Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Monday, September 05, 2011

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.

This letter is occasioned by a statement that I heard you make on the 8/18/11 episode of Wretched radio:

"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,

-Andrew Lindsey

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Blogger Phil Johnson said...

1. There is no such bylaw at Grace Community Church.

2. Nonetheless, I did not say that I drink beer; only that I don't regard it as inherently sinful for others to do so.

3. Of course it's a sin to break a vow or to neglect a duty, so anyone who is bound by oath or by duty not to drink alcoholic beverages cannot drink beer without sinning.

4. The sin in such an instance, however, lies in the breaking of the vow or the shunning of one's duty, not in the drinking per se.

5. That's where your rationale is flawed. If I said "I don't think it's a sin to study the Bible," I doubt you would have protested. Yet there are many conceivable scenarios exactly like the one you hypothesize, wherein it might be a sin to use "Bible study" as an excuse to forego some other duty or refuse to render an obedience owed.

6. For example, the teenage girl who is grounded by her parents but sneaks out to go to a bible Study at her BFF's house sins by so doing.

7. Still, that doesn't disprove the statement "It's no sin to study the Bible," because that teenager's sin lies in her deliberate rebellion, not in the act of studying Scripture. Right?

8. This is not a complex or mysterious distinction. Nor is it in any way unique to me or to this issue. I'm sorry you felt it worthy of an open rebuke, but I stand by the comment I made.

3:26 PM  
Blogger ajlin said...

Mr. Johnson,

Thank you for your response. Thank you, also, for clearing up the rumor I read about abstinence from alcohol being required for elders at Grace Community Church.

Your response centered on the first point that I sought to make (about how many of your listeners have made commitments against drinking alcohol); I think you make good points in your response, though I fear some of my Southern Baptist friends are failing to make the distinction you draw.

You ignore the other two points, however, which (to my mind) were important considerations, and do not involve breaking a vow or neglecting a duty.

Finally: you refer to my blog-post as an "open rebuke," but I didn't think of it in those terms when I wrote it; I was thinking more along the lines of 'challenge.'

Sincerely, in Christ,
-Andrew Lindsey

5:52 PM  
Blogger Phil Johnson said...

Ajlin: "You ignore the other two points, however, which (to my mind) were important considerations, and do not involve breaking a vow or neglecting a duty."

Yet the same principle applies, does it not? Even if you could successfully argue that it's inherently sinful to buy a beer because you lend your support to an ungodly industry (your second argument), or that to be seen with a beer is to "invest in or vote for" an ungodly lifestyle (your third argument), neither of those arguments proves that drinking beer per se is sinful. Those arguments don't apply to the guy who makes and drinks homebrew to wash down a bowl of chili in the privacy of his own kitchen.

To be clear, I am not recommending such a hobby. More to the point: I certainly don't countenance the boastful beer-drinking identity so many nouveau Calvinists seem bent on cultivating.

But what I'm pointing out here is that your arguments don't actually prove that beer-drinking is inherently sinful. What you are actually pointing out is that there are many other sins, social evils, and potential pitfalls closely associated with beverage alcohol.

I agree, of course, that the culture that has grown up around recreational drinking is beset with those and many other evils. But to say that it is therefore inherently sinful to drink a beer is to make an illogical and legalistic leap I am not prepared to make, nor should you be. Romans 14:14, 17.

12:39 AM  
Blogger Nathan White said...

Hi Andrew,

I'll leave the specifics between you and Phil between, well, you and Phil. But as your friend, I do want to share some areas of disagreement with you. Perhaps it will help you think through this issue.

I understood your second argument as a question about a one-beer buzz, and how that coincides with Eph 5:18. Let me just say that I would challenge your argument on several levels, but most specifically in the assumption that getting a 'buzz' is akin to drunkenness, or as a sin itself to be avoided.

That famous passage in Psalm 104 says: "You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man's heart."

When the Psalmist says 'gladden the heart of man', he certainly isn't talking about the taste of wine (wine is bitter). I believe it's clear that the passage is teaching us that the 'buzz' effect of wine, in its ability to bring good cheer, joy, and relaxation, is the blessing of God. As John Calvin has said, “it is permissible to use wine not only for necessity, but also to make us merry.” So I fail to see how you can support, from scripture, that getting a buzz is akin, equal to, or as dangerous as the clear sin of drunkenness. For the very 'buzz' that wine brings is why God calls it good in Psalm 104.

I would also argue that 1st century wine was still very capable of producing a buzz off of a normal serving. And yet, Jesus famously produced wine for a wedding, and He instituted an alcoholic sacrament. Thus, I would argue that, since wine produces a buzz (that's the main reason people drink it), and Jesus freely encouraged the drinking of wine, then we ought to be careful in assigning evil to the 'buzz' that might be produced by normal alcoholic consumption.

Let me clarify before you get the wrong impression:

I'm not encouraging the seeking of a buzz of the sacred cup of the Lord's table. The Corinthians were apparently seeking that kind of experience at the Lord's Table (actually it says they were getting drunk), and we see Paul condemn their motives (though Paul never tells them to dilute more or refrain from drinking alcohol, much less does he go into the question of 'how much is too much?'). So I certainly believe an extra measure of caution is needed when approaching the Lord's Table where alcoholic wine is used.

And I'm not likening the 'buzz' with adolescents who sniff glue for a thrill. Of course there are many qualifications to my argument.

I'm simply asking you to be careful in making conclusions that the good cheer, relaxation, and joyful effect that wine produces is evil because it is a 'buzz'. The scriptures condemn drunkenness because of what it leads to. Drunkenness causes a lack of self control in matters of thinking, judgment, decision-making, etc. But scripture is content with leaving the 'buzz' question alone, questions of how much is too much, etc., and thus we should be content with leaving it there too so as not to go beyond what is written. So although there's plenty of instances in scripture where we might expect a discussion on how much is too much, or a caution about getting a 'buzz', or even an encouragement for abstinence, we find none. And we must be content to chalk this up to the wisdom of God and therefore allow each individual to answer that question for themselves based upon their conscience and their own bodily response to consumption.

11:57 AM  
Blogger ajlin said...

Mr. Johnson,

Thank you again for your response. Perhaps my formatting has obscured the division of my points or you read my letter to quickly (which is certainly understandable, given how hectic your schedule must be), but my second point [addressed by Nathan in the comment above] was that drinking a beer may in itself entail drunkenness, in which case the principle you mention would NOT apply.

To be clear (which apparently I haven't been thus far), I'm not arguing that drinking a beverage containing alcohol is always, necessarily, inherently sinful; I was hoping to persuade you that in our current American context the statement "I don't think it's a sin to drink a beer" may be extremely unhelpful.

To use an analogy: the statement, "I don't think it's a sin to watch a movie containing nudity" may technically be true. There may be a movie on the holocaust in which the only nudity shown is entirely non-sexual in nature. But I would not support making such a statement because of the connotations "nudity" USUALLY has and because of the way most people would understand the statement.

Does this make any sense in your view?

Thank you again,
-Andrew Lindsey

9:03 PM  
Blogger ajlin said...


I just want to say that I found your comments on 'buzzing' to be extremely helpful.


9:04 PM  

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