On February 7, 2003, Ralph Winter gave a seminar that introduced a number of "group self-deceptions." In a round-about way he covered misunderstandings due to a translation in an Irian Jaya language, an African custom called couvad, female circumcision, the need for reverse contextualization or decontextualization, smoking, and finally, the topic he was really interested in addressing—the use of alcohol. Below are excerpts from that topic. The full article appears on pages 181-84 of Frontiers in Mission. You can also read the full article here.
My Friday seminars normally hinge on some event of the past week. This is no exception. I realize that I have used a lot of my time already tiptoeing up to this subject, as it is as difficult to raise issues of this kind in our culture as it is for missionaries to do so in an African society. I want to address certain major killers in the United States and much of the Westernized world which our society does little about. These are cultural traditions that are very deep and strong in the Western world, that both pervade and complicate secular society, and in so doing, also the cultural tradition of Christianity from which most of us spring.
I speak of the role and deeply rooted function in our society and churches of an addictive and dangerous drug called alcohol.
My reason for this lengthy background to the pressures of culture vs. the influence of the Bible is, as I say, partly to introduce two items from the press: one is an Evangelical writer in Christianity Today. The other is a secular author writing in Newsweek. The Evangelical writer walks on pins and needles and yet at first glance seems to come out reasonably . He says:
Christians who do not commit to a principle of total abstinence should follow a guideline that would represent both discernment and Christian freedom by allowing limited use, now and then, within the context of family, friendship, religious celebration, and diplomatic protocol.
His advice, if followed on college campuses today would certainly eliminate the binge drinking which now plagues half of all college students. Note that he mentions two alternatives: total abstinence and limited use. However, he goes on actually to recommend limited use over abstinence, since, as is already present in what I quoted, limited use is the path of “both discernment and Christian freedom.”
The secular author, unrestrained by the Evangelical panic to conform to this world, says,
Booze and beer are not the same as illegal drugs. They’re worse. She speaks of America’s most pervasive drug problem ... Alcohol is a factor in more than half of all domestic-violence and sexual-assault cases. Between accidents, health problems, crime and lost productivity, researchers estimate alcohol abuse costs the economy $167 billion a year. In 1995 four out of every 10 people on probation said they were drinking when they committed a violent crime, while only one in 10 admitted using illicit drugs.
Close your eyes and substitute the word blah-blah for alcohol in any of those sentences, and you’d have to conclude that an all-out war on blahblah would result.. She adds,
A wholesale uprising in Washington doesn’t seem likely against Philip Morris, which owns Miller Brewing and was the largest donor of soft money to the Republicans in 1998, or against Seagram, which did the same for the Democrats in 1996. … When members of Congress tried to pass legislation that would make alcohol part of the purview of the nation’s drug czar the measure failed. Mothers Against Drunk Driving faces opposition to both its educational programs and its public service ads from principals and parents who think illicit drugs should be given greater priority. The argument is this: heroin, cocaine and marijuana are harmful and against the law, but alcohol is used in moderation with no ill effects by many people.
She does not agree, and goes on,
Here’s the counterargument: there are an enormous number of people who cannot and will never be able to drink in moderation.
Strange, isn’t it, that when the drug, Rezulin, which is enormously helpful to most diabetics turns out to harm one out of 100 who take it (but not their families or other drivers), it is withdrawn from the market on the grounds that you cannot tell which diabetics it will harm. Meanwhile, alcohol, which brings premature death to one out of 10 who employ it, cannot be placed under the supervision of the Federal Drug Administration for the purely political reasons of hefty drug payoffs.
One of the partially redeeming virtues of the Evangelical piece is the reference to the use of diluted wine in Roman times. In Roman times it would appear that only the Teutonic tribal people drank fermented grape juice straight. The natural level of the alcoholic content of fermented grape juice when mixed with drinking water (at 1 to 7 or 1 to 15 in proportion, and left for a period so as to kill off germs) no doubt saved millions of Romans from diarrhea and even death, and Paul urges Timothy to take this factor into account.
But today wine has a much higher, and unnatural alcohol content, and our contemporary word wine cannot properly be the word used to translate any Biblical beverage, whether what most translations call wine (diluted) or strong drink (undiluted, but yet only natural alcohol content). Thus, there is no reference in the Bible to the kind of beverage we possess in contemporary “fortified” wine, much less even higher content liquors, none of which can be produced without the use of a distillation process which was unknown in ancient times.
However, totally lacking in the Evangelical piece is any awareness of the killing ratio, the inevitable tragedy for a very high percentage of those who follow its suggested social use of alcohol. Years ago Upton Sinclair, a social prophet of his time, observed that few home owners would keep a dog around if it leaped upon one out of ten dinner guests and dragged them down by the throats to their deaths, yet that is what we do when we serve a deadly drug that does not seem to harm nine out of ten who use it, but condemns one out of ten to years of difficulties, and gradual degradation leading to premature death and, in that process is by no means a victimless crime, since it leads to violence, crime, child abuse, wife abuse, and highways deaths to others who are totally innocent.