Merriam-Webster defines liberty as “the quality or state of being free.” In America, freedom is indeed one of the most valued qualities life affords us. We love Patrick Henry’s bold demand, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” When it comes to liberties that Christ Himself has paid for with His own death, however, many American Christians lose their boldness in the name of sacrificial love for the “weaker brother,” or even become the weaker brother by being a good sport and not rocking the boat. What I mean is that there are many areas of life God has left us believers free that we have allowed to be bound in a tyrannical grip by scrupulous individuals, well-meaning as they may be. Restrictions that have been maintained by a forceful grip exist in areas that God has left His people free, and that is a serious misrepresentation of God Himself. Though there have been many legitimate concerns regarding various liberties, the Scriptural and historical evidence reveals there have been several diversions from biblical Christian liberty.
Romans 14 is the primary text that instructs the people of God on how to interact with others regarding various beliefs on matters in which God has left His people free. Paul is writing to instruct the Romans on how to conduct themselves in a godly manner that is loving and gracious towards other believers. He begins with the following: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (Rom. 14:1 ESV). When one is seeking to enter the assembly of the people of God who is weak in the faith and scrupulous over matters God has left him or her free, the assembly is not to welcome them to argue over the matters of difference. Paul makes a clear judgment on who is “weak,” and he clearly expects his readers to know the difference as he even makes the distinction a few lines later. They were not, however, to quarrel over those same matters but rather leave each other alone. They should seek to dwell in unity and love for one another.
The first example Paul gives in Romans 14 has to do with meat offered to idols. Paul writes:
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.Romans 14:2-4 ESV
The important contextual key to understanding this passage is found in the first verse of the chapter: “weak in the faith.” These individuals who scrupled over the meats offered to idols believed they were involving themselves in idolatry and breaking the Law of Moses by doing so. They failed to understand the liberty given to them in Christ. This was not liberty to sin against Him, but liberty from the laws and regulations that formerly bound them in the Old Testament. Paul has spent much time writing in his epistle demonstrating how God has freed His people from the Law and raised them up in Christ by the Spirit to live by the Spirit and not by the Law. Indeed, the Law informs one’s conduct, but they are not bound by it to live by it in order to walk in righteousness; rather, they are informed by it so as to grow in their understanding of righteousness that is from faith as they live by the Spirit. Paul writes in Romans 8:1-4: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (ESV). Walking by the Spirit looks to Christ in faith as the author and finisher of one’s faith. This enables one to live in righteousness, a righteousness that springs from one’s union with Christ and is informed by the Law but not derived by it. This frees one from the regulations that pointed to Christ, typologies that revealed Christ in small ways that were removed by Him since the fullness of Christ has come via the gospel. No more are scrupulous matters to be viewed as adding to one’s godliness in any way.
As Paul instructs the Romans not to “despise” or “pass judgment” on others, he is seeking to direct the Romans toward a right lens by which to view others who belong to Christ. These people are welcomed by God, they are God’s servants. If they are Christ’s, then we must be careful to treat them with love, respect, and humility as we understand God has purchased them with His own blood and will sanctify them Himself (1 Cor. 8:11). This is a caution to not be proud and arrogant as we seek to bring everyone to our level, whatever level they may actually be. This is a caution we must all take seriously.
It is very important for the subject of this article to acknowledge what Paul defines as being “weak.” He says, “[T]he weak person eats only vegetables” (Rom. 14:2 ESV). Regarding this, Michael Horton, a Westminister Seminary professor and host of the White Horse Inn, says, “So the weaker brother here is the person who feels like he or she can’t engage in these activities. ‘I can’t eat meat that’s been offered to idols. I can’t have wine with my meal. The weaker brother is not someone who is easily misled. The weaker brother is simply the person who, according to conscience, has not yet come to the conviction that these things are okay or permissible” (The White Horse Inn “The Weaker Brother”). This is in keeping with what Paul writes a few verses later, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Rom. 14:14 ESV). Does this mean that whatever one’s opinion is determines whether something is clean or not? Certainly not. The point is if one acts in a manner that is not of faith, something they believe to be wrong, then they are sinning against God and it becomes “unclean” to them. This is why Paul says “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean,” which is consistent with his previous statement that “nothing is unclean in itself.” He writes, “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” (Rom. 14:23 ESV).
Now, something that is within the realm of Christian freedom can be enjoyed in a manner that is sinful and abuses the liberty given in the Lord. Paul writes of this and says, “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil” (Rom. 14:15-16 ESV). Again, there is clear freedom in the line, “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil,” but also a clear warning not to disregard the convictions of others and grieve their conscience. Paul finishes his point with this, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves” (Rom. 14:20-22 ESV).
What may be derived from the distinctions made in Romans 14 is that God has left the believer free regarding food, drink, days of celebration, and more as long as it does not go against the clear teaching of Scripture in that it is contrary to the nature and character of God. For example, if something cannot be done without harming one’s neighbor, then it is by necessity a sin. A Christian is not at the liberty to sin. Anything that is not sinful or forbidden in the Word of God is within the believer’s realm of liberty. He or she may do as they please as long as it is done to the glory of God (Col. 3:23). To apply this to a contemporary issue like that of days of celebration, one person believes they cannot celebrate Christmas due to its pagan roots while someone else desires to worship God by celebrating the birth of Christ on this day. Applying Paul’s reasoning, this situation is very similar to that of food during Paul’s day. What had been sacrificed to idols was not unclean and forbidden to be eaten by believers since nothing in itself is unclean. Eating it with gratitude and faith in God allowed it to even be an act of worship as it was enjoyed with the acknowledgement that it was given by God and allowed to be enjoyed by grace. Even so, Christmas is known to be a Christianized pagan holiday with many traditions piled into one holiday. What is Paul’s response to such an issue? “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord” (Rom. 14:5-6 ESV). One cannot use the argument of its pagan roots to say Christmas is outside the context of Paul’s argument since his statement regarding the cleanness of food sacrificed to idols falls very well within our discussion of Christmas. The bottom line is that believers are free to glorify God with holidays that have pagan roots as long as what was contrary to the Word of God is not used to worship God.
What is more commonly the issue in the discussion of Christian liberty than holidays, however, is the discussion of drink. Paul clearly includes it in his statement that nothing is unclean in itself as he makes mention of it when he says, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Rom. 14:21 ESV). What is important to note in Paul’s mention of wine here is that he is making it known to the Romans that wine is clean and acceptable to enjoy to the Lord. It must not be abused and enjoyed at the harm of the consciences of others, but that is not the same thing as never enjoying it at all. He is making its cleanness known to the Roman church, and that means that Paul was not willing to say they should all forego enjoying it because some in the church might disagree with the appropriateness of drinking alcoholic beverages. They should forego enjoying it in front of others who would be grieved by it, but this was not a direction to allow the weaker brothers to tyrannize the stronger. In other words, the consciences of the stronger are not to be bound by the weaker, but the practices of the stronger were to reflect the love of God towards the weaker by not exercising their liberty in front of the weaker and in this way grieve their consciences. To suggest all exercise of liberty is to be bound at all times by the weaker is to suggest tyrannical rule by the weaker brothers and the destruction of the liberty that was bought by the blood of Christ. Unfortunately, that is the suggested practice of many believers.
Before going too far into the discussion of contemporary Western practices regarding Christian liberty as it relates to alcoholic beverages, it is helpful to further examine what the Scriptures say regarding the consumption of alcohol. It is, in fact, alcohol that most commonly is wrongly viewed in the context of Christian Liberty in the West. In John 2, the well-known passage where Christ turns the water to wine is one of the most revealing portions of the New Testament on the subject of alcohol. While some may, due to the contemporary Western stigma against alcohol within Christian circles, protest the idea that Jesus would ever turn water into actual wine, especially 180 gallons of it at one time, there can be no doubt it was alcoholic. To begin with, the phrase the master of the feast says to the bridegroom, “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,” only makes sense when discussing actual wine (Jn. 2:10 ESV). Though one can say some grape juice is better than others, there are significant differences between different kinds of wine, whether it be by years, types of grapes, or other factors. Also, the reason for serving the best wine first is to prevent drunkenness. Moreover, grape juice was not even invented until 1869. It could not have been preserved before this time, so the practice of winemaking preserved the beverage indefinitely. Lastly, it is contextually significant to examine how Christ is the prophet who is better than Moses (Deut. 18:18 ESV). Moses turned water into blood before the Egyptians as the beginning of the series of plagues from God as He judged Egypt severely. Contrarily, Jesus turned water into wine as the first of His signs, marking the coming of significant blessings from God through the gospel of Christ. In both cases, the prophet’s first sign marked the beginning of the deliverance of the people of God. Christ, however, was the true Passover Lamb who would be sacrificed for the sins of the people. He would be judged in place of His people, thus it was fitting that water be turned into wine as a mark of the blessing of prosperity to the people.
Another note to make regarding Christ is the accusations of drunkenness He received. Jesus said others would remark, “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt. 11:19 ESV). Certainly Jesus was not a drunkard or a glutton, and it is well recorded that He was falsely accused of many things. It is, however, written in the gospels that Christ did dine with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2). This did not mean He was pleased with the dishonesty of the practice of tax collecting. Just so, the fact Christ turned water into wine and drank it with others did not mean He was a drunkard or condoned drunkenness. Rather, Christ blessed the wedding with the wine to be received and enjoyed but not in excess even if it was given in abundance. Self-control would not be a fruit of the Spirit if opportunities for excess did not ever present themselves, requiring the help of the Spirit. The gifts of God have been abused ever since the first sin of Adam and Eve. Food and wine are no different. Both, however, are indeed gifts of God that are given not only for necessary sustenance but also for enjoyment, hence the giving of wine during the wedding feast. John Calvin writes, “Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer” (Institutes Vol. 1 p. 720). Moreover, Calvin writes, “For if this were not true, the prophet would not have reckoned them among the benefits of God, ‘that wine gladdens the heart of man, that oil makes his face shine'” (Institutes Vol 1 p. 721). It is evident, then, that Christ Himself drank alcoholic wine and used it as a sign of the coming of His Kingdom of grace.
The use of alcoholic drink in the Scriptures is by no means original with Christ. Considering the whole Bible, there are 247 verses that reference wine or strong drink. 16% are negative, 25% are neutral, and 59% have a positive view toward alcohol (Whittington, What Would Jesus Drink? p. 25-26). We have already seen the positive view of the Psalmist in the above quote from Calvin, “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” (Ps. 104:14-15 ESV). Being very realistic with the intention of the Psalmist will reveal that this Scripture is not referring to being overjoyed with the sweetness of Welch’s grape juice, which did not exist during this time to begin with. The elated feeling that follows partaking of wine is the intent the Lord has for its existence, though not to the point of drunkenness. Proverbs says, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1 ESV). Isaiah writes, “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink” (Isa. 5:22 ESV). Again, Proverbs warns, “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder” (Prov. 23: 31-32 ESV). The point of this text is unchecked love for wine, an idolatrous love for the elation that comes with it. It is deadly and will lead one to a path of destruction if followed. It is a gift that can be severely abused.
What is perhaps the most unheard of and highly controversial use of alcohol in the Scriptures is its use in worship. the Bible records the following:
You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.Deut. 14:22-26 ESV
This way of tithing involved turning the increase into money, spending it for the benefit of the house of God, and then enjoying the meal to the glory of God as a family. God specifically mentions wine, and if that was not enough, strong drink to be included if it was what the family’s “appetite craves.” They were to enjoy this “before the Lord your God and rejoice.” God desired the people to enjoy Him as their God while gathered as a family, and God specifically encouraged the use of alcohol as part of that as long as that is what the family desired.
Wine and strong drink were regular parts of the worship of the Lord. It was not only in this case that it was included. Scripture includes the instruction to “pour out a drink offering of strong drink to the Lord” (Num. 28:7 ESV). If one were to consider the consumption of alcohol to be a sin or even unwise, why would God encourage the manufacture and inclusion of something that He despised to be included in worship? If one believes they cannot be employed in or simply go into a restaurant that serves alcohol, or even a pub or bar due to the large presence of alcohol, would they take this same approach to the house of God in the Old Testament where it was consumed and used repeatedly every day?
A brief look at church history will reveal an overwhelmingly positive view towards alcohol and a more biblical belief regarding Christian Liberty. As the Scriptures reveal, ancient history accepted alcohol as part of their daily lives. Many are familiar with the notion that wine in the Bible was mixed with water to such a degree that the alcoholic content was insignificant. This, however, is not an accurate representation of the truth. Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible states:
The evidence, however, seems to indicate that in the OT, wine was used without being mixed with water. The terminology of mixing water and wine is strikingly unattested. Wine diluted with water was symbolic of spiritual adulteration (Is 1:22). By Roman times this attitude changed. The Mishna assumes a ratio of two parts of water to one part wine; however, later Talmudic sources speak of three to one.Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible Vol. 2 p. 2147
What would a ratio of 2-to-1 or even 3-to-1 result in for the alcoholic content of the wine? The Baker Encyclopedia answers, “If watered down 3 parts water to 1 part wine, the alcohol content would be 5 percent and still fairly potent” (p. 2147). This percentage is the equivalent to one beer in our postmodern times and would explain the reason for mixing water with the wine. If wine was nearly the only alternative to water that was available, then a cup of diluted wine would allow the partaker to enjoy it in the middle of the day and have limited side effects. A cup of undiluted wine with a content of 15% alcohol would hinder one’s ability to return to their daily responsibilities with the necessary alertness needed. There can be no doubt, then, that the wine mentioned in the Bible was alcoholic. R.C. Sproul puts it very plainly and boldly, “The attempts to interpret the biblical meaning of the term ‘oinos’ as grape juice are attempts of despair where they have an example of a cultural thing like we have in America forced upon Scripture. You go to Palestine and you say to those people over there that the vineyards and so on that they had in antiquity were used simply to make raisins and grape juice and they will laugh you to scorn and rightly so” (“The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother”).
The church has universally used wine in the Lord’s Supper until modern times in the West. The Catholic Church to this day can be counted on to serve wine in the cup. The great Reformer, Martin Luther, was known for his love for beer, particularly the beer his wife brewed. It is well reported that Calvin’s annual salary included 250 gallons of wine. One only needs to briefly research the consumption of alcohol by various ministers in not-too-distance-history to find that George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon enjoyed alcoholic beverages. In fact, Spurgeon seems to have enjoyed cigars far more than alcohol and used the principles of the Word of God, particularly that of Romans 14, to defend his love for them and the appropriateness of his actions. When Dwight D. Pentecost openly denounced tobacco when he was a guest in Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, Spurgeon replied, “Well, dear friends, you know that some men can do to the glory of God what to other men would be sin. And notwithstanding what brother Pentecost has said, I intend to smoke a good cigar to the glory of God before I go to bed tonight” (romans45.org). When publicly pressed about his reply in the church, Spurgeon wrote an excellent response to the Daily Telegraph. I will provide the letter in full:
YOU cannot regret more than I do the occasion which produced the unpremeditated remarks to which you refer. I would, however, remind you that I am not responsible for the accuracy of newspaper reports, nor do I admit that they are a full and fair representation of what I said. I am described as rising with a twinkling eye, and this at once suggested that I spoke flippantly; but indeed, I did nothing of the kind. I was rather too much in earnest than too little.
I demur altogether and most positively to the statement that to smoke tobacco is in itself a sin. It may become so, as any other indifferent action may, but as an action it is no sin.
Together with hundreds of thousands of my fellow-Christians I have smoked, and, with them, I am under the condemnation of living in habitual sin, if certain accusers are to be believed. As I would not knowingly live even in the smallest violation of the law of God, and sin in the transgression of the law, I will not own to sin when I am not conscious of it.
There is growing up in society a Pharisaic system which adds to the commands of God the precepts of men; to that system I will not yield for an hour. The preservation of my liberty may bring upon me the upbraidings of many good men, and the sneers of the self-righteous; but I shall endure both with serenity so long as I feel clear in my conscience before God.
The expression “smoking to the glory of God” standing alone has an ill sound, and I do not justify it; but in the sense in which I employed it I still stand to it. No Christian should do anything in which he cannot glorify God; and this may be done, according to Scripture, in eating and drinking and the common actions of life.
When I have found intense pain relieved, a weary brain soothed, and calm, refreshing sleep obtained by a cigar, I have felt grateful to God, and have blessed His name; this is what I meant, and by no means did I use sacred words triflingly.
If through smoking I had wasted an hour of my time—if I had stinted my gifts to the poor—if I had rendered my mind less vigorous—I trust I should see my fault and turn from it; but he who charges me with these things shall have no answer but my forgiveness.
I am told that my open avowal will lessen my influence, and my reply is that if I have gained any influence through being thought different from what I am, I have no wish to retain it. I will do nothing upon the sly, and nothing about which I have a doubt.
I am most sorry that prominence has been given to what seems to me so small a matter—and the last thing in my thoughts would have been the mention of it from the pulpit; but I was placed in such a position that I must either by my silence plead guilty to living in sin, or else bring down upon my unfortunate self the fierce rebukes of the anti-tobacco advocates by speaking out honestly. I chose the latter; and although I am now the target for these worthy brethren, I would sooner endure their severest censures than sneakingly do what I could not justify, and earn immunity from their criticism by tamely submitting to be charged with sin in an action which my conscience allows.
This was the position of the Prince of Preachers in the 1,800s in London. As a Baptist minister, he represented the position of many Baptists in former centuries. Elijah Craig was a Baptist pastor who was also a distiller of bourbon whose name remains on the Elijah Craig brand of bourbon to this day. Mark Nenadov says this fact “shows how the earliest Baptists were generally not teetotalers or prohibitionists” (TheDecablog.WordPress.com). Indeed, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith clearly records the Baptist’s view of Christian Liberty. It states:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith 21:2
Historically, then, Christian Liberty has upheld that God is Lord of the conscience, and if anything falls outside His direct commands, then it is permitted within Christian Liberty. Whatever scruples one has with his brother, he is to keep them to himself and not bind the conscience of his brother. The weak is not to pass judgment and the strong is not to despise the weak. Alcohol has historically been viewed as a gift of God to be enjoyed while understanding that sinning by being excessive was not to be tolerated. Tobacco was allowed likewise: not to be enjoyed excessively, such as becoming addicted to it. All was to be done in love and godly gratitude and wisdom. This biblical view, however, has largely been abandoned in many circles in the West today.
The Western Problem with Liberty
The Southern Baptist Convention influenced much of the nation’s view of The Prohibition Act. David Roach writes, “Prominent Southern Baptists led state and national campaigns for prohibition since at least the 1880s” (WordandWay.org). Roach further records:
Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern Seminary, said “a Christian duty to avoid consumption of alcohol” was “the fundamental issue” for Baptists, “not whether our states and municipalities would prohibit [alcohol’s] manufacture, sale and consumption.” Southern Baptists “believed you would be hard pressed to identify any other single factor that caused so much widespread suffering, injury and damage as the widespread abuse of alcohol.”WordandWay.org “Prohibition and Baptists: 100 Years Later”
Roach adds that the Convention stated, “Furthermore, we announce it as the sense of this body that no person should be retained in the fellowship of a Baptist church who engages in the manufacture or sale of alcoholic liquors” (WordandWay.org). Not much has changed over the years as far as the Convention is concerned. In 2006, the Convention made the following two resolutions:
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, June 13-14, 2006, express our total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we urge that no one be elected to serve as a trustee or member of any entity or committee of the Southern Baptist Convention that is a user of alcoholic beverages.https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/on-alcohol-use-in-america/
Danny Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has also personally written about his disdain for the use of alcoholic beverages. He writes regarding someone who partakes of alcoholic beverages, “As a pastor or church leader, would I demand abstinence for church membership? No, I would not. Would I demand it for leadership? Absolutely!” (DanielAkin.com). Methodists, Pentecostals, and many other denominations as a whole have barred people from membership or at least ministerial positions people who enjoy alcoholic beverages, smoke pipes or cigars, or things like these. What was the weaker brother has become something else altogether.
R.C Sproul clarifies the problem with laser-focused precision:
Here’s where it gets complicated . . .[:] what happens when the weaker brother wants to elevate the scruple that he or she has to the level of a moral standard for Christianity or a standard that must be obeyed to be a member in good standing, or a standard that it becomes necessary to be obeyed in order to be an officer in the church . . . Now the weaker brother becomes the legislating brother and now begins to take the scruple that he or she has and uses it to bind the consciences of the people and destroy Christian liberty. What do you do now? That’s one question. Another question that’s close on its heels is the question, “Who really is the weaker brother?” And how do you discern it? We have to be very sure that the standards that we impose upon people in the church are biblical standards and not our own traditional scruples.Sproul “The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother”
To further explain, Sproul continues:
I’ve known ministers that required of their elders that they must sign a pledge not to have any kind of alcoholic beverage including wine, ever, in order to be qualified to be an officer in the church. Making a standard in the church that would preclude the membership of the apostle Paul, and, yes, of Jesus Himself.Sproul “The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother”
This is a very real problem for people who have carefully based their convictions on Scripture and seek to enjoy alcoholic beverages with a clean conscience. Scott Davis, a pastor from the podcast Assurance of Pardon spoke of his personal experience with this issue, “I went to a Baptist undergrad and I would have friends who I went to college with text me and say, ‘You know, I would love to come to your Bible study (at a pub), but if somehow you guys took my picture and it ended up on social media I’d lose my job, or I would get reprimanded at church, or whatever'” (Distilling Theology “Christians + Alcohol”). Consciences are bound so tightly that one will lose their job if it is discovered they have consumed alcoholic beverages. In like manner, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary requires one to sign a document stating they will not consume alcohol while they are enrolled in the seminary. For those who do not share such convictions regarding abstaining from alcohol, it is not so much a problem of not being able to enjoy what one enjoys as it is a Biblical issue, especially regarding justification. Michael Horton on the White Horse Inn explains that Calvin knew Christian Liberty “is an appendix to justification. He says you can believe the doctrine of justification but actually experience judgment of works if you don’t acknowledge Christian Liberty” (“The Weaker Brother”). Issues surrounding Christian Liberty certainly existed in Calvin’s day, though in different contexts. Considering the question of what to do with the dilemma surrounding various opinions on matters of liberty, Calvin writes, “What should we do here, hedged about with such perplexities? Shall we say good-by to Christian freedom, thus cutting off occasion for such dangers?” (Institutes Vol. 1 p. 834). He then responds, “But, as we have said, unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can be rightly known. Rather, we must take care that so necessary a part of doctrine be not suppressed, yet at the same time that those absurd objections which are wont to arise be met” (Ibid.). Calvin then makes an important distinction between the weaker brother and what he calls “the pharisee.” Again, Michael Horton helps to summarize Calvin’s view:
Paul says here you have the weaker brother as he explains it. Here the weaker brother is the person who right now thinks that X, Y, or Z is wrong even though God has not pronounced on it. What do you do with that person? Well, you don’t flaunt your liberty. You love this person, you teach this person, and you don’t try to offend this person. You certainly don’t try to get this person to violate his or her conscience. But Calvin says then there’s the pharisee. He says the pharisee is not likely to stumble because he sees you indulging in your liberty. The pharisee is likely to judge you for indulging in your liberty.Michael Horton The White Horse Inn “The Weaker Brother”
Such a pharisaical take on alcohol by Western Christianity is a rather new approach by Christians. The problems with it are very evident after examining them in light of the Scripture and historical accounts I have provided. It has an appearance of godliness, but their tyrannical nature opposes the grace of God in Christ and the liberty that was paid for by His blood. Even more, it has no power to stop the sinfulness of the flesh. It is as Paul writes:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.Col. 2:20-23 ESV
Many Baptists, including Southern Baptists, have seen how the Western response to alcoholism has failed to accurately represent what the Bible says. Joe Thorn, a Southern Baptist pastor, says, “Wine needs to hire a new PR agency to help with its image in evangelical churches, as it is often ignored or rejected by many American Christians today” (DoctrineandDevotion.com). C.S. Lewis understood this well in his own time. He aims to re-calibrate the Western Christian’s view of temperance to that of Scripture in Mere Christianity. I believe it is fitting to include his full argument here:
Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort.
Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.
It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.
But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying.
One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up.
That is not the Christian way.
An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.
One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word Temperance to the question of drink. It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the centre of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as ‘intemperate’ as someone who gets drunk every evening.
Of course, it does not show on the outside so easily: bridge-mania or golf-mania do not make you fall down in the middle of the road. But God is not deceived by externals.C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity
Christian Liberty is rooted in this level-headed focus on love and self-control. Self-control as given by the Spirit and exercised faithfully in all matters is the gospel being lived out in the lives of God’s people. To judge others for utilizing godly self-control while enjoying something God’s Word has not condemned is pharisaical legalism and misrepresents the gospel of justification by faith and, thus, God Himself. Though this is not what most believe they are guilty of, it is the case nonetheless. What should the response of “the strong” be to the weak and the pharisees? Calvin answers wisely, “[W]e shall so temper the use of our freedom as to allow for the ignorance of our weak brothers, but for the rigor of the Pharisees, not at all!”(Institutes Vol. 1 p.843). It is necessary to resist the tyrannical scruples of those who seek to bind the consciences of others in the name of Jesus. It is practically anti-gospel and antichrist. By no means would I suggest one who simply feels convicted to drink or smoke or anything their conscience is grieved to do should act against such convictions. That would be sin since it is not acting in faith, as I have already established. However, those who bind the consciences of others should not be tolerated but rather corrected. This is why Spurgeon echoed Calvin’s words when he said, “There is growing up in society a Pharisaic system which adds to the commands of God the precepts of men; to that system I will not yield for an hour.”
It is time for Christians in the West to cease yielding to such pharisees. There are many good and well-meaning people who are guilty of such pharisaical behavior, and I do not dare say we ought to treat them as outside the covenant of grace. By no means! What I do suggest is to be confident enough in the Word of God to not yield to the demands of those who would bring others under the commands of men in the name of God. The true nature of the gospel is at stake, and we will be judged by how we present it in word and deed to others. Of all people the minister of God’s Word should be able to clearly uphold the truths of God while loving others and being considerate of their convictions. The balance should be understood and practiced while living in self-control in the love and grace of God by His Spirit. R.C. Sproul remarks on the same, “Ministers should not be weaker brothers! Ministers should be able to handle the Scriptures in a way as to not be caught up in issues of whether you eat meat or are vegetarians” (“The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother”). Paul was able to write to the Romans and instruct them in this way while clearly stating what the truth was regarding meat and wine without dishonoring the weak or enabling the strong to act in pride. That is the way of a godly minister, and we should realize Paul was writing by the Holy Spirit. Can we be godlier than God? Can we be wiser than God? Can we say what He inspired in Paul’s day to be out of date and inapplicable to our contexts? Calvin did not believe so, nor did Spurgeon, and I would say nothing has changed in our day because God’s Word is timeless and sufficient for any and every circumstance.
What I have not written about yet that should be addressed is the issue of alcoholism and alcohol abuse. There can be no doubt drunkenness is strictly forbidden in the Word of God. Paul writes, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18 ESV). Moreover, the effects of alcohol abuse are seen everywhere, and they are very tragic. Brad Whittington writes, “14,406 people died from alcoholic liver disease [and] 23,199 people died from alcohol-induced deaths, excluding accidents and homicides” (What Would Jesus Drink?, p. 13). Whittington continues with more, “In 2001, more than half a million people were injured in crashes where police reported that alcohol was present. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that there were 17,000 alcohol-related traffic fatalities in each of the last three years. Fifty percent of US homicides are alcohol related” (What Would Jesus Drink?, p. 13). There can be no doubt that alcohol has resulted in much debauchery that led to the destruction of many lives and much property. The abuse of alcohol is tragic, and it is not like the abuse of food or other drink in that its destructive potential is far greater. This is why wisdom is much needed when enjoying this gift of God. Jesus made a point about this when He said, “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!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt. 11:18-19 ESV). The wisdom of Christ’s behavior demonstrated a life marked by unprecedented self-control, though the pharisees could not tolerate it. Like Christ, believers today must act in wisdom that acknowledges the dangers of alcohol while living in self-control by the Spirit so their actions will be justified before God just as Christ’s were.
One may ask just how effective a culture with a stern disapproval of drunkenness that is coupled with a positive view towards the moderate use of alcohol is at limiting alcohol abuse. The answer may be shocking to some. Michael Horton explains, “According to Spilka, Hood, and Gorsuch, three psychologists who conducted a major study on this, Jews, Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have the lowest incidents of alcoholism per capita” (The White Horse Inn, “The Weaker Brother”). Continuing on, he says:
Per capita, this is of those who said, admitted that they do use alcohol, so per capita Baptists, Methodists, and Mormons came in with the highest per capita incidents of alcoholism. And their (the psycologists) conclusion was that where alcohol is treated as a gift that may or may not be used, it is typically not abused, but where it is treated as something that people only abuse if they use it, it is abused.Michael Horton, The White Horse Inn, “The Weaker Brother”
Such data is very revealing about the typical response of people to that which is taboo. When it is enjoyed and the sudden shame of enjoying it wears off, it is typical that those individuals overindulge in it. Also, a lack of education on the proper way of enjoying alcohol will easily lead to many dangers. A proper view towards alcohol that acknowledges it as a gift of God to be enjoyed responsibly will lead to godly conduct. The temptation to overindulge will also be far less than if it were a mysterious taboo. An object that is common has far less draw and mystery than that which is forbidden.
Properly Enjoying One’s Liberty in Christ
As cited earlier, Calvin explained the design of God for alcoholic beverages best, “Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer” (Institutes Vol. 1 p. 720) Such is the case with wine, and, as with anything that brings delight and cheer, it is best enjoyed in the company of others. It is a common item at celebrations and during social gatherings for this reason. Freddie Johnson from Buffalo Trace Distillery says, “Two things are important, the first is you never bring out old aged bourbons until you’re with friends and family and you’re not in a hurry to go anywhere” (Neat: The Story of Bourbon). Alcohol is a social drink, one that has a story and is a good companion when writing one’s own story. Johnson also says, “It’s not about the whiskey, it’s about the lives you touch and the people you meet, and the whiskey’s a byproduct of a good relationship” (Ibid.). I have had many good moments drinking with friends and simply enjoying each other’s company while talking over what it was we were drinking, how it was made, and what notes we were picking up while drinking it. Dixon Dedman, master blender of the Kentucky Owl, says, “[Bourbon is] not grabbing a bottle of beer out of a cooler, it’s ‘Let me pour you a glass of this, let me tell you where this came from, let me tell you the story on this. It’s history in a glass” (Neat: The Story of Bourbon). Blake Cortright from Distilling Theology shares his experience getting started with enjoying alcoholic beverages saying:
It was this whole experience of “Okay, what tastes do you like?” because I drank coffee and I drank tea and things, so I described them and they’d be like, “Oh, okay, so what you want to try is this brown ale, and are you getting these notes?” and it became like this whole experience which is largely what my whole perception of alcohol is which is about fellowship and it’s about enjoying God’s good gifts.Distilling Theology, “Christians + Alcohol”
One of the greatest delights I have had while enjoying a drink was talking over the goodness of the God who made it. Carl Trueman, a Reformed minister, says, “Drinking beer with friends is perhaps the most underestimated of all Reformation insights and essential to ongoing reform; and wasting time with a choice friend or two on a regular basis might be the best investment of time you ever make” (Monergism.com). That is the joy and fun of responsibly enjoying God’s good gift of Christian Liberty.
Christian Liberty in the West needs to be recovered ultimately for the glory of God in the work of Christ’s atoning death that secured our justification. That is the first and most important reason. After that, however, is also redeeming the many blessed moments of communion with the people of God over His good gifts, which in turn will also glorify God. Spurgeon was blessed many evenings with a good cigar, likely accompanied many times with good friends. Martin Luther enjoyed conversation with his wife while they drink her beer. C.S. Lewis once said, “My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs – or else sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes. There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter” (TorreyGazette.com). Thankfully, many Southern Baptists like Joe Thorn and folks from other denominations are beginning to recover such joys. These moments will never happen as long as the scruples of others are always barring them from coming to pass and glorifying God.
I have written this article so that God’s grace in Christ might be seen more fully in His justification of sinners and desire for His people to be gladdened by His good gifts. Why should anything less be tolerated? It is God’s glory at stake, and I will be happy to explain this just as Sproul, Spurgeon, Luther, Calvin, and many others have had to do before me. Men will have scruples, but God’s Word is the final authority. So, this is my thorough explanation for why Christian Liberty needs to be recovered, and it is for His glory this article was written for you to read.