The Problem with Christian Prohibition: How Closemindedness is Harming the Church
by Jean-Luc Fagnan
If you are a student at JBU then you will likely remember the covenant you signed upon arriving. The covenant reflects the values which JBU seeks to uphold on campus, binding students to act in a way which fosters a loving Christian community. One of the conditions set by the covenant is that students who attend school at JBU must refrain not only from drinking alcohol while on campus but from drinking at all, regardless of whether they are of age. Plenty of students attending John Brown would not bat an eye at this and have little to no intention of drinking alcohol at college in the first place. After all, it’s no secret that Christian families tend to place more emphasis on moderation when it comes to drinking than other communities. And of course, the party atmosphere commonly associated with university life in the US does not exactly gel with the type of environment one would hope to find at John Brown. Yet even the covenant itself acknowledges that Scripture does not characterize the drinking of alcohol as a sinful act. So why then has the practice of abstaining from alcohol become so commonly associated with Christianity, and why are places like JBU so strongly insistent upon enforcing sobriety?
While the Bible does not list drinking as a sin in and of itself, drunkenness is repeatedly warned against throughout Scripture. It is also worth noting that the amount of passages in scripture which encourage alcoholic consumption pale in comparison to the number of those rebuking and warning against excessive drinking. Scripture's argument against drunkenness can be summed up as so: at his best, a drunk man is unproductive, and at his worst, he is debaucherous. In my own experience, this has certainly proven to be true.
In this respect, it makes sense that Christians so commonly practice sobriety. After all, there is no risk of getting drunk if you don’t drink at all. Playing it safe is especially logical in the context of a college campus. Young people already have impaired decision-making due to both a lack of experience and a brain that is (literally!) not fully developed. This isn’t that surprising an assertion to anyone who has witnessed a parade of college boys wearing only boxers walk out in the freezing cold and jump into the campus fountain just for the thrill of it (yes, that happened). Add alcohol into the mix, and late-night fountain diving is the least of your worries.
That being said, there are numerous misunderstandings surrounding alcohol which lead many to make unfounded generalizations—and consequently, I would like to shift my focus from the institutional regulation of drinking to the misinformed attitudes commonly associated with it. The first sentiment I will address is the one which says drinking will always lead a person to make rash decisions. Believe it or not, the actions of twenty-something-year-old college kids are not representative of everyone who takes a sip of alcohol. That is not to say that there aren’t plenty of adults who do very foolish things while under the influence. I also can’t refute the assertion that there are plenty of other adults who exhibit abusive behavior due to excessive drinking. What I can say is that in both of these cases, the unhealthy behaviors being shown are more reflective of a person’s inner imbalance than something inherent to the alcohol— this is demonstrated both in their excessive consumption and extreme responses to said consumption. Just like a gun has no will of its own to harm people, there is no liquid malice contained within alcohol that seizes hold of those who drink it.
While drinking certainly loosens the restraints which would regularly cause a person to act socially acceptably, the words which flow from a person in an intoxicated state most often represent their true feelings. This aspect of alcohol is frequently touched upon in mass media. If you are an average movie viewer, then you have likely seen at least one of the many scenes across cinema where one character gets another drunk (while themselves remaining intentionally sober) in order to probe them for information or witness a different aspect of their personality that is otherwise hidden behind a carefully crafted persona. It is also important to bear in mind that the effect which alcohol has on a person is not as one-dimensional as is often portrayed by the media or the common perception. The tightness of one’s mental restraints vary from person to person, and certain emotions can be buried deeper and guarded closer than what a few drinks can uncover.
I understand that all of these distinctions may seem unnecessary. Again, as the attitude goes: if one avoids alcohol altogether he or she can sidestep all of its pitfalls. What I am trying to encourage is not that more Christians try out drinking, though that’s not necessarily a bad idea; what I desire to see more of is a Christian understanding of how alcohol functions—and consequently, a Christian sense of empathy for those who struggle with substance abuse. Christian communities often do a good job of loving people in compromised situations, but they less often attempt to thoroughly understand the implications of unhealthy lifestyles. No matter how much one person cares for another, a failure to recognize the depths of his or her struggle will inevitably result in a gap between them. Benevolence which lacks understanding quickly devolves into nothing more than condescension.
Hopefully, my argument has been successful in convincing those who thought otherwise that alcohol, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. I would now like to take one step further and emphasize that drinking can be a good thing. For those who disagree, I refer to an iconic scene in the Gospel of John: Jesus’ very first public miracle, in which he provided an abundance of wine(in exchange for water) to a wedding party. He did this in spite of the fact that he was not yet ready to enter the public spotlight, because it was an act of love. I dare anyone to argue that the wine Jesus transfigured that evening was anything short of good, because to invalidate the wine would be the same as invalidating the miracle itself.
Proceeding with this understanding, I would like to explain to those unversed in drinking how alcohol can enhance one’s life experience when consumed in moderation. As I mentioned above, drinking can loosen the mental restraints which keep a person within the bounds of what can be considered socially apt. While the complete removal of these faculties is dangerous, a subtle slackening from time to time is perfectly healthy, though specific boundaries should be established which define when and where drinking is appropriate. Everyone is unique, so boundaries vary from person to person and are refined through experience.
Personally, I’ve found that it is best to drink around people I know and trust, in a relaxed and safe environment. If these requirements are met, a drink or two usually reduces the stress I would otherwise experience interacting with others. Anxious thoughts of stumbling over my words or saying something embarrassing have less hold over my mind, and I feel enabled to express myself freely. I try not to seek out that feeling too frequently, however, as it tends to drift away from healthy comfort and into a pattern of escapism. In my experience, drinking is also counterproductive in situations which require intense and sustained concentration. For this reason, I mostly agree with the separation of alcohol and university, a time and place where young people should be focused on immersing themselves in their studies. There is potential to balance drinking and school, but very few young adults, fresh out of high school, are capable of achieving such a balance—so a blanket regulation is perfectly reasonable, in my opinion.
There are many ways to approach living righteously in a fallen world, and no singular method stands out as superior than all others. Rather than a point of frustration, I find the diversity of perspectives amongst Christians to be a thing of beauty; after all, God designed all of his people to be unique for a reason. However, one thing should be shared amongst anyone seeking to love others in a Christ-like manner—empathy—and it needs to be understood that true empathy results from a carefully developed frame of reference. In regards to drinking, Christian communities need to avoid the cliche of framing alcohol as a concoction of concentrated evil and acknowledge that even it can have positive applications when consumed in moderation. Just like all sin, alcoholism is a corruption of something that is inherently good. If believers do not pause to fully comprehend the nature of alcohol, the people who are struggling with addiction, or even those who are unwilling to give up drinking entirely, will continue to be isolated by the very ones who should be drawing them into the grace and mercy of Christ.