Wednesday, August 9, 2006

A Theology of the Sin of Drunkenness

Pardon me for intercalating another topic into my response to Reisinger. I'll complete that series in the near future.

Since Greensboro, Southern Baptists have been all astir over the question of beverage alcohol. I am a teetotaler, and I am comfortable with preaching total abstinence. I will say that a commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of the New Testament will lead you to ask serious questions about this issue, but for me those questions have been answered. I write as someone who has, in the past, held grave reservations about the traditional Southern Baptist position on alcohol, but who has come back to the view I was taught in childhood.

In fact, I almost was not ordained because of this issue. My ordination council asked me what my thoughts were about alcohol. I told them that I could not make a biblical case for the consumption of alcohol to be a sin, but that I believed the avoidance of drunkenness to be the biblical standard for Christian behavior. Although I have never consumed any alcoholic beverage in my life, for a time I was "soft" on the question of drinking alcohol. And I was so convinced of the truth of my position that I was willing to put my ordination at jeopardy rather than to compromise what I believed to be the biblical message.

I heard several arguments for the sinfulness of consuming alcohol, but they did not convince me. Many of these arguments still do not convince me today. I think it may be important for those who advocate abstinence to acknowledge some of the problems with two of these arguments:

  1. The it-is-bad-for-your-health argument. Some tried to change my mind by telling me of the brain cells destroyed by a single drink. "The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit," they said, "and it is a sin to destroy the temple." Well, folks, my temple is destroying itself no matter what I do. I've got bad knees, and every step I take destroys part of my temple. My doctor just got off the phone lecturing me about my cholesterol. I think that I probably am getting too much UVA (or is it UVB) for the health of my skin. And if anything is bad for my health, it is being a pastor. The late nights, stress, constant invitations to eat, etc., are doing horrific things to my temple, yet I know that they are God's will. I've never known anyone to use this argument consistently, and I think we would all be better off if everyone would just lay it aside. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 is about spiritual pollution of the body, not about physical preservation of the body. I'm glad to say that the ablest defenders of the Southern Baptist position have not resorted to this line of argumentation
  2. The it-will-hurt-your-witness-or-cause-your-brother-to-stumble argument. I believe that there is some validity to this argument. Think about people like the recently-gone-home Ted Stone, recovered from substance abuse. Certainly to sit down at a meal with Ted and pop the cork out of a bottle of wine would be offensive and unChristian. But in its general application, I have a reservation about this approach. I'm not sure I even know how to articulate it, but I'll try. Most of the people who consider it morally scandalous to consume an alcoholic beverage are people who hold that view because we have taught it to them. Churches like ours were the champions of the Prohibition movement, and prior to the Temperance and Prohibition movements, I find it difficult to document any societal taboos against the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Isn't it an inconsistent logical argument for us to create the situation in which a behavior is scandalous and then use that situation as the primary justification for the initial prohibition? That's a circular argument, isn't it? I think that the burden of proof upon folks like myself is to articulate some biblical argument against drinking modern beverage alcohol in-and-of-itself, apart from its possible effects upon other believers.
So, I reject these arguments, but I nonetheless preach total abstinence from alcohol. Why?

Let me sketch out a line of thinking first, and then I'll try to support it:
  1. Nobody anywhere can (with a straight face) deny that the Bible strongly condemns all intoxication.
  2. Yet at least some degree of drunkenness starts, from everything I read, with the very first drink of a modern alcoholic beverage.
  3. Therefore, even if I can only say that the Bible forbids drunkenness, that is sufficient to keep me from drinking.

Defense

The Bible condemns all intoxication
This entry is going to be long enough. Unless somebody out there seriously wants to dispute this point, I'm not going to bother with presenting the lengthy and conclusive biblical case against drunkenness.

I am very glad to note that even all of those who have opposed the Greensboro resolution have acknowledged the strong, unambiguous biblical condemnation of any intoxication.
Any modern alcoholic beverage causes intoxication with the first drink
I will not subject you to lengthy historical surveys of the development of fermentation, which you can find elsewhere. I'll just point you to a few items of consideration.
  1. With alcoholic intoxication, the very first things to go are the things that are most important to the Bible.

    Wikipedia defines drunkenness as "the state of being intoxicated with ethyl alcohol to a sufficient degree to impair mental and motor functioning. Common symptoms may include impaired speech, loss of balance, and other effects." According to another Wikipedia article on the effects of alcohol, this kind of drunkenness does not occur until one achieves a blood-alcohol-content (BAC) of 0.1%. But I think it is fair to ask whether the biblical standard for drunkenness is really this low. Is slurred speech or a staggering gait really what the Bible is worried about?

    It seems to me that the Bible's greatest judgment against drunkenness is the way that it impairs the decision-making abilities (moral and otherwise) of the person who is drunk. Look at any chart of the effects of alcohol, and you will find that these things, the things that are most important to the Christian, are the very first things to go.
  2. One drink of modern alcohol is enough to impair your moral judgment.

    But how many drinks does it take for that kind of impairment to start? By the time the BAC reaches 0.03%, a person's moral judgment has been definitely affected enough to be measurable scientifically (see the Wikipedia article on the effects of alcohol). But moral judgment is an item that is difficult to measure scientifically. How bad must it be before a research project can ferret out changes in your moral judgment? Some impairment of judgment occurs at much lower levels than 0.03%. From all I can tell, having done a little research, researchers believe that your moral judgment begins to be impaired with the very first drink.

    Some will scoff at this, so just let me point out that I am deriving none of my research from pro-abstinence sources. Wikipedia is not exactly a hotbed of Baptist fundamentalism. The Federal Aviation Administration has made it a crime for me to operate an aircraft if I've had any alcohol at all within the previous eight hours. In their eyes, I'm too drunk to fly after the very first drink. And they are worried about the effects upon coordination and spatial orientation—factors impaired long after my moral judgment is in trouble.
  3. The effect of this sin of drunkenness is often more sin, occasionally with long-lasting consequences.

    Allow me to present as witnesses the millions of teenaged boys who for generations have known that the best way to bed a young woman is to get her to drink alcohol. I could go on, but I won't.


But why, someone will ask, doesn't the Bible simply condemn the drinking of alcohol? It is a good question, and here are some candidates for answers.

  1. The biblical condemnation of drunkenness gives us a platform for preaching against the recreational utilization of all intoxicating substances. If the Bible merely condemned wine, what would we say about marijuana? crack? inhalants?
  2. The status of the biblical text allows us to affirm the medicinal benefits of intoxicating substances. Wine is a blessing. So is opium. But both wine and opium can be a curse as well when they are used as recreational intoxicants.
  3. Folks tell me that ancient wine was not nearly as potent as modern wine is. I haven't researched that question enough to know how much merit is there. Assuming that 0.01% BAC is more than enough to cause some level of impairment in moral decision-making, I wonder how much ancient wine it would take to reach that level? If it would take more than one or two drinks, maybe that is a good explanation of why you could drink in biblical times without danger of becoming drunk. Again, I need to do more research here, but I'm exploring the rhetorical options.


If you differ with my 0.01% level, I'm curious to hear from those agitating for a different view, at what BAC do you think the sin of drunkenness begins? How many drinks are you advocating to be OK for a serious Christian?
Conclusion
So, I'm not building a hedge around the law here. I just find reasonable evidence to support the idea that many people are drunk in some sense of the word after the first drink. I find no biblical justification for "a little drunk is OK as long as you aren't a lot drunk." Drunk equals wrong. Period. Paragraph.

People will tell you that the number of drinks to cause a certain level of impairment differs from person to person. Maybe I could take two drinks and not be impaired at all. How would I find out? Get drunk a few times and see how much it takes? But surely it is not God's will for me to sin now as research for a plan to avoid sinning in the future!

And if I were conducting this research, how would I know when I was first drunk? Are the early stages of drunkenness even readily perceptible to the drinker, or isn't one of those early effects a kind of euphoria that causes you not to really notice so much that you are getting drunk? The FAA tells us pilots about a similar insidious effect related to hypoxia—one of the symptoms is a diminished ability to recognize the other symptoms.

So, the only solid plan I can conceive of to avoid drunkenness is not to drink at all. I have heard a lot of negative criticism of my position, but I have yet to hear anyone articulate another serious plan (e.g. "Everyone can have a 16oz glass of wine, because that will keep them below 0.05%, which we take to be the threshhold of sinful drunkenness") that gives Christian folks the ability, if they intend to drink, to drink with perfect confidence that they will not at all become drunk. I've placed a high burden-of-proof on my side of the argument, so I do not hesitate to place this high burden-of-proof on folks on the other side. Show us any other way that a person can have confidence that he will not at all ever get drunk.

I mean, that is important to all of us, isn't it?

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