Modesty and Temperance (Part II)

The other issue that is often argued from the influence perspective is the consumption of alcohol.  I wish to make only a few observations, more to raise some questions for thought and reflection than anything else.  But before I proceed, please take some time to carefully read a 12-part series written by Timothy Archer on the Christian and alcohol.  (Don’t worry; each article is rather succinct and to the point.)  The series can be found at his blog, The Kitchen of Half-baked Thoughts, starting here. 

According to the orthodox doctrine and practice of the churches of Christ, any consumption of alcohol at all is a dire sin.  Perhaps much of this comes from the fact that the Stone-Campbell Movement came of age at the height of the temperance movement, when there was a tremendous cry to prohibit all alcohol in the United States.  Historically, the concept of “temperance” originally meant “moderation.”  However, during that era of extremism, temperance came to mean complete abstinence with respect to alcohol.  It may be that a significant portion of the prohibition is more cultural than scriptural.  So what does scripture say?  According to Archer’s rather thorough overview, throughout both testaments, drunkenness is condemned while consumption is not only expected, it is welcomed and wine is considered to be a gift from God.  The churches of Christ and other conservative groups like the Southern Baptists have used arguments like the wine mentioned in many places in the Bible was not really wine, but juice, or a boiled down syrup that was diluted like some juice concentrate.  Careful examination of the language clearly disproves such nonsensical justifications of accepted practice.  Yes, Jesus turned water into wine–real, good wine.  Jesus was on occasion accused of being a drunk, but there is no indication that he was ever inebriated.  Peter and associates were accused of being drunk, but his defense was not “we are only drinking juice”, it was “it’s far too early in the day to be drunk.”  The wise man in Ecclesiastes commended the use of wine, but in Proverbs warned against its abuse, which suggests on balance, a view toward moderation. 

But what about the Christian’s influence?  Some will assert that if he or she drinks ANY alcohol, people will see him or her as a hypocrite, and their influence will be compromised.  I can see that, if the person gets drunk, loses control, and acts irresponsibly.  That behavior is repeatedly condemned.  I agree, after having lived in a dorm during college and seeing the irresponsible behavior of people who abused alcohol.  Drinking to excess, leading to vomiting cannot be pleasant.  Losing all sense of propriety to the extent that urination in hallways seems acceptable—this is obviously irresponsible behavior.

On the other hand, what about the person who is a Christian and CAN use alcohol in moderation AND maintain control?  Is it not plausible to suggest that this person can have a positive influence on others by giving an example of moderation?  I read a comment by a minister who said that he was able to teach a man not because he condemned him for drinking, but because he sat down and drank a beer with him, tearing down a wall of stereotype and opening a dialog.  I don’t believe this minister tried to drink the man under the table.  I imagine he showed that there can be control.

In one article that discussed the Christian’s use of alcohol, the point was made that gluttony is also condemned.  But one respondent to that article said gluttony is only addressed something like four times and drunkenness is mentioned a lot more.  How hypocritically inconsistent is that when we bind practices (Lord’s Supper on Sunday only, collection on Sunday only) for all times based on single verses (Acts 20.7; I Cor 16.2)? 

The issue of gluttony comes quite close to home for me, since I have fought an unending (and rather unsuccessful) battle against obesity for much of my life.  I never set out to over eat, at least not in recent memory.  But I tend to stress eat, and I have had a lot of stress for much of my life.  When I eat at a family style buffet restaurant, I consciously try to not overdo it.  But I see extremely large people there with not one but two plates heaped with food before them.  And they will intemperately return perhaps more than once.  That is a sad demonstration of gluttony.  And I have no doubt in my mind that it is wrong.

Paul answers the Corinthians’ mantra of unrestricted liberty in Christ voiced in I Corinthians chapters 6 and 10 (“all things are lawful for me”) with calls of moderation (all things are not expedient or not edifying).  In I Corinthians 6.12, Paul outlines a very important principle: “”All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful.  “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.” 

That comment that he would not be dominated by anything is the key: any “thing” that becomes a master takes control away from the individual, and detracts from submission to God. 

We could spend a great deal of time and space discussing the health effects of alcohol, both positive and negative.  In general, while light to moderate consumption (no more than one or two drinks per day)  has benefit, consuming more than two units of alcohol (two drinks) a day causes negative effects.  For example, it is well-supported that moderate drinkers may actually live longer than teetotalers.  Some alcohol consumption may help to reduce “bad” cholesterol and or raise “good” cholesterol.  Some alcohol consumption helps to decrease plaque formation that leads to coronary heart disease.  Some alcohol consumption may actually help to moderate blood sugar levels.  With conflicting studies having reached different conclusions, the jury is still out on the value of compounds (resveratrol, polyphenols) found in higher concentration in red wine and dark beer that may help to protect against some forms of cancer.  

Excess consumption of alcohol, however, raises blood pressure, negatively affects triglyceride levels, causes harmful changes in the liver, impairs judgment, raises the risk for a number of forms of cancer…the list could go on.  But it should also be noted that a person can die of water toxicity—excess water consumption.  Excess consumption of animal fats contributes to heart disease and increases the risk of digestive cancers.  Excess consumption of something as seemingly innocuous as asparagus can cause gout. 

As another question, if some examples of a behavior or activity are bad, should all practice of that behavior or activity be prohibited?  The general tendency where alcohol is involved has been prohibition.  But what about sex?  Biblically speaking, sex within marriage is honorable and good.  Sex outside of marriage is prohibited.  For some people, addiction to sex is a real problem.  If we apply the same rules we use for alcohol, we can see that because some sex is wrong and may even be harmful, all sex should be prohibited.  One possible objection to this line of reasoning is that you can live without alcohol, to which the obvious reply would be that you can also live without sex.  The Shakers pretty much showed that that is a losing proposition, however.  Continuation of the species is another issue.

Do these questions mean that I recommend that everyone start drinking?  That is a thoroughly ridiculous assertion.  Not everyone can drink, nor should they.  Medical conditions may prohibit drinking.  Propensity to addictive behavior and alcoholism (which in some cases is actually linked to an organic condition involving a genetic mutation leading to an enzyme deficiency) would suggest a person not indulge.  Women who are pregnant should not drink.  (But then they should not drink coffee or caffeinated beverages, either.)  If a person has decided that he will not partake, he should not be forced to nor should he feel compelled to:  anything that would cause a person to go against his or her convictions should be avoided.  Personal choice in this matter should be respected so long as that choice is exercised responsibly. 

What I am suggesting is that we stop judging and condemning anyone and everyone for any use of alcohol.  If a person can responsibly use alcohol and avoid intoxication, we should see that as demonstrating a positive influence.  The era of Prohibition in the United States proved that such a tactic as blanket prohibition is ineffective in changing a culture’s standards.  In fact, crime soared when (virtually) all alcohol was banned.  If wise use is modeled by responsible people, there may be less of a tendency to abuse by those who are attracted by the lure of forbidden fruit.  Obviously, the “party animal” lifestyle promoted by organizations like many college fraternities and brewers of cheap beer is inconsistent with this concept of responsible moderation.  The person who can appreciate the history and art of winemaking or brewing and appreciates the complexity and character of a product but knows where to draw the line in terms of consumption is consistent with the model.           

Again, I urge you to read Archer’s series.  I have never seen a plainer discussion of the actual Biblical position teased clear of modern dogma than what I have read there.  His conclusions are close to my own, which I reached independently over years of thoughtful reflection.

Influence is important, and should be guarded judiciously.  However, when our traditions overshadow our understanding of permissible and prohibited use of products available since ancient times, we may cause more problems than we seek to belay.  The sin is not in drinking a glass of wine with gratitude and thanksgiving and in moderation.  The sin would be in setting out to drink so much that you are no longer in control of your faculties.  For those who choose to partake, the former should not be condemned.  But for all, whether one partakes or not, the latter should never be condoned.

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Modesty and Temperance (Part I)

I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition, influence, the influence of tradition, and the tradition of influence.  I know, that sounds confusing.  But in the conservative segments of Christianity, which describes the churches of Christ quite well, one of the key arguments against any number of things is “influence.”  If you do this, you will not have the same influence as if you firmly stand against it.

And I can understand that argument.  If we are striving to uphold a certain standard, then it is important to hold a line.  But the exact location of that line is what is often in question. 

There are two classic cases where this kind of reasoning is applied: one deals with “modest apparel” and the other with the consumption of alcohol.  The first of these is based on a passage from I Timothy 2:  “9  likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10  but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” 

In almost every sermon ever preached on “modest apparel,” the emphasis has been on women wearing too little.  Contextually, that is not the emphasis at all.  Here modesty means more of not over-doing it.  Notice Paul’s negative instruction: not with braided hair (perhaps intertwined with gold and jewels), gold and pearls, or costly attire—each of the last three obvious signs of affluence.  Paul emphasizes the necessity of good works as being that which catches the eye.  The external is of little value, no matter how expensively that may be decorated.  Inner attractiveness will be expressed in good works.

The consequence of this misapplication is that many conservative groups have placed strict prohibitions on certain forms of dress:  for example, when I was growing up, only the very young could wear shorts.  Women were rarely seen in pants, let alone shorts.  I never remember seeing anyone related to the church ever showing any indications of flesh on the leg, except of course, women in dresses or skirts. 

I was shocked when I heard a preacher from South Africa say that people in that country regularly wore shorts to worship.  I thought it was one of the worst revelations of sacrilege I had ever encountered.  I mean, how dare they show their legs, extreme heat notwithstanding!  It was shocking, but that notion really stuck with me. 

Later, I started wondering about that passage from I Timothy.  The discussion was specific to women.  Were men excused?  Obviously, the doctrine allows application to men as well, even though there men are not specifically mentioned.  And then, I started wondering about any skin exposure at all:  Why is it OK to wear short sleeves, but not short pants?  Aren’t these appendages more or less equivalent?  Perhaps the distinction is the proximity to the “private” region….  But that is not discussed in scripture, at least in this sense.

The issue is more with not causing another to stumble, and not inciting lust.  I would suggest that this has more to do with the concept of our term, “decency.”  However, that line is difficult to establish, at best, since different people respond to different stimuli differently.   Yes, it is necessary to cover the body in a decent manner.  But to dictate that all shorts are sinful and short sleeves are not seems thoroughly inconsistent.  It also fails to understand what the Bible rightly acknowledges, that the heart or mind is where bad things originate.  Jesus repeatedly talks about how it’s not what goes into the person that is bad, but what comes out of the heart (which can be construed as the mind, as well.)  For some people, lust does not require visual stimulation: the predisposition is already present, an object may have already been identified, and a visual queue is not even necessary.

From this discussion, someone will likely suggest that I condone the salacious displays to which many people resort.  I firmly deny that assertion.  If the intent is to incite lust, it is wrong, whether the display is made by man or woman.  I would hope that there might be a return to fidelity to the text in 1Timothy 2.9-10.  If that is done, then we may actually see a change in how people dress, including how they dress for worship.  In fact, people might place less emphasis on the old concept of “putting on their Sunday best” clothes and focus more on getting the heart right while wearing decent–but less showy–clothing.

Modesty (not wearing too much, in the context of I Timothy 2) and decency (more related to not wearing too little) are both important.  I believe we need to make sure we don’t confuse the two, and practice each for their intended goals.