A Christian Understanding of the Morality of War

An examination of the Christan ethic of war and the necessity of justice for the maintenance of peace.

In a world of ever-present international conflict, questions persist regarding the moral justification of war and the level of participation Christians should have in armed conflicts.  Christians universally agree that war is a grievous atrocity.  As Arthur Holmes asserts, “To call war anything less than evil would be self-deception.  [. . .] The issue that tears the Christian conscience is not whether war is good, but whether it is in all cases entirely avoidable.” [1]  Christians further debate whether God’s people should be involved in political entanglements at all.  The church is confronted with the question, “Is a decision not to stand and defend our neighbors an act of righteousness, or a sin of omission?”  These and other questions have troubled the conscience of the church since its inception.  By examining the Scriptures relevant to the discussion, considering the underlying hermeneutical principles by which the different traditions interpret these texts, and weighing the theological, philosophical, and political entailments, this article will make an investigation of the two traditions, pacifism and just war theory, which broadly represent the church’s historical positions toward war.  This article will then defend the position that sin, by pervading every aspect of humanity, and the Bible, in offering no suggestion that peace will be attained in the present age, together dictate that in times where peace is interrupted and cannot be restored by non-violent means, Christians have a duty to honor and support their governments’ operations as God-ordained institutions for the administration of order and the protection of the innocent. For the purpose of upholding justice and the preventing of greater evil, Christians should follow the leadership of their sovereign magistrates’ by taking up arms to act as an arbiter of justice for the restoration of peace.

Pertinent Matters to Christian War Ethics

When debating the Christian ethics of war there are a few matters which should be understood to impact the Christian’s potential response.  These issues include the Scriptures applicable to the discussion, the underlying hermeneutical approaches, and the theological and political entailments resulting from the pacifist and just war positions.  These issues will be examined in the discussion of each tradition below, but before entering the discussion it should first be established that all Christian orthodoxy, in some form or fashion, affirms that mankind is depraved, and that evil is a pervasive reality for humanity.  It must second be acknowledged that the Bible teaches that in the end there will be wars and rumors of wars (Matt 24:6-8), and an idealistic perpetual peace, whether sought by virtue or imposed by duty, is not the future the Bible depicts for the entirety of mankind.   “The New Testament does not, in other words, envisage a simple triumph of good over evil in history,” [2] and the tragic character of contemporary history must persuade Christians to take the fact of human sinfulness and the reality of war seriously. [3]  “Though war remains a tragic fact of human life, the ideal we should strive for in national and international affairs is peace with justice.” [4]  Further it must be acknowledged that life in a fallen world will not allow for evil to be avoided in every circumstance.  In each generation, there will arise times of conflict in which Christians will be required to take a conscious stand on the topic of war and peace.

Engaging Pacifism

Believing deadly force is inconsistent with the ethics of Christ, the pacifist position maintains that the community of God’s covenant believers is to be a minority movement[5] called to a spiritual vocation, and a kingdom distinct from the world,[6] for the purpose of offering witness to Christ by honoring the sanctity of every human life. [7]

The first Scriptural encounter which might lead one to adopt the pacifist position is the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod 20:13).  Many pacifists consider human life to be sacrosanct, saying that each person is of infinite worth and must be treated as an end in themselves rather than as a means to an end to be sacrificed for the sake of goals. [8]  As Augsburger states, “We cannot be involved in anything, whether it is social injustice, violence, war or poverty, which interrupts a person’s opportunities for a full life.” [9]   The pacifist further bolsters their foundation in their interpretation that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount instructs that Christians are to “not resist evil, to “turn the other cheek,” and to “love [their] enemies” (Matt 5:38-48).  The pacifist sees these actions to be carried out literally as acts of obedience to Matthew 5:11-12, a Scripture in which they see Christ instructing His disciples that they are blessed in their passivity in persecution.  Additionally, pacifists will reference texts like Matthew 26:52 in which Christ says, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” and He instructs Peter that he should return his sword to its place.  This is clear precept for the pacifist that he should never resist evil in such a way that might result in the use of force.

Seeing the Bible as moving along a trajectory of progressive revelation, in which God reveals His will more clearly with passing time, the pacifist typically arrives at her position by an underlying hermeneutic that stresses a discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.  This hermeneutic views the New Testament as superseding the example of the Old in such a way that justice is now superseded by a new law of love. [10]  This view of the law of love dictates that God no longer desires a geographical theocracy but a spiritual kingdom, and therefore warrants no taking of life or land by force, but desires the advance of His kingdom by the means of the gospel.

The pacifist reasons that non-violence is the appropriate response to evil because the weapons of God’s kingdom are spiritual, and not earthly. [11]  The pacifist expresses a genuine biblical desire for world peace, and hopes that whether by faithfulness, example, rationality, social contract, or non-violent resistance a greater peace might be achieved.  While it might not be the direct contention of any notable pacifist, Reinhold Niebuhr contends that pacifists imply “the Church’s failure to espouse pacifism unanimously can only be interpreted as apostasy, and must be attributed to its lack of courage or to its want of faith,” and further that pacifists see justice by means of violent intervention as rarely executed apart from sinful motives. [12]  A pacifist, Augsburger confirms the latter point by insisting that Christians typically fight wars for the purposes of nationalism, protecting property, for the achieving of Christ’s goals through force, and out of desire for power.  It is Augsburger’s contention that the Christian should take seriously Jesus’ commands to be content and to serve and sacrifice for the sake of character, for fidelity to the heavenly kingdom, and for the church’s witness to Christ, all of which are more valuable than power or material goods. [13]

The pacifist position entails that Christians must practice absolute non-resistance, and under all circumstance remain non-violent.  Christians are therefore only reasonably able to serve the government in positions in which they can perform the functions of office without compromising their pacifist ethic. [14]  For some pacifists this has meant a complete inability for any political involvement, and for others, it has excluded them from serving in positions such as police officer, mayor, judge, and any other force-executing role. [15]

In Defense of the Just War Theory

Contrary to pacifism the just war theory considers that while war is assuredly evil, it is sometimes biblically appropriate to fight for the sake of restoring peace.  Just War theory postulates that “under some circumstances the Christian should participate in war for the sake of the preservation of justice.” [16]  Rarely one to mince words, Luther was convinced that “without armaments peace cannot be kept; wars are waged not only to repel injustice but also to establish a firm peace.” [17]

A proper exegetical understanding of the sixth commandment is a helpful beginning toward understanding the Bible’s teaching that there is, in fact, a time to kill, and a time for war (Eccl 3:3, 8).  In the common historical rendering, “thou shalt not kill,” the Hebrew word ‘ratsach,’ translated in the King James as ‘kill,’ does not, in fact, share the same meaning as the English word ‘kill’ in the broad sense.  ‘Ratsach’ rightly understood is something closer to ‘manslaughter,’ personal vengeance, or personal negligence.  This becomes clearer when one considers that both the Old and New Testaments command the exercise of capital punishment by the will of God (Num 35:30, Rom 13:4).  This demonstrates that there are indeed biblical circumstances in which life is not considered so sacrosanct that it should never be taken, and there are circumstances in which it is lawful to kill.  Arthur Holmes further delineates that because Romans 13:1-7 grants that the governments use of lethal force “may be used to resist criminal and violent attacks from within a country or community, by implication it may be used to resist criminal and violent attacks from without.” [18]  Thomas Aquinas expresses his agreement with this reasoning saying of Romans 13:4, “He beareth not the sword in vain:  [. . .] it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies.  Hence it is said to those that are in authority (Psalm 81:4):  Rescue the poor:  and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner.” [19]  Augustine, speaking to whom should wield power to make a pronouncement of war professes, the “power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold supreme authority.”  As Peter exhorts in 1 Peter 2:14, the just war theorist obeys God by submission to government authority, and in this case by leaving such punishment of evil to the Lord’s ordained human institutions.

Contrary to the passages referenced by the pacifist to suggest the proper Christian position is one of non-resistance, the just war theorists call upon verses like John 2:15 in which Jesus drives out the money changers by use of a whip.  Just war theorists also point out that Christ says He “came not to bring peace but a sword” (Matt 10:34), and says, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” Responding to the pacifists interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount John Jefferson Davis asserts “The actions of Jesus Christ himself and of the great apostle to the Gentiles clearly indicate that the sayings on turning the other cheek are meant to promote an attitude of nonrevenge [sic], rather than the posture of a ‘doormat’ for abuse.” [20]

Recounting the hall of fame of the faith in Hebrews 11, the writer of the epistle asserts in verses 32 to 34 that Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight.  The epistolarian plainly calls their courageous enforcement of justice by means of war acts of faith.  Interpreting Matthew 5:9 in light of the Epistle to the Hebrews would suggest that one who brings about peace by the upholding of justice is blessed for faithful service, as Matthew 5:9 does not say blessed are the peaceful, but says blessed are those who bring about peace.

Seeing a continuity between the Old and New Testaments, and acknowledging a standard and unchanging morality for all people, “the just war theorist . . . is apt to see the law of love in the Old as well as the New, so that the New fulfills, reinforces and interprets the Old rather than superseding it.” [21]  The just war ethic sees the spirit of justice as being an integral part of the law of love and acknowledges that love requires justice for the maintenance of order and the keeping of peace.  This hermeneutic sees the teaching and example of the Old Testament as intimately relevant for Christians today, holds stronger concord with canonical biblical theology, and makes better sense of the entirety of the biblical metanarrative.

Borrowing from the prior work of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas developed an early outline by which the morality of war could be judged, positing that a just war meets three necessary demands:  proper authority, just cause, and just intent.  First, war must be waged by the sovereign governing forces whom God has granted authority.  “It is not the business of private individuals to declare war,” or “to summon together the people.”  Second, Aquinas references Augustine’s view that a just war must be one that avenges wrong or punishes a nation or state for refusing to make amends for wrongs.  Third, a just war requires a rightful intention, namely the advancement of good, the avoidance of evil, and the securing of peace. [22]  Later thinkers have made useful additions to these criteria among which is the idea that uses of force are to be employed only to the extent necessary to restore peace and no more. [23]

In direct contrast to Augsburger’s contentions about war primarily being waged for unrighteous motives, Luther contends that war is nothing other than the punishment of wrong and evil, and asks, “Why does anyone go to war, except because he desires peace and obedience?” [24]  Augustine agrees saying, “We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.”  Hence it is the position of the just war theorist never to instigate conflict, but only to defend against conflict for the purpose putting an end to war.  The just war theory further reasons that if all ethical wars must be defensive wars, then universal adherence to the ethic would result in no war.  In conceding instances for defense, the just war theory, where necessary, allows for small misfortunes for the sake of preventing great ones.[25]  The just war theory, however, considers its function to be more than merely an arbiter of justice, but also an ethic by which wars are judged, regulated, and potentially prevented. [26]

Believing that the Bible’s cultural mandate instructs that it is the task of the church to make inroads into the secular world for the transformation of the corrupt and the redemption of brokenness, the just war position encourages Christians to pursue full participation in governmental functions including legislation, law enforcement, and military action. [27]  The just war hermeneutic believes that more is required biblically of the Christian than to bear witness to Christ in passivity.  Just war calls Christians to resist committing sins of omission – standing by in times of grievous evil, and to instead be prepared to defend innocent lives by seeking justice for the sake of compassion and love.  “To let violence and aggression go unchecked does not eliminate the evil, nor does it leave [the Christian] unimplicated if [they] could do something about it.” [28]  The just war theorist clearly identifies circumstances in which inaction results in significantly greater atrocity, and believes in some cases inaction is a greater evil than military action.

Conclusion

By the clear evidence of the pervasiveness of sin in society, and the Bible’s plain warning that war will persist until the end of the age, it is reasonable to deduce that the Bible implicates Christians, in circumstances where peace is interrupted and cannot be restored by non-violent means, to honor and support the government in its God-ordained role as sovereign keeper of order and protector of the people.  Further, despite just war theory being the predominant view of the historical church, it remains the responsibility of just war theorists to both protect and celebrate the lives and views of their pacifist brothers and sisters.  As the church is one in body, we are supported and edified by one another, and the witness and perspectives of those who do not think exactly as we do are helpful in keeping us from venturing too far in any direction.  The crusades stand as historic evidence of the pitfalls of a Christian mentality overly comfortable with the practice of war. The pacifists’ desire for peace and love are undeniable and should provide encouragement to the church to continually reexamine our position.  Ultimately, the Scriptural, hermeneutical, and rational evidence demand Christians to embrace a position that takes both peace and evil seriously.  While the just war theory is subject to the judgments of fallible men, and will never be a perfect practice, it remains necessary that Christians stand prepared to support the civil magistrate as the God-ordained institutor and maintainer of civil order.  A failure on the part of Christians to honor this duty for the sake of avoiding a small atrocity can ultimately lend itself to the permission of a great one.  As John Stuart Mill said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

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Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

 

 

 

[1]Arthur F. Holmes, “The Just War” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 117.

[2]Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics (Hamden, CT:  Archon Books, 1969), 4.

[3]Ibid, chap. 1.

[4]Arthur F. Holmes, War and Christian Ethics:  Classic and Contemporary Readings on the Morality of War (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2005), 6.

[5]Myron S. Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 85.

[6]Menno Simons, “A Reply to False Accusations,” in L. Verduin (trans.) and J. C. Wenger (ed.) The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Harrisonburg, VA:  Herald Press, 1956).

[7]Herman A. Hoyt, “Christian Pacifism,” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 43.

[8]Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” in Lewis White Beck (ed.) On History (New York:  MacMillan Press, 1963).

[9]Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 96.

[10]Arthur F. Holmes, “A Just War Response to Nonresistance,” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 65.

[11]Simons, “A Reply to False Accusations.”

[12] Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, 3.

[13]Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 87-92.

[14]Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 89.

[15]Holmes, “A Just War Response,” 69.

[16]John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics:  Issues Facing the Church Today (Phillipsburg, NJ:  P & R Publishing, 2004), 246.

[17]Cited in Ewald M. Plass, compiler, What Luther Says (Saint Louis:  Concordia, 1959), 3:1428.

[18]Holmes, “A Just War Response,” 69.

[19]Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (Westminster, MD:  Christian Classics, 1981), 2.2.40.

[20]Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 244.

[21]Holmes, “The Just War,” 124.

[22]Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2.2.40.

[23]Holmes, “The Just War,” 123.

[24]Martin Luther, “Whether Solders, Too, Can Be Saved,” in C. M. Jacobs (trans.) and R. C. Shultz and H. T. Lehman (eds.), Luther’s Works Vol. 46 ‘The Christian in Society’ (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1967).

[25]Ibid.

[26]Holmes, War and Christian Ethics, 4.

[27]Holmes, “The Just War,” 124.

[28]Ibid, 118.

A Christian Ethic for Treating Mental Illness

Research by the U. S. Burden of Disease Collaborators indicates neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States.[1]  Consequently, the “raging epidemic of mental illness,”[2] results in “psychotropic medications [being] among the most commonly prescribed of all pharmacological agents.”[3]  Pointing to the Church’s intersection with this issue, Christian psychiatrists Paul Meier and Frank Minirth say estimates indicate “pastors do more than half of all the counseling in the United States.”[4]  While proponents of psychiatry suggest “psychotropics have improved the lives of millions of individuals living with mental illness,”[5] many Christians still find themselves hesitant to throw their full support behind psychotropic medication.  In an article from Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer calls out Christians as having “a tendency to tiptoe around [mental illness] as if . . . on eggshells,”[6] and says Christians likely struggle more than their mainstream-society-peers in reaching positions on the topic.[7]  Further, complicating matters are psychiatric professionals who themselves acknowledge “significant controversy exists surrounding ethical best practices in the prescription of psychotropics.”[8]  Granted, mental illness remains a broad sweeping, debilitating, and sometimes dangerous affliction that can’t be ignored.

Christian best practices must be established for the safety and well-being of our communities.  This article will first consider reasons why some Christians are resistant to psychopharmacology. Then, the ontological nature of human beings will be considered before expressing reasons why Christians should support the field of psychopharmacology.  Finally, the paper will consider some further concerns Christians might have in fully embracing psychopharmacology, and will offer a response to those concerns.  Following this outline, this paper will argue a proper view of health recognizes human beings as whole persons and incorporates all God-given means, both spiritual and physical.  In understanding the treatment of mental illness, Christians must choose the narrow position between over-spiritualizing mental and emotional struggles, and conversely over-materializing the mind.  This paper will further contend this narrow position is the ethical high ground and falling into the ditch to either the left or right is done to the detriment of both the mentally ill and the community around them.

Reasons Christians Reject Psychopharmacology

In mental health, a tension exists that Christians must admit they are sometimes unsure how to navigate.  While some Christians are open to discussing mental illness as a physiological reality to be benefitted by psychiatry and pharmaceutical science, others believe granting too much weight to secular practices undermines the authority of Scripture.[9]  Within Christianity is a spectrum of viewpoints resistant to psychopharmacology.  A fringe element of Christians rejects medication out of hand in a convicted adherence to faith healing.  This group believes all healing should be sought through the supernatural activity of God alone.

More common are Christians who accept medical science as helpful to physical healing but view matters of the mind as spiritual and emotional rather than physical.  This group’s actions suggest the belief that symptoms of mental illness come as the result of sin, lack of faith, or other spiritual deficiencies.  Issues like depression and bipolar disorder are combatted with more sincere faith, repentance, prayer, and spiritual disciplines.  Referencing these Christians, Ed Stetzer recounts, “When I became a Christian, the initial reaction I heard regarding [mental health] issues was that if people would trust the Lord enough they would be healed.”[10]  Christians of this mindset say things like, “It is impossible for a Christian to be depressed or to need psychiatric counseling for an emotional problem,”[11] and ask, “Shouldn’t faith alone be enough to solve a Christian’s [emotional] problems.”[12]  It is also not uncommon for these Christians to conflate instances of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with demon possession or the occult.[13]

The more prevalent view among Evangelicals, however, acknowledges the physical nature of some mental health issues but finds difficulty discerning which issues are primarily spiritual, behavioral, or physical.  Knowing the field of psychiatry often diverges from the Christian worldview, many Christians are hesitant to celebrate the practice of psychiatrists.  Additionally, many in the Church expect that Christians should possess an inner strength uncommon to the world.  Emotional struggles that challenge this expectation and cause Christians to fall short of behavioral expectations often lead to a feeling of personal failure.  These factors, in combination with the historical stigmatization of mental illness, leads many afflicted Christians hide mental illness out of guilt and shame.

Robert H. Albers writes, “Ignorance concerning mental illness has historically often resulted in brutal treatment of suffering persons, of their being fettered both literally and figuratively by the chains of helplessness.”[14]  For these reasons, many Christians who are potentially afflicted choose to suffer quietly in emotional isolation.  Likening this shame and isolation to that of biblical lepers, Albers points out that “the stigmatization associated with both leprosy and mental illness elicits feelings of ‘disgrace shame’ within the afflicted as well as the affected persons,” and the net result of general insensitivity toward mental illness is “a progression of evaluative judgments by others, resulting in depersonalization, dehumanization, and finally ‘demonization’ of the one afflicted.”[15]  In these cases, it is not a misunderstanding of mental illness, but the fear of judgment that leads Christians to reject medication despite the clear acknowledgment of an issue.  Stetzer laments, “At the end of the day, part of the reason it’s difficult to acknowledge these real issues is that there can be a perception that Christians are not supposed to have these issues.  Part of our belief system is that God changes everything.”  Thus, whether Christians acknowledge mental issues may be physical, shame may still render them reluctant to embrace medication.

Ontology and the ‘Whole’ Person

The first step in determining a view toward treatment of mental illness demands clarification be given to the nature of mental illness.  This requires definition be given to the ontological status of the person.  The pertinent ontological question asks, “What is the relationship between the body and the mind?”  Two erroneous answers permeate this discussion.

There exists an errant view of human ontology that understands all matters of the mind to be purely spiritual.  This view divides human ‘parts’ into a dichotomy or trichotomy – two or three distinct substances respectively.  This view draws a hard distinction between the mind/soul and physical body.  In this mind-body dualism, souls are perceived to be distinct from, but presently existing within physical bodies.  Crudely, this view reduces humans to “entrapped souls,” or “souls on sticks,” and separates mental and spiritual aspects of the person from the physical.

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A second errant view is naturalism, which views humans as purely physical beings.  This view rejects the existence of the soul and reduces all experiences of cognition to physical processes within the brain.  This view reduces humans to “meat computers,” and believes all mental and physical problems are corrected through physical means.

The Bible, however, does not depict humans as minds on sticks or meat computers.  In an elaborate word study, Anthony Hoekema summarizes the Bible’s ontological view of man with the phrase “psychosomatic unity.”  Man has “a physical side and a mental or spiritual side, but we must not separate these two.  The human person must be understood as an embodied soul,” and Scripture insists the human “must be seen in his or her totality, not as a composite of different parts.”[16]  Esteemed Christian ethicist Russell Moore agrees, “God created us as whole persons, with body and psyche together. . . . We don’t ‘have’ bodies or ‘have’ psyches.  We are psychosomatic whole persons, made in the image of God.”[17]

Minirth and Meier explain this understanding of the person implies the “separate dimensions of human nature interact so closely that ‘health’ on one level always impinges on ‘health’ on the other,” and “the state of our mental/emotional health affects our physical well-being, and vice/versa.”[18]  This points to a need for a holistic approach to healthcare.  Holistic healthcare “emphasize[s] the necessity for looking at the whole person, including physical condition, nutrition, emotional makeup, spiritual state, lifestyle values, and environment.”[19]  The holistic view suggests “mental problems should not be thought of as totally distinct from physical problems because neither type of problem is ever separate from the other. . . . The counselor ought not to think of spiritual and mental health as somehow totally separable.”[20] Thus, the Biblical view agrees with the psychiatric contention that physical factors are involved in functions of the mind while refusing the notion that human cognition is reduced to physical processes alone.

Reasons to Embrace Psychopharmacology

Crucial to embracing the necessity of psychopharmacology is understanding mental illness involves a “broken brain.”[21]  More technically, “schizophrenia is correlated with a chemical imbalance in the brain and causes varying degrees of abnormal behavior,” including “a basic loss of touch with reality.”[22]  Similarly, victims of clinical depression have brains with extremely low levels of neurotransmitters.[23] These physical issues are said to be virtually impossible to treat without medication.[24]  Prompt medical intervention, however, often alleviates faulty mental function, restores ordinary behavior, and makes full recovery possible for many people.[25]

Tragically, when “a psychotic person goes six months without medication to correct the dopamine imbalance in the brain, the psychosis nearly always becomes permanent and uncurable [sic].”[26]  People suffering from psychosis are also prone to extremely poor judgment, financial impulsivity, and action that brings peril to themselves and others.  Not every person suffering from mental illness suffers such severe symptoms, but Christians too frequently allow calamity to grow out of circumstances that could have been avoided with professional evaluation and treatment.

In cases of mental illness, “More often than not, more prayer and more faith are not the only remedy. [sic]”[27]  In cases of other physical ailments, like broken bones and malfunctioning organs, Christians rarely refuse medical care.  Likewise, Christians are not judged for suffering these ailments, and likewise do not feel guilt or shame because of them.  The Apostle Paul’s statement, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is not a calling to Christians take a “grin-and-bear-it” approach to physical affliction when medical treatment is available – especially in the case that an affliction, left untreated, may increase in intensity until irreparable damage is done.  Additionally, it is flat out unethical to reject help for an affliction that could potentially threaten the emotional and physical well-being of others.  Christ himself said those who are sick are in need of a doctor (Matt 9:12).  Christians must acknowledge there is a serious difference between spiritual struggle and physical mental sickness.  While they can relate, they cannot be flattened into one or be considered the same.[28]  Mental illness must instead be viewed similarly to physical illness in cases of genuine mental illness.

Doctors Minirth and Meier caution, the Bible is fundamental to human wellness, but applying it as a “Band-aid” for every physical or mental disorder is more than a simplistic solution – it’s dangerous.”[29]  Additionally, it is not Christian to shame someone for having a birth defect or contracting a virus.  Therefore, it is unacceptable to blame a person for having a chemical imbalance.  Limiting treatment for physical mental afflictions to prayer and spiritual counsel is like telling a destitute brother to be well while offering him no blanket for warmth or bread to fill his stomach (James 2:16).  The Christian has an ethical responsibility to be concerned for fellow Christians’ physical well-being.

Regarding psychopharmacology, the ethical question becomes, “Will this course of action bring the afflicted person closer to physical and emotional wellness and better enable him to fulfill his purpose?”  This question is closely followed by a second question which asks, “Is this course of action the best and most appropriate means of reaching that end?”  If the answer to these questions is yes, then the onus is on the Christian to help his brother or sister in this way.  “People are crying out for help, and we cannot afford to be ignorant or afraid.”[30]  Christians must fight ignorance on these issues, conquer fear in addressing them, and eliminate the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness and psychopharmacology.

Remaining Concerns About Psychopharmacology

Despite acknowledging psychotropic medication as a helpful tool in whole-person health, there remain concerns for a wholesale embrace of psychopharmacology.  Many Christians fear that a locking of arms between the Church and psychiatry is a slippery slope which gives way to an increasingly materialistic view of humanity.  Increased materialism results in the elevation of medicine as the solution to all problems, and diminishes the value of faith.  Additionally, both Christians and non-Christians worry that the normalization of anti-depressants is redefining “normal” human emotional experience.  The normalization of psychopharmacology has also led to an increasing comfort with the unethical practice of abusing psychotropic drugs to exceed the limits of natural human ability.  Each of these issues feeds the exponential rise in the consumption of these substances and creates valid concern considering pharmaceuticals (especially those affecting the mind) are known to come with significant side-effects and inherent risks.

Psychotropics are among the most commonly prescribed of all pharmacological agents, and alter the emotional receptivity of the brain.  This creates a growing concern that Americans are losing a healthy understanding of what “normal” is, and are becoming increasingly confused between what qualifies as depression and mere circumstantial sadness.  There is growing concern that twenty-first century America has lost any appreciation for the importance of healthy and natural emotions like sadness and shame, and no longer values the formative and healing functions of suffering and mourning.  Increasingly, people are attempting to medicate away unwanted feelings due to a misguided expectation that they should be happy all the time and should not be bothered with feelings of sadness and guilt.  Russell Moore suggests that whether a person’s issue is ultimately chemical or circumstantial, it is important that they start with a realistic picture of what “normal” is.  The “normal” human life is not the one marketed by pop culture or the pharmaceutical industry, but the one the Bible clarifies as a “groaning” along with the persecuted creation.  If the expectation of normal life is a kind of all-the-time tranquility, people might be attempting to bypass a purposeful part of the human condition itself.[31]  An endorsement of psychopharmacology cannot allow that every feeling of sadness, guilt, anxiety, or confusion is abnormal, unhelpful, or needing medical attention.

Concern for the redefinition of what is normal to human cognition is not limited to the emotional realm.  The field known as cosmetic neuroenhancement has already begun responding to patient requests for medications to enhance cognitive-affective function for the purpose of intellectual and vocational achievement.[32]  Widespread swaths of otherwise healthy American teens have already made a common practice of abusing ADD (attention deficit disorder) drugs like Ritalin and Adderall for the purpose of enhancing cognitive function in academic pursuits.[33]  Acceptance of psychotropic medication could open the door for the cosmetic neuroenhancement industry to become a growing market within psychopharmacology in the twenty-first century.  These medications threaten the underlying assumption that the ethical goal of medicine is to restore afflicted individuals to normal function.

Ultimately more pressing, however, are concerns regarding the anxiousness of pharmaceutical companies to push medications without first having comprehensive knowledge of side effects.  Neuroscience expert Sarah J. Meller confesses, “In truth, we know very little of the working of the human mind.  Although we do know what some individual medications do to a specific receptor in the brain, the huge jump from molecular interaction to improvement in mood, cognition, and reality testing remains a mystery.”[34]  Further concerning is the reality that the present applications of many psychotropics were discovered by accident. Valium, chlorpromazine, tricyclic antidepressants, the MAOI family, and lithium were all originally intended to treat illnesses unrelated to the brain. Meller continues, “None of these medications were [sic] initially produced to treat the illness they are now treating. . . . No one had a clue as to why medications work as they do.”[35]  This demonstrates that the discovery of popular psychotropic drugs did not come from an advanced awareness of the chemical compositions needed to correct problems in the brain, but instead by testing these substances on patients and observing the results.  The history of psychopharmacology is a trail littered with drugs once thought promising but ultimately found to be dangerous.  The drugs include barbiturates, opium, and hundreds of potions and herbs now known to be more dangerous than helpful.  Even Sigmund Freud had an early optimistic obsession with cocaine. [36] “This illustrates a common experience with psychotropic medications, in which the beneficial effects are often embraced before the unintended side of effects are known.”[37]  Therefore, embracing psychopharmacology as a helpful tool in the holistic approach to whole-person health assumes certain ethical, pastoral, and personal risks.

Responding to Concerns About Psychopharmacology

When making a nuanced consideration of psychopharmacology one must be concerned to perform actions that best help individuals achieve their God-given purpose.  Consideration of psychopharmacology must first suspect the individual in question is inhibited from “normal” function, and second, that medical treatment offers potential for assisting in restoring “normal” function.  Christians believe that each person’s purpose is to glorify God by imitating Christ in becoming more perfectly human.  Noting concerns surrounding psychopharmacology, the questions that persist are, “Will psychopharmacological intervention help restore the afflicted individual to a state of mental fitness in which he can better fulfill his purpose of imitating Christ without moving him beyond the God-given abilities natural to man?” And secondarily, “Does this individual’s need outweigh the potential risks involved with employing medication?”  In some cases, symptoms of the afflicted make the answers clear.  Other cases are less obvious, and the complicated nature of these situations requires openness.  A general ethical position, however, should not be formulated based on ethical dilemmas.

When navigating most ethical issues the right path is the narrow path and ditches lie to the left and right.  Virtue always butts up against vice on both sides.  C. S. Lewis aptly instructed, “[The Devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. . . He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.  But do not let us be fooled.  We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.”[38]  In the case of psychopharmacology, one deception leads to the over-spiritualization of mental illness and fear of physical means for assisting healing.  The other deception leads to an over-materialization of health and is overly anxious to rely on medication.  Both are misguided and fail to care for the whole person.

In The Loss of Sadness, Horwitz and Wakefield contend that the “false epidemic” of psychiatric disorders has been driven by a dramatic rise in “false positive” diagnoses.[39]  While the merit of such contentions is a subject of necessary debate, this concern cannot be the primary factor in determining the value of psychopharmacology.  Improperly practicing doctors do no more to invalidate medication’s proven ability to help mental illness than misbehaving Christians do to invalidate the transformational power of God’s grace.  The value of psychopharmacological medications themselves is not determined by the behaviors of the psychiatrists who administer them.  “Most people would agree that in many ways we are an overmedicated society,” but “just because we need to be careful in how we prescribe and administer medication does not mean we should be afraid of medical intervention entirely.”[40]

Granting the value of psychopharmacology, medication is not a cure.  Many of these medications don’t fix the problem as much as they alleviate symptoms.[41]  People who believe medication will cure mental illness, or eliminate the need to work through difficult emotions, are mistaken. Treating symptoms alone is like going to the dentist and receiving nothing more than anesthesia.  Alleviating symptoms is not the same as fixing the problem.  Russell Moore advises, “God doesn’t want [the mentally ill] to be . . . ‘comfortably numb.’  He wants [them] to be whole.”[42]  Medication is a necessary and helpful tool but is not the long-term solution to underlying causes.[43]

The Scriptures, faith community, medicine, and therapy all have a place in healing the whole person.[44]  Recovering from mental illness is a long process, and there are aspects of healing that need to be addressed alongside medication.  These include a commitment to glorifying God, understanding one’s identity in Christ, spending regular time in prayer and Scripture, looking to God for primary support, avoiding sin and temptation, drawing near to loved ones, fellowshipping with Christian community, letting go of bitterness by practicing forgiveness, serving others, exercising the gifts of the Spirit, developing a life of routine and moderation, recognizing and accepting human limitations, and practicing humility in seeking help from others.

When a person belongs to a religious community, this is often their first means of support and counsel in a time of crisis.  “Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and a host of other psychological problems are rooted in physiological problems that call for medical treatment, not simple talk therapy.”[45]  At the same time, the embrace of medication does not diminish the responsibility of the spiritual community in healing.  Returning to the parallel between the mentally ill and the leper, restoration to the faith community is as notable as the healing of the illness itself (see Matt 8:4).[46]

While the ethical position sees psychopharmacology as necessary and right in treating genuine mental illness, concerns stemming from its embrace still need to be considered.  Constant changes in the pharmaceutical industry demand Christians should continuously reevaluate and revise their views.  What is consistent, however, is the Christian calling to love one another as “whole persons” and to take ethical positions that bring healing and restoration, opposed to positions that subject God’s image bearers to suffering and to potentially injuring themselves and others.

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – Senior Pastor of Indian Hills Baptist Church in Silver City, New Mexico, former Interim Preaching Pastor of Church on the Rock Katy, Houston, TX, and a Master of Divinity graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY,

 

 

 

[1]US Burden of Disease Collaborators, “The state of US health, 1990-2010: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors” in Journal of the American Medical Association 310/6 (2013), 591-608.

[2]Marcia Angell, “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” (The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011), Retrieved November 20, 2016. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/.

[3]Laura Weiss Roberts and Shaili Jain, “Ethical Issues in Psychopharmacology” (Psychiatric Times, May 6, 2011), Retrieved November 20, 2016.  http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/ethical-issues-psychopharmacology.

[4]Frank Minirth and Paul Meier with Kevin Kinback, Ask the Doctors:  Questions and Answers from the Minirth-Meier Clinic Broadcast (New York:  Guideposts, 1991), 188.

[5]Roberts and Jain, “Ethical Issues.”

[6]Ed Stetzer, “Mental Illness & Medication vs. Spiritual Struggles & Biblical Counseling” (Christianity Today, April 23, 2013), Retrieved November 20, 2016.  http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/april/mental-illness-medication-vs-spiritual-struggles.html.

[7]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[8]Roberts and Jain, “Ethical Issues.”

[9]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[10]Ibid.

[11]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 183.

[12]Ibid, 44.

[13]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 201.

[14]Robert H. Albers, “Introduction” in Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2012), 2.

[15]Albers, “Introduction,” 3.

[16]Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 216.

[17]Russell Moore, “Is it Right for a Christian to Take Anti-Depressants” (Russellmoore.com, February 28, 2012), Retrieved November 20, 2016.  http://www.russellmoore.com/2012/02/28/is-it-right-for-a-christian-to-take-anti-depressants/.

[18]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 10.

[19]“Holistic Medicine” in Encyclopedia Americana vol. 14 (Danbury, CT:  Grolier, 1983), p. 294.

[20] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 216.

[21]Albers, “Introduction,” 7.

[22]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 120.

[23]Ibid, 184.

[24]Ibid, 121.

[25]Ibid, 122.

[26]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 193.

[27]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[28]Ibid.

[29]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 182.

[30]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[31]Moore, “Is it Right?”

[32]D. Larriviere, M. A. Williams, M. Rizzo and R. J. Bonnie, “Responding to Requests from Adult Patients for Neuroenhancements: Guidance of the Ethics, Law and Humanities Committee” in Neurology (2009), 73:1406-1412.

[33]M. Talbot, “Brain Gain: The Underground World of “Neuroenhancing” Drugs” in New Yorker (April 27, 2009). 32-43.

[34]Sarah J. Meller and William H. Meller, “Conclusion: Psychopharmacology” in Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2012), 229.

[35]Meller and Meller, “Conclusion,” 233.

[36]Ibid, 230.

[37]Ibid.

[38]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  HarperOne, 2001), 186.

[39]A. V. Horwitz, J. C. Wakefield, The Loss of Sadness (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007).

[40]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[41]Moore, “Is it Right?”

[42]Moore, “Is it Right?”

[43]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 184.

[44]Ibid, 182-183.

[45]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[46]Albers, “Introduction,” 3.

Christmas II – The Prince of Peace Who Brings Good Will To Men

This sermon was preached on December 17, 2017, at Church on the Rock in West Houston/Katy, TX. This is the second message in a three-part series on the wonder and majesty of Christmas.

Christmas I – The Broken World Longs for ‘God With Us’

This sermon was preached on December 10, 2017, at Church on the Rock in West Houston/Katy, TX. This is the first message in a three-part series on the wonder and majesty of Christmas.

How has the Church Historically Viewed Alcohol?

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Just as the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim 6:10)[1], the tongue is a world of evil capable of enflaming a forest (Jas 3:6), and over-eating is a sin that calls for a slashing of one’s throat (Pros 23:2); alcohol consumption can also be grievous sin.  Held in the context of the canon, however, none of the aforementioned infers that Christians are to abstain from earning money, speaking, eating, or even drinking alcohol.  In some circles in the modern American church the concern over alcohol consumption has been elevated to a level of dogma, going so far as to become a denominational distinctive by which certain groups are identified.  This article will make an investigation of the following questions:  What does the Bible say about drinking alcohol? What is the church’s historical view toward alcohol?  How did we get to this point?  And, How should we move forward?  By thoroughly laying out the views of prominent historical Christian leaders, this article will seek to offer a thoughtful assessment of the historical theological positions the church has demonstrated towards the consumption of alcohol.  To support this endeavor, this article will examine the views of the biblical authors, the early church fathers, the medieval Catholic Church, the Reformers, early American Christians, nineteenth and twentieth century Protestants, and the views present among church leaders today.

Views of the Biblical Authors

In making a thorough perusal of the biblical authors’ mentions of alcohol it is clear there is neither an unbridled exhortation to indulge, nor is there an express condemnation of the simple act of drinking alcohol as sin.  The biblical authors offer a balanced view towards alcohol calling it both a “gift,” and a “mocker.”  On one hand, King David, a man after God’s own heart, extols praise for God’s providence in causing “the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man” (Psalms 104:14).  Conversely David’s son, Solomon, a man of incredible wisdom, writes, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov 20:1).  In the New Testament, the Apostle John tells readers of Jesus’ first miracle, an event coming at a wedding reception in Cana, in which the party had run dry and left the hosts in need of wine.  John makes clear that the guests of the wedding party had already been consuming wine when he clarifies that when the wine was gone Jesus’ mother expressed concern for the dignity of the hosts (John 2:3).  Jesus’ response to the hosts’ need was as follows:

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.”  And they filled them up to the brim.  And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.”  So they took it.  When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, the poor wine.  But you have kept the good wine until now (John 2:6-10).

John here demonstrated that Jesus, without sinning and without being a stumbling in encouraging the sin of others, offered the providence of between 120 and 180 gallons of wine for the purposes of preserving the dignity of the wedding hosts and extending the duration of the celebration.  Responding to the Pharisees specific concerns regarding His interaction with alcohol Jesus said the following, “John the Baptist has come [. . .] drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man has come [. . .] drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him!  A [. . .] drunkard, a friend of [. . .] sinners!’  Yet wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:33-35).  Later, the Apostle Paul exhorts the early church, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery (Ephesians 5:18),” but later exhorts his ailing young cohort, the church leader Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim 5:23).  In addressing the views of the early church toward wine, I. W. Raymond offers the following insightful summation:

[The] favorable view [of wine in the Bible] is balanced by an unfavorable estimate.  The reason for the presence of these two conflicting opinions on the nature of wine [is that the] consequences of wine drinking follow its use and not its nature.  Happy results ensue when it is drunk in its proper measure and evil results when it is drunk to excess.  The nature of wine is indifferent. [2]

The nature of the biblical authors’ amoral view towards alcohol itself, consideration of alcohol as both a blessing and a potential danger, and their explicit condemnation of drunkenness have left room for much debate in later generations as to the wisdom of alcohol’s consumption.

Views of the Early Church Fathers

In the early years of the church, during the time of the Apostolic Fathers, there is little information offered regarding views toward the proper treatment of alcohol in the Christian life.  In the oldest surviving written Christian catechism, The Didache, there is a brief mention that anyone partaking in wine should offer the first fruits to the prophets among them (Didache 13:6).

In his writing, The Instructor, in a chapter titled “On Drinking,” the church father Clement of Alexandria stated that “the soul is wisest and best when dry.”  Clement goes on to state that taking a little wine for enjoyment after the day’s work is complete is considered acceptable so long as a person is not tempted by drunkenness.  Clement exhorts Christians, to “be not eager to burst by draining [drink] down with gaping throat,” but drink with proper “decorum, by taking the beverage in small portions, in an orderly way.”  Still Clement insists caution, “for wine has overcome many.” [3] While the church historian Eusebius indicates that the popular early church father Origen did not personally imbibe, there are no specific writings to indicate he forbade drinking among the laity. [4]

By the late fourth century AD there begins to arise a more clear recording of the direction given by church fathers’ views toward engagement with wine and the folly of drunkenness.  Augustine, who had been reformed from a life wrought with indulgences, championed the cardinal virtue of temperance.  Within this movement of virtue, drunkenness was viewed as a form of gluttony, and self-denial and temperance was instructed.  Augustine clarifies his overall view toward the drinking of alcohol when he states, “The drunkard is not always drunk, and a man may be drunk one occasion without being a drunkard.  However, in the case of a righteous man, we require to account for even one instance of drunkenness.” [5]  It stands to reason that Augustine’s concern was primarily with over indulgence, but said over indulgence must never transpire.  At the same time, John Chrysostom was teaching that those who would say wine should be prohibited were immature Christians bordering on heresy.  John Chrysostom pleaded with believers that they not be drunk for, “wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil.”  Chrysostom argued, “Wine makes not drunkenness; but intemperance produces it.  Do not accuse that which is the workmanship of God, but accuse the madness of a fellow mortal.” [6]

Views of the Medieval Church

The middle ages witnessed a great transition in the history of alcohol production and consumption from wine to beer.  This change was heavily influenced by the church.  As early as the eighth and ninth century A. D. the lack of potable water and generally unsanitary conditions in the post Roman world led homes to produce ale for common consumption.  Unlike wine, which could only be produced when grapes were in season, ale was brewed year round and proved a suitable remedy for the needs of the time.  Monasteries in this time discovered they could perform a public service by mastering the brewing of beer, and using the proceeds to fund church works and charity.  As monks developed the palate for beer, the drink became common place amongst clergy, and monks began receiving a daily allotment of beer for the use of nourishment during times of fasting. [7]

In the thirteenth century AD the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, expresses his beliefs toward Christians’ engagement with alcohol:

A man may have wisdom in two ways.  First, in a general way, according as it is sufficient for salvation: and in this way is required, in order to have wisdom, not that man abstain altogether from wine, but that he abstain from its immoderate use.  Secondly, a man may have wisdom in some degree of perfection:  and in this way, in order to receive wisdom perfectly, it is requisite for certain persons that they abstain altogether from wine, and this depends on circumstances of certain persons and places. [8]

Thomas Aquinas was not the only medieval theologian to speak in regards to alcohol, however, and not all orders of monks saw fit to follow in the practice of producing ale.  Giovanni Ptolomei founded a movement of aggressively ascetic monks called the Olivetans.  The Olivetans were bent on monastic reform and engaged in extreme ascetic practices such as severe public corporal mortification.  The Olivetans rejected any concessions of wine, uprooted their vineyards, and destroyed their wine presses.  The radical practices of the Olivetans were however short-lived, and the group soon softened its stance toward total abstinence from alcohol, and drew closer to the general view of the day. [9]

Views of the Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformers, beginning with Martin Luther, were universally tolerant of the drinking of alcohol.  Erasmus of Rotterdam, who was external to the Protestant Reformation, attested to the general truth of the Protestant churches’ affinity for alcohol when, being rebuked for drinking on a day of Catholic fasting – on which Catholics would temporarily abstain – Erasmus said, “My heart is Catholic, but my stomach is Protestant.” [10]  The traditional view of alcohol among the Protestant Reformers was fairly favorable.  Martin Luther said he, “drank freely to spite the devil.” [11]  The great Reformed theologian John Calvin, shared Martin Luther’s sentiments.  Calvin wrote in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion that, “It is permissible to use wine not only for necessity, but to make us merry,” and that, “in making merry,” those who enjoy wine “feel a livelier gratitude to God.” [12]  Calvin further taught that, “By wine the hearts of men are gladdened, their strength recruited, and the whole man strengthened, so by the blood of our Lord the same benefits are received by our souls.” [13]  Uniquely, Luther was so insistent that real wine be used in the Lord’s Supper that he wrote, “If a person cannot tolerate wine, omit [the sacrament] altogether in order that no innovation may be made or introduced.” [14]

The favorable view of alcohol among reformation theologians was not exclusive to Calvin and Luther, but was also shared by reformation heavy-weights John Knox and Ulrich Zwingli.  Knox spoke of drinking wine as a daily occurrence, akin to eating bread, and beholding the sun. [15]  Zwingli so strongly favored his wine that he used the aversion to “good wine” as a parabolic depiction of ones inability to enjoy the Bible. [16]

Views of the Earliest American Christians

When the earliest Christians made their way to the shores of North America, they recorded that they themselves had not made their travels empty handed.  The Puritan Reverend Francis Higginson recorded that upon making the voyage across the Atlantic in 1629, for the purposes of acclimatizing himself as comfortably as possible to his new surroundings, he imported cargo of five tuns (1200 gallons) of beer and 20 gallons of brandy. [17] For all their rigidity and proper reverence, the Puritans were similarly quite comfortable in enjoying alcohol.  Puritan Minister Cotton Mather, speaking to the operator of an ale house, wrote, “It is an honest and a lawful … employment that you have undertaken:  you may glorify God in your employment, if you will, and benefit the town considerably.” [18]  While the Puritans are famed for their strict piety, abstinence from alcohol did not prevail among their practices.

Views of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century American Church

“In the mid-19th [sic] century, some Protestant Christians moved from [the] historic position of allowing moderate use of alcohol (sometimes called moderationism) to either deciding that not imbibing was wisest in the present circumstances (abstentionism) or prohibiting all ordinary consumption of alcohol because it was believed to be a sin (prohibitionism).” [19]  Quite interestingly, the turn from a favorable view of alcohol began among the Methodist movement, and there was not complete agreement even among the founding members of Methodism: the Wesley brothers.  Famed hymn writer Charles Wesley was known to drink ale. [20]  His legendary brother, the evangelist John Wesley, however, preached strongly against even the slightest temptation to partake in any alcohol.  John Wesley said, “You see the wine when it sparkles in the cup, and are going to drink of it.  I tell you there is poison in it!  And, therefore, I beg you to throw it away.”  Wesley went on to command that his followers should “taste no spirituous liquor . . . unless prescribed by a physician.” [21]  In 1780, at a Methodist Conference in Baltimore, the Methodists denominationally vowed to oppose the production of liquor, thus setting into motion the beginnings of an American temperance movement.  As a general sense of prohibitionism arose, nearly every Protestant leader in the United States came to a position that the wisest choice under modern circumstances was for the Christian to willingly practice total abstinence from alcohol.  As the abstinence movement grew, alcohol of any kind began to become demonized, and thus it became seen as improper to administer wine even in the Lord’s Supper.  In 1869, ordained Methodist minister Thomas Bramwell Welch, developed a process for pasteurizing grape juice, preventing the fermentation of the juice, and thus, Welch’s Grape Juice was born.  Welch’s Grape Juice became for many, the appropriate symbol of the blood of Christ.

So impactful was the temperance movement that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed, and by 1919 succeeded in bringing about the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which formally prohibited alcohol in America.  While the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed only fourteen years later, the Protestant-American view of abstention from alcohol remained.

Views of Evangelical Church Leaders Today

The views toward alcohol among the church today are a matter of heated debate and division.  Among Evangelicals there exists three main views toward alcohol:  prohibitionism, abstentionism, and moderationism.  The moderationist view argues that it is within the Christian’s biblical freedom to enjoy alcohol responsibly as a good gift of God.  Moderation holds that while drunkenness is unquestionably sin, moderate drinking is not.  Moderationists believe self-control and not abstinence is the biblical mandate.  Among evangelicals, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Reformed churches, and members of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement are adherents to moderationism.  Evangelical leaders holding the moderationist position are notably:  Reformation Bible College President, Dr. R. C. Sproul; famed theologian J. I. Packer; and Acts 29 President Matt Chandler.

Both prohibitionists and abstentionists are teetotalers.  A teetotaler is one who does not partake in the consumption of alcohol under any circumstances.  The main distinction that can be drawn between the prohibitionist and the abstentionist is that the prohibitionist does not imbibe by constraint of law.  Either by their interpretation of God’s views toward alcohol, obligation of conscience, or legal obligation, the prohibitionist feels bound by law to avoid drinking.  The abstentionist, on the other hand, believes he is within his biblical right, and allowed by Christian freedom, but in wisdom he willfully chooses to abstain.  Abstentionism is the common practice among Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals.  Evangelical leaders adhering to abstention are: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President, Dr. Albert Mohler; Masters Seminary President, John MacArthur; and famed pastor John Piper.

Concluding Remarks

Due to the ramifications of prohibition in the early twentieth century, it is not popular in the present era to openly profess prohibitionism.  The line between prohibitionism and abstentionism, however, is more easily applied in theory than in practice, and can be blurred.  When each person is allowed the freedom to determine for himself what the Spirit and Scripture has bound upon his conscience, the prohibitionist and abstentionist views remain clearly distinct.  It is frequently the case, however, that a person who is a teetotaler by way of personal abstention further intends to impose his choice on other brothers and sisters.  C. S. Lewis was outspoken in saying that, “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up.  That is not the Christian way.” [22]  When this person is in a position of authority and seeks to impose a position of willful abstention upon his congregation, those congregants – whose consciences are not equally bound by the Spirit to the choice of abstention – are then held under the mandate of their shepherd.  The abstentionist leader’s will becomes an external legal mandate that forces his congregants into a prohibitionist response rather than allowing for the same personal choice that the abstentionist afforded himself.  Alternately, a person who intends to exercise his Christian freedom by engaging moderately in alcohol can also become an offense, or a stumbling to his brother or sister who is not afforded the same sense of Christian liberty.  Held in tension between these two positions is the area to which the Apostle Paul has called the church in Romans 14.  The one who abstains must not judge the one who partakes, and the one who partakes must not despise the one who abstains.  Instead the two must endeavor to love one another, and find grounds for unity.  “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. [. . .] So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:17, 19).

[1]Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version Bible, copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[2]I. W. Raymond, The Teaching of the Early Church on the Use of Wine and Strong Drink (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1927), 25.

[3]Saint Clement (of Alexandria), The Writing of Clement of Alexandria: Exhortation to the Heathen (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1884), 208.

[4]Eusebius Pamphilius, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History:  Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 121.

[5]Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 4 (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 495.

[6]John Chrysostom, First Homily on the Statutes (Accessed November 19, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/190101.htm), 11.

[7]Jim West, Drinking with Calvin and Luther!  A History of Alcohol in the Church (Lincoln, CA: Oakdown, 2003), 22.

[8]Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Raleigh, NC:  Hayes Barton Press, 1952.), 3269.

[9]J. C. Almond, “Olivetans,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (Accessed November 19, 2014 from New Advent:  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11244c.htm).

[10]Raymond, The Teaching of the Early Church, 86.

[11]West, Drinking with Calvin and Luther!, 33.

[12]Ibid., 53.

[13]Ibid., 56.

[14]Ibid., 36.

[15]Ibid., 61.

[16]Ibid., 65.

[17]Ibid., 80.

[18]Ibid., 95.

[19]Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., God Gave Wine:  What the Bible Says About Alcohol (Lincoln, CA: Oakdown, 2001), 3.

[20] West, Drinking with Calvin and Luther!, 102.

[21] John Wesley, “Sermon 140.”

[22] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 1952), 78.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey