I grew up in a very conservative denomination—I mean, if the purple stuff in your cup wasn’t grape juice, you were sinning. Later, as a youth pastor, I worked at churches that proudly wore the label “conservative,” but openly celebrated “the fruit of the vine” and the “mash of the grain.”
So, if you’re in youth ministry, is it okay to drink socially? This question is really an “avatar” for a lot of other questions about appropriate standards and behavior as a ministry leader. In some churches/denominations you’re not allowed to (ever) be alone with a member of the opposite sex. In others the use of any level of profanity can get you fired.
So, what’s the case for, and against, social drinking if you’re a ministry leader?
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Jesus enjoyed drinking wine—plain and simple. His first miracle was, of course, turning water into wine at a (raucous) wedding party. Jesus understood how community orbits around social drinking. Enjoying fermented drinks was a social norm in Jesus’ time, as it has been throughout history. And “spirits” are deeply connected to our most important sacraments—he asks us to remember him every time we break bread or drink wine. The assumption is that we’ll be drinking wine pretty much every day. And, in John 6, when he tells the crowds they must “eat My body and drink my blood” to have “any part of Me,” he’s referencing the bread/wine staples of his culture.
Nowhere does Jesus condemn social drinking. Paul, in his letters to Timothy, extols the health virtues of drinking a little wine, now and then( 1 Timothy 5:23). And in 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul makes this proclamation: “You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you. And even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything.” Here he’s saying that “all things are permissible,” but that doesn’t make “all things good.” He has freedom in Christ, because of his deep attachment to Jesus. So, if we are free in Christ, why would others have the right to “enslave” us under an arbitrary “law” that forbids drinking?
We can also make the case that the freedom to drink socially helps us reach others in our community—obviously, I’m not talking about students here, but youth ministry is fueled by our relational connections with parents and other adults. Social drinking, as it was in Jesus’ time, is woven into the fabric of relationship. The wider world expects Christians to be against things—that’s the primary “public face” we show. Ministry leaders who are relaxed about social drinking can upend that impression and, potentially, overcome relational barriers.
Of course, critics will point to all the “don’t get drunk” passages in the Bible as the foundational reason why we shouldn’t imbibe. But we’re not talking about getting drunk or binge drinking—this is social drinking with our friends or community. Christ didn’t come to condemn fellowship, or the fermentation of fruit, so grab a pint and raise it to the Lord.
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Let’s start with what the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “wine” in English actually mean—in some cases, the root word means “fermented grape,” in others it means “intoxicating wine.” In the Bible, when “intoxicating wine” is the root meaning, bad things always follow. For example, Noah and his sons (Genesis 9), or when David tries to get Uriah (Bethsheba’s husband) drunk to cover his sin (2 Samuel 11).
If we turn to the book of wisdom, it’s hard to count the number of proverbs that remind us how bad drinking-to-get-drunk can be. In fact, the consequences that are often tied to drinking are serious enough to warrant total abstinence. And, of course, teenagers often gravitate to a partying lifestyle, and our innocent “social drinking” can send them the wrong message, whether we like it or not.
Social drinking is also a common “gateway” habit. When is too much, too much? Alcohol, by definition, progressively works to loosen the control you have over your body, your mind, and your tongue. How does that model Christ’s love to a hurting, and critical, world? In John 17, Jesus prays: “I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one.” We’re to be “in” but not “of” the world—and that’s walking a fine line when it comes to alcohol.
Our “freedom” isn’t really freedom if we’re living outside of obedience to Christ. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul advises: “Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach” (1 Timothy 3:8-10). Drinking alcohol intoxicates and impairs judgment—and this is what Jesus wants for our life? If my drinking causes someone else to sin, stumble, or think ill of me or my church and ministry, am I really still free to drink?
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I’ve heard and lived both the “yes” and “no” sides of this argument. I’ve worked in churches that forbid drinking altogether, and I’ve worked in churches that serve box wine on retreats. The answer—pro or con—must emerge from the tension between the freedom Jesus has won for us and the obedience he expects from us.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12, all things are lawful or “acceptable,” but not all things are “beneficial.” We are not be “mastered” by anything other than the Spirit of Jesus. In chapter 10 Paul goes on to unpack this freedom/obedience tension even more, reminding us to not seek our own “freedom advantage,” but keep the love of others top-of-mind. We do all things for the glory of God, so that “many may be saved.”
Even though I am free in Christ, my freedom must not equal slavery or oppression for others. If my drinking causes others to sin or stumble, and I know it, then love compels me to exercise wisdom in my choices—a wisdom that serves the other. Paul, in Romans 14, drives home the point: “The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they drink, because they do not act from faith, for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14.22-23).
We are free in Christ, but our love compels us to serve him and his beloved, “sheep of his pasture.” Social drinking raises many tough questions for us, but here’s one we can all ask ourselves: “Am I acting out of faith or the flesh in my desire to drink or not to drink, and how is it bringing others to know the love of Jesus more deeply?”
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Does Social Drinking Disqualify a Volunteer Leader From Ministry?
One of our close friends in youth ministry—he’s a longtime member of our “In the Trenches Team” (IT3) that helps us plan and pull off our resources and face-to-face events—shared with other IT3 youth workers the details of a tough decision he’s facing in his ministry:
“Our High School Girls and High School Boys small-group leaders are getting married. The Girls leader just had her bachelorette party. She was tagged in photos with alcohol in her hand. These are not ‘Girls Gone Wild’-type photos—more like the vibe of a wine-tasting party. Now, that being said, we are a church that does not believe in drinking. These volunteers have not yet signed our volunteer covenant, but it’s expected that all volunteers will abstain from drinking. I know there are bigger issues out there than sipping a little wine at your bachelorette party, but I need wisdom on how to move forward with this volunteer.”
Here’s how our community of youth pastors responded:
• Support from your senior pastor is the key.
• I believe you take the relational route and have a grace-filled conversation first. Make sure she’s aware of the standards you’re setting. I think this gives you a great opening to walk her through your volunteer policies.
• If she hasn’t signed a covenant that she won’t drink alcohol, then there’s not much you can do. If she’s friends with students on social media, a word of caution may be in order—with grace and love, of course.
• I’ve had this happen—we’re also a no-drinking church. I had a conversation with the leader and explained the situation—and that some people were upset. I told them while I had no problem with social drinking per se, but because they were friends with some of our teenagers on social media, I asked that they not post compromising pictures, and change their settings so they must approve all tags.
• I’d let it go for now, then cover it later in a yearly volunteer’s training packet.
• You did mention that it was not a “gone wild” video, and maybe just “wine tasting” as a responsible adult. So maybe you can guide her and her husband to a church that will allow them to freely serve God and yet be okay with social drinking. Pray that God will find you other leaders to lead your small groups, maybe a couple who is a better match for the rules and expectations set by the church.
• As context, we have a number of former alcoholics in our church, and for that reason have decided it’s best if our official events are “dry.” If someone wants to host something at their house that is an open-invite to the church family, we simply ask they be considerate and not have alcohol at it. People have generally honored it. No one is policing this—we’re merely asking that it be considered.
Church-wide we talk about this question: “What is that thing in your life that you’re known for, other than Christ?” For some people, it may be a vice. For others, it may be their harsh personality. In some cases, it might be their “great” personality. I sense this is all worth noting with this lady. From what you describe, they aren’t “known” for their use of alcohol. It also sounds like they haven’t made it an issue among the students they serve. Take that into account, too.
• Question: If this was a wedding picture, and those were champagne-toast glasses, how would you react? Just curious…