“Everything is permissible for me-but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me-but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)
The above-quoted passage is from the New International Version of the Bible which helpfully places quotes around the words “Everything is permissible for me”. This is to show that what Paul here is doing is not making a statement of his own but quoting the people who were arguing that sexual immorality was permissible for believers in Christ. Paul took their statement for argument’s sake and showed them how it did not apply to the subject of sexual practices. In other words, God’s moral law had not been abrogated by the gospel of Jesus Christ. If anything, it had been clarified and intensified. Even though we cannot be justified by the moral law (any more than the ceremonial law) because we have violated it and therefore are condemned by it, nor can we be sanctified by it since it provides no motivation for obedience, the gospel does offer us forgiveness of our sins and a new motivation to keep the moral law as interpreted by Jesus Christ. That motivation is love for the One who died for us.
In this case, the question is about obedience to God’s laws concerning sexuality, which are clearly provided in Scripture. But what about behaviors which are not so clearly addressed? In fact, what about issues in which it appears that Scripture does permit something? Many Christians ran into that problem when they began to feel conscientiously opposed to slavery. Those who supported slavery seemed to have the Bible on their side. After all, Paul and Peter told slaves to obey their masters and while they also told the masters to treat their slaves humanely they did not tell the masters to free their slaves nor did they condemn the institution of slavery. In a sense, this was a case of “use, but don’t abuse” slavery. What then did the “abolitionist” Christians do? Did they ignore their consciences and the evident convictions of the Holy Spirit? No. Rather, they pointed out that higher, more general principles in Scripture take precedence over temporary accommodations to human weakness.
As Jesus said concerning the allowance of divorce in the Old Testament, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” (Matthew 19:8) He pointed to God’s original institution of marriage which clearly showed God’s intention of joining a man and a woman in a life-long commitment to each other. (Matthew 19:4-5; Genesis 1:1, 27; 2:24) Jesus also told His disciples, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12-13) Since this was not just a promise to the Apostles but to all believers down through the centuries (see 1 John 2: 20, 26-27), we should not be surprised if the Spirit leads Christians to advance in the same direction beyond the standards followed by Christians previously, even beyond those allowed or practiced by Jesus and His Apostles in the first century. This is ultimately why some Christians at first, and now virtually all Christians, believe that holding people as slaves is contrary to the will of God. And now, having laid all this groundwork, I would like to direct your attention to another issue that also became important to those Christians who, in the 19th century, opposed slavery.
I am referring to the question of the use of beverage alcohol. It is a simple matter of fact that as Christians became increasingly concerned about the evils attendant upon the practice of slavery they also became sensitized to the problems that came with the use of alcohol. Again, this was despite the fact that the Bible does not prohibit the use of alcohol and even says some good things about it. For instance, the Bible says God provided “wine which makes man's heart glad...” (Psalm 104:15) And, after all, didn’t Jesus turn water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana? (John 2:1-11) Those who argue that this wine did not contain alcohol have a hard time with the implications of the steward’s words, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” (verse 10) to be sure, the Bible has much to say against drunkenness (see, for instance Proverbs 23:31-35 and Ephesians 5:18) and we know that alcoholic beverages (mostly wine) in those days were usually watered down to make it less intoxicating. Nevertheless, it does not prohibit drinking alcohol. So why then did 19th century (mostly Evangelical Protestant) Christians (including Quakers) decide to join the “Temperance” cause and come out for complete abstinence? They saw the huge damage that alcohol was doing to individuals, families and society. While they saw that a “moderate” use of alcohol might not produce all the evils they observed, they also saw that moderateness was a slippery slope. What did or did not constitute inebriation had a lot of wiggle room and subjective determination. They found that complete abstinence provided a clear line of demarcation and the safest policy to follow. This growing consensus among American Christians, as well as even among people of secular or other religious backgrounds, that alcohol was something society would be better without eventually led to the adoption of the 18th Amendment and Prohibition. While that policy may have been faulty, there are some facts about the Prohibition period that are not generally known. It actually led to a significant decrease in liver disease, admissions to mental institutions, some forms of crime and, in the majority of communities, a greater sense of security and well-being. People actually drank less, not more! Proof of that is that it took several decades after the repeal of the 18th Amendment for per capita levels of drinking to reach the level it was at just before Prohibition.
This morning I opened the paper to read that over the last nine days in the Sacramento area nine people died in three auto accidents that certainly were, or are strongly suspected to have been, caused by alcohol. Most of the victims were young people. All of us have been adversely affected directly or indirectly by alcohol. We have all lost loved ones or seen lives devastated by alcohol and yet there has been a strong resurgence of support for the permissibility of alcohol use among Evangelical Christians. But can we not see that circumstances have changed since Bible times? We no longer need alcohol in our beverages to keep us from imbibing pathogens as was true in the first century. Whatever mild euphoria or social lubrication we can obtain from a “moderate” use of alcohol is plentifully supplied to us by the Holy Spirit. And by abstaining from it we help those who cannot use it in moderation. As Paul said,
“Everything is permissible for me-but not everything is beneficial.” Let’s aim for what is most beneficial!