I have been a Southern Baptist for my entire life. And, for as long as I can remember, I have been taught to abstain from alcoholic beverages. Of the many Bible verses that I heard while growing up, Ephesians 5:18 was a constant. “Do not be drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” To this, every Bible-believing Christians can and should say, “Yes, and amen.” The problem, however, is not with the prohibition to avoid drunkenness, but rather, with how this command has been applied for decades in culturally conservative Christian churches. Instead of affirming that this verse teaches moderation and the principle that Christian should not be given over to the controlling influence of anything other than the Holy Spirit, well-intended, yet short-sighted guides have taught that this passage teaches the prohibition of alcohol. The logic of the prohibition goes something like this: You never have to worry about getting drunk if you simply avoid alcohol all together. There is no danger of drunkenness when there is no presence of alcohol.
To be fair, the logic is sound. No one is threatened with drunkenness if they avoid alcohol. And to be sure, those who, according to Paul, have a weak conscience regarding matters of eating and drinking, should obey their consciences, lest they sin (Romans 14:23). In other words, there are people whose conscience will not allow them to drink alcohol without violating their conscience. If one’s personal conviction or institutional code of conduct requires abstinence from alcohol, even if I believe that there are not biblical grounds for such blanket prohibitions, I believe it is wise and biblical to respect a person’s convictions and follow an institution’s code of conduct. Voluntary association with an institution, such as a seminary, that demands abstinence from its students, is just that: voluntary. It is the right and the prerogative of such institutions to establish codes of conduct that accord with their values. If you disagree with those values, there are a host of other institutions available for you to attend.
With that said, I am still concerned by a strict prohibition culture. Why am I concerned? It’s simple. I believe the prohibition culture has left most Christians unprepared to address the opioid crisis that we are facing as a nation. Because many Christians have little experience teaching biblical moderation, encouraging personal responsibility, modeling relational discipleship, and practicing congregational accountability and discipline, many have preferred the less nuanced, black-and-white answer of “no” to the question of legitimate alcohol consumption. And while this has been somewhat easy to do with alcohol, it is not quite as easy to do with legitimate, legal painkillers. With the presence of narcotics like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and codeine in prescription painkillers and cough medicines, many, if not most, adults will encounter one of these highly addictive substances at some point in their life. Or to put it another way, it’s a lot easier to tell someone to put down the Johnnie Walker than it is to tell someone to break their pain pill in half or question the severity of their pain three days after a root canal. This, of course, is because medicine, for the most part, is seen as a good thing for us. If we have pain, we simply take a pill. How could something that is helpful be so harmful? Hence our dilemma, a substance that is often intended to alleviate pain can actually lead to more harm than good.
So, what is a Christian to do? Obviously, in most cases, the abovementioned default argument of abstinence from all potentially addictive substances is untenable. At this point in modern medicine, complete prohibition is neither possible or enough to address the root issues in this crisis. A more comprehensive approach is necessary, and it begins with meaningful relationships in the believing community. These relationships should encourage biblical self-examination and promote accountable. This means that when our brothers and sisters in Christ find themselves in genuine need of such strong painkillers, we must love them enough to pray for their recovery, point out the dangers, and ask the hard questions about their legitimate and legal yet potentially dangerous use of prescription pain medicine. Abstinence is not enough to combat this problem. Gospel-governed relationships are needed. Until we are ready to hold one another accountable on personal and congregational levels, destructive habits and behaviors will continue to abound. We need to pursue transparency in our communities and drop the pretension about our vague “struggle-less” lives. We must expose the heart issues of dependence on and control by something other than the Holy Spirit. We must walk alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ in the suffering, weeping as they weep while praying for the power of the Holy Spirit to control us while longing for the time when the everyday pain will give way to God’s eternal peace and pleasure.