by David Dunham 

Image: Seth Hanhe

The air outside our nursery was thick with smoke – it was a normal Sunday evening. The traditional pre-service smoke break had begun for many of the members of our church. They congregated on the sidewalk in front of the nursery doors and there were a lot of them. Since 90% of them were fighting addictions to alcohol or more serious narcotics, we didn’t put up a fuss. They still needed this fix. For five years I have helped to pastor churches with growing numbers of recovering addicts. It has been a deep joy and a real burden. Perhaps that’s why the celebration of alcohol among so many in the church has bothered me. The reality of addiction within the church calls for more careful enjoyment of our freedoms than much of post-Fundamentalism promotes.

It’s not that I am against alcohol. I enjoy a good beer and believe that Christians have the freedom to imbibe. In Christ there is freedom (Gal. 5:1) and such freedom ought to be celebrated. God is not a cosmic kill-joy waiting to rain down judgment on any one who cracks a smile. His gifts are for our good and delight. The fact that some abuse the gift is not an argument for abandoning the gift all together. So the church should not feel pressured to support a hyper fundamentalist position on the “evil of spirits.” The church should take its freedoms seriously, and yet we should take the horrors of addiction seriously too.

Addiction is a monster. My friend Daniel (not his real name) has been battling alcoholism for most of his life – he is only 23. He started drinking heavily when he was 10. His life was a mess when we met. He had no home, no job, and no family to support him. He had been in and out of rehabs, none of which seemed to have lasting effects on him. The success rate for programs like AA ranges from 5% to 12%, and Daniel wasn’t in that range. He had become a Christian through some mutual friends and started attending our church. He was fighting daily to stay sober. The struggle was sometimes as consuming as the addiction was. And he’s not the only church member in that position.

Through the counseling ministry of my current church I’ve gotten to know Bill. Bill sat across the table from me undergoing the first few hours of detox. His whole body seemed to shake when he talked. Sweat was pouring off of his face. Tears rolled down his cheek as he confessed his sin, and begged for help. He wants to be clean but he feels stuck in a cycle of self-destruction. Bill had been sober for a while – a full year. And then he heard in a sermon that a redeemed man could drink alcohol and be free. Bill apparently wasn’t “redeemed.”

There is, of course, a truth to that statement. Redemption does include freedom from addiction. But we live in the inaugurated Kingdom of God, not the fully consummated Kingdom. That means that my redemption is still an ongoing process, and so is Bill’s. His struggle with alcohol was ongoing, too. To promote drinking, even healthy drinking, while your brother continues to struggle is to dismiss his pain, and to dismiss him.

Daniel and Bill’s stories remind me that the enjoyment of my freedoms needs to be accompanied by sensitivity.

The Christian life involves a lot of balance. On the one hand we are free to drink. On the other hand we are responsible for one another. The church’s relationship to alcohol, then, should consider both of these truths. Two questions can help us shape carefully that relationship. First, we need to ask “is it a sin.” Secondly, we need to ask “how will this affect my brothers and sisters.” A healthy balance can be struck as we seek to answer these questions both Biblically and contextually.

The defense of alcohol consumption is wide spread. There has been a whole movement within the church to openly and joyfully raise a glass. We find defenses of it in book form – notably Ken Gentry’s God Gave Us Wine and Jim West’s Drinking With Calvin and Luther! – and in plenty of articles published across the web. Generally speaking, the contemporary church knows that drinking is not a sin – despite the episodic blasts of a John MacArthur. “How will this affect my brothers and sisters” is, however, the question which many in post-Fundamentalism are failing to more carefully consider.

“Is it a sin” is a good question, but it’s only the starting place. We need also to ask “how will this affect my brothers and sisters.” Paul challenges the church to ask this question often. He told the Corinthians that when it comes to eating food sacrificed to idols they need to think carefully about the harm they might do to their church family (1 Cor. 8:9-13). He told the Philippians to consider others as more important than themselves (Phil. 2:3), and to be concerned with the interests of others first (Phil. 2:4). The model of Christian maturity is not indulging in my freedoms, but being willing to forgo them for the sake of my brothers. That’s what Deborah needed.

Deborah came from a family of alcoholics. At a young age she learned to drink and to drink in order to get drunk. Her only experiences with alcohol involved gorging herself on cheap beer at high school parties. When she became a Christians she made a dramatic change and the Lord was gracious enough to see her through that change. Many have told her of the freedom she has in Christ to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine, and she knows that it is true. She can, if she really wants to, drink. But most days Deborah just needs to know it is okay for her not to be okay with drinking. She doesn’t judge others for their freedoms; but she says that she does often feel judged for not drinking with her Christian friends. When she relayed that to me it broke my heart. Was no one looking out for their sisters? It’s almost as if a new legalism exists in the church: if you’re free to do it, then you have to do it.

The church, of course, has a relationship with alcohol. It’s in our history, it exists in our present, and surely it will continue into our future – the great wedding feast of the Lamb will involve wine (Matt. 26:29). That relationship, however, needs to be built on a balance of gospel freedom and gospel sensitivity. Shepherding recovering addicts has made me particularly aware of this and a few key ideas have shaped what I believe a healthy relationship between the church and alcohol looks like.

Part of our discipleship must include careful instruction on the responsible exercising of our liberties. If we want to fight alcoholism on the front end, then we need to teach people how to avoid the pitfalls of overindulgence. The key word here, however, has to be “careful.” We don’t need to celebrate beer, single it out, and offer an open bar for communion. Careful instruction means not glamorizing drinking. Instruction needs to focus on the reality that all things are to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), even our liberties do not receive free reign in our life. They too must come under the submission of God’s law. Where and how this is done should be determined by context. David Valentine’s recent call for pastors everywhere to preach on alcohol appears thoughtless. Context ought to dictate how we handle such a subject. In a church full of addicts, a sermon on the beauty of alcohol will be insensitive and damaging to the growth of some believers.

The church must also be honest about the reality of addiction within its community. Alcoholism is a real problem in the church. I have seen it first hand in our recovery-culture church in rural southern Ohio, and I am seeing it now in our middle class Detroit suburban church. You don’t have to be a recovery-culture church to have addicts in your pews. In fact I am convinced that alcoholism thrives in the church for two reasons: shame and ignorance.

If the walls in my office could talk they might tell you that one of the most commonly repeated phrases is “if people ever found out.” The shame of being labeled an alcoholic has led many a man and woman to hide their sin. The drunken man who climbed on stage to try and play guitar during a sermon felt no shame. Eddie, however, feared that people would look at him the same way that they viewed that drunkard and so he hid his alcoholism for a whole year before coming clean. Shame sometimes appears because Christians can tend to suggest, intentionally or unintentionally, that they have their sins under control. Alcoholism, however, cannot be controlled! It is ugly and it leaves a messy trail. You can’t watch a person’s body and mind break down through detox and come to a different conclusion. It looks messy because it is messy and so many will avoid confessing in order to continue playing the “got-it-all-together” game. The truth, of course, is that the church is full of addicts; we are all recovering from sin and none of us has it all together. The more that we emphasize this, the more that we view our church as a “recovery-culture” church, the healthier we will be and the more help addicts of all kinds can find.

Ignorance too breeds alcoholism in the church. When discovered most churches and pastors don’t know how to actually help someone. They attempt to set up barriers for people, to keep them from drinking: cleaning out their house, putting them under 24 hour surveillance, forcing them into programs and detox centers, etc. None of those things in and of themselves are bad, but they won’t fix the real problems. Alcoholism is not just a drinking problem. My friend Daniel used to tell me that he didn’t need someone to explain to him the damage he was doing to his body and mind. He knew it well. He told me that the hardest part isn’t the detox. “Your body only cries out for the poison for so long before it doesn’t need it anymore,” he said. “What’s really hard is the way your mind is convinced you do need the drug long after your body has stopped craving it.” There are no quick fixes and easy treatments to alcoholism. It involves long-term, inconvenient discipleship. It means long nights searching for lost friends, cleaning up vomit, and going to the hospital. Ignorance on how to be helpful often compounds the problems of an addict.

Shepherding addicts has taught me a lot. I am reminded of how much we need each other. Addiction is not one man’s struggle, one man who needs counseling. It takes a congregation to deal with addiction.  Helping to bear the burden of a recovering addict means learning about addiction from him. It means that the church needs to listen to those with experience. We need to learn how to help one another. In so doing we can learn how to share the load, and how to help others get out from under the weight of sin.

Those men and women were probably outside the nursery last week taking their smoke break. I love those folks. Eventually we want to help them see the value in being free of all addictions, but sanctification is a process. They’re smoking cigarettes today, not crack; that means they’re doing better. Do I want them to know of the freedom they have in Christ to enjoy a variety of liberties? Yes. But that takes time too. The church as a whole ought to be patient with recovering alcoholics and ought to be careful in the enjoyment of their own liberties as they wait.

David Dunham is Associate Pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church. He has a Masters of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his family currently live in the Detroit Metro area.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.