Question on Christian Liberty and Mind/Body Altering Substances

Where do limits lie for body-mind affecting substances? Drugs, alcohol, tobacco/nicotine, coffee/tea/caffeine, even sugar.

First, I make the assumption that the Bible does not inherently ban things like these, but does speak to the situations.

Some of the limits are clear for Christians, we are to be submitted to authority so illegal drugs are out of the question along with drinking under 21 (in the US), drinking and driving, and smoking (really purchasing nicotine products) under 18. Others are not; at what age should children be allowed to drink coffee? How many cookies should I have? What defines “drunk(/filled with wine)”? How many cigarettes, pipes or cigars is “okay”?

I think culturally and perhaps subconsciously we place “drunk” at whatever limit our local government says you can’t drive past. But, that was clearly not the case in other times and places.

We don’t limit smoking in adults, but perhaps we should.

We can drink as much caffeine at any age as we want, but should we be allowed to?

Christianity and (Organized) Teetotaling

About a month ago I visited a message board that I used to post on all the time, it’s mostly frequented by members of my home town’s hardcore and punk community. The conversation swirls predictably around politics, bands, tattoos, show reviews and reminiscing about the mid-90s (my personal favorite topic). Someone posted something regarding the straight edge movement that caught my eye, the poster claimed that it:

[borrows its] ascetic ideology unwittingly from the teachings of early Christianity (asceticism, refraining from worldly activities like drugs and alcohol, the imagery of remaining “pure”, etc.)

I had two reactions, the first being reminded of my high school days when I did claim to be straight edge (lifestyle that strictly abstains from drugs, tobacco, and alcohol – and often other substances such as caffeine)  and I specifically claimed it in relation to my faith. Secondly, I was struck by how mistaken he was about not only straight edge’s roots, but the teachings of early Christianity. I immediately was drawn to Colossians 2:16, 20-23:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink… If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Paul’s teaching in here seems to directly oppose ascetic abstinence based on rules applied externally by a teacher, a philosophy or a rule laid down by a group. The New Testament’s teaching seems to be fully on the side of liberty in these areas – with caveats.

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand…

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…

It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

Rom 14:3-4, 13-17, 21-23

This chapter is one of my favorites because it covers the idea of abstinence from every angle. It speaks to those who feel free to try things, it speaks to those who feel constrained by God to abstain, it speaks even to those who are unsure and those who have a tendency to be enslaved.

How would I boil the passage down? If you feel liberty before the Lord to partake in an activity that is legal, that is consistent with the rest of your life, that is not likely to make someone else confused or be tempted into sin, and not otherwise prohibited by the Scriptures – do it with faith and thanksgiving to God. If you are unsure or convicted that you should not – abstain in faith and thanksgiving to God without judgment on the one who would choose to partake.

Ultimately, there are three Gospel-motivations ties in here: faith, love and liberty. The prime motivation has to be faith – do you trust the Holy Spirit to convict you of what is right and what is wrong and are you actively listening for His voice? Secondly, are you sure that you are caring for the people and community around you and making sure not to trip up those who are unsure about this particular activity? And lastly, are you living your life out of the liberty that the Resurrection of  Christ affords us?

God has called us away from simplistic sets of rules and ascetic methods to ensure our faithfulness and obedience to Him – “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” In Christ we must live in moment-by-moment interaction with the Holy Spirit so that if we are on the cusp of sin we are able to hear His voice and turn from it, but secure that if He does not “check” us that we live in liberty and freedom.

“do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil…”

It is important to point out that the New Testament does call believers to live lives of self-control (2 Peter 1:5-8), free from drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18) and dissipation (Luke 21:34). Also, followers of Christ are called to be obedient to the restrictions and laws of the land that God has called or caused them to dwell in (Romans 13:1).