Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 5:18a “And. . .”
This conjunction vitally connects Paul’s command here with what he has just previously said. The context (vv. 15-17) involves being able to think wisely, in order to walk circumspectly, redeem the time, and understand the will of God. To accomplish these latter three objectives, one must be wise, a condition which demands a Christian keep a clear mind always.
The Christian walk is to be dictated by wisdom, and is thus a controlled life. Alcohol makes one act unwisely by producing a loss of mental control. An inebriated mind is governed by something other than Biblical wisdom. Such a one has trouble walking circumspectly. A person who cannot walk straight physically certainly cannot walk straight spiritually, but “reels in both” (Maclaren). A drunk person cannot redeem the time. Drunkenness makes it impossible to recognize, to assess the value of, and to take advantage of, fleeting spiritual opportunities which present themselves to us. Intoxicated people will certainly have trouble understanding what the will of the Lord is, for they lose all ability to reason clearly.
Paul could have chosen any of several vices to highlight the contrast between living wisely as opposed to unwisely. He singled out this one particularly heinous evil because it works against every Christian virtue. When alcohol takes control, wisdom is forfeited. Thus, Paul admonishes. . .
Eph. 5:18b “. . .be not drunk. . .”
Drunkenness has been a common vice ever since the Flood. Noah became drunk and exposed himself (GN 9:21). Lot became so inebriated that he did not realize his own daughters were committing incest with him. He thus became the father of his own grandchildren (GN 19:30ff). Historians tell us every major civilization in ancient history died drunk.
In Greco-Roman culture, drunkenness was especially rampant, indeed epidemic. Alexander once held a tournament to determine who could drink the most wine. Thirty of the rivals died in the competition. Alexander himself, proud devotee of Mars the god of war, died a sotted sacrifice to Bacchus the god of wine. At Ephesus Diana was the chief deity; her nearest rival was Bacchus. When Mark Antony entered the city, the women of Ephesus danced round his chariot dressed as priestesses of Bacchus.
Drunkenness was a curse in Paul’s day, as it always had been and evermore shall be. It was even a problem within the Church. Some were becoming intoxicated (1 C 11:21) at the taking of the Lord’s Supper.
Having a tender pastor’s heart, Paul could not turn his head and look the other way. He was ever intent on blending doctrine with practicality. Christianity is not merely a lesson to be learned, but a life to be lived.
To ignore the problem of drunkenness, to act as if it did not exist, would put Paul in the position of denying the essence of his call to love. I, due to God’s call on my life, must also tackle this difficult issue. To skirt it would be wrong. God’s servants must help where help is most needed.
Drinking alcoholic beverages is a controversial subject, and rouses harsh feelings on both sides of the debate. Often, anger gets out of control, and wild rhetoric causes the real issue to become clouded. Thus, let me begin by honestly seeking to set the record straight about my own denomination and its role in the liquor debate. No one can speak for Southern Baptists as a whole, but three obvious trends among us are identifiable.
First, Southern Baptists are rightfully known as America’s champions of teetotalism. I want to set the record straight on this detail. We take much abuse and ridicule on this front because many of our people drink. I heard one say, “Baptists are the people who refuse to drink in front of each other.” What are the facts? A National Family Research poll in 1986 found that 40% of Southern Baptists drink at least occasionally. This seems to reflect negatively on us until we compare it with the fact that 69% of other Protestants drink, and 82% of Catholics. In other words, we are significantly more likely to have total abstainers in our ranks. In studies published in the book Baptist Battles by Nancy Ammerman, Southern Baptists were asked which practices Christians should avoid. More than 95% of those identifying themselves as conservatives said drinking alcoholic beverages should be avoided; 86% of moderate/conservatives and 63% of moderates agreed (all statistics from “Word and Way,” 09-17-92, page 7).
Second, regarding the congregation at large, an overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist leaders advocate, but rarely seek to enforce, teetotalism. In former generations, members were sometimes excluded from churches over this issue. In 1956 we felt strongly enough about it to include in our denominationally published hymnal the “Church Covenant,” which included a pledge “to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage.” Many churches still use this covenant, but neither my dad nor I know of a Southern Baptist church in recent decades which has excluded anyone from membership due to the use of alcohol. It probably has happened, but the fact we know nothing of it shows it truly is rare.
Third, an overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist churches require their pastors and deacons to be teetotalers. Neither my dad nor I have ever known of a Southern Baptist pastor who drank alcoholic beverages with the knowledge and blessing of his congregation. Many churches also expect other church leaders to abstain from alcohol. Half a century ago, Grandpa Hill dismissed a man from teaching Sunday School due to drinking. The man came to Grandpa’s house, threatened him with a pistol, and told him to leave town. Grandpa, who eventually became a veteran of both World Wars, told the man, “You did not call me here, and you will not cause me to leave,” and stared him down. Later, the man, in a drunken condition, drove his car off into a swollen stream and drowned.
Southern Baptists obviously want to make a strong statement about their negative attitude toward alcohol, but at the same time want to protect their cherished belief in individual soul-liberty. In the main, we do not feel we have Biblical justification to make the consumption of alcohol a test of fellowship. However, we do feel we have a Biblical precedent for requiring total abstinence in our leaders. Scripture does present one prominent situation wherein total abstinence from intoxicants was demanded–those who took upon themselves the Nazirite vow (NB 6), which entailed a commitment of extraordinary consecration to the Lord’s service. Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist were under the Nazirite vow for life. Thus, we have a Biblical precedent for asking those who are set apart to serve as leaders to abstain from alcoholic beverages. This has, in effect, become our way of making a strong statement to our society on the evils of alcohol while at the same time protecting soul-liberty. Do we force abstinence on our congregation at large? No. Do we expect it of our leaders? Yes.
Now we return to our text and its context. The danger in alcohol is its ability to suppress Biblical wisdom. This damaging effect on our life-style results from alcohol’s chemical effect on the brain. Alcohol is not a stimulant, but a depressant. This immediately raises a key question, if alcohol is a depressant, why do people drink it in order to be stimulated?
Alcohol first and foremost depresses the highest centers in the brain. Self-control, wisdom, understanding, proper judgment–things which help people behave at their best–are depressed, suppressed. Baser, animalistic instincts are thus allowed priority, and begin to rule. Since lower instincts are normally held down by higher ones when sober, as lower ones become prominent in drunkenness, the inebriate is fooled. He thinks he has been stimulated, but all that has happened is that the good has been depressed.
Due to this insidious trait of alcohol, some of the worst alcohol related deeds are committed by social drinkers rather than by alcohol addicts. One who drinks into unconsciousness suppresses all voluntary brain action, good and bad. A moderate drinker, however, often is stupefied enough to squelch nobler instincts and conceive wrongs, yet sober enough to carry them out.
Let me illustrate with a painful memory. A beautiful and gentle girl in our high school became pregnant. She had gone out drinking with some male friends. She got stone-drunk and in essence passed out–she drank to the point of depressing essentially all voluntary brain signals. The boys, though, were not as drunk. They were drunk enough to suppress their nobler instincts, but not enough to squelch their baser instincts. Thus they took advantage of her and each had sex with her. She could not remember having sex and never knew who the father of her child was.
I believe in total abstinence, and always have. I have never tasted an alcoholic beverage. For this I am grateful. I am a teetotaler and a Biblicist. Thus, when one reminds me teetotalism is nowhere commanded in Scripture for the congregation at large, I have to be honest and agree.
This presents us with a dilemma. Abstinence may seem flawed in theory, but is perfect in practice; whereas moderation in drinking may seem right in theory, but inevitably becomes flawed in practice. It is unrealistic for anyone to think alcohol can be consumed, even in moderate quantities, for a lifetime, without somewhere along the way abuse happening, if not to a particular drinker per se, then to his acquaintances, or his family, especially his children–68% of all who drink take their first swig at home.
When discussing abstinence, stay calm, try to cut through the rhetoric, make sure all involved in the dialogue are on the same wave length. In theory, abstinence may seem too austere; in practice, it works. In theory, moderation may seem reasonable; in practice, it does not work. In theory and in practice, all Christians everywhere must agree a believer should never, under any circumstance, be intoxicated. We all say, “Be not drunk.”