Thursday, July 24, 2014

On drinking

Last month, 17 members of our church went on a mission trip to Romania to help Livada Orphan Care. (I will be writing about this soon.) It was an amazing trip, exhausting but rewarding. On the flight back home, one of our Elder's wives was sitting next to a group of Baptists who were also returning from a mission trip. They discussed openly and lovingly what they'd seen God do.

And then dinner came. And our lady ordered a glass of wine. And the Baptists were SHOCKED.

How could someone drink who was a Christian? Especially ON A MISSION TRIP!!! OH MY!!!

Now I have written before about this subject, pretty thoroughly taking down any arguments against the Bible.

But today I want to address another argument:  that drinking is a "stumbling block" to other Christians. For example:  "It might not be a sin to drink, but you shouldn't do it around others because you will be a stumbling block."

But first, I will repeat what I said in the article linked to above:

"Let me start by saying something: Rev 22:18, Deut 4:2, Prov 30:5-6, Deut 12:32, etc., all indicate the danger of adding to, or taking from, the Bible. There is no more important principle in Bible study that this:  all that matters is what the Bible actually said (exegesis) and how to properly apply it today (hermeneutics). The worst thing you can do is decide, 'I believe such-and-such', or 'My church teaches such-and-such,' or 'My denomination teaches such-and-such' and then go looking through the Bible to try and convince yourself that it could be true."

So as we discuss today what a stumbling block is, don't bother reading any more unless you are willing to be open-minded and actually learn what God's Word says on the subject.

"Stumbling Block"

To begin with, let's understand the term, 'stumbling block.' It originates in Leviticus 19:14. In this section, God is providing various laws for the Hebrews, and He basically commands them not to take advantage of the needy, saying: don't withholding your employee's wages, don't mock the deaf, don't cause the blind to stumble, and don't treat the poor different than the mighty.

So the term 'stumbling block' inherently carries with it the concept of putting something in front of a blind man which causes them to lose their path.

In the New Testament, this is used by both Matthew and Paul as an analogy for spiritual points.

In 1Cor 1:23, Jesus is presented as a stumbling block to the Jews--they are blind and trying to find their way to God, but Jesus being the Messiah trips them from their path, for they cannot accept that He would be their Savior.

In 1Cor 8:9, Paul says to be careful not to become a stumbling block to weaker brothers.

In Rom 14, Paul says the same thing, in reference to eating and drinking.

It is these last two which are always quoted when you hear the term "stumbling block" being used in relation to drinking. So let's break them down individually.

1 Corinthians 8

1Corinthians 8 is a chapter written by Paul to the Corinthians on the subject of food which was sacrificed to idols. In Imperial Rome, any business dinner, large family gathering, or major social event was preceded by eating food and drinking wine which was sacrificed/consecrated to a pagan god, often the emperor himself. This was repugnant to Jews and Christians; indeed, under Jewish law it was considered the worst form of idolatry, akin to worshipping someone other than the One True God.

Regarding food sacrificed to idols, Paul begins by reminding everyone that the pagan gods don't actually exist--they aren't demons or evil powers, but man-made nonsense (v.4-6). But, Paul points out, not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some believe that these gods are actually evil spirits of some kind, so sacrificing to them actually does mean idolatry against God (v.7). Paul has no problem with eating meat which had been sacrificed to false gods, because we know that we are no better or worse either way--it does not matter if someone else sacrificed the food to some make-believe deity, that doesn't affect our relationship with God whatsoever (v.8).

But Paul does have a warning for Christians. He says that if a weaker brother sees you eating meat sacrificed to idols, he might be tempted to do the same even though he thinks it is sinful. In that case, you have become a 'stumbling block' to him, for he has started doing something he felt was idolatry and worshipping someone other than God due to having seen you do it (v.9-13).

So to Paul, he is using the term to refer to a harmless activity which if viewed by another Christian might lead him into idolatry.

Romans 14

In Romans 14, Paul says the same regarding the same subject. Paul is giving advice to those Christians in Rome and begins to talk about the varying strengths of faith.

Some, Paul says, have a strong faith and have been able to completely leave Jewish law behind and follow Christ in liberty. Others have a weak faith, and still cling to the traditions of their forefathers as though they were God-required.

Paul warns not to allow these differences to create separation or division. And this comes in basically two ways:  Paul says that the strong brother is not to look down on the weak brother, and that the weak brother is not to be judgmental of the strong brother (v.3).

Paul then gives several examples of each.  Some brothers are weak and still follow Jewish holidays, while some are stronger and see no day as different than any other. Some are weak and still follow Jewish dietary laws and never eat meat or drink wine sacrificed to idols; others are stronger and eat as they please.  Again in verse 10, Paul reminds us that the two problems are contempt by the strong brothers, and judgmentalism by the weak brothers.

He then says:

"Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of your brother or sister."

So the first stumbling block we must avoid is judgmentalism--deciding that the other person is lesser than you because of their actions (v.13).

The second stumbling block is convincing them to do what they believe to be sin (v.23).  Similar to the passage in 1Corinthians, Paul says to be careful that your actions don't pressure someone into doing what they believe to be sinful.

Drinking as a stumbling block

It is from these passages that many (mostly Baptists) conclude, "Even if drinking isn't sinful, you shouldn't do it or you are being a stumbling block to others."

As clearly shown above, that is not at all the context of what Paul is saying. Paul would say that drinking is fine (and indeed he does on more than one occasion, as you can see if you go back to the article I linked to in the beginning). But Paul would say three things:
  1. Do not judge stronger brothers. If you don't drink and see a Christian drinking, don't judge him/her for embracing their liberty in Christ.
  2. Do not judge weaker brothers. If you do drink and meet a teetotaler, don't look down on them for being unable to shed their traditional viewpoint.
  3. Do not convince others to sin. If you know a brother who thinks drinking is a sin, be careful that you don't tempt them into starting drinking/rebelling against God.
 I think everyone would agree with those statements.

The question comes in the practical application of it.

Some would say that this means: only drink with other Christians who drink, never drinking around those who do not.

But this doesn't seem, to me, to hold up to Scripture. 

Galatians 2:11-13: The Forgotten Scripture

In Galatians 2:11-13, we get to see Paul in action here.

Cephas (Peter) had been living among the Gentiles. Knowing that it was free to eat things forbidden by Mosaic Law, Peter enjoyed it with them. However, when Jews came around who didn't do so, Peter withdrew from the Gentiles and followed the law.

In other words--Peter pretended to only eat kosher when around kosher brethren. In doing this, he ended up convincing Barnabas that this was necessary:  this is called "leading Barnabas astray" in the passage! Paul outspokenly and publicly confronts Peter over this hypocrisy, and tells the Galatians about it as well--for they too were being preached to by Judaizers trying to add on traditions to their grace.

So let's change the words "eating" to "drinking alcohol" there and you see my point.

Let's say that you (Pete) and your buddy (Barney) from church regularly drink wine. But one day you are met for lunch by some old Baptist buddies and you guys start to eat. You are handed the wine list by the waiter and you say, "No, no--we are Christians, we don't drink." Now this of course makes your Baptist friends happy. But your buddy Barney gets confused and now stops drinking alcohol, thinking that he was sinning before.

According to Paul, you have become a stumbling block by STOPPING Barney from drinking. You have led him astray. (Obviously Pete = Peter, Barney = Barnabas.)

Likewise, in Romans 14 Paul warns us of the opposite: you should also not be talking someone INTO drinking who believes it is wrong. If you are around someone who believes drinking is evil and idolatry, then keep your mouth shut and order a water.

The Application

A few key points I want to make here now that we have completed our study:


In both passages, Paul is talking about eating food and wine sacrificed to idols. It is the sacrifice to idols which is the key element--not the fact that it is wine.

Personally I have never met a single teetotaler whose reason for avoiding a beer is that they think the Budweiser brewery is out there sacrificing their brews to Zeus.

In other words: these passages apply specifically to the questions of idolatrous sacrifice. So we need to be very careful about applying this to wine  in general. If you do that, then you should also apply the other parts to be in general.

In other words, there are only two logical ways to apply this passage based on context:
  1. It refers to food and wine sacrificed to idols. Therefore, if someone I'm around thinks it is sacrificed to evil spirits and my eating/drinking will tempt them into doing the same, I should not do so.
  2. It is a general statement. In this case, you should not drink wine, eat meat, or celebrate holidays. Abstain from all of them so that no one might ever be tempted to break one.

You can't avoid it, guys: if you are going to quote Romans 14 as being against drinking, then it is equally against celebrating birthdays and Christmas and Easter and eating meat. So try and enjoy your life as a sober vegan sitting at home alone during the holidays with your TV turned off so as not to hear a Christmas carol accidentally.

Otherwise, you are forced to use context and apply the passage as it was written.


Of course, no one today thinks their food or drink or holidays are sacrifices made to pagan gods who are competing against YHWH for dominance of the heavens. So be cautious about OVER-applying this verse to our situation today, which is radically different.

That said, I do believe there are some ways to properly use the passage if you wish to talk about drinking:

  • Admit that the Bible clearly says that there is nothing at all wrong with drinking. The passage clearly says that eating anything, drinking anything, or celebrating anything are totally fine--even if the original person/s who started the holiday or made the food/drink did so for pagan reasons.

  • Never judge a fellow Christian for using liberties which you don't feel you have. If you don't drink that is fine; do not judge the one who does. If you don't celebrate Christmas because you feel it was taken from a pagan holiday, then fine; do not judge the one who does. If you follow the Daniel Diet only because you think that is what God wants, then fine (other than the fact that your theology is terrible); but do not judge me for having a steak.

  • Do not try and tempt people into doing things they think are idolatrous. Since we have no idolatrous sacrificial system for food and wine today, this probably is not a real issue for you today. I do think one good example, though, is Halloween. Many Christians see Halloween as a celebration of Satan and demons. I think it is harmless, and there is nothing wrong with me doing it, posting photos about it, etc. HOWEVER...I should not be trying to talk them into my way of thinking or convince them to go participate.

So is drinking being a stumbling block? Or posting photos of a beer on your Facebook page being a stumbling block? Of course not, not from the Bible. In fact, Paul's interaction with Peter in Galatians 2 implies that the hypocrisy of doing something with one group but pretending you don't with another group is blatantly wrong.

The Bible says that being a stumbling block is either judging someone who does something you don't feel free to do, OR trying to trick someone into doing something they feel is a major deadly sin.

THAT is what it means to be a stumbling block.


  1. Properly applied, the I Corinthians passage actually gives us tremendous freedom. And in the context of all of Paul's letters, I cannot imagine that he wanted to establish any kind of behavioral straitjacket for the Christian churches; indeed, he spoke against such strict interpretations many times. It's amazing how many Christians and Christian leaders, though, try to enforce strict behavioral rules that almost force the rank and file to become hypocrites.

    For example, as late as the 1970s and 1980s, the Church of the Nazarene and some others prohibited their members from seeing movies in a movie theater; yet many Nazarenes had cable in their homes by which they could see any movie they wished. (That was why I left the Nazarene church, because I could not promise I'd never see a movie in a theater. I've always believed we should support good art, including film art.) In the strictest sense, the rule itself was a stumbling block, because it made good people who sincerely disagreed with the Church's rule act contrary to it and hide their actions from brothers and sisters. It caused division where no division was necessary, and evoked a kind of hypocrisy among many otherwise good Nazarenes.

    Far better to allow the Spirit to work with our fellow believers-in-Jesus--which is exactly what Paul taught.

    As for drinking, in my 20s I started to drink a little wine because I knew that, as a musician, I'd be in many situations where it was expected. And no, I haven't lost my mind or succumbed to the disease of alcoholism, and the Holy Spirit still speaks to me. :)

  2. Great post (as usual). The lesson I need to learn is to not judge Christians who, as my knee-jerk reaction tends to be, appear to be backwards or silly-looking for their views on things like drinking alcohol, dancing, or listening to rock music.

    I hardly ever drink so this isn't much of an issue for me, but I do play too-loud electric guitar, which in previous generations I suppose would've been enough to call for a good old-fashioned Baptist intervention.

    I really wish this blog had more commenters so there'd be more room for spirited discussion along with the posts. C'mon, lurkers, I know you're out there.

  3. Excellent post as usual!

    Read the whole thing, but I got hooked on your view of Halloween... I would be interested in your thoughts. I understand both sides of the fence, for/against, but value your opinion. Either a post for everyone or just an email would be awesome, of course if you have time.


    1. I have not forgotten this but have just been through a very difficult and busy period. I think this is a great post and a great one to do NOT during Halloween season when everyone is up in arms. :) So I will put this on my list and have something out in a few months at the latest. Thanks!