Where’s the Line?

This is a follow-up post to clarify some thoughts I offered yesterday on the issue of evangelical millennials (EMs) and some of the motivations we have to drink. I got a lot of positive feedback on yesterday’s post, and I’m glad it was helpful or clarifying for some folks. I didn’t actually intend for yesterday’s post to be a prescriptive post regarding what is and isn’t an appropriate way to consume alcohol. In fact, I didn’t even mention drunkenness, but a lot of folks who read it assumed that I was talking about drunkenness because I talked about being “mastered” by alcohol. In truth I wanted to explore why EMs choose to drink at all, not why we’re prone to alcohol abuse (though in my experience, we are, and we’d all do well to stop pretending that we aren’t).

I did say in some tweets yesterday that I think our understanding of what’s appropriate is flawed or distorted, so I wanted to take an opportunity to speak to that.

In my experience, most EMs (and Christians in general) use drunkenness as the standard by which to measure the appropriateness of their alcohol consumption. This comes from Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 5 to not get drunk, but to be filled with the Spirit. In my opinion, Paul’s intention in referring to drunkenness there has more to do with wanting an illustration for what being filled with the Spirit is like and slightly less about providing a prescription for appropriate behavior in regards to drinking, but the Bible is clear that drunkenness is inappropriate for Christians. In fact, it’s more than inappropriate: It’s sinful. That said, I don’t think that drunkenness is the hard-and-fast line of appropriate behavior for all people in all places. In fact, when it’s employed as the lone mark of assessment, I think drunkenness is actually a faulty metric for at least two reasons: 1) For some, drinking alcohol at all is unhealthy, and good metrics apply to everyone, and 2) Drunkenness is a subjective term. Everyone has a different definition, from “over the legal limit” to “blacked out.”

Here’s what I suggest as an alternative:

In yesterday’s post I referenced 1 Corinthians 6:12, in which Paul corrects the Corinthians’ misconceptions about freedom and autonomy: “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.”

In context, Paul is talking about sexual behavior. But don’t you think the principle extends to other areas of life? You bet it does.

Here’s my point: Not everyone who is mastered by alcohol is an alcoholic. Mastery and clinical addiction are similar, but not congruent. Not everyone who has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol gets drunk every time they drink. We know from Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler in Luke 18 that morally neutral things can become spiritually harmful to us when we refuse to hold them with an open hand. I experienced this recently, when I was asked by the seminary I attend to commit to abide by their no-drinking policy. Though I’m not “addicted” to alcohol, I found it difficult to commit 100% to not drinking while I’m in seminary. I thought, “I just won’t drink while school is in session,” or “I just won’t keep alcohol at my house.” If I’m not an alcoholic, then why was my first impulse to try and make exceptions to the rule? Maybe I was in the process of being mastered—not in an obvious way, but in a very subtle way. And we all know that our Enemy is the king of subtlety.

So if the first question we have to ask in assessing our relationship with alcohol is “Am I getting drunk?” then the second question we have to ask is, “Even if I’m not getting drunk or if I’m not addicted, am I being mastered?” The difference is subtle, but significant. Getting drunk has to do with the external appropriateness of your relationship with alcohol. Being mastered has to do with the internal appropriateness of your relationship with alcohol. It’s the higher standard. Not getting drunk is what people with self-control do, regardless of whether they know Christ at all. Refusing to be mastered by alcohol is what holy people do because they know they’ve been mastered by Christ.

I got the question yesterday over Twitter: What about enjoying alcohol for the taste?
This is the camp that I would have put myself in before starting seminary. I love craft beer and whiskey as much as anyone. I won’t make a case that drinking is sinful. I don’t think it is. I think it’s morally neutral, but, like other morally neutral things—money, food, TV, our iPhones, fantasy football—it has the potential to master us. So caution and accountability are necessary and appropriate. After all, we’ve all probably had at least one experience with a person who said, “I drink because I like the taste,” but was either in denial about their drinking habits or was deliberately being dishonest with themselves and others about what was really going on.

Charles Spurgeon said, “Go not one step in a way in which it would be wrong to go two.” For anyone who can’t make up their mind about whether their relationship with alcohol is healthy, this may be a good diagnostic.

I don’t know if I’ll continue to abstain from drinking after I graduate from seminary. But I’m confident that I’ll be glad I did, if only for a few years, because I will have learned to hold my right to drink with an open hand. In the area of alcohol I’m forfeiting my right to total autonomy in favor of freedom. You see, freedom isn’t getting to make all your own decisions. Freedom is not regretting any of them.

After some of the feedback I got last night, I feel as though I need to state the obvious: Your life will not be worse if you choose to be totally abstinent in regards to alcohol. You will not be miss out on anything. You will not be unfulfilled. You will not have less fun. We EMs have forgotten this. We’ve all got a terminal case of FOMO, and we let it dictate our every action. That’s risky business when it comes to why and how we drink.

These are my rapid-fire and highly unorganized thoughts. Take them for what they are, and feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments section below.

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5 thoughts on “Where’s the Line?

  1. Love your thoughts! Excellently put. I also have found that one can find themselves consumed with “drunkenness” in anything that one excessively participates in which is detrimental to their natural soul intended by GOD.
    Thanks for the blog. GOD Bless!

  2. As a junior at the University of Georgia, alcohol has been something that I constantly make excuses about and try to justify.. And when I decided a few months ago to wait until my 21st birthday to drink, I have quickly seen that I have been mastered by alcohol. I fear missing out and fear that I won’t have as good of a time unless I go out with friends and go to parties. This post was awesome and really did speak to me, preciate it man.

  3. I’m an EM and I never drank until recently. I was on leadership with an evangelical organization through college and signed a covenant to not drink. Then after I graduated I was a 2-year missionary and signed yet another covenant–I had a very bad experience with my missions organization there.
    I’ve been home for a little over a year now, working a secular job, and am currently applying to seminaries. So suddenly I’m facing the idea of re-signing that covenant again and I find myself less than enthusiastic about it.
    I can’t speak for all EMs, but I don’t think it’s about the alcohol at all. I think what bothers me is the idea of re-entering a culture of do-better-be-better striving for approval. Many of us grew up in legalistic, perhaps hypocritical church environments that demonized alcohol. Often the same folks that demonized alcohol hurt us or marginalized us or made us (or others we care about) feel unworthy in some way. So holding onto the freedom to drink and drink responsibly is perhaps a small reaction to our upbringing. It’s a way of distancing ourselves from that sort of legalism and hypocrisy in the eyes of the world. . . I know I don’t want to be associated with that. This is just my experience, but I have a feeling I’m not the only one.

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