Thursday, October 8, 2009

Romans 14:21 and drinking wine

I am fairly certain I don't have to tell you that this is a favorite proof text of teetotallers and legalists who want to make sure no Christian drinks a drop of alcohol. It is sort of an end run argument in the sense that the passage does not condemn the use of alcohol, rather it seems to prohibit use of alcohol out of a brotherly interest not to lead a fellow Christian to stumble by seeing you drink it. That last point though, must be defined clearly by the passage itself, and not by ideas that we import back into it.

Two questions need to be answered in order to get a handle on the meaning and application of this passage:
1) who is the "weaker brother"?
2) what does it mean to cause them to "stumble"?

Well, in order to handle this passage accurately, we need to understand this verse in relationship to the rest of the passage. In context Paul is exhorting the weak and strong not to engage in hostility and judging one another on account of how they either restrain or exercise (in the case of the strong) their freedom. So we need to answer the question, who are the weak and the strong? Well, the strong are converted Gentiles, who really don't have any scruples about diets or drinks. The weak are Jewish converts who living in an urban, metropolitan context, are unsure about where the meat sold in the market has come from. Because they are not sure if the meat was actually offered in sacrifice to a pagan god, they won't eat, thinking it could be defiled. Instead of eating meat, they eat vegetables according to the example of Daniel when he was in exile in Babylon (Daniel 1:8). So the weak are converted Jews and the strong are converted Gentiles.

So let's address the 2nd question now, what is it to stumble? Well, vv13-14 seem to help clarify that. Paul admonishes believers in v13 to not put stumbling-blocks in the way of a brother, and then clarifies the matter by saying in v14 that the issue is what a person thinks in his mind. If a brother thinks meat is unclean, then to him, it is unclean. In other words, he thinks that if he partakes of the meat, he is worshiping idols and thereby violating the 1st commandment, because of the strong association with meat and pagan worship in this gentile, pagan context. To cause that brother to stumble means that by eating meat in front of him, he may be led to eat meat, and by doing that, violate his conscience and sin against God for doing what he thinks is idolatrous. Just to be clear, he is not sinning because meat is intrinsically evil, he is sinning because he thinks eating meat is a form of participating in the worship of the god to whom the meat was offered to.

Let's take that information and plug it into the prohibition against wine. Douglass Moo in his outstanding commentary on Romans argues convincingly that the "wine issue" in this passage is not about scruples of conscience over whether it is permissible to consume alcoholic beverages, it is about whether the wine has been offered as a libation in a temple sacrifice to a pagan god. Just as the weak refused to eat meat because they thought it was defiled on account of it being part of a sacrifice, so they refused to drink wine because they believed it to be defiled through an act of pagan worship. So again, causing a brother to "stumble" in the matter of wine is to coerce him to violate his conscience about wine by following the strong believers example of drinking a glass of wine. The sin is not drinking wine per se, any more than it would be a sin to eat meat; the sin is drinking wine thinking that it is defiled, and thinking that by drinking it one is participating in the worship of a false god.

What does all this mean for drinking alcohol then? Well, it means several things:
1) the issue in this passage is not about the principle of whether alcohol is permissible to drink, the issue is, has the wine been defiled because it formed part of pagan offering.

2) just because this passage does not forbid drinking alcohol does not mean then that believers are commanded to drink alcohol, or are better Christians if they do. If you choose, out of Christian liberty, not to drink, that is ok. However, it does not mean you are in any way morally superior to or on better terms with God than the guy who drinks in moderation.

3) legalists who insist on abstinence from alcohol have no proof-text here in this passage. Romans 14:21 simply cannot be forced to support the typical reasons given for why Christians should not drink. If you make your argument for total abstinence from this passage you are just not being faithful to the text. That is a mishandling of the word of God to squeeze a legalistic ideology into this passage.

4) "causing a brother or sister to stumble" by drinking wine does not mean that they will be morally offended by you drinking it and think they are better Christians than you. No Christian, has any right to be morally offended by seeing another believer drink. If they are morally offended by that, they are in sin; that is Paul's whole point in 14:3.

5) I am open to the application that if a person is weak in conscience and believes they must abstain from alcohol because they have no self-control due to sinful patterns of behavior in the past, then a strong believer should avoid drinking alcohol around that "weaker" brother. But then again, I don't think you need this passage to tell you that, because the law of love and common sense should tell you that!

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