Why I Abstain

By Howard A. Snyder

Social drinking has become as American as apple pie. So why not join the crowd?

 Abstinence from alcohol is a matter of conviction for Free Methodists who take their full membership vows seriously. And I have understood my ordination vows as affirming total abstinence. I suppose there have been times when I might have indulged in fairly harmless social drinking had it not been for these vows. But whether our vows before the altar involve marriage, ordination, or church membership, I believe they are to be taken seriously.

 Much more is at stake here, however, than keeping vows. We live by grace, not law; by principle, not by precept. Yet love is always the fulfilling of legitimate law, not the abolition of it. So rules and principles need not contradict each other. On the other hand, we have all seen how rules can become legalism and Pharisaism, canceling out the very power of the gospel.

 So these questions face us: Why not drink? Rule or principle? Tradition or deeper truth? Because I am a Christian disciple, or just because I'm a church member? These are important questions that touch on the nature of the gospel itself. I have Christian friends, better disciples than myself, who drink moderately and who see abstinence as little more than quaint denominational lore. Jesus didn't abstain from wine. John Wesley, ardent foe of the liquor trade, was not a teetotaler. Where does all this leave me?

 It leaves me convinced of the strong value, in twentieth-century America or Canada, of total abstinence. Here are my reasons:

 1. Total abstinence is more consistent With a commitment to a simple, responsible life-style than is moderate drinking. Discipleship means living responsibly; being a good steward by caring for ourselves, other people, and the world around us. It is more responsible, simpler, cheaper, and ultimately more fun to abstain than not to.  

Drinking would complicate my life in ways I don't need. Abstinence is a discipline I follow as a life-style choice. It feels right and consistent with the life Jesus has called me to. I don't condemn those who disagree, but I prefer this way.

 2. Abstinence is healthier. Responsible Christian living seeks health in all areas, from our bodies to world affairs, and abstinence contributes to this health.

 We may think of abstinence as a positive addiction. It is never destructive (though legalistic attitudes about it may be); ratter, it is a good habit that contributes to wellness. Alcohol is a poison we are better off without.

 "Yes," someone says, "but what about caffeine?" Is there really any comparison? For health reasons, one may wish to abstain from coffee, colas, and other sources of caffeine. But caffeine has never been as destructive, personally or socially, as alcohol increasingly is.

 3. Abstinence is the best protest against alcohol abuse in our sick society. Most of us have been brainwashed by the liquor industry to think of alcohol abuse as a minor, and largely private, problem. This is a lie. Alcoholism is the third-largest health problem in the United States One out three American families (according to the Gallup Poll) reports problems arising from alcohol

Alcohol consumption ranks at the top of social ills today, contributing strongly to nearly every other problem Dr. Anderson Spiekard, Jr., of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, reports in Christianity Today that "alcohol abuse is involved in most murders, most assaults, most child-abuse cases, most traffic fatalities—the list is endless "

 We have become hardened to the thousands of deaths annually on the highways, yet we know that alcohol is a contributing factor in most of these. Loss of time due to alcoholism is so great a problem that many corporations are beginning treatment programs. There are few individual addictions that bear such broad social consequences as alcohol consumption

 In a society where alcoholic beverages of all kinds are becoming increasingly accepted, abstinence is a decisive and emphatic protest It is a kind of boycott It is easier and more credible to fight alcohol abuse if one is an abstainer

 4 Relatedly, abstinence is a positive witness both individually and socially. I have heard many stories of Christians whose witness was strengthened because they were willing to stand by a commitment of abstinence, I have yet to hear of a Christian whose witness was hurt because he or she wouldn’t drink. Most people are keen enough to sense whether we really love them or not. We don't need to prove our acceptance by doing everything they do

 The same is true of the church as a community or people in society.  I am glad to be part of a "peculiar people" known for abstinence. Our function is a little like that of "third parties" in politics: we raise an issue that society needs to confront. the key, of course, is to bathe our convictions so thoroughly in love that our witness is winsome, not cumbersome.

 5. Abstinence is an important corporate Commitment; it is part of our identity as a Christian people.

We are not a collection of people who have individually  decided on abstinence. Rather, we are a people who have Said, ''This is what we believe, and this is how we will live " We know (though we sometimes forget) that abstinence isn't the dividing line between Christian and non-Christian, but it is part or the dividing line between being fully a Free Methodist and not being one This is part of what it means to be a certain kind of community or order within the larger church

 Over a period of time, the Free Methodist church has redefined some of its beliefs, practices, and structures as times have changed We have needed to do that But we have agreed that our witness for the kingdom will be stronger if we continue to abstain from alcohol and tobacco We may wish, as time goes on, to clarify our stand on these matters and to also deal with other issues. But I am glad that these are still part of our identity as a people

 6. Abstinence is a good place to make our Christian commitment specific and behavioral. It's a good place to say that discipleship costs something, and this is part of what it costs Following Jesus is not just spiritual; it touches how I eat, drink, speak, and spend my time and money Discipleship that doesn't touch our daily lives costs nothing. It is ''cheap grace "

 "Yes," someone says, "but why draw the line here? What about more-important, or equally important, issues?" Good point, but really a different issue We do need to deal with gluttony, prejudice, evil speaking, and other issues. But that is no reason for accepting alcohol

 The two main reasons for drawing the line here, of course, are personal discipleship and social witness Again, we have been brainwashed on these points Few today (other than those who deal directly with the problem) really believe that alcohol consumption is a serious issue. But it is, both personally and socially There are other issues, some more pressing than this, which we must address, such as nationalism, militarism, and respect for life But let us not allow these issues to deceive us into thinking that alcohol abuse is no longer a pressing concern That is precisely what the liquor industry is spending millions of dollars annually to convince us of Abstinence is still an important personal and social issue and still a good place to get specific .

 7. Abstinence is counter-cultural. It represents a minority viewpoint and practice It is definitely not the "in" thing to do

 It is pointless, of course, to be counter-cultural just to be different. On the other hand, we need to watch our counter-cultural edges—the boundaries that make us distinct. Much of the church today is rapidly losing its identity by compromising with secular values. Attitudes toward alcohol are part of the trend. Christianity Today reports that "more and more evangelical Christians find themselves relaxing their opposition to social drinking and adopting drinking habits that closely resemble those of American society as a whole "

 Certainly abstinence is a secondary, not a primary, issue. What makes us a Christian communality most of all is our faithfulness to Jesus and His kingdom. Still, abstinence has its place, even though it is increasingly unpopular, and may be a part of that faithfulness.

 A few years ago I worked with a young Christian who was very counter-cultural in his dress, hairstyle, and general manner, but who drank moderately. One day the irony struck me that. he considered himself to be counter-cultural, but at the point of alcohol, I was more counter-cultural than he was. The challenge before us is to be distinct from our culture wherever truth is compromised or health and dignity are damaged.

 8. Abstinence is the best defense against alcoholism. It is trite, but true: abstainers don't become alcoholics. Many people do, and no one can predict who will.

 As a matter of fact, fewer can really "handle" alcohol then think they can. Dr. Spickard says, "A person who drinks two or three drinks three or more times a week is setting himself up for trouble" and can easily become an alcoholic "even in the absence of a genetic predisposition" toward alcohol. Alcoholism is a growling medical and social illness, and it makes little sense to experiment with it.

 9. I want to protect my Children against the abuse of alcohol, and abstinence is the best way to do so. We are stewards not only of ourselves, but also of our children. . . and their children's children. While they must make their own decisions, why should we increase their risk? In an increasingly alcoholic society, our kids will need all the defense we can give them. Asking, "Do you want your kids to drink?" sometimes puts a new edge on the issue of abstinence.

 10.I have yet to find a positive reason for drinking. This is The final clincher. Why are people so defensive about abstinence? And why do drinkers often become uneasy and defensive among non-drinkers? precisely because we all leave been brainwashed. The question is not why one should abstain; it is why anyone should drink alcohol in the first place. It is a sick, secular society, not our Christian faith, that says one should drink. We don't need a multitude of reasons for avoiding something that does no positive good. It is time Christians stopped apologizing for good health and started questioning the systematic consumption of poison.

 Some Objections

 I realize there are some objections to this position on abstinence. Let's look at four:

 1. The Bible does not specifically prohibit moderate drinking. This is true, and we should frankly admit it. But a couple of things must be added.

  • First, remember that neither does the Bible prohibit slavery, polygamy, drugs, and many other things which clearly don't fit well with consistent discipleship today. God expects us to study and understand the principals of Christian discipleship and make the right applications. Abstinence is an appropriate application.

  • Second, what are we really saying when we say, "The Bible doesn't prohibit"? Isn't this another form of legalism? Would we murder if the Bible didn't say, "You shalt not kill"? The Bible is not a rule book, and it is just as legalistic to say moderate drinking is permissible because the Bible doesn't forbid it as it is to insist on abstinence merely as a rule for its own sake.

 2 Wine is one of God’s good gifts which we should receive With joy and thankfulness. This is no doubt true (and even biblical, Psalm 104:15), but in our day this gift has been so abused that abstinence is the better way. Today we do not lack for unfermented beverages, while the wine industry is taking on almost cultic proportions. No harm comes from passing up this gift. As Paul suggests, not everything that is permissible is expedient.

 3 Upholding Abstinence tends toward legalism. This is a common objection, but it confuses two issues. Any rule may lead to legalism, but that doesn't mean we don't need rules. The answer to legalism is not to throw out the law. Rather the answer is twofold: principle and community.

 Our discipling in the church must include showing people the reasons, the principles, which Lie behind the rules. And our churches must be intimate communities where people share life and convictions not because of rules, but because of love for one another and concern for kingdom witness. A disciplined loving community based on biblical principles does not suffer from legalism. But a church that casts aside its rules from a fear of legalism and relies simply on ''personal Convictions'' soon loses its identity and its corporate witness.

4. In requiring abstinence, we may create unnecessary distinctions and divisions in the christian community. This is a serious charge, and it carries some truth. But I believe the values at stake are worth the risk.

 Any controversial stand creates division. Abolition wasn't a popular cause a century and a half ago. It even led to church splits. Many Christians thought the issue wasn't worth the conflict. But justice and history were on the side of the abolitionists.

 I am not equating slavery with drinking alcoholic beverages, but the principle is the same. Division and disagreement, in themselves, say nothing about the rightness or wrongness of the issue

 The real answer here, however, is to create a community of believers where these issues can be faced squarely, where convictions can be stated and argued boldly, and yet where freedom is valued as basic to the gospel.

 Mature Christians are those who, through their freedom in Christ, choose to be Jesus' love-slaves for the sake of His work in the world. Our inebriation should be of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), and our concern should be to honor God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20). 

Howard Snyder is the pastoral coordinator at the Irving Park Free Methodist Church of Chicago, Illinois. his books include The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal .