Beer: one glass a sin? (an open letter to Phil Johnson)
Dear Mr. Johnson,
It is a sad fact of our fallen world that we more easily tend to focus on disagreements rather than agreements and that “open letters” like this one are seldom prompted by thoughts of unequivocal appreciation. In this case, however, I do not feel too bad about sending you [in particular] an open letter with the intention of hopefully persuading you [and others] to re-think a certain issue regarding beverage alcohol, as I have, as far as I can remember, always spoken well of your writings (on your blog and in other Internet essays), and have recommended them to others; also, I do think that the issue addressed in this letter is becoming increasingly important as many evangelicals have been casting off some traditional mores.
"I don't think it's a sin to drink a beer."
When I heard you speak these words, I realized that you were trying to distance yourself from any trace of legalism, but I also realized that I cannot agree with your statement, at least not without a good deal of clarification. I would argue that in many instances, drinking a beer at least may be a sin, and therefore I would urge you against making unqualified statements like the one quoted above, which may provide encouragement for people to indulge in sin. Drinking a beer is a sin if: drinking that beer involves breaking one’s word, drinking that beer makes one drunk, and/or drinking that beer makes one a “friend of the world” (James 4:4).
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve heard (second-hand) that Grace Community Church’s bylaw requiring elders to be “not given to wine” is interpreted by the elder board as a requirement for elders to refrain from any beverage alcohol; if this is correct, then it is somewhat ironic that you would say, “I don’t think it’s a sin to drink a beer,” because for you drinking a beer is a sin, since by drinking a beer you would be breaking your word. Even if it turns out that this is not true in your particular case, there are certainly many people who heard your statement who have made a commitment (through their terms of enrollment to a Southern Baptist seminary, through their church covenant, etc.) to refrain from beverage alcohol, and so drinking a beer for them would be a sin: the sin of lying.
Very clearly, you affirm that drunkenness is a sin. But what is “drunkenness”? It seems rather hard to define. If we take the common U.S. legal definition, then it is certainly unlikely that drinking one beer will raise a person’s blood alcohol level to 0.08%. But is 0.08% BAC the best definition for us to take within the Church? What about the idea that “buzzed driving is drunk driving”? Under certain conditions, a person can definitely become buzzed by a single beer; I’ve seen it with my own eyes. After work one night at UPS, I went with a friend to Applebee’s, and he ordered a beer; this friend was not a Christian and he was used to getting drunk, and so he should have had a pretty high tolerance to alcohol. Yet before he finished his glass (the food had not arrived) his face was red and his attitude/speech had changed; he was clearly somewhat buzzed. Now, was his feeling of euphoria, brought about (in this case) by a single beer, a substitute in his life for the peace and joy that he should have sought from the Holy Spirit a la Ephesians 5:18? Does ‘buzzed’ equal ‘drunk’? I’m not answering ‘yes’ to these questions dogmatically, but I do think that these are valid questions, and that they should give us pause before saying, “I don’t think it’s a sin to drink a beer.”
In the recent talk giving the rationale for Southern Seminary’s policy of total abstinence toward alcohol, Dr. Russell Moore framed his consideration of the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance toward alcohol in terms of social justice. Unlike with the winemakers of Jesus’ day, alcohol today is being produced, advertised, and sold by multi-national corporations who have a vested interest in getting/keeping consumers addicted to their product. Also, as obvious by their advertisements, these corporations sell not only a drink, but a worldview/lifestyle. Is it possible that by having a ‘Bud’ or celebrating ‘Miller-time’ a person is actually investing in or voting for the kind of ungodliness we see in beer commercials? Again, this is a tricky question: in this fallen world association with worldliness is hard or impossible to avoid. But I think that the question must be raised.
In conclusion, I would ask you: if you were to see a fellow church member or one of your children out at a restaurant drinking a beer, would your [internal] reaction be the exact same as if he/she were drinking a glass of water? If not, why not? Is it possible that, at some level, you would have concerns similar to those expressed above? And, if so, is it really wise to say, “I don’t think it’s a sin to drink a beer”?
Sincerely, in Christ,