In a day of heightened concern over environmental abuses, drug abuse, and tobacco use, the almost nonchalant attitude of the public toward the deadliest problem of all is tragically incongruous. For a nation that professes great interest in most of the ills that offer even a remote threat to human life, the indifference toward the proven killer alcohol is curious indeed.

Let a deodorant be shown to contain some ingredient that appears to produce cancer in mice, and it is likely to be forced off the market by prompt government action.

After the Surgeon General’s report that smoking is injurious to health, laws were passed requiring solemn warnings in cigarette advertising and on every package of cigarettes. Radio and TV spots paid for by federal funds encourage smokers to stop. The Congress ponders legislation designed to put tobacco companies out of business.

But let it be shown that approximately nine million Americans are excessive drinkers, that an alcoholic’s lifespan is shortened by ten to twelve years, that at least half of the 55,500 automobile deaths per year are directly traceable to drinking, that three-fourths of all prison inmates committed their crimes after drinking, that alcohol is now in first place on the teen-age drug-abuse scene—let all these grim statistics be cited, and most people simply shrug their shoulders and turn their attention to something else.

A few years ago the drug thalidomide was found to be responsible for serious birth defects. A horrified world reacted promptly. More recently, a group of doctors at the University of Washington discovered a consistent pattern of serious birth defects among children born to alcoholic mothers—eight out of eight were affected. The news appeared in one or two medical journals and nowhere else.

The National Council on Alcoholism reports that one out of every fourteen employed persons in America is an alcoholic, and that these people cost American business $4.3 billion a year in absenteeism, sloppy work, and eventual expense of training replacements, not to mention the more personal and social costs of their addiction. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that the total dollar cost of alcoholism may be as high as $15 billion a year.

Such news merits not a line in the Congressional Record. Meanwhile, Congress successfully resists efforts to repeal legislation exempting alcohol from the controls that the Federal Food and Drug Administration has over other drugs.

Despite the damaging effects of even moderate drinking and the deadly effects of alcohol addiction (there is no known cure for confirmed alcoholism, only the possibility of an arrested condition and that under very special circumstances), most people simply refuse to take the problem of alcohol seriously.

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Most curious of all is the increasing permissiveness toward drinking exhibited by the churches. One would think that Christians, of all people, would shun any indulgence responsible for as many assorted woes as this one. Apparently not.

Some religious groups, such as the Seventh-day Adventists and the Mormons, still insist on total abstinence, but many denominations that once stood where these stand have let down the bars. Methodists still officially lean toward abstinence, but the issue now is warmly debated in General Conference with strong support for a relaxation of the church’s historic prohibition. In 1970, Southern Presbyterians officially opened the door to social drinking, affirming in General Assembly that “the Bible imperative is not for prohibition nor abstinence” and that “the Assembly’s present position, established in the earlier statements of this century, is based neither upon the direct teaching of the Bible nor upon the older traditions of the Church (both of which condemn drunkenness but do not require total abstinence).”

Many Reformed Christians, particularly those of the Dutch churches, include alcohol among the gifts of God to be used in social intercourse among clergy and laity alike. A well-known Bible teacher on the lecture circuit in the South makes no bones at all about the beverage arrangements he expects as a part of the hospitality extended when he accepts an invitation.

In 1973, a Southern Baptist congregation in Atlanta made headlines when it began serving wine in its celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. A Presbyterian regional unit that started the same thing a few years earlier made news of another sort after one of its ministers, a rehabilitated alcoholic, lifted the communion glass to his lips unsuspectingly. He had to take a leave of absence from his congregation to get hold of himself. Undeterred by the offense committed against one of its brethren, the regional unit continued the practice.

Episcopalians and Roman Catholics accept moderate drinking as a way of life while frowning on the immoderate use of alcohol. Both communions provide rehabilitation for clergy who find themselves unable to practice moderation.


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I who was thirsty, drank, was satisfied,

became myself a secondary source

of bubbling water, why

was my mouth still dry?

Brushed by dove’s feathers

heart and winging mind

I who had felt flight dared to ask

when will my words fly?

His burning oil from crown

to feet had covered me.

I was a torch for lighting, and for light

yet was my throat still dark.

The overwhelming rush,

the mighty wind wide-spread the blaze.

Yet from my tinder tongue

came not one spark.

Breasting the gusts of praise,

filled with the singing Word

and words, and still

no sound would come.

That Holy Breath, promised,

to teach lungs, larynx, lips

in a needed hour, told mine

until today—“Be dumb!”


Evangelicals have become increasingly friendly to alcohol; many consider abstinence one of those silly taboos that we have outgrown.

The liquor industry has carried out a massive and successful propaganda campaign. In motion pictures, television, and magazines, one gets the message that life isn’t complete without a drink. The small boy watches his Western hero quaff a shot of whiskey and ride off into glory. Lovers on the screen and in real life are pictured as toasting each other with their eyes and a glass of champagne. A constant din of advertising insists that “beer belongs.”

One of the latest sales gimmicks is a beverage called Near Beer designed to let kids pretend they’re grown-ups. Later, of course, they are expected to turn to the real thing. Another of the industry’s great market-enlargers is “pop wines,” inexpensive wines whose alcoholic content is disguised by fruit flavors. The pop wines make the step from soda pop to alcohol an easy one. For Mother’s Day this year an ad showed an idyllic lawn scene in which a boy and girl were presenting their mother with “the perfect gift for Mother’s Day”: a bottle of sherry. All the while, the liquor lobby stifles efforts at legislative action to correct abuses.

Prohibitionists are pictured as stupid, if not emotionally unbalanced. The fact that a majority of local liquor referendums held during the past twenty years have been won by the drys goes carefully unreported. Christians are seduced with the argument that one cannot prove the Bible forbids the use of alcohol, only the immoderate use of alcohol.

In the din of propaganda, the central truth passes unnoticed: every single one of the millions who is addicted to alcohol began his voyage to the hell of addiction with a first sip. Deadly is the only word for the advice that recently appeared in a nationally syndicated column on the dangers of alcohol abuse: “Youngsters must be persuaded to desist when there is any indication that their drinking is leading to trouble.” By then, according to everyone who has ever been down that road, it is probably too late. In most cases, by the time it is recognized that drinking is leading to trouble, the drinker is hooked.

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Christians who use the Bible to support permissiveness toward alcohol are in my opinion practicing the same principles of interpretation once used to support slavery. It can be shown that the Bible tolerates slavery. The Old Testament law provided for the possibility of lifetime servitude (Deut. 15:16, 17), while the New Testament admonishes those who are under the yoke to be satisfied with their lot (1 Tim. 6:1; Titus 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18).

But the Church long ago concluded that slavery violates personhood designed to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. By the same token, even though one cannot find in Scripture a polemic against the use of beverage alcohol, the overwhelming evidence suggests that alcohol should be shunned.

Here we confront a curious problem. We are not trying to decide whether alcohol is a social evil of the worst sort, but whether the Church should take an aggressive interest in a proven social evil of the worst sort. From the lack of sermons on the subject, the embarrassment attending any statement that seems to suggest prohibition, and the incidence of drinking among professing Christians, it would seem that a great deal of self-deception is being practiced by the churches.

Scripture does suggest that any practice that abuses the human body, expressly described as the temple of the Holy Spirit, is wrong. Paul wrote: “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:20). Perhaps even more to the point, for those tempted to find unlimited freedom in the New Testament, is the warning of the Apostle: “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Cor. 6:12). That one was uttered after Paul had just enumerated the kinds of people who would miss out on the kingdom of God, among them drunkards (v. 10). In our highly complex civilization, when life and limb quite literally depend on clear heads and sharp eyes, the effect of even moderate drinking is too great a risk to run.

Another argument is hoary but nonetheless valid: Christian liberty stops short of anything that brings offense (Matt. 18:6), or that causes another to stumble (Rom. 14:21, which makes explicit reference to “drinking wine”). I suspect that if all those who became addicted to alcohol after starting to drink in imitation of a professing Christian were gathered in one place, they would constitute a multitude. A story making the ministerial rounds has to do with a lady who had invited the vicar to dinner. She called a neighbor to find out where he stood: was he high church or low? If high, she would put in a stock of wine; if low, a case of beer. The story brings a chuckle, but is it really something to laugh about? And have we reached such a point that to remonstrate against such humor is to be a fanatic?

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Beyond the issue of personal abstinence is that of the enactment and enforcement of laws to curb the activities of those who drink. Today’s manner of living is complicated enough without the added problem of irresponsible behavior on the part of those who are willing to impair or lose control of their faculties. Alcoholics are unfit to drive cars, for example, and ought not to retain licenses. Perhaps, as the Supreme Court recently ruled, jail sentences for those convicted of simple drunkenness are improper. But laws can be devised to prevent them from becoming a menace to the life and health of others.

More to the point of these comments, the evangelical pulpit may very well take more of an interest in the matter than it has. Scripture says that church leaders should not be given to wine (1 Tim. 3:3). Should not the pulpit bear down on that? Scripture urges abstinence if drinking wine will make our brother stumble (Rom. 14:21). Should not the pulpit ring the changes on a Christian’s walk before the world? Scripture warns that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). Can the pulpit do less?

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