Christian Action League Staff
Christian Action League
October 23, 2019
Many Christians hold that the Scriptures as a whole encourage abstinence from alcoholic beverages as the best position for maintaining a faithful Christian walk.
Some of the Christian denominations that take this position include Southern Baptists, Original Free Will Baptists, National Free Will Baptists, Independent Baptists, Pentecostal Holiness, Assembly of God, Church of God, Church of the Nazarene, Salvation Army, United Methodists, Wesleyans, and many others.
According to a survey released in November of last year by Lifeway, 51% of Protestants say that they abstain from alcohol. The same study, however, also showed that total abstinence is a minority viewpoint with less than a quarter (23%) of Protestant churchgoers believing that Christians should never drink alcohol.
The Christian Action League (CAL) is a public-policy organization that has a long history of stressing that Christians should abstain on a personal level. But its position on alcohol as a public-policy issue is more nuanced.
Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, often explains the League’s position in this way:
“The Christian Action League recognizes that sincere followers of Christ may differ on imbibing alcohol. Nevertheless, all Christians should agree that alcohol is not an ordinary commodity. All Christians should agree that drunkenness is forbidden. Therefore, it’s proper for all Christians to promote public-policy practices that work to minimize alcohol-related harms – the problems which are outcomes of excessive drinking. One doesn’t have to abstain from alcoholic beverages to partner with this ministry. We’re not trying to bring back Prohibition. But neither do we shy away from encouraging fellow-believers not to drink because nothing is more effective for reducing alcohol-related problems, individually or corporately, than choosing to abstain.”
Although the League’s public policy position reflects tolerance and respect for people who choose to drink, the League is still frequently and vehemently criticized by some fellow Christians as “stuck in the past,” “a remnant of Prohibition,” and at worst, “legalistic” for calling upon every believer to leave off drinking.
Among Christian evangelicals, it is the accusation of “legalism” that is, perhaps, the most damning.
Even powerful pulpiteer, John Piper, has said, “Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn’t look like one. Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world. Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one. Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength. Alcoholics don’t feel welcome in church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church. Therefore, what we need in this church is not front end regulations to try to keep ourselves pure. We need to preach and pray and believe that ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither teetotalism nor social drinking, neither legalism nor alcoholism is of any avail with God, but only a new creation (a new heart).’”
Piper is right that legalism is spiritually lethal, but he also seems to suggest, as do certain other Christians, that holding to church doctrines and enforcing church regulations, which call upon members to abstain from alcohol, is a form of “legalism.” Is he right?
David R. Brumbelow, in his book, Ancient Wine & the Bible, sufficiently addresses the charge:
“Many say legalism is believing something is wrong that is not explicitly stated in the Bible. If that is true, however, then those who oppose slavery are legalists. After all, the Bible does not actually say, ‘Thou shalt not own a slave.’ The same could be said about opposing abortion.
“Some grant that you can have a quiet personal conviction, but if you say that practice is wrong for others, then you are a legalist…With this definition of legalists, the lists of legalists would be long. The biblical loopholes would be vast. The ‘non-legalists’ can then say, ‘Ah, the Bible doesn’t exactly, specifically, precisely, in so many words, say not to do it, so go for it!’
“We should be able to consider whether biblical teaching applies to a practice without hurling charges of legalism and Pharisaism. Legalism is not trying to live a godly life with biblical convictions. Legalism is not being against beverage alcohol or standing up for other biblical convictions. Legalism is a false belief that attempts to merit favor with God by the works of the law [God’s law], by doing good deeds. Legalism is condemned in Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16. Rather than by works of the law, we are to obtain favor with God through faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus (Rom. 3:21-28); then, we do good works.
“Dr. R.L. Sumner explains, ‘Biblically speaking, ‘legalism’ is trusting in the law for salvation. In Galatians (which is a good example of legalism), the Judaizers were saying that without circumcision, one could not be saved. Paul blasted this idea to smithereens! ‘Legalism’ is a word much misused and misrepresented by Christians today, who refer to standards about holy living as legalism. If someone, shall we say, preaches against booze, (or tobacco…or whatever) some immediately shout ‘legalism,’ showing their ignorance.’
“Dr. Norman L. Geisler adds, ‘More precisely, legalism is a false belief that keeping certain laws – whether biblical or not – can be used as a condition for meriting God’s grace, whether for justification or sanctification. But one can legislate wise laws about human behavior without being legalistic in the biblical sense of the concept.’”
Brumbelow adds that some of the great giants of the Christian faith believed and taught total abstinence. He names B.H. Carroll, R.G. Lee, W.A. Criswell, John R. Rice, Adrian Rogers, Vance Havner, Jerry Vines, and Richard Land. “The list is long,” he says, “[I]t is foolish to demand that if the Bible does not precisely, word for word, condemn a vice, that vice is permissible. Biblical principles, wisdom and common sense apply.”
The late Adrian Rogers once said “Don’t go looking down your long self-righteous nose at somebody because you don’t drink. If you never touched a drop of liquor in all of your life, and don’t get saved, it’ll just mean you’ll go to hell sober. You need Jesus.”
What Rogers condemned was legalism.
The late great evangelist, Billy Graham said, “It is my judgment that because of the devastating problem that alcohol has become in America, it is better for Christians to be teetotalers…The creeping paralysis of alcoholism is sapping our morals, weakening our homes, and luring people away from the church.”
What Graham was urging was not legalism.
Christians who hold to total abstinence from alcoholic beverages are not “legalists,” and neither is an organization like the Christian Action League, which seeks to legislate responsible alcohol use and marketing, but asserts personal abstinence.
Abstinence from alcohol is not a determination of authentic Christianity, but it is reflective of Christianity in earnest.