The Dangers of Santa, Alcohol, and Church Policies (by Chris Francis)
Up until recently, predestination was the biggest hot-button topic amidst church groups that I’ve been around. But now – alcohol at church functions has taken over.
And I’m glad it has. I’m thankful that at such an early point in the life of True Life Church people have raised questions and voiced concerns about alcohol being allowed at church functions. I’ve never really taken a strong stance on the issue, and now I have been forced to dig into Scripture, to pray about it, and to have many conversations about it – with pastors, ex-alcoholics, young people, old people, people in my church, people at other churches.
Since I tend to think about things in terms of plans, lists, and rules, my first reaction to this issue was to set a clear-cut “policy” that would put an end to the discussions and put this puppy to sleep so we could move on to more exciting things.
But God has shown me that it’s not so simple. The following are my latest thoughts and perspectives, based on my understanding of Scripture. I can’t say that these are the views of Relevant Church & True Life Church, but they are certainly the views of both pastors (Jeff Borkoski & Chris Francis).
I will start with the issue of church policies, and then move on to alcohol itself.
The Difficulty of a Church Policy
In the short time that I’ve been following Jesus, I’ve known many Christians who have strict views on a variety of topics.
TV is one of them. I’ve known Christians who don’t allow their kids to watch TV because there are strong arguments that show tv viewing increases a young person’s likelihood toward violent tendencies, apathy, and gluttony, which are all forbidden in scripture.
Then there is Halloween. I know Christians who have no problem with alcohol, have no problem with TV, but strictly forbid their families to celebrate Halloween because of its roots in the occult.
The Saturday Sabbath is a big one for one friend of mine. After much Bible study, he has come to the conclusion that Christians must take a Sabbath on Saturday. This means no work is to be done on Saturday, nor are we to partake in the buying or selling of goods.
I admire the convictions behind those strong stances, but I don’t hold the same views.
However, this does not mean that I am a liberal, laid-back Christian. I have strict views on other things. Strict views that most other people do not share, including my own wife. I could easily be called an ultra-conservative Christian when it comes to two specific things.
Prescription drugs is one of them. According to the CDC, more people die of prescription drug overdoses today than any other drug overdose. As a pastor, I’ve gotten many calls to sit down or talk to people addicted to prescription drugs, but I’ve yet to be asked to talk to someone struggling with alcohol. Plus, Jess’s mother died of an overdose back in August of ‘09, so I have an extreme hatred for the abuse of these drugs and too easily judge people who use them.
And then there is Santa Claus. I have a strong conviction that Christian families shouldn’t do the whole Santa Claus bit with their kids because it could too easily be a subtle distraction from Jesus. I was against Relevant having Santa visit the kids at the Christmas Eve Candle-light services…but I lost that battle.
Point is – if you think that I’m on a quest to be some cool, hip, laid-back pastor, my wife would laugh at you. I’m as strict as they come about other things.
In fact, I think we are all strict about certain things. Whether it’s with politics, food, music, movies, bathing suits, tattoos, piercings, the word “sucks,” praying at each meal, or home-school, I think we all have things that we abstain from or handle a certain way that we think anyone who “really loves Jesus” should agree with.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Making a simple policy that says “no alcohol at church functions” sounds simple and on the safe side, but if we did that for all of the above issues…well, just think about it: “No alcohol at church functions, no movies at youth nights, no celebrating Halloween, no talk of Santa in the children’s ministry, only Christian music in the car until you leave the church parking lot, and no talk of politics in the foyer. After all, we don’t want to offend anyone.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t make a policy on alcohol. I’m just pointing out that it’s not so simple.
Now let’s say that we just focused on alcohol only, and that we told everyone who is uptight about the above matters that alcohol is more important – we would still have a hard time agreeing on a policy. One person thinks Christians should be allowed to drink in their homes and serve it to friends, but just don’t do it at church functions. Another person thinks it should be allowed at church bbqs, just not in small groups when the Bible is being studied. Another person thinks it should be allowed in small groups where no kids are around, but just not at bbq’s where children might see.
I talked to one guy who used to be a youth pastor at another church, and he said that he was given this rule: “If you’re going to drink, make sure you do so at least 3 towns over, so that our youth are not likely to see you.” Okay…that’s one way to go. But it just feels a little dishonest to me.
Even if we just said, “no alcohol at any church functions” – well, what defines a church function? Does a function become a church function only when the whole church is invited? Or does it count when 8 people are present? What about 2? Or is it only when God is brought up in a conversation? Or when the pastor is around?
Can we at least agree that making a church policy is difficult?
The Danger of a Church Policy on Alcohol
Although I’m a guy who likes policies, I have come to the conclusion that church policies are not only difficult to make, but can be incredibly dangerous. For two main reasons:
For one, adding on rules that aren’t in Scripture leads to legalism. The Bible doesn’t give us any policies on alcohol for local churches. It gives us qualifications for elders, guidelines for worship services, guidelines for church discipline…but no blanket statements about alcohol.
Geoff Ashley, a pastor in Texas who wrote an article on alcohol that really made me think, sums up the Old Testament this way:
“In the pages of the Old Testament, we see that wine was considered a gift of God, indicative of his blessing (Psalm 104:15, Deuteronomy 14:26, Proverbs 3:9-10). At the same time, the Bible also restricted drunkenness and prohibited those of certain religious/governmental offices – like the Levites, Kings, and Nazarites – from partaking of alcohol within certain contexts (Leviticus 10:9, Proverbs 31:4-5, Numbers 6:2-3).”
Based on that summary, one could easily say that we should just live by the standard of the Nazarites and Levites…in order to be on the safe side. Right?
The only problem with that is Jesus. He shows up on the scene, and as his very first miracle, he turns water into wine (John 2:1-11). Then he is accused by the Pharisees of being a drunkard because, as he put it, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking…” (Luke 7:33-34).
And what does Jesus do with that accusation? He doesn’t tell his disciples, “Hey guys, some of the religious leaders are upset about us drinking. Maybe we should cool it for a while.” No, he publicly rebukes the Pharisees for judging him.
So now, this is what we’ve got: wine is considered a blessing from God and is used in celebrations, drunkenness is a sin, certain people holding certain religious offices were commanded to abstain, Jesus did not abstain and was accused of being a drunkard, and judging Jesus for his drinking is a sin.
Does anyone see any command to New Testament churches to make a policy regarding alcohol? I don’t, either. But let’s keep looking.
When you get to the book of Acts and into Paul’s epistles, you see that churches are encouraged and challenged in a variety of ways. But there is only one blanket command that deals directly with alcohol: “Do not be drunk with wine…’” (Ephesians 5:18). Other than that, it’s pretty vague.
The only thing that comes close to it is in 1 Corinthians 8 & 10, and another time in Romans 14. The specific issue that Paul is addressing is eating meat. Some believers chose not to eat meat and only to eat vegetables, either because the meat may have been once offered to idols, or because they are Jewish and the meat is not kosher.
In the church at Corinth, Paul basically says in chapter 8 & 10, “Don’t partake in the temple rituals where this meat is sacrificed to false gods, but other than that, feel free to eat meat. Unless there is someone around who doesn’t feel comfortable eating meat but might do it anyway because they see you do it.”
So, no doubt it is clear that even though we have the freedom to drink alcohol, there are times when we may have to give up that right. The big word is “if.”
“But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it…” (1 Corinthians 10:28). “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (Romans 14:15).
I think it is clear that we should give up our rights to drink alcohol if there is a weaker brother who is tempted to go against their conscience, or a weaker brother who is grieved (hurt, sorrowed) by our drinking.
However nowhere does Paul say, “You know what guys, just to be safe, and in case there is ever a weaker brother around, just give up meat altogether. Just keep it simple.” If there was ever a time to make a policy on this matter, it would be in these passages. But Paul never does that.
The only blanket statement that Paul makes in these passages (which again, isn’t even about alcohol) is this: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthinas 10:31).
I’m NOT saying that churches that have strict policies on alcohol are to be judged. Perhaps they have unique reasons for doing so. But to think that all churches should have a policy on alcohol is, in my opinion, only a few steps away from doing what the Catholic Church did when it made a policy that priests are not to marry.
The extra rules that the Pharisees made to help people keep the Ten Commandments were well-intentioned in the beginning. But what happened? The Pharisees got yelled at a lot by Jesus.
The second reason why I think church policies can be dangerous is because they kill organic church life. I understand that some policies which aren’t necessarily in scripture should be put in place. For instance, I think children’s ministry workers should be background checked, and money should be counted by more than one person. Absolutely.
But the fewer policies that are in place, the more organic the church life can be. If we defined church functions as only those things that everyone from church is invited to, then it automatically draws lines in the sand: this is church, this is not church. And that is how a church goes from being a living organism to a dry organization.
When we take the Holy Spirit out of it, when we take away the need to pray about things, when we take away the need for those who struggle with alcohol to speak up and say, “Hey guys, I actually have a problem, and would appreciate it if you didn’t drink around me” – then we have a nice, safe church.
And what did we learn from Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Jesus is not safe. So how dare we try to make His church safe.
As you can see, I am strongly against blanket church policies on alcohol. But now let me explain how I feel about alcohol itself.
I Think Alcoholism Is More Evil Than Most People Do
Alcoholism is more than a disease, it does more than ruin families, and it does more than cause car accidents, all of which are horrible. Alcoholism is the worship of alcohol, making alcohol a god. And to give our worship to anything other than God is the worst of crimes. Pastor John Piper said, “The seriousness of a crime is determined in part by the dignity of the person and the office being dishonored. If the person is infinitely worthy and infinitely honorable and infinitely desirable, and holds an office of infinite dignity and authority as God does, then rebuffing him is an infinitely outrageous crime that deserves an infinite punishment.”
So, I do not take alcoholism lightly.
But Alcohol Itself Is Not to be Blamed for Alcoholism
I have to admit, I have trouble not despising Santa Claus. When I see pictures of him at the mall, I get angry. Really angry. But I have to remember that the idea of a big jolly fellow bringing kids gifts each year through the chimney is not inherently bad.
I have to remember that it is really the devil who uses all the commercialization of Christmas to steal the hearts of little boys & girls (and their parents, too, for that matter).
And the same goes for alcohol. Because it has been abused so much, because alcoholism has ruined so many families, alcohol is seen by many as the bad guy. But really, alcohol is only a puppet, a tool in the hands of the real bad guy. Satan tempts us to put our trust and our dependence in alcohol, and our sinful hearts say, “Yes!”
And I think this is why Jesus wasn’t quick to play it safe when he was accused of being a drunk. He had a message to send to people. In another passage, Jesus’ disciples are criticized by the Pharisees for not performing the ceremonial hand washing before meals, which was not a command by God but an extra “policy” added on by the religious leaders (Mark 7:1-4).
And what does Jesus do? Again, he doesn’t say, “Hey guys, let’s not cause a ruckus here. Let’s just do the hand-washing.” No, he uses it as an opportunity to teach the people that it is not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of their hearts (verses 14-23).
Jesus, full of love and compassion and gentleness, was quick to rile up religious people and challenge their narrow ideas of what it meant to live a holy life.
I wonder how he would challenge today’s narrow views of Christianity. Think about what the stereotypical Christian looks like – someone who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, and votes against gay marriage. Right? So I think if Jesus was around today, he might light up a cigarette in some church parking lots, and then when the elders confront him about being a bad example for their kids, he might say something like, “Okay, I’ll stop smoking if you stop being a glutton and ignoring your marriage issues and love your wife better.”
Now, I don’t know any Christians who view Christianity through such narrow lenses. But – and this is a big BUT — I think many of us often unintentionally send that message to young people and to the outside world. By “playing it safe” I think we often send the message that following Jesus means living a moral life.
And I think Jesus wants us to be intentional about sending the message that the opposite of alcoholism is not morality – it’s worshipping Jesus. So if we’re gonna’ teach our kids to avoid alcohol and cigarettes, great. But then we sure as heck better be just as quick to teach them that religious pride is even more dangerous.
Drinking in Moderation Can be Healthy For Others
For the above reasons, I think young people and recovering alcoholics sometimes need to see people handle alcohol in a healthy way. One guy in our church told me about a time when a group of guys from his old church got together for a men’s night, and many of them brought over six-packs of beer. He said, “There was something very healthy about seeing a group of guys drink one or two beers and then stop and have many six-packs left over.”
And I would agree. When I was a kid, I did indeed think that anyone who drank beer was bad. And then I saw my parents drink and I realized, “Oh…those other people must not be so bad, either.”
To Restrict One’s Freedom to Drink is Not Love
And to Judge One’s Convictions about Abstaining is Not Love
In addressing the issue of eating meat that may or may not have been sacrificed to idols, Paul said the following: “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” (Romans 14:2-3)
In other words, the one who feels strongly about abstaining from something should do so and not judge the one who partakes. And the one who partakes should not make fun of the one who abstains.
I’ll admit, I am tempted to judge families who celebrate Christmas with Santa. But if I do, then I am wrong. They are free to do that silly stuff if they want to and if they feel it doesn’t distract from celebrating Jesus Christ.
Last year my brother-in-law Adam asked me to pretend to be Santa on the phone with my nephew, Zachary. What was the right thing to do? Say, “No, sorry, I don’t think kids should believe in Santa?” I decided to call up Zach and put on my best Santa voice and he was excited to talk to Santa. I can definitely share my opinions and convictions about it with people, but if I tell people that they are in sin for doing it, then I have crossed the line from abstaining in faith, to condemning with legalism.
“The very real fact that some will abuse the freedom does not mean that we should therefore strip all of their liberty…Like food, alcohol was created by God to be enjoyed within limits by His creatures. It can be used as an element in worship, celebration, thanksgiving, and partying, all of which are appropriate and God-honoring responses of the believer…To deny another believer’s ability to respond to the leading of the Lord is the essence of legalism and a denial of the very freedom for which he was saved” (Geoff Ashley).
If you host a life group or a bbq or a dinner party, and you want to serve or allow alcohol, and you can do it in faith and out of worship to God – do it. And nobody else should judge you for that.
If you are hosting something and you choose to not serve alcohol or allow people to bring alcohol, and you are doing so out of faith and out of worship to God, then go for it. And nobody else should look down on you for that.
There Are Times To Not Drink for the Sake of Someone Else
“I know and am convinced on the authority of the Lord Jesus that no food, in and of itself, is wrong to eat. But if someone believes it is wrong, then for that person it is wrong. And if another believer is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don’t let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:14-15).
That word “distressed” means to “to be hurt, to be sorrowed.”
Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble” (Romans 14:20-21).
This is something to seriously consider. Is there a brother or sister who may be hurt or sorrowed by what I am doing? Each of us must pray about this, and let the Holy Spirit lead us in each situation.
But it is not the job of one person, even the pastor, to decide for everyone else. I will decide if I will drink at a bbq, depending on who is there. Each of you should do the same. We must take this seriously. Our freedom is something to be celebrated. But loving others is more important.
By the way – this should also be applied to eating ice cream at a church bbq in front of someone who we know is on a diet.
If You Have to Have Alcohol at a BBQ, There May be a Problem
Since this issue has come up, I’ve heard more than a few people make this point. And I totally agree – even if you don’t get drunk, if you absolutely have to have alcohol in order to enjoy yourself at a certain function, there may be a problem.
And I would encourage anyone to consider not drinking at a function to test yourself and see if you can actually go without it. Just like I would encourage anyone to consider going a day without ice cream, or coffee, or tv, or facebook to see if that is an idol.
But it is not up to the pastor or the church to legislate those tests for everyone.
To Drink Alcohol In Order to Gain Approval is Wrong
If someone doesn’t normally drink, or is convicted about drinking, and does so to earn or maintain the approval of others – that is wrong.
To Not Drink Alcohol In Order to Gain Approval is Also Wrong
I’ll admit, the one reason why I was tempted recently to make a policy about not having alcohol at certain church functions is because I was afraid of losing the approval of certain church people. I was not aware of anyone being tempted to fall into sin because I have a drink at a bbq, but I was aware of a few people who might think less of me.
And for me to give into that is called people-pleasing. And it’s another reason that Jesus yelled at the Pharisees.
In Conclusion, Let Us Be Above Reproach in All Things
Titus 1:7 tells us that church overseers are to be above reproach. To be above reproach means to live in such a way that others can’t even accuse us of doing wrong. And I think all Christians are wise to hold to that standard.
So that means, yes, when it comes to alcohol, be above reproach. If it looks like we are drinking too much, even if we’re not, we should tone it down.
But it also means that we must be above reproach in all kinds of sin, including the sin of hypocrisy and legalism.
I may have heard one or two non-Christians accuse Christians of being drunks, but I have heard hundreds of non-Christians accuse Christians of being judgemental hypocrites.
If I would offer alcohol at a “non-church” bbq, to not do so at a “church” bbq might be seen as legalistic hypocrisy. And Jess & I want to be above reproach in all our dealings.
So we have decided that consistency is important. When in doubt, what is consistent in how we normally do things? If we wouldn’t drink alcohol at a certain function, we’re not going to do it just to be cool or to fit in. But if we would drink alcohol at a certain function, and we are not aware of someone who is tempted to go against their conscience because of us, then we will lean on the side of losing the approval of stricter Christians for the sake of being authentic and consistent in our dealings.
Regardless of where you fall on this issue, my prayer is that True Life Church can be a place where, even if we disagree on how to handle gray areas like alcohol and Santa Claus, we can still find ways to love each other in unity as one body under one Lord.