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    Alcohol and Abstinence

    What'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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    amy-reardonIn 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.


    Dear Amy,

    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?


    Dear Jim,

    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.


    Dear Amy,

    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?


    Dear Jim,

    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.



    On Saturday, January 18, 2020, Kaitlin said:

    I've never been to a Salvationist church. Your stance on alcohol is intriguing but makes sense given the cultural context you started in and the work that you do.

    I'm looking for "the right" denomination for me, and everything about the SA is appealing except this one position. I understand where you're coming from, but personally I've never had a problem with alcohol and don't see why I should take a teetotaling stance. Personally, I dislike the effects of alcohol, but I'm that person who might have a glass of wine on special occasions or have a beer with my friends. I do know a few teetotalers, but it's just never struck me as a big deal. My parents are teetotalers, but they had friends and family who dealt with alcoholism. I don't, to my knowledge, know any alcoholics now.

    That said, does it make sense for Christians to sacrifice their freedom to be a witness? If I were meeting someone I knew struggled with compulsive shopping, I wouldn't intentionally try to provoke their weakness and cause them to stumble. So there's definitely a case to be made that we sometimes have to give up freedom to be a witness.


    On Saturday, November 17, 2018, Lawrence Shiroma, Major said:

    Thank you for your well written article on the pros and cons of abstinence from alcohol. The advantages of alcohol abstinence certainly outweighs the disadvantages!


    On Saturday, November 7, 2009, Clyde Follett said:

    To Chris,
    My only response is that I will continue on the path I have trod so far and will have my Saviour decide.
    May God Bless us all.

    On Wednesday, November 4, 2009, Chris Stephens said:

    Dear Clyde,

    You conclude your response by affirming the necessity of following the "teaching of The Word," but unfortunately the content of your response appears to be based on little more than your own opinion and anecdotal experience.

    If the question is "should Christians oppose drinking" then the answer must be based on nothing else then the single fact of whether the Bible opposes drinking. Nothing else is relevant.

    So does the Bible oppose drinking? No one who reads it could conclude that.

    Here's one quick and easy way to know that is true: Have you ever heard anyone ask whether the Bible opposes murder? How about theft? Ever argue with someone whether the Bible opposes theft? How about adultery? Have you ever had to wonder whether the Bible opposes adultery?

    The answer to all of those, of course, is "no," and the reasons for that is that the Bible clearly opposes all of those things. When the Bible opposes something, we know it. God's Word is clear that way. The very fact that we are having this discussion is all the proof you need that the Bible does not clearly condemn drinking. If it did, then we wouldn't have to debate this.

    Moreover, not only does the Bible not condemn drinking, it actually endorses it. You mention Jesus' miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, but you do not seem to appreciate the significance of that. Jesus turned water into wine and gave it to people to drink. (and not just because there was a shortage of drinking water either; indeed, it was water that he turned into wine!) It is inconceivable that Jesus could do this if he opposed drinking. Giving someone wine to drink is an explicit and undeniable endorsement of drinking. Clearly Jesus endorsed drinking. To conclude otherwise would be to call Christ a hypocrite.

    Since the Bible does not oppose drinking, neither then should we. As soon as we begin condemning things that the Bible does not, we have strayed into the error of legalism and human tradition. If we are to live our lives following the teaching of The Word, then we must, as Jesus did, endorse drinking, and, to paraphrase Acts 11, no longer call unholy what God has created for us to enjoy.

    On Sunday, November 1, 2009, Clyde Follett said:

    The September 2009 issue of the Salvationist carried a dialogue between Dr. James Read and Captain Amy Reardon entitled “Alcohol and Abstinence” and carried the by-line “What’s wrong with social drinking? Does the Salvation Army’s teetotaling stance make sense?”.

    I feel this article begs a response as its tone and content seem to belie the dangers of consuming alcohol as well as downplay the necessity as Christians to abstain in all circumstances.

    I would like to address points in the article with my feelings from the standpoint of an alcoholic with more than thirty years of having alcohol form a major part of my life but who found the Lord’s saving grace as the only answer to my drinking issues and problems.

    My intention is not to disparage the writers but to attack the issue of what role social drinking plays in the life of a Christian.

    1. The third paragraph of Captain Reardon’s opening statements says “ Drinking is such a part of life in mainstream Canada that not drinking is just kind of odd”. I would urge Captain Reardon to check her sources as this is not a factual statement and in fact alcohol consumption is declining in many areas - people in my age group no longer pursue the social drinking routines that were so prevalent in their earlier years. It no longer holds the passion for them that it once did.

    2. Further in Captain Reardon’s first comments, when referencing the Chosen to Be A Soldier article, she says “When it says this, it implies that drinking’s always a bad thing”. Captain Reardon, please tell me what is the purpose of drinking? I spent more than thirty years at it and now look back and wonder why. Other than loosen one’s control of mind and body, please tell me the function you see that makes it worthwhile.

    3. Captain Reardon’s reference to a comment by C.S. Lewis that “not knowing the pleasure of a fine wine sacrifice something good” is also a fault in my mind. That is strictly the opinion of C.S.Lewis and nothing more. It deserves no further comment.

    4. Captain Reardon also states that “people can be mature Christians and have their wine at dinner”. Again I have to ask, would it be also mature to have a snifter of cognac after dinner or a shot of whiskey before retiring for the night? This is not maturity! This is bending to the way Satan would have us think in this age of “liberty” in worship - everything is acceptable now because we live in a new age. Sorry, sin is sin.

    5. Captain Reardon questions if abstention would make her holier than Christ. I would urge her to consider the age our Lord lived in on this earth when wine was a suitable substitute for water in an otherwise arid landscape. I can’t find a scripture reference saying that the Lord drank wine. Neither do I appreciate Christians or others trying to justify their “wine with dinner” attitude by saying our Saviour turned the water into wine so if He did it, what is wrong with us partaking?

    6. Dr. Read’s comments also deserve some rebuttal as those of Captain Reardon. In his second reply in this dialogue he states “and admit on the other hand that one can be a wholly sanctified Christian and still drink”. Dr. Read, my Bible says that the Lord requires all of you, mind body and soul and nowhere does it sates that we commit ourselves wholly to the Lord while at the same time holding on to the things of the world. Again, the new age mentality does nothing to help the Christian live as God intended.

    7. In her last response, Captain Reardon talks about Salvationists as unusual and our challenge as soldiers as extreme. Captain Reardon, we should be proud as Salvationists to be recognized as UNIQUE (not unusual) in undertaking massive challenges in trying to look after the people of this world who are afflicted with all manner of sin. And NO we are not extreme in taking on the commitment as Soldiers of the Army. We are soldiers in a battle against sin where we are called to fight. The fight is real and its loss will translate in eternity in Hell. That is not extreme, it is commitment and it is necessary.

    8. “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”. Captain Reardon, I urge you to reexamine your stance on this. Encouraging drinking is not a Christian attribute that I strive for and don’t feel it is appropriate for any Christian. No one is turned away from the Army because they drink or any other vice that has a hold on their lives and neither are they told that we want them to fill the pews and not consider their lifestyle - which may involve drinking. This sounds too much like just “filling the pews” but there is more at stake here than membership. It requires a feeling and effort from us as Salvationists to save their souls by introducing them to Jesus Christ. The wording of your comments sounds very much like more bending of the will to Satan and the world.

    9. Captain Reardon continues that soldiership “binds himself to the lifestyle promises as a soldier”. I am a Soldier of the Salvation Army and I do not feel bound in any way shape or form. I wear the unfirm proudly as a statement of my decision to follow Christ and uphold the long established ideology of our church.

    10. The final straw for me is the statement that “I have friends who became adherents because they didn’t want to give up their glass of wine”. Again, I reiterate that Christ demands all of me and all of you. Song 474 in the Salvation Army Song Book states it quite well - “All to Jesus I Surrender” and the chorus says “ I surrender all”. The glass of wine is only one of many strings that will continue to hold the soul of a Christian to the linkage with the world and the Devil!! Condoning the practice will not help the soul reach the ultimate experience in Christ.


    Please note that none of the comments I have offered should be misconstrued as judging of either of the authors thereby placing me in a sinful position which our Lord condemns.

    I have a sense that the article is written without due personal experience with alcohol and its destructive force upon the mind and body. In this I can understand the tone and content but it in no way diminishes the need for a response or the necessity to follow the teaching of The Word.

    I trust you will take the comments as constructive and will result in an endeavor to refocus when and where the use of alcohol is concerned.

    On Sunday, October 25, 2009, Chris Stephens said:

    We should stop kidding ourselves.

    The Army's opposition to drinking is nothing more than a residual human tradition that we cling to because, like so many believers since the very beginning, we desperately love our human traditions and love to exalt them at the expense of God's truth.

    The Army's opposition to drinking arose at the exact same time as a larger cultural movement against drinking - the same cultural movement that eventually led to the prohibition laws of the 1930s. Coincidence? Of course not. The Army's opposition to drinking can therefore be seen as nothing more than an expression of the culture that prevailed at the time.

    Since then, just as they have for their opposition to the sacraments, Army theologians and apologists have struggled to invent all kinds of other reasons and rationales to support this opposition; to sanctify it and make it into something directed by God, rather than a human tradition.

    But all of those arguments that we try to pin onto it, they do nothing to change the true nature of it. We are, like the pharisees, simply white washing the tomb.

    That's not to say that some of those desperate arguments are not actually true - there are, for example, some legitimate social, medical, and economic problems associated with drinking. But that does not make the Army's opposition any more legitimate, not any more than the fact that cleaning bowls before use really is a good health habit makes the pharisees any less in the wrong for clinging to that tradition in Jesus' time.

    The truth of God is that alcohol was given by God as a gift to humanity. Like any of his gifts, we can abuse it. Like many of his gifts, it has been degraded by the fall. But like all such things, the proper Christian response is to redeem it, and show the world how God intended it to be enjoyed. The sooner we start doing that, the sooner we will start actually doing something about the issue of problem drinking in our world. Till then, we're just sticking our heads in the sand.

    On Monday, September 21, 2009, Alonzo Twyne, Major said:

    Dear Jim & Amy.
    What is social drinking? Is that when one decides to drink poison that changes who you are, that destroys you, your family, your job and causes you to do all manner of unusual things that you normally would't do. Iv'e been there but in the last 35 years I've worked closely with and heard and seen the destruction while I worked in the Corps, Corrections and still, although retired, still work at a rehab. So, what is the question?

    On Friday, September 18, 2009, Dan Millar said:

    Great article. I have never smoked or drank and I think I have a good life. One of the problems we have in the Army at this time is that most people don't know the real difference between a soldier and adherent. They think that we should go away from soldiership and everyone should be made adherents because of the pressures in life on our young people. Some feel that they would not beable to keep the soldiers covenant.We need to stay to our standards and not give in to the pressures of society.

    On Tuesday, September 15, 2009, Major John Gerard(R) said:

    Professor James needs a refresher course in the plain truth of social drinking pitfalls.I'm taken back by the thin and shallow argument he presents and I give 100% to his wife Laurie for her outline. Captain Reardon has a splendid presentation. Speaking personally, I have never smoked or drank beer or strong drink. My experience working on Skid-Row only strength my resolve to never think about using the stuff. The Holy Spirit can teach us to be bold or courageous without a crutch.

    On Tuesday, September 15, 2009, Rob Jeffery said:

    I sure hope so! Right on!

    On Monday, September 14, 2009, Karen Hoeft said:

    Dear Jim & Amy,
    When I was working on a Wesleyan Studies course, I was reading about Wesley's view on alcohol. His issue was that the all alcohol is made from food products. We take crops and take away all nutritional value from it, ferment it, and sell it for a high cost, meanwhile people die from hunger in our world!! While people live in poverty, they drink alcoholic products to forget their misery.

    Interesting that Solomon in his wisdom wrote about this very thing in Proverbs 31 (the passage with the perfect wife...people miss the first part of the chapter!) verses 4-9 says, "And it is not for kings, O Lemuel, to guzzle wine. Rulers should not crave liquor. For if they drink, they may forget their duties and be unable to give justice to those who are oppressed. Liquor is for the dying, and wine for those in deep depression. Let them drink to forget their poverty and remember their troubles no more. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those who are perishing. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice." (NLT)

    If I understand this wisdom, then the social drinking of those who wield power is not wise, rather those who society usually targets as the "drunks" (not a term I would use) are given much more leniency!

    We who speak on behalf of those oppressed need to keep clear heads and understand the economic power that alcohol wields in our world! Today 40,000 children died from preventable disease, often caused by lack of good healthy food. Dare we stand against the industry that takes our food...wheat, barley, grapes, sugar cane, potatoes and turns it into cash for a few??? Maybe we have so individualized this debate that we have missed the very thing that Wesley challenged in the first place, and that the founders and early soldiers of The Salvation Army saw so clearly!

    The Salvation Army has stood against the social impact of alcohol! Why would we stop now, when our world has more addiction programs than ever before? When our governments have whole departments committed to helping people in their addictions? Why would we stop while there are still children going hungry in our communities? While children die with food all around them??? Will we speak justice again to our world and dare take on even the alcohol industry once again???

    Karen Hoeft

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