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Alcohol and the OPC: Pastoral Perspectives

Rev. Brian De Jong

During the summer of 2016, a story floated around the internet about the top U.S. cities for alcohol abuse. One headline hinted that these cities were especially concentrated in one particular state. I didn’t need to click on the story to know that the notorious state is my state—Wisconsin. Twelve of the top twenty cities known for excessive consumption of alcohol are from Wisconsin, and seven of those twelve have an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in them.

Alcohol abuse is a serious problem in our society and does immeasurable damage to the moral and spiritual fabric of our nation. Yet drunkenness is socially acceptable in many circles and can be a bragging point in certain crowds. All the while, advertisers bombard us with the message that alcohol consumption is vital to human happiness.

Having previously considered OP history on the issue of alcohol, I want to look at this from a different angle. How should the church respond to alcohol abuse, and how can we pastorally help those caught in the web of addiction to alcohol, and the sin of drunkenness?

The Scriptures have much to say about alcohol, and some of it is positive. Psalm 104:15 says that God created “wine which makes man’s heart glad, So that he may make his face glisten with oil.” Likewise, Jesus famously changed between 120 and 180 gallons of ordinary water into such fine wine that even an experienced steward commended the quality. The fact that our Savior instituted wine as one of the elements in the Lord’s Supper speaks volumes about his perspective on fermented drink.

At the same time, Scripture clearly and repeatedly warns against the abuse of alcohol. Ephesians 5:18 is clear: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Paul is equally explicit in Romans 13:13 “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness …” Regarding church officers, one of the qualifications is that they not be “addicted to wine.”

The Bible is altogether plain that drunkenness is a sin calling for repentance and confession. Believers who abuse alcohol are called to put off this sin and put on self-control. The church must clearly proclaim the whole counsel of God regarding alcohol use and abuse. We must not wink at sin, nor ignore the devastation brought upon our members, their families, and our congregations by drunkenness.

It is true that all sin is displeasing in God’s sight, and that every sin causes harm to human beings—both to the sinner and those around him. Yet some sins are by their nature especially addictive. They set their hooks into a person’s body, mind and spirit, and will not let go easily.

Addiction to alcohol can be one of the most harrowing experiences a Christian can possibly go through. It typically produces fear, confusion, grief, guilt, self-loathing, hopelessness and a feeling of being overwhelmed. Recovery is not something that happens in a day, especially when that sin has become a habitual lifestyle.

The response of the church must go beyond a naïve exhortation to “Just stop drinking.” If quitting were that easy, there would be no alcoholics in the church. The reality is that some Orthodox Presbyterians do struggle with alcohol abuse, and they need help from their church.

Scripture enjoins such assistance. Galatians 6:1 says, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” Keeping watch over our brethren, we must come to the aid of any Christian caught in any trespass—including alcohol abuse.

As we seek to help, we must demonstrate the compassion of Jesus Christ. The manner of our assistance must be exceedingly gentle. A harsh or condemning attitude will spoil our good efforts on behalf of a struggling saint.

Practically speaking, how can a pastor, a session, and a congregation help a member who has become addicted to alcohol? It begins by seeing the sin as a spiritual problem that is solved by Christ through the gospel. Grace is needed for any sinner struggling with sin, and drunkenness is no exception. Of course this presupposes that the behavior is recognized as sin by the member in question. If they don’t see their own problem, or won’t admit such, little aid can be provided.

Taking a gospel-centered approach, overflowing of grace and truth, we must have a patient and long-term strategy. The church should embrace this challenge as a significant part of their in-house ministry, led by the elders and the pastor.

In some situations, there is wisdom in utilizing secondary agencies and programs. Because alcohol abuse inflicts physical, mental, emotional and spiritual damage, the local church may lack the necessary expertise to help its member. Certain organizations devoted to the problem of alcohol abuse can provide resources, treatments, programs and accountability to supplement what the church offers. These agencies cannot replace the church, and their programs must be used with scrutiny and prudence. Yet these agencies can be a common grace blessing to despondent believers mired in addictive sin.

Good communication is invaluable. Pastors and elders should speak directly and personally with the struggling member on a regular basis. Direct attention should also be devoted to the spouse and the children. Confidentiality should be respected, lest gossip run through the congregation and do further damage. Together, the member and the Session can appropriately inform the whole body of the situation. This enables the congregation to pray and to help, as opportunities arise.

No one should be particularly surprised by relapses. Sometimes the struggling saint stumbles back into old sins. At that point they do not need rejection or condemnation, but help and restoration.

Recovery from habitual alcohol abuse can produce waves of withdrawal, an overwhelming craving for alcohol, brain fog, “the shakes,” nightmares and other symptoms that last a year or more.

One recovered alcoholic describes the “alcohol nightmares” as follows:

These dreams are terrifying! The recovering alcoholic dreams that they drank again and it’s terrifying! These dreams are so real that even when they wake up, they are sure that they did drink again. I can’t tell you how terrifying this is to the recovering alcoholic. With one such dream, I got up in the middle of the night and virtually tore our little condo apart looking in every hiding place I could think of to the find “the bottle”—not to drink it, but to know whether or not I really drank again or if it was indeed a dream.

So rather than casually ignoring this problem, or caustically condemning struggling saints, we must show forth the mercy and grace of Christ. We must lovingly help those who are ensnared, and show them that with Christ there is hope, and the real possibility of victory over a horrible enemy.

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