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.
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.
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