by Jack Hoehn | December 1, 2020 |
Adventists have learned the details of the church’s “Health Message” are inspired good advice and not all divine oracle. For some, this has led to discounting many things the church promoted as the “Adventist Lifestyle.” Some Adventist health practices have become universally accepted good advice but the issue of total abstinence from alcohol began to be challenged in the 1990s. Should Christmas cheer include a little wine or beer?
No Adventist supports drunkenness or alcoholism, but wine especially seems Biblical (although most Biblical references to it are cautionary). The Bible has over 100 references to alcohol. And alcohol plays a major part in the stories about Noah, Abraham’s family, Moses and his nephews, and one of David’s wives. Jesus began his public ministry with wine. And ended his life with a sip. He was accused of being a “winebibber and gluttonous.”
Was he? What should we be? Our world seems awash in enthusiasm for the social and perhaps health benefits of alcohol. So what is an appropriate 21st-century Adventist doctrine of alcohol?
Caroline Knapp writes in her Drinking, A Love Story, “Liquor stores loom out at you on every street corner, people holding glasses of wine or tumblers of Scotch jump out at you from TV and movie screens, and you realize how pervasive alcohol is in our culture, how it’s absolutely everywhere, how completely foreign it is to abstain.”
“Liquor creates delusion. It can make your life feel full of risk and adventure, sparkling and dynamic as a rough sea under sunlight. A single drink can make you feel unstoppable, masterful, capable of solving problems that overwhelmed you just five minutes before. Uncap the bottle, pop the cork, slide into someone else’s skin. A liquid makeover, from the inside out… We see it on billboards, in glossy magazine ads, in movies and on TV: we see couples huddled together by fires, sipping brandy, flames reflecting in the gleam of glass snifters; we see elegant groups raising celebratory glasses of wine in restaurants; we see friendships cemented over barstools and dark bottles of beer. We see secrets shared and problems solved, romances bloom. We watch, we know, and together the wine, beer, and liquor industries spend more than $1,000,000,000 each year reinforcing this knowledge: drinking will transform us. And it does–at least for a little while.”
Alcohol a Health Drink?
In the 1990’s, French “studies” were widely reported to have shown fewer cardiovascular deaths in those who moderately drink alcohol. This apparent justification of the world’s favorite intoxicant was widely discussed in media, thanks to very intentional ethanol beverage support. Cash-strapped magazines were led into relaxing previous restrictions on alcoholic advertisements, for after all, “In moderation it’s good for you, isn’t it?” Red wine was postulated by two wine-enjoying scientists as explaining why the French have fewer heart attacks than their American relatives (the so-called “French Paradox”), and based mostly on this speculation became a widely believed truism. “People are enthralled with the idea that drinking alcohol might actually be good for us. Any ‘evidence’ that corroborates the confirmation bias in favor of alcohol’s benefits tends to appeal to a wide audience.”
Fast forward to today with massive carefully studied data involving 195 countries or territories, 694 data sources and 594 prospective or retrospective studies over 16 years, and the “alcohol can be good for you” proposition is being challenged by evidence published in the British Medical Journal Lancet in 2018 with this striking and unequivocal conclusion:
“We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically,
rises with increasing levels of consumption,
and the level of consumption that minimizes health loss is zero.”
The United Kingdom then revised their safe drinking recommendations to half of what they were before. And this is not a level that has “no health risks,” but just what they have decided are “acceptable risks” – about a 1% increase in mortality for men or women or 20 more breast cancers in women per 1,000 women light drinkers.
The beverage industry, of course, has not pushed into media the latest information. So we cannot say this has now become common knowledge. But the level of alcohol consumption that minimizes health loss is not one glass a day or one a week or two a month. It is “zero,” and the last time I checked, zero is none.
Spirits or Holy Spirit
But for the social benefits of alcohol many people, including some Adventists, will accept health risks of 20/1000 more breast cancers, or a 1% increase in deaths from low levels of consumption, as insignificant. Stronger alcoholic beverages are called “spirits,” and spiritual concerns become Christian concerns. There is this warning in Christian Scriptures about alcohol and spirituality:
Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead,
be filled with the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 5:8 NLT
This text can be appropriated by both teetotalers and moderate drinkers. But moving beyond proof texting and dogmatism and beyond health question of “how much is safe?” there remains a morality question concerning the considerable proportion of humans unable to drink alcohol moderately.
Abstinence or Moderation?
Sarah Bessey discusses her Christian concerns. After 10 years of total abstinence she and her husband one time decided there could be a “Christian moderation” place for alcohol in their lives.
“I decided I wanted to have wine with dinner like civilized grown-ups. I wanted the lovely glass of red beside me as I read my books. I wanted to know about the world of wine: tastes, bouquets, tannins, regions, all of it. Brian began to enjoy craft beer. He would buy a six-pack of beer and it would last for six months. I would buy a bottle of red and it would last for a week. We sipped wine occasionally and turned the radio to NPR. For ten years, we drank alcohol in this way: occasionally, barely, and with interest. We liked to learn about it. We liked the world of craft beer and wine.”
But life moved on.
“Slowly I began to drink more than my husband. His rare growler of beer still lasts but my bottle of wine on the sideboard began to disappear a bit sooner and then the bottle became a bigger bottle of cheaper variety and then the big bottles became a box of wine. I kept it in the kitchen cupboard. My [non-drinking] parents grew accustomed to my drinking, even accepting. I never drank in front of them out of respect for their journey. They listened to my reasonings about social drinking and moderation and our freedom in Christ. I grew to love the imagery of wine in Scripture, to see it as an emblem of the New City and of heavenly banquets. I liked the sophistication of wine, the theology of wine, the metaphor of wine, the community around wine at the table. I liked the celebration of champagne, the warmth of a cabernet, the summer light of chardonnay. Without noticing, I was drinking almost every night now. It didn’t bother me in the least.”
At first. But then she began “to sense that this Thing that used to be okay is no longer okay. The Thing that used to mean freedom has become bondage. The Thing that used to signal joy has become a possibility of sorrow. The Thing that used to mean nothing has become something, perhaps everything… I began to see how alcohol-centric our culture has become. To see how much of our version of fun revolves around wine or beer or some form of alcohol. To see how unhealthy our dependence is. To see the industry around it, capitalizing and marketing and selling and manipulating and exploiting. I began to see what those no-fun teetotalers a hundred years ago had seen – how the victims of alcohol were almost always the ones who were most vulnerable, how it impoverished families and lives, how it threw a lit match into powder kegs of longings.”
D.L. Mayfield is another Christian woman who moves with her family into a ministry to the poor. In that context she is forced to re-evaluate her own moderate use of alcohol.
“We have neighbors who eat raw chicken when they are drunk and get terribly sick; others who suffer from alcohol-related psychosis and bang symphonies on the trees outside our window at all hours of the night. People knock on our door with candy for my daughter, waving and talking to her even though she is asleep in the other room. People break windows, or almost fall out of them. Empty vodka growlers line the living room of one; another almost sets our building on fire when he forgets about the chicken-fried steak smoked to smithereens on his stove. There are people in our building who die because of alcohol—cirrhosis of the liver, asphyxiation from their vomit, slow-sinking suicides everywhere we turn. And suddenly, alcohol is no longer fun. Instead it is a substance that changes my friends and neighbors, making them unpredictable and unsafe; it leaves me feeling helpless and afraid and vulnerable.”
Mayfield reviews these known but often ignored facts:
- 1 in 6 Americans has an alcohol problem (either alcoholic or problem drinking).
- 1 in 10 children have one parent who abuses alcohol.
- 80% of college students use alcohol, and half of them binge drink.
- Alcohol is racist; minorities suffer disproportionately from alcohol diseases.
- Rape and sexual abuse are now widely discussed, but alcohol’s significant contribution to these abuses is often ignored.
- An astonishing 70% of children in the huge foster care system suffer from some form of prenatal alcohol damage.
Facing the spirituality of her own moderate, responsible drinking, Mayfield concludes that this is perhaps the single most important Bible text on alcohol:
“It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else
that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”
“Perhaps no substance fits the definition of ‘causing some to stumble but not others’ quite like alcohol does. As our contemporary understanding of alcohol abuse grows, so too should our understanding of Christian liberty. We know that some just can’t drink in a responsible way that doesn’t end up harming themselves and others. This, at the least, should give pause…”
Adventists and Alcohol
So, here we 21st-century Adventists pause. Love demands more than indulgence; it demands responsibility not only for our own benefit and pleasure, not only for our own progressive life styles but for our neighbors’ benefit and pleasure and our neighbors’ life styles. Christians are asked not only to be as wise as serpents, but also to be as harmless as doves.
Seventh-day Adventists in the past felt that alcohol caused much of their world’s woe and were prophetically driven to a position of total abstinence and social activism on behalf of prohibition. Seventh-day Adventists in the present may need to try different political tactics to reduce today’s alcohol-fueled suffering but we may need to revitalize our anti-alcohol inheritance. The long-established Seventh-day Adventist distinctive of personal and institutional total abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, recreational marijuana and other chemical addictions is surely a counter-cultural strength of our faith.
 Catherine Knapp, Drinking, A Love Story (New York: The Dial Press, 1996).
 For non-drinking women, 150/1,000 women will get a breast cancer; for women drinking six or fewer drinks/week (over three or more days) the number increases to 170/1,000. For those drinking more, the rate goes much higher.
 Sarah Bessey, “So I Quit Drinking” https://relevantmagazine.com/life5/why-i-gave-up-alcohol/
 Alcohol-free festive drinks have happily become widely available to provide “more visually and aesthetic appealing drinks than normal soft drinks,” as this Wikipedia article illustrates.
 President Herbert Hoover’s 1928 description of Prohibition as “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose” entered the popular lexicon as “the noble experiment.” It was unfortunate for the entire nation that the experiment failed as miserably as it did. See this site for more discussion: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/
Jack Hoehn is a retired physician. He writes from the wine country of Walla Walla, Washington.