The Defiled Conscience Principle
Some Christians oppose moderate alcohol consumption, even though they admit that the Bible allows it. They have one card up their collective sleeve that robs us of the freedoms that God lets us enjoy. I call it the Defiled Conscience Principle.
It’s based, in part, on a verse that has become one of the most distorted and misused in the Scriptures. We need to pay special attention to it, and its related verses, by examining its context at length. Here it is:
Romans 14:21, “It is not good to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which by which your brother stumble.”
Context & Analysis: At first glance, when taken out of context, this verse appears to instruct us to refrain from doing anything that might lead a fellow Christian to sin, and that makes sense. Leading others to sin (stumble) is a sin in itself, as Jesus said, “…whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea [Matthew 18:6].” Yet we know that the law permits eating meat and drinking wine. To understand how it could have led some Christians to sin, we must examine this verse’s historical context.
Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 & 10 discuss the issue of whether or not Christians were permitted to eat meat that might have been offered to an idol (a Greek or Roman god). Some Christians ate meat while others abstained from it. Paul explains in Romans 14 that both approaches are fine, as long as God receives proper thanks. Before the writing of Romans, however, Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 8 & 10 (which was written before Romans) addressed the same issue:
Acts 15:28-29, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourself free from these things, you will do well.”
Context & Analysis: These verses are the last part of a letter that Jesus’ Apostles sent to the early churches. This letter was written at the Council of Jerusalem, where the Apostles, including Paul, assembled to resolve debated issues within the church. The big debate was over whether or not non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians had to be circumcised, as the Jews had always been. The Holy Spirit showed the Apostles that circumcision was unnecessary.
The Apostles explain in this letter that their intent was to burden the Gentile converts with nothing more than essential practices. The practices from which they had to abstain were not random or unrelated. All practices forbidden by verses 28 & 29 were elements of the Greco-Roman worship services. The Gentile-Christians had, of course, converted from the Greco-Roman polytheistic religions, in which they worshipped such gods as Zeus, Mars, Aphrodite, and Apollo. Their worship rituals consisted of killing animals by means of strangling, drinking their blood, eating their meat, getting drunk on wine (thus, the mention of wine in Romans 14:21), and having sex with temple prostitutes, all while worshipping the statue of one of these man-made gods.
Why were these practices forbidden for those who converted to Christianity? The reason is obvious: Gentile converts who participated in these practices might have communed with their former gods by doing so and been tempted to return to them. Even if they didn’t fall away from the Christian faith entirely, they would have violated the first and greatest commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
1 Corinthians 8:4-5, “Therefore, concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and lords, yet for us, there is but one God…”
Analysis: Paul begins by saying that these Roman and Greek gods are imaginary; but even if they are real, they’re not the true God of the universe. Eating meat sacrificed to these fake gods had no spiritual effect. Christians were permitted to eat this meat as long as they didn’t do it as an act of worship.
Despite the Jerusalem Council’s orders for Gentile converts to abstain from meat offered to idols, Paul (and maybe some other Christian leaders) had apparently allowed Christians to do defy those orders. As he learned of the resulting damage to the Corinthian church, however, he may have realized that allowing meat consumption was a mistake. Remember, only Jesus was without sin. The rest of us, even the Apostle Paul, make mistakes.
1 Corinthians 8:7, “However, not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.”
Context & Analysis: When people ate meat from a sacrifice in a Roman temple, they did so at a table that included a setting for the god whom they worshipped (3). In their minds, the god was with them at the table and nowhere else in the universe. Remember, they were polytheistic, so they didn’t believe in an omnipresent god who was everywhere at the same time. They were likely overwhelmed with a sense of their god’s presence more than many of us are, since we believe that God is everywhere when we worship Him.
Meat was a key element of the worship experience, because Romans rarely ate meat outside the temple, since they had no means of preserving it. Whatever meat they ate had to be fresh, and the easiest place to find fresh meat was at the temple (that’s why Christians went to the temples; they certainly didn’t go to worship). Therefore, whenever they ate meat, regardless of whether or not it had been sacrificed to a Greco-Roman god, they communed with their gods in their hearts and minds.
To compare this experience to something we encounter today, let’s consider Holy Communion. Many of us Christians have practiced it our entire lives and have had powerful worship experiences doing so. Imagine going to a non-Christian function, such a company picnic, and being served wine/grape juice in a tiny, clear plastic cup along with a little square of bread no longer than an inch. Where would your mind go at that point? Could you eat it without feeling a connection to Christ or feeling as though it’s necessary to commune with Him at that moment? Many of us could not eat that bread and drink from that little cup without communing with God in our hearts. Likewise, those who had converted from Greco-Roman polytheism to Christianity could not eat meat without communing with their former gods in their hearts.
1 Corinthians 8:9-11, “But take care, lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge, he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.”
Context & Analysis: This verse is a big favorite of anti-alcohol Christians. They take verse 10 and make substitutions by saying, “If someone sees you in a place that serves alcohol, even if you’re just having a soda, they may be encouraged to drink alcohol, and thus sin against their conscience.” So they not only forbid the drinking of alcohol, but with this analogy, they prohibit Christians from going out dancing, singing karaoke, playing pool, or doing a number of other innocent activities that take place where alcohol is served. By ignoring the original context and intentions of these verses, many Christians lay burdens upon other Christians that greatly exceed those imposed by the Bible.
Some Christians assume that these verses tell us to do nothing with which other Christians may disagree, because those Christians might be tempted to go against their beliefs and imitate us. This assumption is far-fetched. The chances of an anti-alcohol Christian changing his or her behavior based on seeing another Christian drink alcohol are incredibly slim. First of all, anti-alcohol Christians are unlikely to be found in a place that serves alcohol, since they don’t believe it’s okay to be there, so they’re unlikely to see other Christians drink. And even if they did, they’d be more likely to pass judgment on that person as a lesser Christian than they would be to follow that person’s lead. Also, most anti-alcohol Christians feel so strongly about their anti-alcohol beliefs that they’re unlikely to be swayed, regardless of what examples or contrary evidence are set before them.
In verse 9, Paul contrasts the freedom of those who are strong in faith with the temptation of those who are weak in faith. Notice here that the strong-in-faith are the can-do Christians, and the weak-in faith are the can’t-do Christians. The experienced Christians, mentored by Jesus’ own disciples, who know what the Gospel is all about, have the fewest rules to follow. They know it’s okay to eat meat. But the new converts, who may be easily led astray, feel that they have to abstain from it. Nonetheless, Paul tells the strong-in-faith to make sacrifices for the weak-in-faith, because the weak-in-faith are more likely to fall away.
Today, many churches take the opposite approach: The supposedly strong-in-faith, the leaders of the religious establishment, are the can’t-do Christians who show no mercy on the weak-in-faith—the new (and often young) believers. The strong-in-faith heap loads of man-made restrictions on the weak-in-faith, until the weak-in-faith fall away and are, therefore, “ruined,” as Paul describes in verse 11. When young adult Christians are prohibited from dancing, singing karaoke, etc, because of where alcohol is served, and all they get to do is go to prayer night, many of them fall away. They have too much energy to spend all of their free time sitting in church, sitting in Bible studies, sitting in prayer meetings, sitting and reading the Bible, sitting while talking about the Bible, etc.
Those who are strong-in-faith might argue that young Christians need not have fun, because if their faith is strong enough, they’ll realize that Jesus is all they need. This mentality burdens the weak-in-faith by holding them to the standards of the strong-in-faith, just like the Corinthian church leaders pressured the weak-in-faith to live up to their standards and eat meat without faith-damaging results. Today, the strong-in-faith need to realize that today’s weak-in-faith may fall away as a result of ultra-high standards, just like the Corinthian weak-in-faith did.
1 Corinthians 8:12-13, “And thus, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble.”
Context & Analysis: Many anti-alcohol Christians use this verse to say that Christians may never drink alcohol, because doing so might cause other Christians to stumble and wound their consciences. This misinterpretation results from the fact that we take the words “stumble” and “wound” too lightly. They refer not to a little trip or scrape, but to something far more serious. Here, the weak-in-faith stumble and wound their consciences by communing with their former gods in their hearts when eating meat—an outright violation of the 1st Commandment. God make it clear throughout the Bible that He hates when we worship other gods. So the stumble here is not just a little trip, but a fall causing serious injury that jeopardizes the eternal life of a new believer.
The seriousness of this scenario lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from the minor issue of whether or not it’s okay to drink alcohol. These Bible quotes have nothing to do with feeling a little guilty about doing something that we used to think was wrong but now believe is right.
1 Corinthians 10:23-24, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.”
Context & Analysis: Paul again discusses the issue of eating meat offered to idols. This quote reiterates Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Some Christians use this verse to claim that any neutral activity is forbidden. In other words, if drinking alcohol neither helps nor hurts one’s faith, it’s a sin. If listening to secular music neither helps nor hurts one’s faith, it’s a sin. However, I have never seen a Christian apply this verse universally. If changing from glasses to contact lenses neither helps nor hurts one’s faith, is that a sin? If cutting the lawn neither helps nor hurts one’s faith, is that a sin? Of course not! There are plenty of neutral activities which we engage in on a daily basis, and God permits them. This verse does not prohibit engagement in sin-free activities. It prohibits the seeking of our own pleasure at the expense of someone else’s well-being.
When Paul writes, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable,” he means that some behaviors not forbidden by God’s law can seriously endanger someone else’s faith. Eating meat was one of these, as were lawsuits. In 1 Corinthians 6:7, Paul charges, “Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” Lawsuits were legal, but they destroyed relationships within the church and demonstrated to the outside world that Christians could not live in harmony. Unlike lawsuits, moderate alcohol consumption harms nobody’s faith or physical well-being.
These common misinterpretations of verses in 1 Corinthians 8 & 10 and Romans 14 (which I did not quote because it really ads nothing more to this issue, but feel free to open your Bible and read it) lead us astray when we are merely Bible-based rather than thoroughly biblical. But when we examine the other 34 alcohol passages, as we already have, we won’t make the mistake of building a theology out of this one example, which isn’t even about alcohol to begin with.
While many Christians employ the Defiled Conscience Principle when opposing alcohol consumption, no Christian applies it universally. With the many denominations and the differing beliefs among Christians today, it’s impossible to avoid practicing something that other Christians believe to be wrong.
For example, the Church of Christ denomination refuses to incorporate musical instruments into their worship services. If that’s the case, then all churches who promote the Defiled Conscience Principle when denouncing alcohol consumption should also abstain from using musical instruments in worship services. Otherwise, people from the Church of Christ might visit a church that uses musical instruments and be tempted to participate in a worship service that includes them. By participating, they defile their consciences by doing something that they had always believed to be wrong.
Here’s another example: some Christians believe it’s wrong for a woman to wear pants or shorts, and that women of all ages must wear a dress or skirt. Many anti-alcohol Christians, however, have no problem with women wearing pants or shorts. So if anti-alcohol Christian women were to apply the Defiled Conscience Principle universally, they would refrain from wearing pants or shorts, because women who think it’s a sin to wear them might be encouraged by their example and do the same. They would then sin against their consciences by doing what they had always believed to be wrong.
Don’t look at these examples and decide that you must now avoid all practices that others believe to be sinful. Before doing that, consider the example that Jesus set: Jesus was without sin, and yet He never preached or practiced the Defiled Conscience Principle. For example, Jesus openly ate without first washing His hands, as we discussed in Christian Freedom study. Was Jesus concerned that people who had grown up under the influence of the Pharisees, who had always believed that eating with unwashed hands was a sin, would be encouraged to follow His example and sin against their consciences by doing so? Of course not! Jesus was concerned with separating the Word of God from the rules of man so that God’s people could live in truth and freedom. Jesus also defied the Defiled Conscience Principle when He did good works on the Sabbath, picked grain on the Sabbath, drank wine, and befriended known sinners. By this we know that the Defiled Conscience Principle is not required by God. If it were, then Jesus would have been a sinner by defying it.
Martin Luther could not have launched the Protestant Reformation if he had obeyed the Defiled Conscience Principle. When his followers first repented of their sins directly to God, rather than through a priest, refused to pay indulgences to the church, and left the Roman Catholic Church altogether, most of them probably felt a little tweak of their consciences, because they practiced something they were raised to believe was wrong. They probably had second thoughts and wrestled with whether or not to break away from the non-biblical ways of the Roman Catholic Church. Had Luther been concerned with matters of conscience, the church could not have advanced in the direction of God’s will.
The same is true today. If we apply the Defiled Conscience Principle to all things, we can never remove man-made religious rules from the church, because any time we turn Christians from the false doctrines of men to the truth of God, some of them will feel guilty when embracing freedoms that they once thought were sins. That’s okay, however, because God wants us to be free. It’s those who wish to keep us in chains who misapply the Defiled Conscience Principle to issues for which it was never intended.
Non-biblical anti-alcohol arguments
Temptation of Alcoholics
Some Christians say we should avoid alcohol, because former alcoholics might see us drinking it, be inspired to drink it themselves, and then struggle with their addiction all over again. If we were to apply this principle universally, we would refuse to serve doughnuts and other sweets in Sunday school classes, because type II diabetics might be encouraged to eat them and suffer further complications to their health. We would have to abstain from peanuts too, because someone with a peanut allergy might see us eating them and be inspired to do so themselves, and then die from their allergic reaction. These examples sound preposterous, because they are—just like the idea that an alcoholic might return to alcoholism if we drink alcohol. It’s a fact of life that alcoholics, diabetics, and food allergy sufferers realize that they cannot eat and drink everything that other people do. We do not sin by enjoying food or drink that somebody else might not be able to have.
Alcohol is a Drug
Some people argue that alcohol consumption is a sin because alcohol is a drug. If that’s the case, then churches had better stop making coffee available at Sunday school classes, because caffeine is a drug too. Fortunately, we don’t have to junk our coffee-makers, because the Bible never opposes drugs. We have numerous drugs in our society, and only a small percentage of them are illegal. The rest of them are on the shelves at the grocery store or behind the counter at the pharmacy. Both legal and illegal drugs are harmful if abused. However, most of these drugs, including alcohol, have health benefits when used in moderation.
Alcohol is addictive
Some people argue that alcohol is addictive. But as drugs go, it’s hardly addictive at all. I’ve never known of a moderate drinker who became an alcoholic. It’s the long-time alcohol abusers who do that. Research has shown that people must abuse alcohol for more than 5 years to become physically addicted to it (2). In fact, I’ve known quite a few people who abused alcohol in college and beyond, and none of them had trouble reducing or eliminating their drinking if they did so by the age of 30. So alcohol’s minimally addictive nature is no cause for concern for those of us who obey the Bible by drinking it moderately.
Some People have a Genetic Tendency toward Alcoholism
Some might say that alcoholism is hereditary, and nobody should taste alcohol, because those with a genetic disposition toward alcoholism will be hooked on it when they do. However, recent research suggests that this genetic tendency does not create an unusually high craving for alcohol like an addicted smoker might have for a cigarette, but that it minimizes the negative effects of alcohol abuse, such as hangovers (4). So it’s just the allure of pleasure with no pain that leads to alcohol abuse, not a genetic disposition toward instant addiction. It’s no different than my temptation to eat a whole bag of jalapeño potato chips everyday. If we want to maintain or achieve good health, we have to know when to say when.
Christians who drink alcohol moderately face no risk of addiction. Further minimizing this risk is the fact that we Christians have a purpose in life. Most alcohol abusers live for the pleasure of the moment, because they have nothing else to live for. If they stopped partying, their lives would be empty. Today, we see this more than ever as the media spotlights wealthy people who live the wild life because they have no goals. They have everything they could want or need, and they have no desire to be a positive force in the world, because they have no Christian ethics. But we Christians have so much purpose in our lives that we should have no time to abuse alcohol. Also, if we seek to obey God, we will heed the 22 Bible verses opposing alcohol abuse.
It’s worth asking why God, who hates alcohol abuse, allows His people to drink alcoholic beverages at all. The Bible provides no answer to this question, and we should be content in trusting God’s decision. But the answer may very well be that God’s approach simply works best.
It’s likely that the United States’ alcohol abuse problem is the result of its anti-alcohol history. Less than one hundred years ago, alcohol was strictly forbidden in the United States. And yet, less than a century later, alcoholism in the U.S. is an epidemic. Contrast that to Israel’s and Italy’s alcoholism rates, which are among the lowest in the world (5). Both of these countries take the scriptural approach to alcohol consumption, because Italy is Roman Catholic and Israel is Jewish. Their cultures tolerate the consumption of alcohol with meals and in religious services, but oppose its abuse. They are proof that God’s approach works. America’s high alcoholism rates are proof that prohibition fails.
There may be a psychological reason that explains why the biblical approach works and prohibition fails. I call it the Forbidden Fruit Syndrome. Just as Adam and Eve thought the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden must have been something special, many Christians, raised in anti-alcohol households, feel the same way about alcohol. When parents teach that alcohol consumption is a big deal, whether it’s a great big deal or a terrible big deal, it becomes a big deal in the minds of their children. While some of these children choose to never taste alcohol, others succumb to the allure of the forbidden fruit and are controlled by it, because it was such a big deal in their minds all along.
Compare this to the household in which I grew up. My parents rarely talked about alcohol. They would buy a bottle of wine for New Year’s Eve, drink half of it, and let it sit in the back of the refrigerator until the next New Year’s Eve, when they would finish it. The message that my sisters and I received was that alcohol was no big deal. Our parents even let us have some wine, so we could see for ourselves that it was no big deal. While I’m not a child psychologist, I believe that my parents’ approach toward alcohol is the best approach. If parents glorify or condemn alcohol, they run a greater risk of their children becoming alcoholics, because they make alcohol consumption a big deal in their children’s minds.
Another reason for America’s high level of alcohol abuse is the church’s failure to promote moderate drinking. In the eyes of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist church, we sin whether we drink two ounces of wine or chug a gallon of beer, because once we fall off the purity wagon into the abyss of sin, the degree to which we sin is irrelevant. To them, a person cannot drink moderately and be in good relationship with God. So when many Christians drink, they have no reason to exercise self-control, since they believe they are already in sin.
Designed for Alcohol
It may be that God allows alcohol consumption because He designed humans to ingest it. I can’t help but think back to the mulberry tree my parents had while I was growing up. As I approached the tree, I saw mulberries in varying degrees of ripeness. If I ate one that was too light in color, it would be sour and bitter, because it wasn’t ripe yet. If I ate one that had reached a solid shade of purple, it would taste just right, because it was ripe. However, if I ate one that had a dark purple color, it would taste like wine, because it was too ripe and had started to ferment.
Few people today experience what I experienced, because they go to the grocery store and pick out the best fruit. If the fruit is too ripe when they attempt to eat it, they throw it away. Throughout history, however, humans haven’t had this luxury, because food was scarce. Avoiding starvation has been one of mankind’s greatest challenges. So people had to eat whatever fruit was available, not just perfect fruit. By eating fruit that was a little too ripe, they ingested alcohol that resulted from fermentation. A significant percentage of the fruit and fruit juice consumed by humans throughout history has contained alcohol.
God designed us to benefit from a diet that included fermented fruit. How do we know this? We know it from the overwhelming number of studies revealing that moderate drinkers have a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes. I won’t bore you with overwhelming evidence, but here are three examples:
• “A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study asserts that ‘The totality of evidence on moderate alcohol and CHD (coronary heart disease) supports a judgment of a cause-effect relationship…there are cardio-protective benefits associated with responsible, moderate alcohol intake.’”
• “The Harvard Health Professionals Follow-Up Study of over 44,000 males found moderate alcohol consumption to be associated with a 37% reduction in coronary disease.”
• “A recent study published in the American Heart Association’s journal found abstainers’ risk of stroke to be twice that of moderate drinkers.” (6)
By these few examples, we see that moderate drinking is the healthiest approach to alcohol consumption. Isn’t it amazing how these medical studies perfectly align with the biblical approach to drinking? God knows what’s best for us, after all! The man-made religious requirement of total abstinence from alcohol is damaging to our health. So if we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” perhaps we should recommend moderate alcohol consumption to our neighbors, not abstinence.
1. Prof. David J. Hanson, PhD, Puritans to Prohibition (Potsdam, NY: 1997-2007) http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/FunFacts/PuritansToProhibition.html
2. Encyclopedia Britannica Online (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.2008) http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-251753/alcoholism
3. The Roman Empire in the First Century, (Washington, D.C.: Devillier Donovan Enterprises, 2006)
4. Encyclopedia Britannica Online (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.2008) http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-251753/alcoholism
5. Encyclopedia Britannica Online (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.2008) http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-251753/alcoholism
6. Prof. David J. Hanson, PhD, Alcohol and Health, (Potsdam, NY: 1997-2007)