For over a century, the denomination in which I serve was heavily involved in the temperance movement. Indeed, up until our recent history, ministers had to promise not to use alcoholic beverages as part of their ordination vows. Having witnessed the removal of what was known as “the abstinence vow” in ecclesiastical committees and courts, the character and conduct of the church’s leaders following this change can use ongoing encouragements toward holiness. From my observations in this particular situation, I thought I would offer three key Scriptural cautions regarding how we practice a Christian liberty.
Enjoy your liberty yet do not glory in it. Psalm 104 tells us that as God provides sustenance for all His creatures, He has also given “wine which makes man’s heart glad” (Ps. 104:15). Just as Jesus’ first miracle provided wine at a wedding so the joy of the day could continue, so drink, as other pleasures, has been given to man to use for enjoyment.
Yet it is one thing to use these gifts from the Lord in a moderated enjoyment of them, and another thing entirely to glory in them. By this I mean that one can become so enthralled with a Christian liberty that it becomes his glory rather than Christ. Men can have reputations where they are in danger of being more known by the brand of beer they prefer than by the Lord they serve or the work they do for Him. The Westminster Confession of Faith has a wonderful chapter on protecting Christian liberty. Yet it does contain this warning:
They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life.” (WCF 20:3)
Remember that you are instructed that “whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31).
Use your liberty to encourage others; do not let it be a stumbling block or an offense. In my denomination, so many of the older saints, who grew up under the temperance practices of the church and still hold to them, are godly, dedicated folks who love Christ and His people. They can be greatly pained by those who show little or no sensitivity to them or respect for their position as they practice their liberty. Putting a picture of every toast on Facebook, or showing a lack of contextual discretion such as talking openly at a church gathering about your homemade brew, is to cast unnecessary stumbling blocks in the church. Paul warns against this practice in Romans:
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:13-17)
Again, encourage brothers who share your freedom by enjoying it with them, but do it in such a way that it minimizes pain to others who may disagree with the practice. This warning is not to be taken as suggesting living a secretive life, but simply one where the love of discretion is practiced.
Admire those who in their service to Christ sacrifice liberties; do not mock them. The Bible defines a weaker brother as the one who, because his conscience is convinced by his understanding of Scripture, does not engage in a certain practice when in fact there is the freedom to do so. John Piper, in a more thorough article on this subject, reminds us that we should not view their personal abstinence from a practice as legalism or sin, but “God-exalting behavior” as it comes from their faith in the Lord. So rather than mocking those who may not drink, we can admire them for working out their faith as they understand it, much like God showed His admiration for the Rechabites who would not drink because of their father’s command in the days of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 35).
Of all people, the leadership of the church should be leading in modeling love as they practice liberty.