While a Christian is free to drink alcoholic beverages, an option is abstinence, refraining from drinking alcoholic beverages altogether. This may be a long-term or short-term practice. There are several good reasons to abstain from alcohol. The first is to consider the thoughts and feelings of others. In the early church, drunkenness was associated with pagan religion. When people became Christians and converted from paganism, they needed to break from this lifestyle, particularly, from debauchery—excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures. However, there were other Christians, probably Jewish Christians, who did not have this background, and would exercise their liberty to drink wine in front of converts from paganism. What resulted was that the Gentile converts were deeply offended and grieved. So, in Romans 14:13 Paul says:
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. (NIV)
Later in this passage, he gives specific principles about drinking wine.
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. Romans 14:19-21
While a Christian may have the liberty, maturity and self-discipline, he or she may choose not to exercise this liberty for the sake of another brother or sister who cannot handle it. Besides other Christians, Paul asks us to consider even the thoughts of not-yet-Christians.
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. 1 Cor. 10:31-33 (NIV)
Of course, this does not mean that we should neglect teaching new brothers and sisters about their freedom in Christ. There will always be not-yet-Christians coming within view of the church and new converts coming into the community of the church. Therefore, the mature and knowledgeable believers should lead them toward maturity, “admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present them fully mature in Christ," (Colossians 1:28). This includes a biblical perspective of Christian liberty, discernment, and life in the Spirit.
As an argument for teetotalling, I have been asked: “But what about the alcoholic that comes into the church? If Christians are drinking booze, won’t this cause him to stumble … to relapse?” This is a fair question and one that we should consider, especially when ministering to a variety of people. Christians do need to be aware of various conditions of people, their needs, vices, and struggles, and act with discernment and discretion.
The Pastoral Epistles state that elders in the church are not to be drunkards, and in the same way “deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine,” or as the ESV states: “not addicted to much wine,” (1 Tim. 3:8). The issue may not be drunkenness but alcoholism—an addiction or mental and physical condition from the excessive and/or regular use of alcohol, even in social settings. Alcoholism may be more covert than drunkenness, showing up in various ways. (See the NCADD Self-Test).
Alcoholics generally need an intervention and regular support toward a life of sobriety and serenity. As an associate pastor, I attended an AA support group hosted by our church for two years. I learned a lot from the leader, Jim, who did not advocate avoiding the world of booze as much as navigating successfully through it. Alcoholics that attended found support in the group (and other groups) which was greater than the temptation they faced. At times sponsors gave members the assignment to enter and exit a liquor store without buying anything. Thus, for me the argument that Christians should not serve or drink alcoholic beverages because an alcoholic might be present, does not understand an addict’s road to recovery or life within a world of booze. On the other hand, if an alcoholic needs to attend an AA meeting just to counter the pressure from Christians to drink, the Christians should exercise greater discretion and sensitivity, not doing something that will cause a brother to fall.
A second reason for abstinence is religious devotion or spiritual focus. In Leviticus 10:9, the priests of Israel were commanded not "to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting, or you will die." The Lord had called them to holiness, and their judgment in priestly functions could not be clouded. Abstinence was also the practice of those taking a Nazirite vow. Nazirite from the word nazir means "consecrated one."
The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the LORD as a Nazirite, he must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or from other fermented drink. He must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as he is a Nazirite, he must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. Numbers 6:1-4 (NIV)
When an Israeli wanted to set himself apart unto God and devote his whole life to the Lord, he took a Nazirite vow. This was the highest level of consecration and included abstinence from wine and other fermented beverages, as well as anything that comes from the grapevine including grapes, raisins, grape seeds and grape juice! Samuel and Samson were Nazirites for life (1 Samuel 1:14-15; Judges 13:4,7). John the Baptist also had taken a Nazirite vow (Luke 1:15; 7:33). A Nazirite vow could last for 30, 60 or 90 days- or even a lifetime.
Similarly, a Christian today may voluntarily choose a vow of abstinence from alcoholic beverages as an act of devotion to God (Acts 18:18; 21:23). This may be for a predetermined period of time, similar to a fast from food. Obviously, a Christian who makes this choice for abstinence will not sin by drunkenness, and not become an alcoholic.
Other reasons for abstaining from alcohol include: ministry to alcoholics, recovery from alcoholism, personal distaste for alcoholic beverages, health reasons recommended by a physician or pharmacist, athletic training-school code of conduct, role model to students and young athletes, avoiding a double standard for parents and children, matters of conscience when raised in the home of an alcoholic, and activity in organizations such as MADD and SADD. It is a matter of conscience, discretion, experience and conviction.
The Scriptures teach that a Christian is to be controlled by the Holy Spirit, not the spirit(s) of alcohol (Eph. 5:18; Acts 2:4, 13). While Christians have freedom to drink alcoholic beverages in moderation (wine, like food is clean), abstinence is preferred in many cases. Each Christian must decide before God what he or she should do, and then live by his or her conscience. Paul concludes his thoughts on eating and drinking by saying,
So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. Romans 14:22-23 (NIV)