Do not gaze upon Jesus turning water to wine (or To Drink or Not To Drink)

by Justin Schneider on January 6, 2013

Not long after arriving in Thailand as a Christian aid worker, I felt like it was time to try some local cuisine: Thai beer. I enjoy a good beer and love trying local drinks that are well-made. On this particular occasion, my wife and I were with a Thai Christian who was showing us around and helping us pick up groceries at a small store. I wasn’t suffering; I just thought that might be a good time to pick up a Thai beer. The problem was I wasn’t sure what my friend’s stance on alcohol was. So, in one of my sillier moments, I thought I’d avoid any awkwardness in asking by hurrying up and buying the beer while my friend was down another aisle. As I approached the cashier, I noticed my friend was heading towards the cashier. The man behind the counter must have noticed the nervous look on my face, because he points to the sign next to him that says in four languages “You must be 18 to purchase alcohol products.” My 30-year-old bearded face was probably pretty shocked and then embarrassed as I searched my pockets for an ID that I did not have. Right at that moment, our friend comes up behind me and says, “Any problems?” I quickly motion to the cashier that I don’t want the beer and turn red-faced to my friend to say, “No problems.”

As embarrassing as this moment was for me, it raises an interesting dilemma with more questions than answers, especially for young missionaries and Christian aid workers.  Here are a few questions to reflect upon.

1. What is your stance and why?

I grew up in a fellowship and denomination that frowned upon alcohol use with few exceptions for cooking and desserts. I was always amazed that my friends who came from “old world” Christian faiths not only had alcohol with dinner and at parties but even had wine at communion. I could hardly imagine how they could do that with a clean conscience. After all, didn’t I learn that the bible condemns drinking?

Since then, I have actually come to read and learn more about alcohol in the bible on my own. I now enjoy a good beer and nice glass of wine with a clean conscience like my friends’ parents did when I was growing up; however, I try not to encourage overconsumption or consumption at all for those in recovery.  Think about your own position and be prepared to discuss it when the times comes — because it will likely come soon.

2. How do you deal with a disconnect between your preference and the culture of where you are?

I have a friend who was a missionary in East Africa. Like me, he enjoyed a nice, cold beer. However, many in his community could not drink in moderation. Christians in their church made a conscious effort to show the love of God through sobriety and abstinence from alcohol. His solution: No alcohol within 50 kilometers of his town.

At the same time, on the other side of the continent, friends in West Africa who came from churches where “one drop is a sin” ministered to communities where the people have survived on a local millet beer for centuries. The water wasn’t safe for anyone to drink.  The missionaries had to choose between the lightly fermented, horrible-tasting local beverage or the fully fermented, higher alcohol content, decent-tasting one. These friends looked past their upbringing and chose health, palatability, and joining the community.

In both of the above instances, the missionaries were intentional and ready to share their decisions with others.  The ways we deal with these dilemmas affect our witness and opportunity to be a part of a home that is not our own. Alcohol use, though not usually considered a salvation issue, can have a profound effect on your group.

3. How do we discuss it?

A church worker in Australia who grew up in South America recently faced a job decision: Having looked for a job working for a church for many months, he finally found a church that wanted to hire him. In the employment agreement, however, the church leadership required him to promise not to partake in any alcohol since it would be sinful. In response to this difficult position, he presented a paper discussing the ways in which Proverbs 23:31-32 has been misconstrued. When they were unmoved by his argument, he signed the agreement even though he felt his home church was being condemned every Sunday when they took communion with wine.  But rather than just sign it and let it be or break it in secret, he continues to dialogue with leadership in a spirit of love and learning.

“Nothing to see here; it’s just pizza.”

For some of us, our organization or supporters ask us to agree that we won’t

partake of any alcoholic drink. However, that doesn’t necessarily make the issue go away. In fact, as younger missionaries and workers are thrust into cultures where alcohol is a part of the accepted culture, our arguments domestically about alcohol make agreements like this more frustrating.  When discussions don’t take place with the why, our reaction may not be one of strict compliance.

So, how do we have these discussions in a spirit of love and learning?

That’s where I want to hear from you.  Also, feel free to drop some theology on us.

Justin Schneider — USA (until something better comes up). blog. twitter.

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  • Ah yes. We had this and many other similar issues when we were with our organization in Papua New Guinea. Skirt wearing for women was the one that irritated me the most. I think you are right that we have to think about our stance from the outset, but I found that my stance did change the longer that I was in the culture. While I found it impossible to understand how pants wearing (for women) was a stumbling block for national men whose wives went topless, I tried to begrudgingly comply *most of the time*. Right before we left, we had a yard sale and I sold a few yoga workout DVDs. When a crew of national men who lived in villages without electricity showed up to leer over leotard wearing women on the the videos like they were Playboy, I felt pretty skeeved-out. Why hadn’t I listened!?! When the men came to buy the videos, I had NO idea what to say or how to NOT sell them the videos. My takeaway was that I shouldn’t have assumed that the older missionaries were just being legalistic in the policies they set up. There really was a cultural reason behind it.

    • What a great example. This post may say “alcohol” in it, but it’s really about all of these issues — especially the most frustrating ones. Did you ever seek an explanation for the organization about the skirts?

      • Kathy

        Different parts of the body are sexual in different cultures – for PNG it is the upper thigh. You will rarely see a PNG woman wearing trousers or shorts – especially in villages. This should be a good lead that it isn’t appropriate!

  • This is a good topic! We live in a country where it is culturally acceptable to drink. When we talk with our supporters about it, we have to be careful who of our supporters we talk with about going to the pub for the occasional pint of cider… because we don’t know where they stand. I also agree that it’s very helpful to know what your stance is on alcohol before you are faced with making the decision. That’s helped me adjust to the pub culture here a bit.

    • Thanks for jumping in Chysti. It’s definitely something I’ve seen many people struggle with. I appreciate you sharing a bit of your story. Have you had any awkward moments related to sharing with supporters when the pub came up?

      • When I first met my brother-in-law, it came up in conversation that my husband and I go to pubs when we’re in England, and I found out he has strong beliefs about not drinking… Not a good thing to discuss when you’ve first met! 🙂

  • Its good to have a plan going in, but I feel like my plan/stance changes over the years depending on, well, all kinds of things and in all kinds of areas, from alcohol to modest clothing to how to handle poverty… So I think I’d add – have a plan but be ready to flex and grow and change.

    • Yes. And another quick addition: It’s not about YOU. I often need this little reminder.

    • I agree with you Rachel. Like the old proverb goes, “Blessed are the flexible for they shall not get bent out of shape.”

  • Alyssa

    A very interesting topic. We are preparing for deployment to a country where to turn down an alcoholic drink is offensive, yet our missions board requires that all missionaries sign a no-alcohol policy. One of many issues that we are trying to sort out. The conversation about this with the missions board happens next week- in the meantime, if anyone has encountered this situation, I’d love to hear feedback. Thanks for the great topic!

    • If anyone has dealt with the issues of missions boards, please chime in. I was working with a church in Russia for 6 weeks after agreeing to no alcohol. Before going to Russia we had heard Russian culture required one to accept a drink. My group wrestled with this for some time, agreeing that we would at first refuse, and if insisted, we would partake. After discussing this with the organization, they agreed to leave it up to our own discreet discretion. Once we arrived, however, we realized that Russians loved tea much more than beer and vodka and that the vast majority were no longer offended if you told them you did not drink alcohol. All of this to say, sometimes when biblical and historical arguments don’t work (see the link to “arguments domestically” above), actual stories from missionaries on the ground in your country can push towards a compromise of sorts or a clarification of what the real story is.

      Like you, Alyssa, I’d love to hear from others who have been put between a board and a culture, and how it worked out in the end.

    • Alyssa, wow, this is an interesting situation, for sure! Hmmmm . . . . it’ll be interesting to see what your missions board does with this one. Keep us posted!

      Justin– fantastic topic! I love this discussion. I love the honesty of it b/c it is most definitely something that can really affect workers and their impact. I think for me, I liked thinking of myself as a “christian humanitarian aid worker” instead of a “missionary”– for some strange reason internally I felt more freedom to make decisions out of authenticity not out of fear. I don’t know what in my brain it worked out like that.
      I totally agree that it’s important to really understand the culture where you are living.This takes time and the humility to listen and learn, first. So often, we skip that part and assume too much of our host cultures.

      • love that. “christian humanitarian worker” I’ll start using it.

    • We’ve not encountered that specific situation…

      Something similar but different, maybe? It started before our time… one of the national pastors was accused of immoral, or at the very least, improper behavior. The mission board and missionaries at the time wanted the local church association to confront the pastor, which they did in their cultural way. That didn’t satisfy the mission board, who then insisted the man be removed from leadership. The local churches refused to take that step. And so the mission board gave an official mandate that missionaries not affiliate, fellowship or worship with the churches that made up the association. That had been the situation for about three years when we arrived on the field. Even new to this world, it didn’t take us long to see that there were huge cultural issues and perceptions at play – the mission board with western, task based more black and white orientation and expectations versus the church association and the present missionaries immersed in the more relational, saving face/shame based manner for dealing with issues here.

      My husband’s primary ministry is the production of audiovisual materials in tandem with the local church to be used as evangelistic and discipleship tools in a primarily illiterate population… Needless to say, our hands were a bit tied. By setting up a very minimal fee schedule, he was able to open up his services to all churches in the area (whereas before it was primarily only those in that particular association)… and because ithere was a financial transaction, our organization agreed that we could treat all churches that same. That has allowed us to develop relationships and continue to encourage members in those churches and even assist in their ministries without violating our official mandate. God used the break to help those churches stand on their own, completely… and now we’ve seen some decent steps towards restoration. For us, we felt caught in the middle and the solution involved some creative outside the box thinking to come up with a proposal that satisfied both without either side feeling that they had to compromise strongly held beliefs and convictions. Our solution, however, didn’t remove that caught in the middle feeling. That, although to a lesser extent, still remains today.

  • Many of my missionary friends here in Bolivia learned how to drink from Bolivians. Now, if the Bolivians *drove* them to drink is another question, entirely. 🙂 It’s a divided topic amongst the churchy folk in this nation. For the most part, though, it is much more widely practiced to imbibe than you would find in the good ol’ bible belt U.S.A.

    Principals of maintaining a stance on particularly controversial topics need to take on fluid properties. I like your prompt to think about what we believe and why we believe it.

    Other similar issues here alongside alcohol are: smoking, clothing, facial hair, make up, tattoos, music [BIG one], the role of women in the church [biggie], divorce [big deal too], sexual orientation, the role of the church in government, and my personal favorite: syncretism.

    • Like they say, alcohol is a gateway to other more serious topics.

    • Am I showing my ignorance that I literally have NO idea what “syncretism” is? lol.

      • You can do a google search if you wanna. Basically it is the fusion of more than one belief system. An example in the Bolivian culture is the Catholics who burn animal sacrifices to Pachamama (mother earth) every first Friday. It is fascinating to me to watch the cross over mixes of faiths.

        • Or Thai Buddhists who still have spirit houses.

        • oooohhhh . . . . Awesome. I just like that you not only make me laugh, but you educate me as well. 🙂

      • Here we have the local Muslim imam who is also the witch doctor. We see both fusions (where the two become one new thing) or a synchronizing (where both “paths” are kept apart and different, but are equally acceptable alternatives that can be pursued at the same time if need be).

  • Philipp Melanchthon, a 16th century German theologian said “In essentials, unity; in differences, liberty; in all things, charity.”

    I LOVE that quote. That is the same position that my husband and I strive to live in these types of issues. We try to err on the side of the most conservative viewpoint so as not to offend – I believe humility and putting others before us demands that of us. It isn’t always that straightforward, though… is it? Sometimes not offending one causes offense to another. Thankfully, at least in our experience, both don’t tend to be in the same room at the same time and a practice of tact and listening more than we speak has mostly prevented problems in those areas.

    As far as the issue of drinking? Neither my husband nor I have any problem with it in moderation. Our sending church, however, strongly disapproves. So only when we were with friends from outside that circle, we would occasionally enjoy a drink or a wedding toast, etc. When we were first preparing to start this missions path, however, the Lord impressed upon us individually, in the same sermon at our church, that just as John the Baptist did not drink because he was set apart for a specific call of God on His life, He wanted us to choose to abstain in that area. It wasn’t even the point of the sermon… wasn’t even mentioned, in fact. I heard the sermon from the nursery where I was working. He was videotaping it for later broadcast. And that was the idea that we both carried away from that sermon. That is where we’ve been ever since. I can’t really call it a sacrifice because it wasn’t that much a part of our life – but more a symbol and continual reminder for us that we were His and set apart for a specific path He had for us to follow. That position has actually given us some neat opportunities to share our testimonies in each of the different cultures where we’ve lived and ministered (States – Baptist, States – university settings, French-Canadian, and W. African – both Muslim and traditional religions). It truly was valuable, however, to have that figured out prior to entering ministry where it might become an issue.

    I really appreciate Katrina’s comment – we may not always understand why things are done a specific way by the old guard and “always have” when it seems persnickety and… and… and… But often there are good and valid reasons that come from lessons hard learned. Just as we enter a new culture willing to suspend judgement on those things we don’t understand, we are wise to enter the existing misso/expat culture with the same mindset.

    • I also love that quote. But I think I interpret it differently. Perhaps it’s the argumentative attorney side of me. First and foremost is doing all things in love (charity). But from there you must figure out what is “essential.” Far too often, the rule book becomes essential, leaving nothing to liberty — if you disagree with an essential, you are wrong. However, if you establish essentials (of which I tend to think of most Christian arguments as unessential), then the rest you leave to liberty. In the process you tend to offend those who put unessentials as essentials. As a result, you avoid the issue and the opportunity to discuss it, and it is often left in the category of essential. The result is a lack of maturity in the faith and often a lack of charity.

      If we are to move off of milk and onto solids, we must wrestle with the indigestion that comes with it. Otherwise we are always left as the “weaker brother or sister.”

      I value the fact that you have been moved to abstain from alcohol, but I challenge you to encourage liberty in all differences rather than avoiding offending another.

  • Oh, alcohol. What a tricky topic. When I was in Mongolia as an “official” missionary (I’m now here in a less formal mission capacity, but still work with the church and the missions community), my sending organization did not have a formal policy. It was up to the discretion of each individual and we were expected to pay attention to cultural cues and history.

    I personally have nothing against drinking alcohol in moderation and on occasion when it is the appropriate time and circumstance. Most churches and missionaries here are against alcohol because of the large issue of alcoholism and related diseases in the country. As the leader of our church’s young adult group, I knew some of the students were against alcohol completely, some didn’t talk about it but drank with their friends and some of them weren’t sure what the “right” way to handle it was. So we sat down one week and talked about it. I gave them each some verses to think about, some theological frameworks to use for pondering and gave them 30 minutes to discuss. Then each group came back and shared what they thought and their ideas about how they as Christians felt they should address alcohol based on Scripture and reflection. It was a great discussion and a good turning point for my own ability to think about how to discuss and understand alcohol in Mongolian culture as a Christian and as a part of the church.

    Alcohol is a part of the culture here, and there are times where it would be offensive to refuse. However, those moments need to be distinguished from the culture of binge drinking, getting drunk and alcohol abuse that are often lumped in with the idea of “alcohol.” I believe missionaries and the church need to address the various facets of drinking instead of always just starting off with a “No.” The immediate “No” can be a blanket for too many deeper issues and problems that do need addressing.

    • YES! Let’s talk about it. The church needs to be a place that invites dialogue and discussion. If we don’t talk about it, then the topic becomes unmentionable and a cornerstone for judgment rather than grace. I often think of censorship and book-burning as a parallel.

  • Good discussion. As a person who has lived in Thailand, I have gotten really tired of the Thai’s legalism in this way. I don’t like beer, so this is not a problem for me, but it is an issue that needs to be address in the Thai Christian culture. For example, my Thai friend’s brother was sick. She bought him wine to help him, suggested by the DOCTOR. A Thai Christian came over, opened up her refrigerator, saw it, didn’t say anything, but instead went and talked to the pastor about it. (In Thai culture, no one talks about an issue to the person themselves, everything is behind their back). This was after this same time friend had seen a lottery ticket in my friend’s purse after my friend had told her she could get 20 baht out of her wallet because my friend was too busy selling in the market to get the baht out herself (lottery is also a sin). Why did my friend have the lottery ticket? In the market, someone she knew had left the ticket on her table by accident; she was planning on returning the ticket and was keeping it safe. Again, the Christian did not discuss this with my friend; just went to the pastor.

    The messy story is that the Thai gossiper asked the Thai pastor if it was a sin to drink beer and buy the lottery, he said yes. She told him the story, and the pastor called up my friend and kicked her OFF the worship team without any explanation. After coaching him for why, she found out the rumor and got him to let her stay on the worship team.

    I speak Thai, and understand the sermons, and I cannot over-emphasis how much the Thai church is losing members and not growing because of bad preaching and legalism in this area. I am not sure if missionaries playing into this problem, by not drinking beer (and other things), is helping out the Thais.

    Thoughts?

    • I was only in Thailand for a little over a year, but I observed issues similar to what you describe. Coming from a tradition with a history (that continues) of legalism, I have seen it many times. How do I (especially as a Westerner) show to my Thai congregation that freedom in Christ is a blessing? And how do we reverse the trends that have been put in place by poor interpretations of the Good News? I think those are the big questions that this website is set up to address.

      If anyone has ideas on how we can help, please show us the way.

  • and, btw, can I just say that I loved that first image? almost as epic as your last one on the post. 🙂

    • Ha! Thanks. I have the vision; my wife turns it into reality. I just wanted to share evidence that beer is the most international beverage in the world.

  • I don’t see in Scripture a teaching that says don’t drink. It says don’t abuse drink. I think our response is situational, using Romans 14 as a guide. I have practiced every part along the spectrum, including intentionally having a beer with Muslims as part of my witness.

    • How did your Muslim friends respond? As far as people’s theology on drinking, many different views are taken on drinking and not drinking. Some discuss translation issues, and others turn to Proverbs or various other spots. My favorite is Proverbs 31:1-9: “It is not for kings to drink wine but those who need to forget” (paraphrase mine).

  • Amanda

    I personally have abstained from alcohol at all costs and in all occasions in Russia, despite “cultural backlash” from new friends (which now the chiding has stopped). After nearly three years of being me and not drinking, I’ve got a following. People prefer to invite us to their parties over their usual “drinking” friends. We spent time with those drinking, and just never drank– not making a big deal about it but holding our own. After a few parties like these, our hosts decided to stop serving alcohol and invite the same people to another party. The drinkers were irate. Needless to say, the hosts continue to invite us and prefer our company now over the drinkers. In another instance, with our seemingly easy influence on young people, this week we were called upon to host a birthday party for a large group. Is it any wonder WE were called upon to throw a party for a student when Mom or Dad or other Russian friends could have done it?? But knowing they wouldn’t be pressured to drink and that there would be a safe environment without alcohol made us the chosen hosts. The “cool” and “smart” and “rich” college kids– not necessarily Christians– who are just tired of the drinking culture– had “one of the best parties” at our house. I will say that life here is strenuous and though I have never drank alcohol before, I can see why one would “need” to drink here… which is the case for many a homeless person on the block, and yet why I continue to hold on to Jesus for all I need while abstaining from that which could so easily replace him.

    • That’s an incredible witness and one that clearly has been notices. Thank you for sharing. My experience in Russia was similar. In fact, I went with a group that required us to abstain. We were never asked to partake in alcohol, and we felt like those who invited us over felt a bit of relief that the expectation of alcohol was not there. In a country where alcoholism is so rampant, I think many of the young people were looking for something different — just like you described above. Many times they discover Jesus in the process.

      Just because I’m curious on your thoughts, suppose you did like drink alcohol but always limited yourself to one drink when it was offered and never offered others alcohol at parties you hosted. Do you think the chiding would have still been present? Would you still have stood out among the people?

      • Amanda

        Thanks, Justin. Good follow up questions. I would definitely say no and no. With the Russian drinking crowd in Russia especially, one drink is not enough. If you are seen to have drank one glass, it’s easier to entice you to drink another glass, and then another. I 100% believe you are better off to abstain altogether and get the “hurt feelings” out of the way while you’re completely capable of defending yourself. From what I’ve seen at gatherings, chiding will go on and on if you waffle on your stance or appear to “give in” to drink just one glass. I am certain that a person who abstains completely will have stood out more than a person who could handle getting away with one drink, you become an enigma that they want to keep seeing. Once I was at a large New Year party for ballerinas, where the director offered drinks for all in a toast. When she went to pour each glass, I just poured myself water before she got to mine and quietly said I don’t drink… I noticed a couple others did this as well. This was totally acceptable, and nobody’s feelings were hurt. If I had accepted that one drink for a toast, I would have been one in the crowd– and perhaps those others who had not taken the drink would have not approved, depending on their own personal reasons for not drinking.

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