.”Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others… So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:23,24, 31-33)
“We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol [and illegal drugs] as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons… We commit ourselves to assisting those who suffer from abuse or dependence, and their families, in finding freedom through Jesus Christ and in finding good opportunities for treatment, for ongoing counseling, and for reintegration into society.” (From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church )
It has happened more than once in my ministry. A church member goes to a Church function (as, e.g., a Sunday School party). Unbeknownst to the class, that person is a recovering alcoholic. Again, I have seen it more than once: the look of disappointment… and the sense of betrayal (that they shared with me, their pastor)—something along the lines “how could that which I thought was a safe haven [i.e., the church and my Sunday School class] be just one more place of temptation, one more place which ordains the demon I am trying to escape?” Of course, these souls were strong enough and “recovered” enough to voice their disappointment and concern. Of course, they eventually gravitated to other communities that were more sensitive to the needs of the weaker among us. (A more disturbing question for me is: for every one of these who voiced their concern, how many others left the church altogether… or, God forbid, forsook their path of abstinence?!)
For too many years, I have heard too many Methodists brag about their Methodism as though it was a license to “eat, drink, and be merry”: “one of the reasons I am Methodist is because we can dance and drink!” (It’s a sentiment which smacks of the other slam I hear about “Methodists believing anything!”) At a time of year when many are prone to assemble and party (and to do so under the umbrella of the Church through one of its programs), allow me to clarify the Methodist—and, in my opinion, the Christian position—on drinking. (Therein, maybe you’ll overhear some principles to be distilled for dancing and “eating meat sacrificed to idols” and all other sorts of behavior!)
Yes, it is true—and grounded in the Gospel: that Methodists are “free.” However, lest liberty become license—i.e., freedom give way to licentiousness—some higher principles must prevail and govern that freedom.
This “higher principle” the Apostle lays down as loving regard for and sensitivity to one’s neighbor. Yes, he argues in his correspondence with the Corinthians, you are free to do all things—free to partake of every kind of food and drink! But not all things edify—that is, “build others up.” In the end, then, we gladly constrain and refine all we can do on the basis of all we should do for the sake of others and our witness to these others—whether “they” be our children, the weaker among us… or the weaker who may unknowingly come our way. For the Christian, you see, drunkenness is hardly the measure of too much drinking as that solitary sip that might cause another to stumble… or think less of your witness, the Church, or the Faith. (If there’s any “stumbling block” or obstacle to the Faith for others, let it be Christ and Christ alone!)
Amidst discussion of mission and purpose in various congregations, I have heard those who emphasize that we should not forsake our existing congregation. The thinking here would seem to be that, amidst our efforts to reach outsiders, we should not neglect the needs of existing members. To be sure, we have an obligation to members that is not eclipsed by the needs of outsiders. However, a real part of that obligation and ministry is to equip these “insiders”—in the very Spirit of Jesus our Lord—to be passionate about the outsider and sensitive to their needs and potential weaknesses. (Give me a group whose primary mission is to members and I’ll show you a country club. Give me a group whose primary mission is to outsiders [i.e., those who could and should and would be with us] and I’ll show you a Church in the image of Christ!)
Of course, I know I need to be careful here—lest I sound judgmental and run the risk of hitting that opposite extreme which is legalism. I am aware of and respectful, for example, of Episcopal friends who invited us to a wine and cheese reception after a performance of “The Messiah” last year night—even as I am aware of a host of our brothers and sisters in Christ who partake of wine every Sunday morning as part of their communion liturgy! Still, on this last note, I can not help but remember another recovering Soul, a newborn to the Church, who humbly came to me—fumbling with the right way to ask whether we Methodists served real wine during Communion. “I’m sorry to ask, Preacher,” he said, “but you need to understand that one drop is enough to knock me off the wagon!” With that dear Soul (and others) in mind, I’ll gladly forbear a drop of wine—even though I have a “right” and the “freedom” to drink the whole bottle! And, I’ll continue to celebrate Holy Communion using the fruit of the vine bottled by fellow Methodist, Mr. Welch.
In the coming Holiday (i.e., Holy Day) Season… and beyond, can I encourage you—as individuals and as members of the Strawbridge Family of Faith—to be about this same [Methodist] witness to the weak among us… and the weak who could be and would be and should be among us?!