As Christians in the Wesleyan tradition we affirm that all truth is God’s. We also affirm that this truth is communicated through the primary source of Scripture and the resources of Reason, Experience and Tradition. This Wesleyan Quadrilateral has shown itself to be a reliable way to discern God’s guidance as we live holy lives expressing His wisdom.
In this particular area of the use of alcohol we are informed not only by what Scripture says, but what we’ve discovered throughout the life of the church in our tradition, what the social and medical sciences have demonstrated as reasonable, and what our common and personal experience validates. This four-pronged exploration allows us to create trustworthy “community wisdom” by which our people can seek healthy and fruitful lives.
Recognizing that legalistic prohibitions do not create holy people now, any more than they did with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the church does not present our wisdom as laws or rules requiring obedience or one cannot be a part of our community, but rather as informed wisdom that is meant to bless our people.
The Scripture Component
By David R. Bauer
The Free Methodist Church (FMC) is once again confronting its position on abstinence from alcohol, this time in the face of calls to drop the denomination’s commitment to abstinence and to replace it with a counsel of abstinence, which would urge the wisdom of abstinence while allowing members to operate on the basis of their own convictions regarding the matter. The denomination’s statements on the ultimate authority of Scripture imply that the issue must be decided finally on biblical grounds. And the consideration that the Free Methodist Church stands within the Wesleyan tradition, which acknowledges the role of reason, tradition and experience in the proper reading of Scripture, suggests that the FMC must relate biblical teaching to these other areas in order to arrive at a sense of biblical guidance.
Since every interpretation of Scripture and every attempt to apply Scripture involve a series of prior decisions about the nature of scriptural interpretation and appropriation, we begin with a few key hermeneutical considerations. We will proceed next to an examination of the biblical evidence. Finally, we will offer tentative conclusions regarding the matter at hand.
The ethics of the New Testament are principle-based rather than legal-based. Clearly the New Testament does not contain a systematic code of conduct. Rather, one can infer from the New Testament a structure of ethics, with love to God and to neighbor standing at the core.[1a] This “agapocentric” ethic is the stated position of Jesus himself, as he is portrayed in the synoptic tradition (Mark 12:28-33, Luke 10:25-28 and especially Matthew 22:34-40), and it is explicitly echoed by virtually every New Testament writer (Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8-13, John 15:12-13, 1 John 2:7-11). Love to neighbor involves, as James Moffatt put it, “active well-wishing,” i.e., actively expressing the profound desire to accomplish that which is good for the other.[2a] And love to God involves relating to God according to what is true of Him. Thus, insofar as God is transcendent we are expected to worship Him; and insofar as God is gracious we are to be thankful toward Him. And, perhaps most pertinent to the issue of abstinence, insofar as God is liberator we are to live in the freedom He offers (Galatians 5:1, John 8:31-38). When we reflect upon the contemporary issue of Christian abstinence from alcohol we might conclude that two great principles provide the framework for our biblical consideration of this matter: redemptive love toward others and a love toward God that embraces the freedom God has granted us in Christ.
The biblical presentation of wine or strong drink is quite plain. Although we encounter within both the Old and New Testaments repeated injunctions against drunkenness and warnings regarding the potential dangers of wine (Habakkuk 2:5, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7, I Peter 4:3) we find no admonitions to abstinence. And, in fact, not only was Jesus known as one who drank wine (Matthew 11:19), but also the Bible assumes and indeed celebrates the appropriate enjoyment of wine (Deuteronomy 7:13, Psalm 104:15, John 2:1-11). Moreover, the New Testament rejects asceticism in favor of the thankful appropriation of God’s bounty (Colossians 2:20-23, 1 Timothy 4:1-4). But if we were to approach the issue by merely citing biblical passages that mention wine or strong drink we would be guilty of pursuing a proof-texting method that fails to do justice the principle-oriented character of biblical ethics as described above. We find it necessary, then, to ask how the imbibing of alcohol relates to the principles of love toward neighbors and love toward the God who liberates.
A. Love Toward Neighbor
The Bible, especially the Old Testament, describes the harmful human consequences of drunkenness experienced by both the person who drinks to excess (Proverbs 23:29-35, Isaiah 28:7) and by that person’s social network (Genesis 9:20-27, Proverbs 20:1, 21:17). Thus the biblical writers are aware of the potential for harm. It may seem surprising, therefore, that the Bible, with its concern for the welfare of persons, does not even suggest the value of abstinence. The reason for this lack of attention to the possibility of abstinence is twofold. For one thing, the Bible does not recognize drunkenness as pertaining to addiction, but rather presents it as behavior that one may choose to avoid; consequently, the Bible simply commands against drunkenness (Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Ephesians 5:18), assuming that it is not the beverage but the person who is the problem. For another thing, both cultural attitudes about alcoholic consumption and the frequent danger from contaminated water led those in ancient societies to consider alcohol, particularly wine, as the basic potable staple (Joshua 9:13, Judges 19:19, 1 Samuel 16:20, 1 Timothy 5:23).[3a] Therefore abstinence from alcohol was essentially inconceivable to ancient persons, except in the case of certain narrow religious caste groups, such as the Nazarites (Numbers 6:1-4, Judges 13:3-16:31, Amos 2:11-12) or Rechabites (Jeremiah 35:6-7), in which abstinence from alcohol was joined with other socially eccentric behavior to set these groups apart from the larger religious community. Thus abstinence was simply not a part of the ancients’ “limited experiential horizon,” to borrow an expression from William J. Webb.[4a]
Clearly the situation in the modern (Western) world is quite different. Alcohol is no longer considered to be a necessary or basic potable. In most of the Western world clean drinking water is available, and in those places in the world where clean water supplies cannot be assumed, other beverages are generally accessible. Moreover, virtually everyone now recognizes the addictive capacity of alcohol; we know that certain persons are prone to the destructive power of alcohol addiction. In this significantly different environment we might reasonably consider that Paul’s instructions regarding care for the “weaker” brother or sister are pertinent (Romans 14:1-15:6, 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1). We understand that Paul’s counsel had to do with religious scruples related to continuing obligation toward certain Old Testament dietary and calendrical prescriptions.[5a] But the underlying principle obtains: Christians are to order their behavior according to that which is best for the weaker members of the community, which involves specifically denying themselves those behaviors which, though perhaps legitimate in principle, may cause such weaker members to “stumble,“ i.e., fall away from Christ or engage in behavior that seriously compromises their discipleship. Paul considers such accommodation a direct application of love toward Christian brothers and sisters.[6a]
B. Love Toward the God Who Liberates
As we mentioned above, one expression of love toward God is an embrace of the freedom God grants to His people. The concept of Christian freedom is central to the issue of the denomination’s commitment to abstinence; for it may be argued that an insistence on abstinence is a violation of the Christian’s freedom in Christ. But the issue of Christian freedom is far from simple.
The New Testament describes Christian freedom according to two spheres of liberation. The majority of passages that mention Christian freedom refer to liberation from sin and its effects (John 8:32-36, Romans 8:2, 21, 2 Corinthians 3:17, James 1:25 and 2:12, 1 Peter 2:16, 2 Peter 2:19). But a significant number of passages, especially in the Pauline letters, refer to the Christian’s freedom from legal prescriptions, such as the obligation to submit to circumcision (Galatians 2:4 and 5:1, 13) or the avoidance of food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 10:29). Yet Paul differentiates between an attitude of dutiful compliance to legal prescription over against a joyful submission to God’s will expressed in the law as the law is properly interpreted according to the centrality of the love command (Romans 13:9-10, Galatians 5:14). We are free from an attitude of legal compliance that insists such compliance is either the basis of our standing before God or a “boundary marker” that distinguishes the true covenant community from those who are not, in fact, God’s people. But we are not free from the law of God insofar as it is understood as centered in the love command; rather, we are free for that law (Romans 8:1-8, 1 Corinthians 9:21). We have been delivered from bondage to a self-referential life that prevents us from denying our own prerogatives for the sake of the other, and especially the weaker other. The denomination would thus violate the New Testament concept of freedom if it imposed abstinence as an abstract norm or “rule.” But it could be construed as an affirmation of Christian freedom for the FMC to create a “safe place” for persons who may potentially struggle with alcohol addiction, and to do so by a communal commitment to forego a practice that, in principle, Christians have a right to enjoy.
This brief treatment has shown that the issue of abstinence has some ambiguities. The presence of these ambiguities should lead to a spirit of humility and constant openness to new insight on this matter. These ambiguities also require us to avoid casting aspersions upon those branches of the Christian church that refuse to value abstinence and perhaps even celebrate the imbibing of alcohol. (The broad Christian tradition throughout history has not generally inferred the demand for abstinence from the biblical testimony.) Yet we have seen that commitment to abstinence is biblically defensible. And if we judge that alcohol addiction is truly a scourge that carries momentous capacity for destruction in our culture we may reasonably conclude that a communal commitment to abstinence is finally the most responsible position from the perspective of Scripture.
The Reason Component
By David Roller with Guy Crawford, M.D.
Now let’s submit the question to the scrutiny of reason. By reason we mean, “Does it make sense? Is it wise?” Reason requires us to take appropriate account of scientific knowledge — to give credit to information and data — and to see the truth as a whole as we answer the question, “Should the mature Christ-follower advocate for abstinence from alcohol?”
We will make a reasonable inquiry into four aspects of “moderate” consumption of alcohol: the behavioral, physical, spiritual and ethical effects of drinking. Around each of the four aspects we will consider the positive and negative implications, trusting that the accumulated evidence will be helpful in this complex matter.
Weighing the Behavioral Effects
The first avenue of inquiry is to investigate the behavioral effects of drinking alcohol. Behavioral change is a secondary effect. It results from the physical impact of alcohol on us which produces changes in our mood, thinking, and judgment processes; and consequently, in our behaviors.
A. Mood Enhancement
On a positive behavioral note, there is a mood change that is quickly produced by drinking alcohol. In fact, this is an important reason many people drink. That initial “buzz,” that mild euphoric sensation, feels good. At its most benign alcohol is a social lubricant. Any dull social event is guaranteed to get livelier once drinking begins, as behaviors are modified.
Those arguing for moderate use will argue that there are low levels of alcohol drinking that do not produce behavioral change. In a technical sense, that is true, but in the real world this does not often happen. Most people drink for the effect; debating the merits of drinking such small amounts that they produce no effect is not a real-world question.
What’s actually happening to produce behavioral change? Alcohol causes our brain’s neurotransmitters, which are the neurochemicals that transmit messages from one neuron to another, to get messed up. Simply put, alcohol interferes with our ability to think. We become slower in our ability to process thoughts and our judgment is affected. We lose inhibitions at even small amounts of alcohol, opening the door to behavioral missteps and disasters.
B. Thinking Affected
In addition to the loss of inhibition, alcohol makes our thinking sloppy, we are not able to consider or judge things carefully. Alcohol makes the drinker slower and less careful. An unfortunate parallel effect is that the drinker’s self-awareness is diminished. So our friend, who’s enjoying her wine and laughing too loudly, inaccurately thinks that she’s funnier, cuter and less married than she actually is.
C. Drinking for Effect
Here is the crux of the behavioral matter. Most people drink alcohol because it affects them. With possible theoretical exceptions, that’s the point of drinking. Not necessarily to get drunk, mind you, but for the effect. The more one drinks, the greater the effect. Alcohol changes us; that is both its attraction and its liability. That’s the reason for the beverage. Any argument that sidesteps this reality is overly optimistic about human nature.
D. Alcohol Compared to Other Mood Enhancers
Other foods and beverages have their effects, too, although none bring about loss of motor skills, changes in judgment, and the potentially deadly effects that alcohol does. Coffee, colas, chili peppers, yerba mate, sugar, chocolate and even water are among the common mood-enhancing foods and beverages. But there is a critical different between that which alters our mood and that which slows our brains and reduces our judgment.
Gluttony is a tremendous problem in America and some believe it is in the same category as alcoholism. So, the argument runs, isn’t it inconsistent to advocate for abstinence of alcohol when gluttony is just as large a problem? Certainly there are similarities, but there are also important differences. Abstinence from food is not possible; being a glutton doesn’t make one a hazard to others, and gluttony doesn’t lower your inhibitions leading to secondary consequences.
Additionally, alcohol has a trick characteristic: it short-circuits the brain’s ability to self-limit. Alcohol isn’t like cinnamon rolls (another great temptation!); there’s no neurological landmine in cinnamon rolls that reduces my ability to stop eating them.
E. Forty-three Thousand Reasons
The result of alcohol-induced behavioral changes is 43,731 dead persons every year in the United States. The three top behavioral ways that alcohol kills are: motor vehicles crashes, falls and suicides. The Christian considers these potential behavioral tragedies and weighs the risk of the casual drink.
F. The X Factor
Another behavioral risk is that none of us know, until we drink, which of us are genetically disposed toward addiction. We have receptors in our brains that are related to addiction. They seem to be genetically controlled and are not well understood. But the bottom line is that no one can know, in advance, if they, or the person they decide to drink with, are going to end up having alcohol-abuse issues.
No one ever started drinking with the intention of becoming an alcoholic; drinking entices the novice with the lesser behavioral changes, not with the “allure” of an alcoholic demise. Yet 10 percent of the United States population (32 million dear folk) is estimated to be alcoholics. The connection between social drinking and alcoholism cannot be avoided. Every alcoholic began with one simple drink.
Weighing the Physical Effects
A. The Good
Alcohol does some good for our bodies. It is a vasodilator (at small dosage) that can help our hearts. It relaxes us, which can help stress-related conditions. It can raise our good cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol), and thin our blood. Additionally there are some non-alcoholic components of red wine — flavonoids and resveratrol — that are also healthy if regularly consumed.
B. The Bad
We weigh these benefits against the health damage caused by alcohol. We are most aware of liver damage that occurs even when alcohol is consumed in small amounts. Thankfully the body is able to recover given enough time and if the amount of alcohol is small. God made us with an amazing ability to handle insults to our body.
In general terms, the liver has the ability to metabolize about .25 ounce of pure alcohol per hour, which is about 1/3 of a standard drink. So one could drink 1/3 of a beer or 1/3 of a glass of wine per hour and one’s liver could “keep up.” In real life, even the lightest drinker will exceed this rate, causing liver damage.
C. The Ugly
The Center for Disease Control reports that from 2001 to 2005 an annual average of 35,915 Americans died from alcohol-attributable physical diseases (in addition to the behavioral deaths reported above). The major diseases are liver disease, liver cirrhosis, stroke and hypertension. At the same time they calculate the beneficial effects of alcohol as saving 11 lives per year. Yes, while the detrimental physical effects of alcohol kill more than 35,000 per year, the positive effects save only 11.
Certainly someone will respond that the CDC data includes those who overindulge, who are alcoholics, etc., so the data does not speak to the question between abstinence and “moderate” drinking. This is a difficult argument to refute because while everyone knows what abstinence means, no one knows what “moderate” drinking means. The only hard line of definition is between not drinking and drinking. Every other descriptor is subjective and impossible to debate.
D. What’s What?
Some attention to detail is here necessary to define the basic realities around the ethanol we’re discussing. There is no chemical difference between the alcohol consumed in hard liquor (distilled) and that in wine and beer (fermented). They all provoke the same physical reactions. The difference simply lies in the amount of ethanol delivered per ounce of liquid. Keep in mind that a standard drink contains .6 oz. (13.7 g.) of pure ethyl alcohol (ethanol). That equals:
Beer – 12 oz. beer (5% alcohol)
Malt liquor – 8 oz.
Wine – 5 oz. of wine (although wine varies wildly in its alcohol content)
Liquor – 1.5 oz. of distilled 80% proof spirits.
E. Siding with Creator
Concluding this investigation into the physical consequences of alcohol consumption we note that alcohol is the third leading cause of death in the United States (behind cancer and heart disease), with no substantial counterbalancing health benefits, notwithstanding the marketing attempt to tout the residual benefits of the grapes made to produce wine.
The Christian sides with life and the preservation of life and disassociates from that which destroys. Alcohol — except in the smallest quantities below typical consumption levels — is destructive, not creative. We who deeply value the created world and our bodies as gifts from God to be stewarded affirm the abstinence position.
Weighing the Spiritual Effects
The third avenue of inquiry to help us respond to the question is to investigate the spiritual effects of drinking alcohol.
A. Deadening the Pain
Since alcohol, even in small amounts, produces a generalized sense of euphoria, it deadens the unbeliever to his or her need of redemption and healing. By lessening the pain of life, it deprives the cherished missing of the recognition that they are not well. Being sin-sick is one of the pathways to Jesus; it starts with a simple, desperate desire for healing of all that’s wrong in their lives. The danger is that alcohol sufficiently anesthetizes them so they don’t recognize their need of His salvation.
B. Dulling the Believer
While this may be granted for the unbeliever, what about for the believer, which is the point in question? Why would we believers, whose sole desire is to act out of pure love, relinquish our self-control to the effects of alcohol? The believer wants to be able to avoid every temptation, which alcohol’s lowering of inhibition will work against. And the believer wants to be acutely aware of every prodding of the Spirit of God, to which alcohol will deaden our sensitivity, as it deadens sensitivity to all stimuli.
Weighing the Ethical Effects
So far we have considered the effects of alcohol itself, now we turn our attention to drinking as a social activity and any accompanying effects.
A. Incarnational Drinking
On a positive note, drinking lets us blend in with the majority culture. Passionate Christians are today struggling to re-cast the story of Jesus in ways the contemporary American can hear and respond to and are eager to jettison any unnecessary impediments to the telling of that story. Might not the Jesus story be better told without being abstinence-encumbered?
This is an attractive argument, because we know, that in the big scheme of salvation, alcohol does not play a central role. But we also know that in this culture, at this time, alcohol does play an important cultural role. It can be argued that alcohol and its abuse is the primary destructive force in North American culture. So the suggestion that we should drink as an “incarnational technique” is counter balanced by the caution that our “incarnation” of the gospel is not done in an ethical vacuum.
B. Our Influence
Once Christ-followers cross the line from abstinence to “moderate use,” the alcoholics among us lose our churches as safe places; our church events and celebrations as safe events; and us as safe people. Alcoholics, you’ll remember, are estimated at 10 percent of the American population. They desperately need guides to help them rebuild lives that do not buy into the alcohol industry’s idealized world of drinking without consequences. If the church relinquishes that role, we betray a valiant group of believers and not-yet-believers.
Beyond the alcoholics, we who testify to being Christ-followers have influence. We are responsible, to some degree, for the actions of others, whom we influence. If I drink, I bear some responsibility for the results of those who chose to drink because I do. I may believe I have the will power and the genetic makeup to not move from casual drinking to abuse of alcohol, but I cannot have that assurance for others whom I will influence. Every ethical decision we make carries consequences that must be weighed.
Alcohol increases our physical, behavioral and spiritual risks. For those of us who desire to have the highest ethical standards of any people, we’ll do well to give wide berth to behaviors that carry a destructive risk — the more destructive, the wider the berth.
Christians are not bound up by rules and prohibitions. We’re free from the formulaic legalism into which inherited religion easily degenerates. This freedom enables us to act according to higher principles. We base our actions on love for God, our neighbors and ourselves. This is why we advocate for abstinence: Having inquired into the physical, behavioral, spiritual and ethical effects of alcohol use, we simply agree that it is most loving to advocate for abstention.
An Historical Approach to Alcohol
By Bruce N. G. Cromwell
Early Cultural Practice
In the early Mediterranean world the typical drinking beverage was a mixture of water and wine, with proportions of each varied according to the place and purpose. Commonly, two or three parts of water were joined with one part wine. Within his “Table Talk,” Plutarch states that two parts water to one part wine left a person “neither fully sober nor … altogether witless.” Three parts of water to one of wine was suitable for “grave magistrates sitting in the council-hall,” and three parts water to two parts wine would cause “a man to sleep peaceably and forget all cares.” Athenaeus, a Greek rhetorician writing at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd century in Egypt, assembled a fifteen-volume work he called “The Learned Banqueters.” Echoing much of what Plutarch had written 150 years earlier, Athenaeus further stated that an equal mix of wine and water or undiluted wine in large quantities would bring on drunkenness and cause a person to collapse.
Centuries before, Jews had formally adopted this Greek and Roman practice of mixing water and wine. The Second Book of Maccabees states “For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work.” Rabbinic literature further speaks of such mingling, and used the water-wine combination in such important feasts as Passover.
In Jesus’ story, the Good Samaritan tends the injured man by pouring oil and wine on his wounds. In 1 Timothy 5:23, the Apostle Paul advocates mixing a little wine with the water to settle the stomach. Pliny the Elder, who died in 74 A.D., confirms such common cultural views toward alcohol.
Early Christian Approach
According to the Gospels, the first of the miracles that Jesus performed was turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. At His Last Supper Jesus identified the cup with His blood, consecrating the new covenant. From very early on, then, Christians saw wine in light of the Eucharist and, as the vine was symbolic of Israel and later of the church, the common cup became an important sign of unity within the Body.
Within the observance of communion, the common mixture of wine and water was used. Cyprian of Carthage gave theological meaning to this mixture, equating water with the people and wine with the blood of Jesus and stating that in the mingling “the people is made one with Christ.” Wine was often seen metaphorically to represent the Holy Spirit, the grace of the Holy Spirit, or divine teachings in general. According to Clement of Alexandria, such thinking led to the insistence that wine be included in the communal meal.
When people did not include the wine with the water this “unmixed” state was often seen as “undiluted,” and in time such “unmixed wine” became a metaphor for divine punishment. Nevertheless, the Ebionites, Encratites, and Marcionites persistently used water without wine in celebrating the Eucharist.
Such total abstinence from alcohol was seen as a sign of asceticism, and was permitted for certain orthodox reasons. Ambrose of Milan preferred water alone but allowed for wine to be used sparingly on occasion. Theological reasons aside, more and more church fathers such as John Chrysostom warned against drunkenness and the evils of the “demon of drink,” increasingly counseling moderation. Even Clement, who stressed that wine must be included, said that wine was not for young people and that it should be diluted as much as possible with water.
Alcohol in the Middle Ages
Benedict of Nursia, author of the “Rule” and one of the principle figures in the development of monasticism, had clear opinions on alcohol and the amount of alcohol his monks should consume. He encouraged total abstention, saying “those who have received the gift of abstinence will know they shall be especially rewarded by God.” Nevertheless, Benedict recognized that “in our times they cannot accept this” and so he allowed a quarter liter to half a liter of wine per day as necessary to aid the sick. He also said that, given physical labor and other factors, “more drink may be permitted at the will of the abbot” for any monks who should ask. This, too, had restrictions. “Let us therefore agree on this limit at least, lest we satiate ourselves with drink. But, let us drink temperately: ‘For wine makes even the wise to fall away.’” So strong was the desire of the monks for wine that removing this privilege was used as a punishment for tardiness. If a monk persisted in arriving late at meals or the prayers of the Divine Office, Benedict advised, “he is to be deprived of his measure of wine also until he reforms and makes satisfaction.”
Thomas Aquinas, writing in the mid-13th century, recognized that for some persons even a little alcohol was detrimental not only to their way of living but potentially for their life in the world to come. Other persons might be able to drink alcohol in moderation. Each needed to consider the circumstances of their constitution and their life.
Like many others in the Middle Ages, however, much of Aquinas’ writings on alcohol had to do with the substance and accidents of wine in relation to the Eucharist. Dying in 386, Cyril of Jerusalem was among the first to teach the doctrine of the literal conversion of the wine into the blood of Christ. The monastery of Fulda in present day Germany, founded in 744, was a leading center for theological reflection. Candidus of Fulda saw the sacrament of Holy Communion as nourishment that aided congregations of faith in truly perfecting their role as the Body of Christ. The monastery of Corbie in France was the scene of a great deal of debate in the ninth century regarding the real presence of Christ in the wine used for communion. Paschasius Radbertus believed that the elements truly became the body and blood of Jesus. Ratranmus of Corbie, writing shortly after Radbertus, argued that they were merely symbols. Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard also contributed to the discussion. In addition to his contribution to this discussion, Aquinas insisted that, regardless of the discussion regarding the real presence of Christ, within the sacrament itself wine must be used.
So prevalent was the monastic connection with alcohol that in time many medieval monks achieved renown as creators of beer and wine. In England as much as a gallon of beer per day was allowed per person, even for nuns. But drinking among all monastics was far from universal. In 1319 Bernardo Tolomei founded the Olivetan Order, based on a more ascetic reading of Benedict’s “Rule.” They uprooted all their vineyards, destroyed all their wine presses, and completely abstained from all alcohol. But like Benedict and his experience with noncompliant monks, the Olivetans also found their rule challenged and the prohibition eventually relaxed. In time it became customary for the monks to dilute their wine to cut down on the narcotic effects of the alcohol.
Excessive use of distilled alcohol had become readily apparent in Britain around 1550. Drunkenness and the consequences of alcoholic consumption continued to plague England for the next 200 years. An Oxford don and an Anglican divine, John Wesley was well acquainted with the writings of the early church fathers as well as the writings of Benedict and Aquinas and the theological discourse that dominated the Middle Ages. But by the early eighteenth century the pendulum of the alcohol discussion had once again swung to the practical effects upon individuals.
During his voyage to America, many of the passengers on his ship enjoyed the supply of rum. James Oglethorpe, the Governor of Georgia who had invited Wesley to become minister in the newly founded parish of Savannah, gave John the responsibility to care for his shipmates, watching the supply of alcohol. One can hardly imagine a stricter enforcer of temperance.
In “A Word to a Drunkard” Wesley argued:
God made you a man; but you make yourself a beast. Wherein does a man differ from a beast? Is it not chiefly in reason and understanding? But you throw away what reason you have. You strip yourself of your understanding. … On what motive do you thus poison yourself? Only for the pleasure of doing it? What! Will you make yourself a beast, or rather a devil? … Do you not drink for the sake of company? Do you not do it to oblige your friends? “For company,” do you say? How is this? Will you take a dose of ratsbane for company? … But, “to oblige your friends”? What manner of friends are they who would be obliged by your destroying yourself? … O do not aim at any excuse! Say not, as many do, “I am no one’s enemy but my own.” It is not so. … You are an enemy to every man that sees you in your sin; for your example may move him to do the same. A drunkard is a public enemy. … Above all, you are an enemy to God, the great God of heaven and earth.
In giving directions to his societies and their leaders, Wesley required them “to taste no spirituous liquor … unless prescribed by a physician.” Such a stance was clearly the exception rather than the rule, as some time later in a letter dated April 24, 1769, to persons in some of his burgeoning societies, Wesley urged, “Touch no dram. It is liquid fire. It is a sure though slow poison. It saps the very springs of life.” Exercising patience with those who did succumb to alcoholic addictions and constantly preaching the evils of such consumption, Wesley reserved his sharpest criticism for those who sold alcohol.
Neither may we gain by hurting our neighbor in his body. Therefore we may not sell anything which tends to impair health. Such is, eminently, all that liquid fire commonly called “drams” or “spirituous liquor.” … All who sell them in the common way, to any that will buy, are poisoners-general. They murder his Majesty’s subjects by wholesale, neither does their eye pity or spare. They drive them to hell like sheep. And what is their gain? Is it not the blood of these men? Who then would envy their large estates and sumptuous palaces? A curse is in the midst of them: the curse of God cleaves to the stones, the timber, the furniture in them. The curse of God is in their gardens, their walks, their groves; a fire that burns to the nethermost hell. Blood, blood is there, the foundation, the floor, the walls, the roof are stained with blood!
During Wesley’s lifetime the Bow Street tavern proudly boasted, “Here you may get drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence, and get straw for nothing.” Wesley knew first hand and all too intimately the appalling social miseries that alcohol produced and fought vigorously to protect people from it.
Interestingly, the early Methodist opposition to alcohol was clearly against distilled liquors, but not beer or wine. Like the temperance movement that would follow, over the next century early Methodists expanded their membership covenant to include abstinence from all alcoholic beverages. But like the Benedictines and the Olivetans before them, they backed away from this somewhat, reverting to Wesley’s stance of avoiding “drunkenness, buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.”
And like Thomas Aquinas before him, Wesley stated in his “Articles of Religion” that wine was to be used in the Lord’s Supper and that it should be given to all people, not just the ordained clergy as was the Catholic practice. Commenting on this latter article, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury said, “St. Paul does not complain of [the lay Corinthians’] drinking the wine at the Lord’s supper … but of their both eating and drinking most intemperately.”
This did not mean overindulgence was permitted. In listing the duties for Methodist preachers, the Methodist Episcopal Church clearly stated that they should choose water as their drink of choice, and use wine only in medicinal or sacramental contexts. And both Coke and Asbury stressed that frequent fasting and abstinence from alcoholic beverages are “highly necessary for the divine life.”
Like his spiritual ancestor, Benjamin Titus Roberts grew up in a world whose boundaries were defined by liquor and the subsequent possibility of violence. Whether decrying taverns or trying to spur his congregation to avoid the influence of the popular circuses, Roberts often found himself fighting what may have seemed to be a losing battle but continued to voice his convictions nonetheless.
When his preaching didn’t convince persons to set aside the temptation of alcohol, Roberts resorted to stronger methods. In 1869 North Chili had a thriving tavern. Roberts saw the negative influence it had on the town and, discovering that it could be purchased for $500, organized a rally to try and raise the funds. Though only gathering $25 at the event, Roberts gathered the rest of the funds from other sources and bought the tavern. His son, Benson Roberts, later wrote that “it was closed, and the blight of liquor was in a great measure removed from the community.”
In the March 1884 issue of the Earnest Christian, Roberts made the lead article a seven-page sermon on the issue of prohibition. Much as Wesley had railed against the producers and providers of alcohol, Roberts suggested that legislation be made “to make the manufacture or sale of intoxicating liquors as a beverage, a crime to be punished by adequate penalties.” Alcohol contributed to crime and social disintegration, he argued.
“Man has no natural right to injure for the sake of gain, his fellow man, though he consents to, or even solicits the infliction,” Roberts continued. The Bible clearly advocated on behalf of the poor while denouncing greed and the unhealthy pursuit of wealth. Simple observation of the social and even political ramifications of the liquor industry gave further evidence of the millions of dollars earned in what Roberts saw as “wealth destroying pursuits.”
Because of the financial ruin and, more importantly, the devastation alcohol wrought on persons and families, Roberts saw the temperance issue as “by far the greatest issue now before the people. … Use all your political influence in favor of prohibition,” he urged. “If you are a voter, see to it that your vote tells in the strongest possible manner, in favor of strict prohibition. Do not tie yourself to any party, not even to the prohibition party. If either of the great political parties nominate a man in other respects suitable, who can be relied upon to give his influence in favor of prohibition, then give him your unqualified support.”
The earliest versions of the Free Methodist Book of Discipline echoed this sentiment. “Every man of God should break away from party trammels, and never knowingly give his vote or influence to elect any man to office who will use his official or personal influence to legalize the traffic in intoxicating liquors as a beverage. As Christians we are bound to do all we can to prohibit by law their nefarious traffic.”
So strongly did Roberts and the earliest Free Methodists oppose alcohol, its production, and its use, that an entire section of the Book of Discipline was dedicated to temperance. “A spirit of self-denial is indispensable to the Christian character. A large proportion of the crime and pauperism of the country is caused by strong drink. The Spirit of Christ never leads one to countenance the use or sale of intoxicating liquor as a beverage.”
And regardless of what church tradition (including Wesley) dictated or what the earliest Christians practiced, use of wine in communion was strictly prohibited. “The stewards on all our circuits shall make provision to use the unfermented juice of the grape in celebrating the Lord’s Supper. In no case must intoxicating wine be used for this purpose.”
Such a stance was consistent with many other Protestant denominations in the aftermath of the rise of temperance unions. Benjamin Rush, noted physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, introduced the notion of alcohol addiction and argued that total abstinence was the only cure. This, coupled with the Second Great Awakening’s emphasis on personal holiness and perfectionism, inspired the rise of such temperance movements, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They became so successful in decrying alcohol in all its forms as evil that many denominations, including the Free Methodist Church, removed wine from use in the Lord’s Supper. But what would be used instead? In 1869, Wesleyan Methodist minister Thomas Bramwell Welch discovered a way to pasteurize grape juice. He used this method of preservation to prepare juice for the Lord’s Supper. By 1879 the abstinence approach to drunkenness and alcohol was so widespread that Catherine Booth observed, “almost every [Protestant] Christian minister has become an abstainer.”
For many years the Free Methodist Church postulated along with many in the temperance movement that the wine discussed in the Scriptures was not fermented, but widely accepted scholarship has demonstrated such a belief to be less than academically honest. Owning that the wine mentioned in Scripture was indeed fermented to varying degrees, the Free Methodist Church still has many valid reasons for its prohibitions against alcohol.
Within the section of the “Constitution” regarding ourselves and others, the most recent Book of Discipline states, “We commit ourselves to be free from activities and attitudes that defile the mind and harm the body, or promote the same.”
Further elaboration on the various abuses of addictive substances leaves little doubt as to the current denominational stance:
The use of alcohol, a legalized drug, is damaging to individuals, families and society. It is unpredictably addictive and its destructive effects cannot be fully measured. Its abuse leaves a trail of broken marriages, family violence, crime, industrial loss, ill health, injury and death. As concerned Christians, we advocate abstinence for the sake of health, family and neighbors. Moreover, we see the adverse social consequences as so pervasive that we seek by advocating abstinence to make a united social witness to the freedom Christ gives.
By Denny Wayman
When the news was released from a study done in 2010 that alcohol is the most damaging of all drugs — scoring 72 on a scale of 100, while heroin scored 55, crack 54, meth 33, cocaine 27 and tobacco 26 [1d] — I several members of my congregation told me about it. They knew I would appreciate the verification of my experience as a pastoral counselor of many decades. I have long said in private counsel and public instruction that there is nothing that compares with alcohol when it comes to the pain and damage dealt to individuals, families and communities.
It is my experience that 60 to 70 percent of all the counseling I do is because of alcohol present somewhere in the person’s life that has caused or is causing damage — either through their own use or that of their parents, grandparents, spouse, children or friends. From the adult children of alcoholics who struggle with trust, control, emotions and other core damages; to the genetic shifts that cause children of alcohol-abusing parents to be predisposed to addiction; to the increase in marital struggles due to anger and abuse, in my years of experience, alcohol use has been unparalleled in causing pain. When we include the medical, social and financial cost to all of us, it is easy to see why this is the most damaging substance we’ve ever experienced.
Though alcohol addiction has a long history, it was not until the Middle Ages and the distillation process of the School of Salerno in the 12th century that people were able to create beverages with higher alcohol content than by natural processes. This brought about a dramatic change in culture throughout the next centuries as these distilled “spirits” became an increasing problem both for individuals, families and nations. By the time Wesley came on the scene, he recognized the truth expressed in the experiences of many thrown into poverty due to addiction and “denounced the sin of distilling, declared for its Prohibition in 1773.”[2d] Quaker leaders soon took up the call as well.
Wesley and other Christian leaders experienced as a dramatic increase in the power of alcohol to damage lives. This was true not only because of the genetic changes that created vulnerable families, but also as a result of a society that struggled to prohibit the use of alcohol but failed due to various political, financial and social reasons. Wesley and the early Methodists were compelled by compassion to try and help.
The strength of experience comes not only from the validation within society as a whole but also from its uniqueness. Each of us has our own experience. It is not a theory in a book. It is life lived in a home or relationship where alcohol has caused deep pain. The power of experience is that it is self-validating.
The weakness of experience also comes from its uniqueness. Because we often have “terminal uniqueness,”[3d] we deny our own experience, claiming that it is not normative or perhaps even not real. This denial of addiction by those experiencing it in their family of origin, or even in their own lives, is a well-documented fact and a secondary damage of the addiction.
As a family of Christians, Free Methodists have found it historically, socially and physically beneficial to abstain from a substance that offers little to enhance life and an unparalleled risk to harm us. If we allow ourselves to simply step back and look at the experiences of our lives and the lives of those we love, we will see the wisdom of such a commitment and solidarity with those who struggle.
[1a] For a presentation of one understanding of the structure of ethics within the Bible, see David R. Bauer and Robert A. Traina, Inductive Bible Study: A Descriptive Guide to the Study of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), pp. 287-91. [Find My Place]
[2a] James Moffatt, Love in the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922). [Find My Place]
[3a] See, e.g., L. Juliana M. Claasens, The God Who Provides: Biblical Images of Divine Nourishment (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004) [Find My Place]
[4a] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), p. 155. [Find My Place]
[5a] Some have argued that the reference in Rom. 14:21 to abstaining from wine pertained to those who refused to drink wine out of ascetic convictions (see Robert A. Jewett, Romans, Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007], pp. 869-70). But it seems more likely that this abstinence stemmed from a desire to avoid wine offered to pagan deities (thus, e.g., Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], p. 861.) [Find My Place]
[6a] In 1 Cor. 10:25-30 Paul indicates that the strong brothers or sisters should adopt this behavior of accommodation only when a clear threat to the weaker brother is known to exist, so as not to pursue unnecessarily an accommodation that would intrude upon the freedom of the stronger brothers and sisters. [Find My Place]
[1c] Plutarch, “Table Talk,” 3.9
[2c] Athenaeus, “The Learned Banqueters,” 10
[3c] 2 Maccabees 15:39
 Luke 10:34
 Pliny the Elder, “Natural History,” 23.23.43; 23.25.50
 John 2:1-11
 Mark 14:24; 1 Corinthians 11:25
 Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” 3.11.5
 Isaiah 5
 John 15:1-17
 Ignatius, Letter to the Philadelphians, 4
 Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 65; 67
 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 63.13
 Hippolytus, “Against Noetus” 18
 Origen, “On First Principles,” 1.3.7
 Origen, “Commentary on John,” 74
 Clement of Alexandria, “Stromata,” 1.19.96
 Origen, Homily on Jeremiah, 12.2; see also Revelation 14:10, “…they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of His anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the Lamb.”
 Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” 5.1.3
 Hippolytus, “Refutation of All Heresies,” 8.13
 Epiphanius, “Against Heresies,” 43.3.2
 Eusebius, “Ecclesiastical History,” 5.3
 Ambrose, Epistle, 63.27
 John Chrysostom, “Instructions to Catechumens,” 5.9-14
 Clement of Alexandria, “Paedagogus,” 2.2
 Benedict of Nursia, “The Rule of Saint Benedict,” Chapter 40: Drink Apportionment
 Ibid., quoting Sirach 19:2
 Benedict of Nursia, “The Rule of Saint Benedict,” Chapter 43: Late-comers to the Divine Office and Meals
 Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Theologica,” IIa IIae, 149, 3 – Whether the use of wine is altogether unlawful? Thomas writes, “A man may have wisdom in two ways. First, in a general way, according as it is sufficient for salvation: and in this way it is required, in order to have wisdom, not that a man abstain altogether from wine, but that he abstain from its immoderate use. Secondly, a man may have wisdom in some degree of perfection: and in this way, in order to receive wisdom perfectly, it is requisite for certain persons that they abstain altogether from wine, and this depends on circumstances of certain persons and places.”
 Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Theologica,” IIIa, 75, 2-5
 Cyril of Jerusalem, “Catecheses,” 19.7; 23.7
 Candidus of Fulda, “The Passion of the Lord,” 5
 Paschasius Radbertus, “The Body and Blood of Christ,” 3.1; 3.4; 4.1
 Ratranmus of Corbie, “The Body and Blood of Christ,” 2, 9-11, 16
 Hugh of St. Victor, “On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith,” 9.2
 Peter Lombard, “Sentences,” 4.1.4
 Thomas Aquinas, IIIa, 74, 5 – Whether the wine of the grape is the proper matter of this sacrament?
 Will Durant, “The Reformation,” New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957, p. 113
 J.C. Almond, “Olivetans”, Catholic Encyclopedia
 John Wesley, Journal, I, 149-150, footnotes
 John Wesley, “Works,” IX, 169-170
 John Wesley, “Works,” “Directions Given to the Band-Societies, December 25, 1744”
 John Wesley, “Letters,” V, 134
 John Wesley, “Sermons,” II.50.4
 Nathan Bangs, “A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” p. 134
 See Henry J. Fox and William B. Hoyt, “Rule Respecting Intoxicating Liquors,” “Quadrennial Register of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” p. 200
 Articles of Religion of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Article 18
 Ibid., Article 19
 Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, “The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America,” Notes on Article 19, p. 24. The italicized portions are in the original text.
 Ibid., Section 13: “Of the Duty of Preachers”, p. 91
 Ibid., Note on Section 13, p. 93
 See Jack Larkin, “The Reshaping of Everyday Life,” 1790-1840, p. 284
 Benson Roberts, “Benjamin Titus Roberts: Late General Superintendent of the Free Methodist Church: A Biography,” p. 360
 B. T. Roberts, “Visit to Washington,” p. 96
 B. T. Roberts, “Prohibition,” Earnest Christian 47, no. 3 (March 1884): pp. 69-73
 Ibid., p. 74
 Ibid., pp. 75-76
 1895 Free Methodist Book of Discipline, ¶57
 Ibid, ¶55
 Ibid, ¶56
 G. I. Williamson, “Wine in the Bible and the Church,” p. 6
 Samuele Bacchiocchi, “The Preservation of Grape Juice”
 Catherine Booth, “Strong Drink Versus Christianity”
 2007 Free Methodist Book of Discipline, ¶158
 Ibid., ¶3213
[1d] “Drug experts say alcohol worse than crack or heroin,” Reuters, Kate Kelland, London, 2010. Read more: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6A000O20101101[Find My Place]
[2d] “History of alcohol prohibition,” National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, based on a paper by Jane Lang McGrew. Read more: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/nc/nc2a.htm [Find My Place]
[3d] Terminal uniqueness is an AA term coined to describe a reaction common to 12-Step newcomers. While a rare few attend their first meeting and feel instantly at home, most suffer through their first meeting thinking, “These people are nothing like me. … What can I hope to learn from people like this.” Terminal uniqueness has its roots in addictive thinking — that voice that keeps us drinking or using, sure that no one understands us. It’s a voice that protects the addiction and never leads anywhere good. Read more: http://www.choosehelp.com/alcoholism/aa-and-terminal-uniqueness-are-you-as-unique-as-you-think-you-are.html [Find My Place]