A friend of mine recently shared that when talking with his daughter about her classes at a Christian university, he found himself repeatedly asking, “Did you discuss any constructive proposals?” Her consistent answer was, “No, we really did not have time. We had to spend so much time on deconstructing structures of ____________” (with “deconstructing structures” being her actual words). He mentioned he had no qualms with the need for deconstructing or identifying the fallenness of any number of structures, but he wanted to know if his daughter’s Christian higher education supplied any ideas for redemptive replacements. Unfortunately, it did not. In this post, I hope to supply some redemptive ideas to replace the conversation gap about alcohol I discussed yesterday.
In my experience, successful Christian alcohol education begins by combining alcohol education with two stories—the personal stories of students and the larger theological story of Scripture. Undertaking the first part simply involves asking a series of questions in a group setting:
- Pair and share your personal family history regarding alcohol with a partner. What was taught in the home and what stories were shared about it?
- Stories: When have you seen alcohol used for bad or good among your family or friends? Now ask partners to share these stories with the group (with the permission of the other person).
- What are some reasons students drink in college?
- What do you consider good or bad reasons?
- What moral criteria are you using to evaluate whether a reason or story is good or bad?
What I find helpful about this exercise is that by the time students have gone through these questions, they have heard some tragic stories of how alcohol has influenced and destroyed families, friends, and communities as well as some positive stories of how responsible alcohol use enhanced celebration and food around a family dinner or special event such as a wedding. Moreover, participants already make moral evaluations of alcohol use without the person leading having to moralize. In fact, I find this exercise works well even in a group mixed with Christians and nonbelievers.
A second set of questions, though, would be relevant on Christian campuses: (1) How are the moral criteria you used for evaluation connected to Christian beliefs? (2) How else does the Christian tradition inform your understanding of alcohol? By the time we get through these questions, students as a group have articulated a fairly robust Christian understanding of alcohol. Yet—and this is a key role of Christian educators and mentors—students often have trouble putting their views together in a sophisticated way that addresses two key frameworks: 1) a Christian theological framework and 2) a Christian ethical framework.1
Drinking Alcohol in the Christian Story
The first endeavor involves placing the practice of drinking alcohol in the overall Christian theological story (i.e., Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration). Most student conduct codes simply start with the Fall. In fact, I found less than half a dozen conduct codes out of 566 that started with a vision grounded in creation. Not surprisingly, they were all high church (one important theme that will not be discussed here is how class shapes attitudes to and practices with alcohol). One Catholic institution proclaimed, “Catholicism embraces the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages as a good of human culture. Based on this, Christendom acknowledges alcoholic beverages as something which can be enjoyed in their proper place through the development of the cardinal virtue of Temperance by those mature enough and of legal age.” Still, not much is said about the fall, redemption, or restoration.
The best theological statement came from Concordia University Wisconsin. They placed their stance regarding drinking within a larger theological context of bodily stewardship:
As Christians, we view the care of our bodies as part of our total context for life. God in His Word, gives life and sustains it (Genesis 1:27). He affirms the proper and good care of our bodies as His temple (I Corinthians 6:19-20). As such, He forbids misuse, overuse, and abuse of substances that are harmful for our bodies (2 Corinthians 7:1). Further, God invites and commands us to care for each other, assisting our neighbor in avoiding the abuse of any drug or substance that harms the body and the mind (John 13:34-35). Therefore, Concordia University is a drug-free and dry campus. (https://catalog.cuw.edu/undergraduate/student-conduct/article-2-polices-general/)
To help students think theologically about alcohol within the whole of the Christian story, I often ask students questions to help them with this process:
- Is alcohol part of God’s good creation?
- In the family, friend, and individual stories you just heard, what have been some of the fallen aspects of alcohol use? What are some of the fallen reasons for drinking alcohol?
- Can wine be used in redemptive/sacramental ways? How are drinking alcohol and being filled with the Holy Spirit similar and different? Why do you suppose that contrast was used in Eph. 5:18?
- Will there be drinking of alcohol in heaven?
Placing Drinking Alcohol in an Ethical Framework
Next, any sophisticated ethic about stewarding alcohol needs to place that endeavor in a larger ethical story that engages the ends, rules, virtues, practices, mentors, and models associated with it—versus simply citing a rule or two. One student affairs statement that is an example of mentioning more than rules is from Messiah University. Their student conduct code states:
Because of the potential damage to individuals, communities, and whole societies, any use of alcohol must always be characterized by self-control, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:23). Christians are to “make every effort to support [their] faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self control” (2 Pet. 1:5-6). A criterion for leaders in the church is “not indulging in much wine” (1 Tim. 3:8). The decision of whether and when a Christian should use alcohol must always be discerned in relationship to the communities of which they are a part, and for which they bear responsibility.
This statement encourages consideration of more than the rule found in Eph 5:18 or 1 Tim. 3:8, since it also focused on a virtue (self-control) and the need for contextual wisdom.
Likewise, we did come across a rare student affairs leader who mentioned more than rules in our interviews or survey responses:
Ephesians 5:18 instructs believers not to be drunk with wine but to be filled with the Spirit. Yet, Jesus also demonstrated that there are occasions where imbibing is appropriate (wedding feasts, the Last Supper). Whether a Christian chooses to drink or not should be decided between them and their conscience, and if drinking in the presence of a fellow Christian causes them to stumble, the Christian who feels free to drink should abstain for the sake of the other. (1 Cor. 8, 10; Rom. 14)
Of course, we do not expect any survey or brief interview answer, even a more expansive one, to capture a holistic Christian ethic. Still, since alcohol education or even broader discussions about stewardship of the body will likely not happen in class (another way that general education tends to be irrelevant to students lives), it needs to be the job of Christian student affairs. Below I mention the ethical elements that we almost always found missing.
Students drink, but they often do not ask the simple question, “Why?” (often because it uncovers their insecurities). In light of the Christian story, we can recognize that like any of God’s good gifts, it must be stewarded and directed in the right way. Food, alcohol, and sex are all part of God’s good gifts. They can be enjoyed in the proper context. Its ultimate use in certain Christian traditions is to remember Jesus’ sacrifice, but it also can be used to enhance celebrations. After all, Jesus will once again drink with us when we celebrate in heaven (Matt. 26:29). Of course, the improper ends—of which there are many—have already been mentioned.
Missing Virtues and Vices
Virtue is largely absent from student conduct codes regarding alcohol with only nine institutions mentioning the importance of self-control or temperance with alcohol. Furthermore, not one mentions the vice of being a drunkard or addicted to much wine, which is one of the characteristics of a rebellious youth in the Old Testament (Deut. 21:20), the characteristic of the unfaithful servant in the New Testament (Matt. 24:49), and the unqualified Christian leader (Titus 2:3).
One of the surprising things we found is that when it comes to alcohol education, Christian conduct codes and student affairs leaders do not mention spiritual practices that would be associated with it. Although campuses might enforce blanket forms of community abstinence, that a student might consider individually taking a Nazarite-like vow to not drink wine was not brought up. Its not hard to find scientific studies supporting such a practice. Students should know, for example, that the World Health Organization declared earlier this year regarding alcohol: “there is no safe amount that does not affect health.”
As mentioned earlier, wisdom—which is neither rules nor habitual behavioral virtue nor practices, but the insight gained from expert practice over time—is not considered with regard to wine. In contrast, a book of wisdom literature is the Bible book with the most to say about wine (Prov. 20:1; 21:17; 23:20, 29–35; 31:3-7). Based on the plethora of research on drinking, it should not be hard to provide students with additional wisdom derived from research in this area (see also here).
Missing Mentors and Coaches
In all my research with students, I have rarely come across someone who talks about being mentored or coached in the stewardship of alcohol. Granted even without human mentors, we have a divine mentor that is mentioned in the key verse related to alcohol. Indeed, it’s easy to spot the difference between people controlled by alcohol and those controlled by the Spirit. All of us also likely know people who substitute spirits for the Spirit when contending with life difficulties and challenges.
To acquire divine mentorship, more students need to learn to engage in how The Message interprets Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:18, “Drink the Spirit of God, huge draughts of him.” That would be the best starting approach for further guidance about how to address this neglected topic.2 Our discussions about alcohol should instruct students how to do the same.
Editor’s Note: For additional insight about how to help students have conversations regarding stewardship of one’s body see our recent edited volume, Stewarding Our Bodies: A Vision for Christian Student Affairs.
- Perry L. Glanzer, “Building the Good Life: Using Identities to Frame Moral Education in Higher Education,” Journal of College and Character 14, no. 2 (May 2013): 177–84.
- I found it interesting that my old mentor at the University of Southern California, Donald E. Miller, discovered that the charismatic churches he was studying (Hope, Vineyard, Foursquare, etc.) had a significantly higher number of recovering addicts. The Spirit had replaced their problematic reliance upon liquid courage to deal with their own and life’s fallennness. Donald E. Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997).