Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World (God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas”)
Ethical and moral decision-making in the 21st century is confronted with many new and diverse challenges, and a radically biblical perspective is demanded. A genuinely Christian mindset is required. What is needed is what Don Carson calls a “world Christian.” What does he mean by that? Four things:
- Their allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom is self-consciously set above all national, cultural, linguistic, and racial allegiances.
- Their commitment to the church, Jesus’ messianic community, is to the church everywhere, wherever the church is truly manifest, and not only to its manifestation on home turf.
- They see themselves first and foremost as citizens of the heavenly kingdom and therefore consider all other citizenship a secondary matter.
- As a result, they are single-minded and sacrificial when it comes to the paramount mandate to evangelize and make disciples. (Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry 117.) [Emphasis mine]
World Christians recognize that they are citizens of a different kind of nation, a different kind of kingdom, a different kind of community. And yet, they also recognize that they live in this world as well, a world that is not their home, but one in which they serve as a royal ambassadors fulfilling the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-21). They are here as divine representatives to call men and women from this world kingdom into God’s glorious kingdom. This assignment calls for wisdom and winsomeness. It calls for conviction as well as compassion. It requires that we plant our feet in the Scriptures while keeping a watchful and discerning eye on the culture.
How can we live out this calling to be God’s people in God’s world? I want to provide, a biblically based and theologically informed strategy for faithfully accomplishing this assignment, one that is transferable to any cultural context whether in North America or around the world. There are biblical principles that are true anywhere, anytime, and under any circumstances that will help us communicate and “live out” the gospel more clearly. A great place to discover this strategy is found in 1 Corinthians. Here was a church gone crazy, a church in a titanic battle in terms of its moral and ethical decision-making. They were struggling, and struggling mightily, both inside and outside their community, and they had the awesome task of being the Church in a radically secular, immoral, non-Christian context. Maintaining a clear gospel witness was difficult and problematic. Therefore, Paul wrote this letter in order to instruct the Corinthians in how to live out a “gospel-centered ethic.” Within 1 Corinthians 6:12-13:13, he sets forth a number of universal, non-negotiable principles that would enable them to engage the culture with integrity while staying true to the gospel of Jesus Christ both in what they said and how they lived. I have identified ten that speak not only to those who lived in the 1st century, but also those of us who are living in the 21st century as well. These principles will be the focus of our attention in the following study.
Ten Principles for Moral Decision-Making
Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.
These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.
1) Will this action be helpful to me?
“Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be brought under the control of anything. – 1 Cor. 6:12
“Everything is permissible,” but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible,” but not everything builds up. – 1 Cor. 10:23
Certain actions are not helpful for believers. They don’t build you up or make you better for Jesus. They accomplish little or nothing. To understand this principle, examine the following four statements. “‘Everything is permissible for me’” (6:12; 10:23). “‘Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods,’ but God will do away with both of them” (6:13). “‘Every sin a person can commit is outside the body’” (6:18). “‘It is good for a man not to have relations with a woman’” (7:1). I believe these were all “Corinth slogans.” In other words, these statements were not things Paul was affirming. On the contrary, these were popular sayings that Paul was correcting because they were rooted in a misunderstanding of the implications of the gospel. The first three erred on the side of antinomianism; the last one erred on the side of legalism and asceticism. All were infected with a view of reality that was grounded in a Platonic-type of philosophy that saw matter as evil or, at best, inferior. Thus, some went to one extreme and said, “The body does not matter, so indulge.” Others said, “The body is bad, so I will punish it.”
Paul said there is a third and better way. There is a gospel way! The Lord is for the body (6:13) and He is going to raise it (6:14). In other words, the body is a wonderful gift from God, God has redeemed it in Christ, He is going to resurrect and glorify it and it is a great thing when handled properly. So ask: is a particular activity helpful, profitable, beneficial? Will a particular activity make me better in Christ and raise me to a higher spiritual level? In other words, the question should not be, “Am I free to do it?” The question is, “Is it good for me to do this as a man or woman in Christ?”
2) Will this action potentially enslave me?
“Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be brought under the control of anything. – 1 Cor. 6:12
Paul is confident that he is a slave to only one master. His name is Jesus. No one or no thing is to “be master” (NIV) over us other than Him. I will choose to live a radically Christ-centered life because I belong to Him. You see, there is a danger in living “too close to the edge.” It can be the edge of antinomianism and libertarianism or legalism and asceticism. Either extreme is going to draw you away from Christ, and you will run the risk of being enslaved. Later, in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, Paul will point out that living near the edge of sin can even make one vulnerable to demonic attack and influence. There is little, if any, wisdom in hanging around out here.
The boasts: “I have liberty in Christ” and “I am free under grace” can become something of a moral rationalization that is more likely a personal idol erected for satisfying sensual pleasure. What you convince yourself will hurt no one will lead you yourself into a world of slavery and bondage to the cruelest taskmaster of all: yourself and your own carnal desires. True spiritual freedom is not the right to do what you want, it is the supernatural enablement of Christ to do what you ought and enjoy doing so! Gordon Fee says, “There is a kind of self-deception that inflated spirituality promotes, which suggests to oneself that he/she is acting with freedom and authority, but which in fact is an enslavement of the worst kind–to the very freedom one thinks one has.” (First Corinthians, 253). Christians must consistently guard themselves against any action that will potentially enslave them. I believe this is a tremendous word of wisdom as it relates to issues like drugs, alcohol, tobacco and pornography just to note a few of the more common destroyers of lives and families in our day.
3) Will this action encourage my brother or sister in Christ?
Therefore, if food causes my brother to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother to fall. – 1 Cor. 8:13
No one should seek his own good, but the good of the other person. – 1 Cor. 10:24
Give no offense to the Jews or the Greeks or the church of God… – 1 Cor. 10:32
Paul, for the sake of others, was willing to adjust his life that they might not be hurt or harmed. His brother or sister in Christ mattered more to him than his rights or liberties. This principle is grounded in the “mind of Christ” text of Phil. 2:3-5. For the sake of the body of Christ, your community of faith, “consider others as more important than yourselves.” Paul drives ethics to the gospel and to the cross. The gospel demands that the needs of others outweigh selfish desires. When it comes to wise decision making, a believer in Christ should always have an eye toward a potential weaker brother. John McArthur says, “Right or wrong is not the issue, but offending someone is.” (Giving Up to Gain, 5). This principle was an important guide for me as a father. Being blessed by God with four sons, I did not want to do anything that could hurt them, harm them, mislead them or lead them astray. I wanted to live before them, as best I could, in a way that would encourage them to take the high road ethically and morally, and to avoid the “danger zones” that could lead to sorrow and even destruction.
4) Will this action help or hinder my gospel witness?
If others share this authority over you, don’t we even more? However, we have not used this authority; instead we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ. – 1 Cor. 9:12
For although I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. To those who are outside the law, like one outside the law—not being outside God’s law, but under the law of Christ—to win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, that I may become a partner in its benefits. – 1 Cor. 9:19-23
Give no offense to the Jews or the Greeks or the church of God, just as I also try to please all people in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. – 1 Cor. 10:32-33
This principle is so crucial Paul repeats it at least three different times. He makes it very clear that his ethics are missiologically and evangelistically motivated. He did not allow anything to hinder the gospel from going forth and being heard in the most effective way possible.
Some misunderstand Paul to mean that he is infinitely flexible. However, antinomianism has no place in Paul’s theology, missional strategy, ethics or personal life. He would never say I am free to do anything that I want. He is “under Christ’s law!” To say, “to the thief I became a thief to win the thief; to the drunkard, I became a drunkard to win the drunkard” is utter nonsense and a total misinterpretation of what Paul is saying. Paul is not infinitely flexible; he is not free from the law of Christ that places the souls of men and women at a premium. The insights of D. A. Carson are helpful:
All of God’s demand upon him [Paul] is mediated through Christ. Whatever God demands of him as a new-covenant believer, a Christian, binds him; he cannot step outside those constraints. There is a rigid limit to his flexibility as he seeks to win the lost from different cultural and religious groups: he must not do anything that is forbidden to the Christian, and he must do everything mandated of the Christian…Today that expression, “all things to all men,” is often used as a form of derision. He (or she) has no backbone, we say; he is two-faced; he is “all things to all men.” But Paul wears the label as a witness to his evangelistic commitment. Even so, he could not do this if he did not know who he was as a Christian. The person who lives by endless rules and who forms his or her self-identity by conforming to them simply cannot flex at all. By contrast, the person without roots, heritage, self-identity, and nonnegotiable values is not really flexing, but is simply being driven hither and yon by the vagaries of every whimsical opinion that passes by. Such people may “fit in,” but they cannot win anyone. They hold to nothing stable or solid enough to win others to it! (The Cross and Christian Ministry, 120-21).
The bottom-line: nothing must hinder or obscure the gospel! Nothing! Absolutely nothing!
5) Is this action consistent with my new life in Christ? I Cor. 6:9-11, 19
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. Some of you were like this; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Cor. 6:9-11
Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own… – 1 Cor. 6:19
Followers of Jesus are brand new creatures. We are now temples of the Holy Spirit corporately (1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19). One aspect of this “newness” is that we honor God and bring Him glory in our bodies (1Cor. 6:20). This is a Pauline way of saying glorify God all the time in every way with all that you are. Body, mind, will, and emotions are all to be brought under His Lordship and control. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget this and tragic consequences follow. Christ is hidden rather than displayed in our lives. Let me illustrate. Sometimes in our desire to communicate the gospel clearly and without unnecessary baggage, we go too far and actually miscommunicate the message and send an uncertain sound. To gain a hearing from our “cultural despisers” we adjust our vocabulary, compromise purity and holiness, and we are reckless with what we do with our bodies and thereby cloud or even hide the glorious gospel that transforms and changes life. German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in a First Things article entitled, “How to Think About Secularism” provides needed words of wisdom in this context:
The absolutely worst way to respond to the challenge of secularism is to adapt to secular standards in language, thought, and way of life. If members of a secularist society turn to religion at all, they do so because they are looking for something other than what that culture already provides. It is counter productive to offer them religion in a secular mode that is carefully trimmed in order not to offend their secular sensibilities.
Christians should not shy away from the fact that our lives are centered on the divine things. We offer a different way of making sense of reality and a different way of living, which go against the grain of what modern society offers as the norm. We also should not shy away from referring to the wrath of God against human sin even though most moderns ignore, disbelieve, or sweeten the pill with deceptions about God’s complaisance over sin. (Wolfhart Pannenberg, “How to Think About Secularism,” First Things 64 (June/July 1996), 31.)
Tim Keller wisely informs us, “All of our personal problems and church problems come because we don’t come continually back to the gospel to work it out and live it out….Christians are enormously bold to tell the truth, but without a shred of superiority [remember 6:9-11!], because you are sinners saved by grace. The balance of boldness and utter humility, truth and love-is not somewhere in the middle between legalistic fundamentalism and relativistic liberalism. It is actually off the charts.” (Tim Keller, “Being the Church in Our Culture.”) When considering how to live for Christ in the 21st century, our new life demands that we proclaim and live the message with great boldness, holiness and humility. We are to live a life that is in harmony with who we are as new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
6) Will this action violate my conscience?
Eat everything that is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake, for the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. If one of the unbelievers invites you over and you want to go, eat everything that is set before you, without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This is food offered to an idol,” do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake. I do not mean your own conscience, but the other person’s. For why is my freedom judged by another person’s conscience? – 1 Cor. 10:25-29
It is risky, even dangerous, to ignore the inner voice of conscience. It is God-given and under redemptive-reconstruction thru the Spirit, Word and fellowship of the Christian community. A well-informed, Scripture-saturated, Spirit-sensitive conscience will be an asset in warning us of things that are sinful, evil, and unwise.
Now, I do not think Paul would say, “Let your conscience be your guide,” as if conscience by itself is a sufficient umpire or arbitrator when it comes to good decision-making. Rather he would say, “Let your conscience guided by Scripture and controlled by love be your guide.” This will involve some tension in your lifestyle preferences, but it will also result in God conforming you more to the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). We must get used to living with this tension. While most would love for every decision to be crystal clear (I certainly would!), that is naïve and simplistic. It would also stunt spiritual growth and maturity as we grow in Christ. Thus, Christians must know what is going on in their own cultural context. The internal voice of a believer’s conscience can be a great aid when guided by Scripture and controlled by the ethic of love. It can give you peace in what you are doing and joy in the doing. Romans 14:23 reminds us, “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” Living with a clear conscience before Christ and others is a worthy goal for all of us to pursue.
7) Will this action follow the pattern of the life of Jesus?
Be imitators of me, as I also am of Christ. – 1 Cor. 11:1
To be like Jesus should be the goal of every Christian’s life. By God’s grace someday we will be (Rom. 8: 28-30; 1 John 3:1-3). However, until that day arrives, we should strive to imitate Him in all things with a holy passion and blazing zeal.
A while back I was listening to a lecture by N.T. Wright. As he raised the issue of Christian ethics he noted that a number of his British friends had poked fun at and dismissed the silly, shallow American phenomena of the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelet. However, he then went on to note that several of his children were now making their pilgrimage through the teenage years. Suddenly, he did not find WWJD concept to be a silly and shallow consideration at all. In fact, he rather hoped his children might adopt such an ethic in this post-modern, anything and everything goes culture of the West. Of course, it is essential to KWJD (Know What Jesus Did) if asking WWJD is going to be of any benefit. In other words, this gospel-centered, Christ-centered ethic requires an immersion in the Scriptures. To live like Jesus you must know Jesus! To live like Jesus you must love Jesus.
Now, let me ask a question that should convict us all, myself being at the front of the line. If others imitate me, will they in some real and genuine sense be imitating Christ? To say it another way, can your children put on their wrist a WWDD bracelet (What Would Daddy Do?) or a WWMD bracelet (What Would Mother Do?) They should be able to, shouldn’t they?!
8) Will this action show love to others?
If I speak the languages of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing. – 1 Cor. 13:1-3
Love is a magnet that draws others to Christ. It is also the fulcrum that balances freedom and responsibility, theology and moral behavior in the Christian life. If our actions are not grounded in love, it does not matter what we say, how much we know or even what we do. Love cannot be prostituted! D. A. Carson is helpful in assessing this balancing act:
Strong Christians may be right on a theological issue, but unless they voluntarily abandon what is in fact their right they will do damage to the church and thus “sin against Christ” (8:12). To stand on your rights may thus involve you in sin after all-not the sin connected with your rights (there, after all, you are right!), but the sin of lovelessness, the sin of being unwilling to forgo your rights for the spiritual and eternal good of others. (Carson, The Cross and the Christian Ministry, 125).
I also like what John MacArthur says this crucial point:
Now a Christian who is truly well-rounded, positive, and effective, thinks and acts in two ways: conceptually and relationally. He has the ability to understand concepts and communicate to people. He has knowledge plus love and this is the way it should be in the church. Our knowledge needs to be balanced with love. The great fear is that with all our knowledge we would not have love and would therefore wind up being nothing. We have to be conceptual and relational. I think that in the name of liberty some of modern-day Christianity has violated the conscience of weaker brothers and created division in the body. Variations in behavior are the major cause of division in the body, not variations in doctrine. These variations in behavior are not even necessary since we could restrict our liberty for the sake of the weaker brother and create unity. We must make sure that love is the response to knowledge. (MacArthur, Giving Up to Gain, 13).
Liberty regulated and guided by love for God and others in many ways summarized the 10 principles we are examining. Placing others ahead of myself, even at personal sacrifice and loss, is the way of Christ, the way of the cross, the way of love. It may involve short-term loss, but long-term gain. It may cause us to suffer now, but be blessed forever. This is not really a difficult call to make, is it?
9) Will this action honor my body which belongs to God?
Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body. – 1 Cor. 6:19-20
We touched on this principle in an earlier post, but let’s look at it again from a slightly different angle. In these verses Paul declares that we are not our own and have been bought with a price. Therefore, we should honor God in all we do with our bodies. Chuck Swindoll says our bodies are: 1) a physical extension of Christ, 2) a moral illustration of the Lord, and 3) a spiritual habitation of God. John Piper says 6 things are true because Jesus bought your body: 1) God is for the body not against it. 2) The body is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. 3) The body will be resurrected from the dead. 4) The body is not to be mastered by anything but Christ. 5) The body is not to be used for any immorality. 6) The body is to be used for the glory of God. What is the result? “Use your body in ways that will show that God is more satisfying, more precious, more to be desired, more glorious than anything the body craves” (John Piper, “You Were Bought with a Price”). I don’t know about you, but I like this. Use my body to show how satisfying God is? Now that’s a life in the body worth living!
10) Will this action glorify God?
Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory. – 1 Cor. 10:31
This climatic and over-arching principle has been called “the joyful duty of man.” It is right in its God-focus for He is the most beautiful and valuable person in the entire universe. It is right in its human perspective for it makes clear why we are here: to live for God’s glory. John Piper is right: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him!” (John Piper, Desiring God, 9). No part of life is exempt from this principle. It is comprehensive and it is satisfying! So, seek His glory, and do it with passion!
Putting Our Ten Principles into Practice
When making ethical choices, world Christians will not wed their cultural and personal preferences to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They will vigorously keep them separate and distinct. They will not insist on their rights or their special interest that could cloud the beauty and purity of the gospel. How can a devoted Christ follower stand beneath the cross of their Savior and insist on their rights? To give up our rights for the spiritual and eternal blessing of others will be a joy and not a burden. It is our calling in Christ (Mark 10:35-45).
How will this influence the way we live as Christians? I believe the following theological paradigm applied to the Corinthian correspondence can give us some additional guidelines to consider. Several years ago, when I served at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, my good friend Al Mohler and I often discussed how the church should worship. He developed the following model that also provides insight for how the church should live out the gospel in today’s cultural context.
A Theological Paradigm for Being the Body of Christ:
|– Bad Church (Christian) + Good Way||+ Good Church (Christian) + Good Way|
|– Bad Church (Christian) – Bad Way||+ Good Church (Christian) – Bad Way|
Obviously, we want to be in the top box on the right. We want to be a good Christian in a good way. It is not difficult to discern a good Christian, because we have a perfect manual called the Bible to instruct and guide us. We can go to the counsel of the Old and New Testaments and discover God’s ideas for gospel ethics. Some things are non-negotiables. Some things are transparent. However, being a good Christian in a good way is not always as easy to discover. The good way is more subjective in nature. Cultural context plays a significant role at this point. There are many gray areas in life that are not always clear. How can we discover the good way? I believe the ten principles found in the Corinthian correspondence, provide tremendous help. Complementing them with six affirmations or axioms that take into consideration our 4-fold paradigm, I believe we can gain some insight into how we can find the “good way.”
Six Guiding Axioms for Finding the “Good Way”
- Love will regulate liberty.
- Love will rein in legalism.
- That which detracts from the gospel will be avoided.
- That which distracts from the gospel will be avoided.
- Follow the witness principle.
- Follow the wisdom principle.
The Issue of Alcohol: Applying The Ten Principles
I will now present a test case in which we can apply these principles. I suspect it will get your attention: the issue of alcohol.
In recent years debate has arisen among Bible-believing evangelicals concerning the use of beverage alcohol. Feelings and emotions run high on this issue. Most have strong convictions. I am no exception. Much of this debate has a generational bent to it, with younger believers arguing for the acceptability of drinking a beer or glass of wine and frequenting the bars, while older believers (I am 51 to locate myself chronologically) more likely frown on any use of alcohol other than medicinally and the idea of going to the bars for a drink is unthinkable. I am also aware that some see the debate as geographical (believers in the North favor moderation vs. those in the South who champion abstinence) and others denominational (Baptist types vs. Presbyterian/Episcopal types for example). I don’t think you will struggle concerning who believes what! Before I apply our “Guidelines” let me make some general observations on which I believe most can agree.
- Drunkenness is always sinful and wrong. No question. No debate.
- To take a pledge or sign a covenant to abstain from the use of alcohol and then use alcohol is sin. In fact it is a very serious sin because this is not a matter of judgment but integrity. A number of Bible college and seminary students have sinned at this point and need to repent.
- The Bible speaks both positively and negatively to the drinking of wine. However, there is no one-to-one correspondence to the liquor, wine and beer industries of our day, and this should not be papered over.
- Jesus made and drank wine.
- The Corinthians used intoxicating wine when observing the Lord’s Supper, got drunk, and got judged big time!
- It is not biblically defensible with chapter and verse to say it is always sin to drink a beverage that contains alcohol.
- Bible-believing Christians who are neither antinomians or legalist disagree on this issue. It would be helpful if we represent each other fairly and treat each other with grace and respect.
Now, having made these comments let’s apply God’s Guidelines for the Gray Areas of Life and see where it takes us.
1) Will this action be helpful to me? (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23)
It is difficult to see how beverage alcohol makes us better or builds us up. It is not difficult to see how it can harm or tear us down. Now to be fair, if it is done in moderation it is probably something of a neutral act with no personal consequences. However, alcohol is a mind-altering drug and it can easily become addictive. It does not help one in doing the will of God does it? If so how? My friend John Piper is helpful here and his words should be carefully weighed. He asks, “Does alcohol make me a better person? Does it draw me closer to God? Does it help me run the race more faithfully to the end?” These are good questions to consider.
2) Will this action potentially enslave me? (1 Corinthians 6:12)
This is the one question that a number of my brothers who advocate “drinking in moderation” tend to overlook or ignore. And yet, it may be the most crucial question in this whole debate. Can alcohol enslave you? The unequivocal answer is yes. Is it potentially addictive? Absolutely. In fact that is the goal of the multi-billion dollar alcohol industry! Get you when you are young and keep you until you die. Anyone who doubts this should look at how the alcohol advertising industry does its thing. After all, slogans through the years do not hide their intentions: “This Bud’s for you!” “Get that rocky mountain high!” “You only go around once in life, so grab all the gusto you can!” Now the response again of some is just drink in moderation. Don’t get drunk. Don’t get intoxicated. Don’t become physically or mentally impaired. But, and here is another crucial question: where is that line? One beer will have an effect. The same is true with a glass of wine with any significant alcohol content. How can you/would you know if you have crossed that line? Further, the millions who have crossed that line and been plunged into despair, destruction and even death is too numerous to count. Once more listen to the wisdom of John Piper, “is it really so prudish, or narrow to renounce a highway killer, a home destroyer, and a business wrecker?” No, I am in total agreement with my spiritual hero Adrian Rogers who said, “Moderation is not the cure for the liquor problem. Moderation is the cause of the liquor problem. Becoming an alcoholic does not begin with the last drink, it always begins with the first. Just leave it alone.” My friend James Merritt wisely says, “It is impossible to be bitten by a snake that you never play with.” Alcoholism cannot strike unless it is given the opportunity. That potential becomes real with the first drink that one takes.
Now, let me close this first installment of our test case with a personal word. I readily confess a bias when it comes to the issue of alcohol. My wife Charlotte grew up in the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home because her parents were alcoholics. She seldom if ever saw her parents during those years. Her father died a lost alcoholic never telling her he loved her and not attending our wedding. Her mother would slap Charlotte around when she was a little girl before she went into the Children’s Home. But, and by God’s grace, she was saved on her death bed. Her body had been ravaged by the twin killers of alcohol and tobacco. Today her sister and brother are lost alcoholics as is most of the rest of her family. I could spend hours detailing broken promises, verbal and physical abuse, heartache and tragedy, including murder, that occurred in her family. My sister Joy and her husband Kevin King adopted a daughter born with fetal alcohol syndrome. She began life with two strikes against her through no fault of her own. Today there are more than 40 million problem drinkers in America. Alcohol is the number one drug problem among teenagers. One in three American families suspects that one or more family members have a drinking problem. Misuse of alcohol costs our nation $100 billion a year in quantifiable cost. When we look at this issue, these realities cannot be ignored or minimized. To do so is simply irresponsible. The 21st century context is significantly different than that of the 1st century. Because of these experiences and many more, I have often said that even if I were not a Christian I would have nothing to do with alcohol. There is simply too much sorrow and heartache connected to it. Avoiding this potentially addictive, enslaving and devastating drug is simply the wise thing to do.
3) Will this action encourage my brother or sister in Christ? (1 Corinthians 8:13; 10:24, 32)
A prospective student once told me that he went to the bars and drank with his friends to prove you could be a Christian and be cool. I responded by saying if you have to go to the bars and drink to prove you are cool, then you are not cool. Further, I shared with him that the example he was setting for others could some day come back to haunt him. I was speaking of his children.
We are all an example to someone. To our children we are probably heroes. Perhaps you believe you are capable of drinking in moderation a glass of wine to the glory of God. Your children: can you be confident that they will be able to do the same? Is it worth the risk? One thing is certain. If you share the wisdom of avoiding the appearance and place of temptation, you will never have to worry about them walking the tragic road of alcoholism because they saw you do it, thought it must be ok, but unfortunately lacked self-control.
I have tried hard to see how supporting the alcohol industry and socially drinking helps anyone. To be completely honest, I just don’t see it.
4) Will this help or hinder my gospel witness? (1 Corinthians 9:12, 19-13; 10:32-33)
I can conceive of a scenario where sharing the gospel over a beer or glass of wine might not be a problem, at least in certain context. On the other hand I do not see how it helps or enhances one’s witness, and it may actually be a stumblingblock. Wisdom again says why run the risk? You have no reason to think it will hinder your witness if you abstain. There is a risk, however, if you don’t.
5) Is this action consistent with my life in Christ? (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 19)
This principle settles the issue of drunkenness, intoxication and impairment. My joy and fulfillment is now totally and completely in Christ through the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). I do not need an intoxicating, mind altering substance of any sort as a new creation in Christ. If I need a high I will find it in Jesus.
6) Will this action violate my conscience? (1 Corinthians 10:25-29)
For some the answer is yes. For others the answer is no. This principle will assist us in addressing this issue, but in and of itself it is not decisive.
7) Will this action follow the pattern of the life of Jesus? (1 Corinthians 11:1)
This is the place where those advocating moderation seek to make their strongest case. Jesus drank wine and so we can drink wine. Jesus drank wine and if you advocate abstinence you are saying Jesus was wrong. This is a compelling argument, at least on the surface. However, if one digs a little deeper I believe you will discover a flaw in the argument. You see there is no one-to-one correspondence between the time of Jesus and our own.
As I noted in the previous article it is true Jesus drank wine, and I am sure I would have had I lived in the first century. However, there is no evidence at all that he ever partook of “strong drink.” In other words Jesus, like others deeply devoted to God, would have drank wine with a very low alcohol content. It would more than likely have required an extremely large amount to become intoxicated. As Bob Stein has carefully documented, and I have yet to read a refutation of his argument, “The term ‘wine’ or oinos in the ancient world, then, did not mean wine as we understand it today but wine mixed with water…. To consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine containing three parts water to one part wine [a fairly common ancient ratio], one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses. In other words, it is possible to become intoxicated from wine mixed with three parts water, but one’s drinking would probably affect the bladder long before it affected the mind.” (Bob Stein, “Wine Drinking in New Testament Times,” Christianity Today 19, June 20, 1975, 10-11.) It should also be noted that children would have drank this diluted mixture of water and wine, and it is impossible to imagine godly parents giving their children a drink that could get them drunk. And, given their smaller body size, they would have become intoxicated on less wine than their adult parents. It again seems clear that there is no one-to-one correspondence with first century wine and twenty first century distilled intoxication liquor. Concerning the latter I believe the Lord Jesus would have no part.
8) Will this action show love to others? (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)
The loving thing is always to esteem others better than yourself, it is to look out for their interest, not just your own. “Liberty in Christ regulated by love” for Him and others is the ethic that guides the man or woman in Christ. Is it more loving to insist on my freedom or to sacrifice for another? Because I love you and would never want to lead you astray by my example, I will chose to say no to that which can enslave, intoxicate and addict. It’s just the loving thing to do.
9) Will this action honor my body which belongs to God? (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
This is actually a debatable principle with wine or a beer. There is no debate with respect to hard liquor. However, I know of no benefit allegedly gained from a beer or glass of wine that cannot be obtained by some other non-intoxicating means. Why not just drink a glass of grape juice and avoid any risk of addiction?
10) Will this action glorify God? (1 Corinthians 10:31)
This principle is the most important in my judgment, but it is not conclusive. I have met some Christians who with sincerity and conviction say I can drink a glass of wine, a good gift from God, for His glory. I, on the other hand, cannot. However, keep in mind that glorifying also entails our previous nine guidelines. That truth will certainly influence our grasp and understanding of all that is involved in glorifying God.
I should note that some who advocate moderation draw an analogy to eating and sex. They correctly point out that gluttony and sexual immorality are sin, but not the act of eating or sexual intercourse. I would want to make several observations in this context. First, gluttony and overeating is sinful and dishonors the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is something I was guilty of, God convicted me, and I lost 30 pounds. I stay in constant battle in this area. Second, many who would line up with me on alcohol run (but not very fast due to their weight!) from addressing gluttony. Third, some have alleged that Southern Baptists are hypocritical in passing resolutions on alcohol but not gluttony. I agree. So next year in Louisville someone needs to submit such a resolution. It will have my full support. Fourth, we have to eat to live and we have to engage in sex to propagate the race. Drinking alcohol is not necessary for either life or good living. The fact is it may hamper or end both. Fifth, I know of no one who’s been arrested for DWF (Driving While Fat). The supposed analogy breaks down at a significant point: the point of potential intoxication.
In conclusion, I agree with John MacArthur. Can I say it is always a sin to take a drink? No. Can I say it is almost always unwise? Yes. One of America’s leading pastors is Andy Stanley. He wrote a book entitled The Best Question Ever. That question is this, “What is the wise thing for me to do?” In my judgment, abstaining from beverage alcohol is the wise thing to do. This is not legalism but love. This is not being anti-biblical but pro-brother and sister. This is not working for evil but for good. Given the world in which we live, I believe such a lifestyle honors the Lord Jesus. I believe it pleases Him. It is simply the wise thing to do.
Daniel L. Akin is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina.