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Should Drinking Alcohol Disqualify a Pastor from Ministry?

Disqualified for Drinking?

A few summers ago, surprising news rippled through some evangelical circles. The preacher of one of the largest and fastest-growing multisites in the country had been removed as a pastor from the church he planted. After a long, seemingly patient process, the other leaders in his church had deemed him unfit for ongoing ministry, citing, among other factors, 1 Timothy 3:3 (“not a drunkard”) and his entrenched overuse of alcohol.

Many were taken off guard, not just because they didn’t see it coming with this well-known preacher but because they never had heard of a pastor being disqualified for drinking. Sexual immorality and financial mismanagement—those tragic stories have been all too common. But the overuse of alcohol?

Teetotal Generation

Of the fifteen qualifications for pastor-elder in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, “not a drunkard” may be the one a previous generation of evangelicals passed over most quickly. Not because that generation was deaf to the dangers of alcohol, but because, for so many, partaking at all was almost unthinkable. The legacy of Prohibition in the United States (1920–1933) endured long after repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, especially among evangelicals. In large swaths, drinking was frowned upon for all Christians and particularly pastors.

My, how the times have changed.

Of course, teetotaling wasn’t assumed in every stripe of evangelical association or in every region, but the vestiges of the nineteenth-century temperance movement continued to hold sway in many sectors. For my grandmother, for instance, who was both Baptist and Southern, it was almost imponderable that the same lips could touch a drink and make a credible profession of faith. I grew up in South Carolina in the 1980s and 1990s believing the same. I remember folks at our Southern Baptist church being appalled by news from around town that the new minister at First Pres would have a glass of wine with congregants.

Workers for Your Joy

David Mathis

Pastor-elder David Mathis expands on the nature and calling of local church leaders as joyful workers for the joy of their people, through the framework of the elder qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

Even as temperance and Prohibition curtailed some evils, such a sharp reaction to the perils and excesses of alcohol (especially hard liquor) doubtless created its own problems in subsequent generations, but these are not typically the troubles we face today— at least not in the circles I expect most readers of this article run. The pendulum has swung. Whereas evangelicals of a bygone era may have overreached in response to the dangers of alcohol, we may find ourselves today in fresh need of church leaders who will not fall victim to the same set of new temptations our flocks are facing.

The new call is for pastors and elders stable and mature enough in the faith to not only know well their freedoms in Christ but even more: to stand ready, in love, to forgo their rights at times for the good of others.

Wine to Gladden the Heart

Paul’s list of qualifications for the office of pastor-elder begins with seven desirable traits and then gives four negatives, or disqualifiers, before finishing with three final requirements. “Not a drunkard” (Greek mē paroinon, only here and in Titus 1:7) is the first of the four disqualifiers. Deacons, also, according to 1 Timothy 3:8, must be “not addicted to much wine.” These are not requirements for teetotalism. “Not a drunkard” hardly means no alcohol whatsoever.

Psalm 104:14–15 celebrates God’s good gifts in his created world, including bread and oil and “wine to gladden the heart of man.” Proverbs 3:10 mentions “vats . . . bursting with wine” as a blessing, not a curse—as a promise to those who honor God. John the Baptist chose the lifestyle of the ascetic, while Jesus came eating and drinking, and both were wise and righteous (Matt. 11:18–19; Luke 7:33–35). For his first miracle, of course, Jesus made wine from water (rather than the reverse!), and Paul instructed Timothy, in what we have as holy writ, to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23).

Those who stand against the ancient attempts to teetotalize the church stand on the side of the angels, against the teaching of demons (1 Tim. 4:1–5).

Warnings We Cannot Ignore

The above affirmations, however, are by no means all that God has to say to us about wine and intoxicating drink. As John Piper summarizes, “Even though wine was permitted and was a blessing, it was fraught with dangers.”1 In both the Old and New Testaments, the warnings far exceed the commendations (by some counts, more than three to one). That doesn’t mean we ignore the clear commendations. But it does mean that we will do well, especially in our current climate, to take the warnings with all seriousness.

In every place across the canon, drunkenness is roundly condemned. Drunkenness often serves as a metaphor for unbelief and condemnation. Jesus and Paul connect staying awake to God to staying awake (sobriety) in this world (Luke 12:45–46; 21:34–36; 1 Thess. 5:7–8). Excess drink can be associated not just with violent anger (“not a drunkard, not violent,” 1 Tim. 3:3; also Matt. 24:49; Luke 12:45) but with rebellion (Deut. 21:20), sexual immorality, and division (Rom. 13:13–14).

Proverbs links excess drink to folly (Prov. 20:1; 23:29–35; 26:9–10) and poverty (Prov. 21:17; 23:20). Here the goodness of drink in God’s created world is not denied, but the itch or lust for “encore” (as C. S. Lewis called it) is exposed and challenged.2 God’s prophets pronounce woe on those who “rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them! . . . Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink” (Isa. 5:11, 22).

Models of Judgment

Accordingly, drunkenness becomes a recurring image of divine judgment in the prophets—in Isaiah (Isa. 19:14; 24:20; 28:7–8), Jeremiah (Jer. 13:13; 25:17; 51:7), Ezekiel (Ezek. 23:33), Hosea (Hos. 4:11, 18), Amos (Amos 2:8; 4:1; 6:6), and Nahum (Nah. 3:11). When we turn to the New Testament, drunkenness finds no place in the church but belongs to the course of this fallen world and the pattern of rebellion against God (1 Cor. 15:34; Eph. 5:18; 1 Pet. 4:3). Without exception, references to intoxication are negative (Acts 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:21; Titus 2:3)—a manifestation of the unbelief from which Christians are being saved, or otherwise will not inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 5:11; 6:10; Gal. 5:19–21).

The dangers are real for all of God’s people and yet, in some sense, even more so for leaders. Proverbs 31:4–5 warns that “it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” The more responsibility a leader has for the lives and care of others, the more sheep entrusted to his lot, the more tragic when the shepherd checks out and the watchman abdicates his post (Isa. 56:10–12). “Happy are you, O land, when . . . your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!” (Eccles. 10:17).

Forgo My Freedom?

God’s call on his people, and particularly on the leaders who serve as examples for the flock (1 Pet. 5:3), is not simply to acknowledge the goodness of God’s creation alongside his litany of gracious warnings. God calls us to love. To look not only to our own interests but also the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). “In humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Not just to keep our own noses clean but to learn to look past our own noses to the needs of others.

It is good to know that “nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14:14), that “everything is indeed clean” (Rom. 14:20). Yes and amen. And little is distinctively Christian about such knowledge on its own. It may even be said that such “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).

Negatively, Paul repeatedly cautions Christians not to put a “stumbling block” before others (Rom. 14:13, 15, 20–21; 1 Cor. 8:9, 13; 9:12). Or, positively said, walk in love (Rom. 14:15). Pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding (Rom. 14:19). Additionally, “do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil” (Rom. 14:16) because of your careless, loveless words and actions in the presence of less mature brothers and sisters.

To be clear, in Paul’s framing, the “weaker brothers” aren’t prohibitionists who seek to press their personal convictions on the conduct of others. Rather, the genuinely weaker brothers are those who “through former association” would have their weak consciences defiled (1 Cor. 8:7). Meat sacrificed to idols in the first century is not the same as alcohol in the twenty-first. Today such a concern for the well-being of others may mean that some Christians simply choose to not partake. For others, it will mean doing so with both gratitude and appropriate caution, with awareness of context and company. And being conscientious to not contribute to a cavalier and indulgent culture, whether in the world or within the church, that will yield abuse in only a matter of time.

Even at a Feast

How might pastors today seek to practice these principles? To begin with, as husbands, fathers, and Christians, we never want to be unable to help others—whether the occasion is a feast or not. Becoming a pastor then adds to the number of lives for which we want to remain vigilant. Emergencies don’t announce themselves ahead of time. And it would be wise to realize and remember that our drinks are typically larger and stronger than they were in previous generations.3

As fuzzy as the line between a glad heart and overuse can be, one aspect of modern life gives us a way of objectifying sobriety: operating a motor vehicle. As men ready to care for our wives and children and others, including congregants, in time of unexpected need or emergency, we never want to be unable to drive safely to a hospital. And no matter how great the feast, we never want to be unable to think clearly enough to answer serious questions about life and faith and ethics, or provide spiritual counsel to someone in need, or make the most of a teachable moment. God calls us to remain sober and available, ready to set aside our own interests to serve the needs of others in an unexpected instant. “Not a drunkard” means more than just “Knows how to toe the line and stay within the legal limits.” It implies a positive vision. It calls for men who are reliable, ever vigilant, “ready in season and out” (2 Tim. 4:2)—men never checked out and incapacitated by their own lack of self-control when you call on them for help.

God calls us to remain sober and available, ready to set aside our own interests to serve the needs of others in an unexpected instant.

Qualified leaders in the church are men who have grown into the personal maturity of seeking to fill the emptiness we often feel with the fullness of Christ and his Spirit (Eph. 5:18). We lead the way in turning restless hearts Godward rather than medicating with alcohol or other substances. This is a critical test for Christ’s undershepherds: where will we turn to fill an empty soul? How can we call our people to feast on Christ when we are defaulting elsewhere? Pastors are to be examples in Christian self-control (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8), to lead the way in the Pauline sentiment “I will not be enslaved to anything” (see 1 Cor. 6:12), that we might instead be gladly enslaved to our Lord and eagerly ready to act, when he calls, in love for others.

At the same time, pastors also have the opportunity to model glad-hearted moderation. Young Christians who grew up in teetotaling contexts may only know two options: total abstinence or abuse. In certain settings, pastors can set an example, as in other areas, of wise, loving, glad-hearted celebration in the holy use of God’s good gift of alcohol.

Christ Did Not Please Himself

Good leaders in the church are ready to rise to more than simply avoiding intoxication. Paul doesn’t single out pastors as those called, at times, to forgo Christian freedoms for the sake of others. He would have all Christians grow into such love. Yet as with other hoped-for maturities in the faith, the church looks to the leaders to exemplify and model them (so that all grow into such maturity): “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor . . . not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:24, 33).

Relative to Christian freedoms, church leaders aren’t necessarily held to a higher standard but are more rigorously held to the standard of the whole church. Leaders should be among those who best know the truth that neither partaking nor abstaining commends us to God (1 Cor. 8:8) and that we taste uniquely satisfying joys not just in the times we partake in appropriate ways but also in the times we abstain for the sake of love.

At bottom, what inspires such love and concern for others, in shepherds and in the flock, is our Savior himself. Paul says, “We who are strong [pastors especially?] have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Rom. 15:1–2). Then he gives the all-important reason: “For Christ did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3).

Jesus did not simply know and exercise his divine rights. Rather, knowing his rights full well, he chose, at the proper time, to forgo them (Phil. 2:6–7) to love and rescue us. Christ did not please himself. That is, he found greater pleasure in the interests of others than in his own private interests. Jesus loves us like this. What a privilege and joy to receive and echo such love, as we anticipate the day we will enjoy with him, without any peril, the fruit of the vine in his Father’s kingdom (Matt. 26:29).

Notes:

  1. John Piper, “Is Drinking Alcohol a Sin?” Desiring God, October 23, 2013, https://www.desiringgod.org/.
  2. In a message titled “Christian Hedonics,” Joe Rigney spoke on Lewis’s use of the term encore. “Christian Hedonics: C. S. Lewis on the Heavenly Good of Earthly Joys,” Bethlehem College & Seminary, October 8, 2016, https://www.desiringgod.org/.
  3. Joe Carter, “Why Christians Need a Better Debate about Alcohol,” The Gospel Coalition, October 27, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/.

This article is adapted from Workers for Your Joy: The Call of Christ on Chrisitan Leaders by David Mathis.



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