The Word Magazine, October 1992, Page 8-10
DRUGS, ALCOHOL AND THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
by Father Paul 0 ‘Callaghan
The questions of how to approach drugs and alcohol are of course critical ones for our society. The abuse of alcohol is on the increase, especially among young people. Millions suffer with alcoholism or severe drinking problems. Drinking is involved in about one-half of all traffic deaths in the country.
Drug abuse seems to be a problem that is out of control in North America. Although public officials like to tell us that we are winning the “war on drugs,” Americans and Canadians still spend billions every year on illegal drugs. Billions continue to be lost yearly because of drug-related problems in the workplace, and we continue to see young lives snuffed early because of drug abuse.
There is no question that alcohol and drugs represent problems of huge proportions in our society. When we look at the social cost, it is devastating. When we consider the personal costs, in terms of broken marriages, wasted talent, ruined lives, and souls led down the path to eternal hell, it is truly staggering. So we must be clear on these issues. We must ask, where should we as Orthodox Christians stand? What should our view of drugs and alcohol be?
Now for some churches, it’s a settled matter. Merely belonging to them means definitely no drugs, absolutely no alcohol, and certainly no smoking. Their preachers, past and present, have thundered against the evils of alcohol, and it was largely due to their influence that alcohol was made illegal in the U.S. during the Prohibition era.
And yet, as most of you know, when we Orthodox Christians get together for social functions, it’s not uncommon for alcohol to be served. The same is true for Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and many other Christians. Does this simply mean we’re sloppy Christians? Does it mean we’re worldly or sinful? It is evident that we need to get the truth on alcohol. Let us turn our attention to this subject, and following that, to the issue of drugs.
The first place we should look for answers is the Bible. For us as Orthodox Christians, Scripture must be the supreme authority for settling such questions, because it is the inspired Word of God; however, we must not neglect to search the tradition of the Church for light on these problems. So let’s ask this question first: what does the Bible teach about alcohol?
Scripture has much to say about alcohol, but here we can only isolate a few basic principles. The following points summarize biblical teaching.
First, the Bible allows a moderate use of alcoholic beverages. Nowhere in the Bible do we find that wine or any other alcoholic drink is forbidden. The use of wine was simply a part of the culture in biblical times, and was regarded as a gift from God. Let’s examine several examples.
Psalm 104:14-15 tells us: “(God) causes the grass to grow for cattle, and vegetation for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine that makes glad the heart of man…” In Deuteronomy 14:26, God’s commandment is, “You may spend your money for whatever your heart desires, for oxen, sheep, wine or strong drink, or anything your heart desires…”In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul wrote Timothy and told him, “No longer drink water only but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities,” (1 Tim. 5:23).
We may also remember Jesus turning the water into wine at Cana of Galilee. In all these cases, it’s totally clear from the original Hebrew and Greek that the words refer to real wine and alcoholic drinks. Jesus did not make the water into Welch’s grape juice! It’s also clear that God approves the use of these alcoholic beverages moderately and appropriately. The tradition of the Church has followed this exactly throughout the centuries as well. That’s why we Orthodox have no problem with serving alcoholic drinks at church functions. As long as it is in moderation, God allows it, God approves it, and God blesses it. Are we more righteous and more morally sound than He?
There’s another side to the Bible’s position on alcohol, however, The Bible definitely condemns drunkenness and the abuse of alcohol as seriously sinful. Let’s look at several examples.
Isaiah 5:11 tells us: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink; who stay up late in the evening that wine may enflame them!” In 1 Corinthians 6, we read, “Be not deceived … neither thieves, nor drunkards, nor the covetous will inherit the kingdom of God.” Ephesians 5:18 states, “Be not drunk with wine, in which there is excess, but rather be filled with the Spirit.” So it’s unmistakable that Scripture condemns drunkenness in fact so seriously, that it states that those who practice it will not inherit the kingdom of God.
That’s why it always saddens me to hear Orthodox young people talking about how they went out and “got smashed” or “got bombed” as if it’s some kind of game. Not only is it dangerous, but the Bible says it’s seriously sinful. Scripture and the Church both distinguish between the moderate use of alcohol, which is approved by God, and the abuse of alcohol, which is condemned by God. Of course, the important question is what alcohol abuse is. What’s the difference between a moderate “gladdening of the heart” and drunkenness? What are the signs that one’s use of alcohol has strayed into the area of abuse? Although some might think that this question might be best left to medical professionals, there are some basic guidelines that I think the Bible, the Church, and medical professionals agree upon. Let us examine several of these.
A first sign of abuse is when one’s physical coordination is seriously affected: slurred speech, inability to walk straight, and the like — especially when it’s noticeable to those around you. A second sign is when your behavior or judgment are altered in a way that you start to think, say, or do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do — especially when drinking means falling into some kind of sin you wouldn’t normally commit. Third, it is abuse when you drink with the specific intention of intoxicating yourself. This is what’s wrong with most drinking by high school or college students. They often simply drink to get drunk, and the more the better. You see this in adults, as well, but it’s far less prevalent than among young people. Adults are less honest about it, too.
However, as I mentioned, Scripture teaches, “Be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” We Christians are not to seek intoxication from alcohol, but rather to be filled with the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit. That’s perhaps not as easy as relaxing with a few drinks, but it’s far more rewarding.
There’s another sign of abuse that ties in with this. This is drinking for relief from stress or personal problems. When we turn to alcohol instead of our relationship to the Lord to help us cope with the difficulties of life, we are getting into a dangerous position. This is compounded when a person begins to drink alone, another serious symptom of abuse. In the biblical approach, drinking is always a social phenomenon.
Lastly, drinking is clearly wrong when it is a definite threat to health. Research has shown that alcohol in moderation can actually be beneficial to health. When it is not, it must be avoided. This is of course especially true for anyone who is predisposed to alcoholism. If having one drink means going on a binge and not being able to stop, then obviously it is sinful to drink at all.
To sum up, then, the drinking of alcoholic beverages is allowed by God. However, there are many dangers and pitfalls associated with it. Perhaps in some ways it would be spiritually safer to avoid it altogether. Nevertheless, we must not fall into the temptation of condemning what God allows. Just because something is abused, does not mean it cannot be properly used. For those who do choose to use alcohol, though, it definitely means care and self-examination.
The error of the ‘mandatory abstention’ position can be seen without too much difficulty by those who care to think seriously about the question. I remember seeing a TV preacher launch into a tirade once advocating this. He went through a long litany listing all the evils associated with alcohol abuse. Then he told the tragic story of his father’s own miserable struggle with alcoholism. Finally he came to the dramatic climax of his message: his father had been given his first drink at a church function. He then concluded that all drinking was wrong and that the church was promoting evil. There was a definite emotional appeal to this. But it would be like saying that all sex is immoral and married people cannot enjoy it because of the wickedness of pornography, child molestation, adultery, and promiscuity. Who finds this reasonable?
With this fallacy in mind, let us turn to the subject of drugs. Some of us are probably familiar with the argument used by many young people in the 1960’s to defend their use of drugs. They told their parents: “You drink and smoke cigarettes. Why can’t I smoke marijuana and do the drugs of my choice?” Does this make sense? Could the use of recreational drugs possibly be allowable for Christians?
Personally, my answer is “no.” The same answer is given by all the serious Christians I am aware of. The reasons are as follows.
First, there is the connection with the demonic. It is very interesting to note that the Greek word for sorcery is “pharmakeia.” The practice of sorcery has been and is connected with the use of mind-altering drugs. It is no accident that the modern revival of witchcraft, black magic, and Satanism closely followed the spread of drug abuse in our society. Drugs have been used for centuries to induce mental states that open a person up to influence from the spirit world. The use of drugs carries with it the risk of extending demonic influence or obsession into a person’s life. For this reason alone, drug use cannot be a serious option for a Christian.
Secondly drugs have been known and rejected in most civilized societies, while alcohol has been allowed (unless it is a matter of a strict religious prohibition). There has been a basic human perception that drug use has a deleterious effect on society. In fact, those cultures that allow them usually restrict them to their religious rituals, which, of course, are of an idolatrous nature and involve some degree of demonic influence. On the other hand, alcohol is normally used without these spiritual overtones. Its main function is social.
Thirdly, drugs are used for the express purpose of seeking intoxication. The Bible’s counsel is for us to seek to be filled with the Spirit. Of course, as we have seen, alcohol can be used for the same reason, but this clearly constitutes abuse, not proper Christian moderation. Drugs, however, have no other use, (except in directly medical applications, which are not in question here). At least, although this may not be a point of profound importance, alcoholic drinks are beverages that do have some food value. It is possible to use them without becoming, or desiring to become intoxicated. Drugs are used for this reason and this reason alone.
A fourth reason that drugs are impermissible for Christians is that many of them seem to have an influence on the personality beyond their immediate intoxicating effect. And these influences, of course, are of a generally negative character. For example, marijuana has been linked to “a motivational syndrome;” a condition in which an individual loses desire for most activity of a beneficial nature: work, sports, school, church, or anything requiring effort. An anti-drug commercial on TV, portrays this very well: two men in their late twenties are sitting in a room smoking marijuana. They are discussing how they have been smoking it for years, and are busy agreeing how it has had no ill effect on their lives. Then a voice comes from the other room, crying, ‘‘George, would you please clean up your room?” It is the voice of his mother, of course.
Another example of the personality changes often caused by drugs is self-absorption. Drug users actively seek the inner world of pleasure induced by their favorite substances. This obsession with inner pleasure causes the individual to become withdrawn and self-centered. He then can lose all concern for family friends, and everyone else when the situation becomes extreme. There are probably few individuals farther removed from Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” as the serious drug user. One could also wonder how a drug user fulfills Jesus’ call to “take up your cross, deny yourself, and follow Me.”
A last consideration in evaluating drug use is their effect on health. The physically addictive character of many drugs is well known. For instance, laboratory animals will consume cocaine until they literally drop dead from it. Opiates, barbituates, and many tranquilizers cause an addiction so strong that it is almost impossible to break. Others induce a powerful psychological habituation. For Christians, involvement in any such addiction is an express violation of the Scriptural injunction not to be brought into bondage to anything (see 1 Cor. 6:12).
In addition to their addictive properties, many drugs have a directly adverse effect on health. Marijuana smoke is worse for the body than tobacco smoke. “Pot” impairs the short-term memory function of the brain. Sniffing cocaine destroys mucous membranes, and the drug can cause cardiac arrest. The recent deaths of two leading college basketball stars showed the potentially devastating effects of cocaine use. If we take the Bible seriously, and consider our bodies “temples of the Holy Spirit,” how could we even think about possibly using drugs?
In conclusion, then, drug use is out of the question for Christians. Alcohol use is permissible, but only in moderation and with great caution. If we do choose to use it, we should keep the “danger signals” mentioned above in mind. If we see any of them in ourselves, it is time to practice abstention, either temporarily or permanently. In any case, we should remember the words of Scripture;: “Whatever you do, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus”’ (Col. 3:17). May God grant us to do so with a clear conscience and in abiding fellowship with Him.
Archpriest Paul O’Callaghan is pastor of St. George Church in San Diego, California.