The teaching of Christian liberty abused

Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 has sometimes been distorted to encourage or even require believers to take a position of total abstinence.  In “The Weak and the Strong” (see the link here) John Murray writes:

In our modern context this passage is often applied to the situation that arises from excess in the use of certain kinds of food or drink. It is particularly in connection with intemperance in the matter of fermented beverages that the application is made. The argument runs along the following lines. The person addicted to excess or intemperance is called the “weaker brother”, and the temperate are urged to abstain from the use of that thing in deference to the weakness of the intemperate. This argument may be applied to a great variety of usable things but it is in connection with fermented liquors that the argument has received widest currency and has been made to appear very plausible.

However, this does not fit what Paul says in Romans 14.

•    The weak there were not given to excess.  Rather, they practiced complete abstinence.
•    Eating or drinking to excess is certainly sinful (drunkards will not inherit the kingdom, 1 Cor. 6:10).  Paul warns against associating with one who calls himself a brother, but is a drunkard, 1 Cor. 5:11.  In contrast, he commands the church to accept those weak in faith, Rom. 14:1.
•    Some Christians have repented of a life of addiction to excess and may still be tempted to overstep the bounds of sobriety.  For some of these, as Murray reminds us, sometimes “the cost of sobriety is total abstinence.”  He adds pastorally, “True believers afflicted with such a temptation to excess must be dealt with very tenderly and sympathetically.”  Yet this is not the weakness of conscientious scruple described in Rom. 14.

It is indeed legitimate for a Christian to choose to abstain from using alcohol entirely.  But arguments that cite Paul’s teaching on Christian liberty in Rom. 14 and 1 Cor. 8 as requiring total abstinence as a general rule for Christians simply do not fit the texts.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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