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Sep14MonWhat's wrong with social drinking? Does The Salvation Army's teetotalling stance make sense? September 14, 2009 by Captain Amy Reardon & Dr. James Read
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In this Talking It Over series, Dr. James Read, Executive Director of The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg, and Captain Amy Reardon, Editor of Young Salvationist, U.S.A. National Headquarters, dialogue about moral and ethical issues. Click here to read more debates in the Talking It Over series.
At age 14, I became a senior soldier and promised “to abstain from the use of all intoxicating liquor.” I've changed in many ways in the 40-plus years since then, but I've kept that promise.
What is bothering me is that I've got more than a few friends, colleagues and family members who respect the fact that I can keep a promise, but really don't see the point of making a teetotalling promise in the first place.
Drinking is such a part of everyday life in mainstream Canada that not drinking is just kind of odd. I think some see me as quaint and others think I suffer from arrested development. They may not mean it but I feel a little patronized, as if allowances need to be made for someone who's not grown up enough to have a more nuanced approach to alcohol.
Is the promise I made in 1966 still reasonable? What do you think?
Here's what I'm grappling with. Nobody thinks addiction is a good thing, but most people who drink aren't alcoholics and won't become alcoholics. That's just a fact. So a promise to abstain seems extreme. I haven't given up shopping just because there's a known risk of becoming a shopaholic.
Then there are the purported health benefits. Through the years I've had people quote 1 Timothy 5:23 at me—“a little wine for the sake of your stomach” (NASB). Now it's clinical research results that get added to the Apostle Paul's recommendation.
Chosen to be a Soldier refers to drinking as “suspending the exercise of the highest faculties of the mind.” When it says this, it implies that drinking's always a bad thing. But what do I say to those who commend the mood-altering effects of a social drink as something that would do me good by loosening me up? I admit that I'm pretty awkward socially and generally tend to intellectualize life too much.
In committing myself not to drink even a glass, am I trying to be holier than Jesus?
Should I be persuaded that C.S. Lewis was right when he said people like me, who don't know the pleasures of a fine wine, sacrifice something good?
All of these considerations would be irrelevant if drinking alcohol was a sin. Then, my promise not to drink would be just an added reinforcement to remind me not to do what would be sinful to do anyway. There are those who say drinking is inherently sinful and go to great lengths to prove it, as you know—even trying to argue that Jesus turned water into grape juice at Cana, for instance. I just don't believe what they say. I have no doubt that the wine Jesus drank was fermented. And I accept that people can be mature Christians and have their wine at dinner.
So, the question is posed: In committing myself not to drink even a glass, am I trying to be holier than Jesus?
I agree that the wine of the New Testament was fermented. Why else would Ephesians 5:18 say, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery”?
But honestly, Jim, I've never been tempted to drink, and for the very same reason you might consider it. A little alcohol loosens someone up, as you mentioned. I'm the type who talks too much, laughs too loudly and leaves social gatherings with the haunting question: Did I manage to make an idiot of myself again? The last thing I want is to be under the influence of something that will exaggerate the aspects of my personality that I wish I could eliminate.
What's more, I'd rather encounter my friends as they really are, not as altered versions of themselves. If we and our spouses were in proximity where we could go out for dinner together, I'd rather hear you intellectualize the way you naturally do, rather than have you adjust your personality with a drink. Of course, it could be the case that—for some—alcohol brings out the true personality that is hiding inside. I just don't have the experience to know for sure.
But allow me to consider this from another angle. Romans 14:21 says, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” Now, I know that verse was written with all kinds of Old Testament litigation in mind—things most of us don't worry about today under the new covenant. But I think there is a principle here that shouldn't be lost. Don't do anything that could cause a brother or sister in Christ to stumble.
You know the old argument: we work with recovering alcoholics, and for their sakes it is best that we stay away from alcohol. Some might think that's extreme, as these people aren't in our presence at all times. But I like the idea of a true commitment to alcohol-free living, as a testimony to these brothers and sisters that life is normal and fine without it.
When we lived in Seattle, our neighbour turned his home into a clean and sober boarding house. We got close to some of the residents there. They told us that they looked to us as the model of a Christian family. (Rose-coloured glasses were involved, I'm sure!) If we did drink, would that have made it difficult for them? They needed someone to look to as an example of successful living. If our successful living had involved alcohol, would they consider compromising their necessary commitments to complete abstinence? I don't know the answer to that, but I felt good that when they visited our home, there were no wine bottles on the shelf. It made me feel like the real deal.
My wife, Laurie, thinks you're being too easy on me. (By the way, we just celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary with fireworks and sparklers around the cottage bonfire, not a glass of vintage wine.) Laurie's a nurse, and she gets very distressed sometimes about the way the health benefits of alcohol get promoted more than the harms, and the controversies about the researched benefits get minimized.
Apparently, even moderate drinking takes its toll. The risks of cancer, gastrointestinal and liver disease, brain-cell death and injury from accidents increase with alcohol consumption. Links between physiological, mental, social and spiritual health are further areas of concern to her. I don't think anyone has done a population health study of Salvation Army soldiers, but several have been done on Seventh-day Adventists, who are principled teetotallers, too. The results show that Adventists live longer and healthier. Living alcohol-free can be good for you.
Caring for our own health is a Christian responsibility, but I think that caring for others is an even greater responsibility
Caring for our own health is a Christian responsibility, but I think that caring for others is an even greater responsibility. And this is where you and Laurie really make your case in my estimation. You talk about the impact you and your husband, Rob, have on neighbours, friends and clients in Army rehabilitation programs, showing them that it really is possible to live vibrantly without alcohol.
Laurie talks about the people who have been killed because others have chosen to drink, or the patients whose lives have been ruined because others drove while drunk or got violent while drunk. One of the very worst is the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. We know too many people whose lives are permanent struggles because their mothers drank. The mothers might not have been addicts; they might not even have been problem drinkers—any alcohol is too much for a fetus!
So, while I don't like being thought of as odd or an extremist, I am prepared to make my small stand against the billions and billions of dollars that the alcohol industry spends to promote drinking.
Should that commitment be a precondition of being a full member of The Salvation Army, though? This is an acute question, Amy. We say on the one hand that the Army is a church (not a parachurch organization or a sect) and admit on the other hand that one can be a wholly sanctified Christian and still drink. Do we really want to be saying to people that if they are Christians but don't feel convicted about drinking they should join another church?
We both agree that the word “church” doesn't fully sum up what the Army is. You don't want to be odd or an extremist—but wouldn't you agree that Salvationists, as a group of people, are somewhat unusual, and soldiership is … well, extreme?
Soldiership is more personally invasive than most church memberships. We don't just embrace a doctrine and commit to a body of believers, but we commit ourselves to a lifestyle. That lifestyle has been spelled out by others, based on their understanding of Scripture. A little scary, sure—but we're not forced into soldiership.
Those who choose to drink need not vacate the corps premises! People may choose to be adherents, as opposed to soldiers, for whatever personal reason they may have. It is, I think, more similar to what membership would look like in another church. The adherent affiliates himself in a meaningful way with the corps as his church home, but does not bind himself to the same lifestyle promises as a soldier. I have friends who became adherents because they didn't want to give up their glass of wine.
What Laurie has to say about alcohol is helpful. I never realized how many negative effects alcohol can have. I don't think it can be denied that drinking involves risks, but teetotalling never does.