Thursday, April 12, 2012

Alcohol and Legalism

This is a bit of a touchy issue, but a perfect illustration of the difference between legalism and love as described recuringly in scripture and referenced frequently here at NonModern. One of the largest Christian mission organizations in the world requires certain statements, agreements and promises from its employees. It is totally understandable and necessary when working with a large force of personnel spread out far and wide and with frequent supervisory challenges.

 One of those blanket policies involves alcohol. Employees are required to sign a statement stating that they will “not drink” the stuff while employed with the company. It can and has been grounds for termination when this agreement is discovered to have been broken. That is where the legalism side of this issue is on display.

Some Christians do consider any use of alcohol a sin. (One wonders how they approach the issue of cough syrup.) They even re-write Bible passages or go through exegetical contortions to support their pet belief. However, many believers take the more reasoned approach that alcohol is a slippery substance that can lead to problems and, while the Bible does not condemn drinking, it is best to proceed with caution. Some exercise that caution by abstaining, some enjoy moderation. In many cultures the world over (including Biblical culture), alcohol plays an important part, and believers participate in the cultural use without falling into the sin of losing control to drunkenness.

Love would be to take all of these factors into account and encourage workers to abstain as a practice, but avoid the ridiculous extremes. Many a missionary has experienced the old “I had to eat fish eyes” story in an effort not to offend. All missionaries are encouraged to go outside their comfort zones to reach other cultures. The one area where they do not have to suffer, indeed they are not allowed to, is in the area of drink. (In many parts of the world, where fermented milk, yogurt or eggs are a staple, that must be a blessing!)

This is not a push to have this organization wipe the policy out. (This writer is a bit of a teetotaler, in fact, policy or no policy.)  It is surely a recipe for disaster to have a huge force of culturally unprepared workers suddenly start drinking as much as their context allows. However, there should be an effort to remove the law while retaining the spirit of love that drives all other mission efforts. Things like a toast, a thimble-sized digestif, or a glass of wine that sits mostly unconsumed throughout an evening of conversation should not be seen as drinking.

In lieu of that, someone needs to teach this particular force how to graciously turn down an offer of alcohol without the stammering, crazed-eye expressions, and glances over shoulders that all the legalism has brought on. That might help more people remember that their message is the Gospel of Love and not the “evils of the demon-alcohol” sermons.

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