited for what we can get away with. Rather, we are all called to pursue the righteousness (and holiness) of God (Matthew 6:33) in complete abandon. In fact, just a few verses earlier, God implores us to nobly aspire to the higher qualifications of an overseer, which includes being “wineless.” Why would we ignore that higher standard in pursuit of a lesser standard? Whenever we search God’s word for a loophole, we will probably find something, but we will miss truth primarily due to carnal motivation.

The fifth most used passage in rebuttal is regarding the Last Supper. Matthew 26:27-29 records, “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.’” We actually know for a fact that the contents of the “cup” were “fruit of the vine” and that it was not fermented. That night, they were observing Passover. We know from Exodus 12:20 that observance of Passover required that all elements be made “without yeast”. It is impossible to make fermented wine without yeast. And, since “new wine” was the best wine (unfermented), this reveals the cup's contents served at the Passover observance that we refer to as the Last Supper. In fact, Jesus closed by referring to drinking it "new" in God's kingdom. The Greek word used for "new" is "kainos" which means fresh or recently made. In other words, fresh-squeezed grape juice ("new wine") will be the Kingdom's drink of choice as it was in Passover and the Last Supper.

The sixth and most carnal rebuttal is referred to as "Christian liberty" or "freedom in Christ". This is based primarily on 1 Corinthians 8:9 (among others), “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” The “right” or freedom to which this verse is referring is the freedom to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. This verse is then construed to somehow apply to drinking alcohol. However, this is a misapplication in several ways.

  • This passage has absolutely nothing to do with alcohol. The entire chapter is exclusively devoted to eating meat sacrificed to idols by the congregants in Corinth, a predominantly pagan city. Paul was addressing a particular activity, in a particular time, amongst a particular culture where it was difficult to eat while avoiding that which had been sacrificed to pagan idols. Paul was not eliminating wisdom from our walk today.
  • Christ did not die with a goal of giving us freedom to behave unwisely. The freedom that Christ died for is from the bondage to sin and death. To re-characterize our Christ-bought freedom into an endorsement to behave unwisely is a distortion of Christ’s gospel into something that it is not. In fact, there is nothing about our flesh that He died to indulge. There was no life-suffocating abstinence that Jesus had to die in order to free us from. Our re-birth is primarily spiritual, not carnal. This is covered in more detail in the post, Freedom From is not Freedom To.
  • Paul in his other writings was clear that while we are no longer slaves to sin, we are now "slaves to righteousness" (Romans 6:18, 1 Peter 2:16, etc.). We are never free from service to a chosen ruler, just free to choose our Ruler. 
  • Further, Paul also wrote that we should nobly aspire to qualify as overseers who are required to be "wineless." Clearly Paul's definition of Christian liberty does not extend as far as "Christian libertarians" promote.
  • If Christian liberty extends to alcohol, why not extend it to polygamy? There is no Biblical prohibition on polygamy. So, does that mean we are free to have several wives? Of course not. Why is “Christian liberty” seemingly only applied to alcohol and not much else? Why not use this position for marijuana, which is less addictive and less deadly than alcohol? We don't because the logic breaks down for we know it is wrong.
  • Paul closed the chapter in verse 13 by saying, “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” This overarching conclusion of the matter is often left out of the arguments for drugs in moderation. But, this conclusion shows the consistent heart of God, not the pursuit of the false notion of Christ-endorsed carnality. In other words, Paul is advocating avoiding all meat, regardless of the "right" to partake, out of love for others. That sounds more like selfless abstinence doesn’t it?
  • Being freed from something means that the "something" is problematic (like starving from avoiding meat sacrificed to idols). Therefore, while we may not face prosecution for having to eat meat sacrificed to idols in pagan Corinth 2,000 years ago, that does not mean we are free to publicly indulge in meat sacrificed to idols today. That would be an absurd application of the passage, especially in light of the passage’s conclusion. This passage absolutely does not support addictive drugs in moderation.

In conclusion, while some may stand firm that this is a gray area in scripture, it is not gray to God. He has a clear opinion about “drugs in moderation” and it is not favorable. Regardless, if you have studied this thoroughly and still see it as gray, I have bad news for you. Romans 14:23 says, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” If you see this as gray, that means you admit doubts. If you admit doubts, God just said that what you call gray is black. And that verse says that if you proceed in doubt, sin is always the result. In other words, when in doubt, don’t. Seeing gray leaves you with primarily two choices, ignore God’s preferences or abstain. If you fear God, the only wise choice between the two is the latter.

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