by Don Johnson
Can we prohibit something biblically if the Bible doesn’t prohibit it explicitly?
As a pastor, I have too often seen the tragic consequences of alcohol abuse and the spiritual weakness that accompanies what is called ‘social’ or ‘moderate’ drinking. Most conservative Christians will agree with a strong stand against drunkenness, which is an expression of alcohol abuse, but some insist that moderate use is a matter of liberty and a matter of personal conviction. People taking this view will argue against my preaching total abstinence. They say that I don’t have biblical authority for such a strict position and demand toleration of their moderation.
Admittedly, the Bible doesn’t explicitly prohibit alcohol consumption. Nevertheless, I believe a biblical case against alcohol can be made by applying definite principles of the word of God. In this paper, however, I don’t intend to make that argument. Instead, I intend to make an argument for the argument. I believe that I can show that we make the same kind of prohibitions against other evils as we make against alcohol consumption. We accept the legitimacy and even the biblical authority of such arguments. When it comes to certain issues, no conservative Christians (much less fundamentalists) would deny the biblical authority for ‘principial prohibitions’ like these.
Let’s compare the biblical arguments against slavery and those against alcohol consumption. The arguments are of the same kind. Please note: I am not making a comparison between slavery and alcohol consumption. I am making a comparison of the kindsof arguments that are made against the two evils.
These thoughts are prompted by remarks made by D. A. Carson at the EFCA Theology Conference and transcribed for us here. In these comments, Carson notes the difference between the American slave trade and slavery in the ancient Roman empire. The American slave trade was basically ‘men-stealing’ (Ex 21.16; 1 Tim 1.10), whereas the Roman system functioned in many ways as a social safety net for the insolvent (men-stealing was also involved, but was not the primary source of Roman slaves).
Is there anyone today who would argue that Christianity allows for any legitimacy to slavery of any kind? We don’t deny that Christians, sadly, have made such arguments in the past. It’s more than sad, it’s an embarrassment that otherwise respected Christians could not see the evil of the slave trade.
What is the Christian argument against slavery?
We agree that slavery is an evil. We stand together against it. On what basis do we take this stand?
A man named Theodore Weld argued against slavery in his book, The Bible Against Slavery (4th edition; New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838). Among his arguments was the issue of men-stealing (see Ex 21.16) (pp. 13-15). Another argument is the fact that men are made in the image of God and it is therefore wrong to treat men as property (pp. 8-9, 15-17). He also argued from the eighth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal’, saying that the commandment prohibits the taking of anything that belongs to another, and slavery takes everythingthat belongs to another (pp. 10-11).
Does the same Bible which prohibits the taking of any thing from him, sanction the taking of every thing? Does it thunder wrath against the man who robs his neighbor of a cent, yet commission him to rob his neighbor of himself? Slaveholding is the highest possible violation of the eighth commandment.
What kind of arguments are these?
Weld’s arguments, we suspect, are typical of those made against slavery by abolitionists leading up to the Civil War. I am sure other arguments of a similar nature could be made. Carson, in the article cited above, suggests that if Philemon took the apostle Paul’s comments to heart, slavery would be dead, at least in Philemon’s home.
But what sort of arguments are these? Is there a direct commandment against slavery in the Bible? We can point to direct commandments about men-stealing, but what else? Can we argue against the slavery practiced by the Romans or even the indentured servitude practiced to some extent in later periods by the growing Western nations of the 18th and 19th centuries?
I think we can make these kinds of arguments on Biblical principle. The doctrine of the image of God in man resonates strongly in our hearts. The better we understand it, the more abhorrent slavery becomes to our minds.
Applying the thought process to argumentation against alcohol
Fundamentalist Christians have long been associated with an abstinence position on alcohol. This position, along with many others, is under some attack these days. A strong point of attack comes from assertions that the Bible nowhere strictly forbids alcohol and, some say, even endorses its moderate use.
Let’s assume, for sake of argument, that this attack is true, that the Bible has no direct prohibition on alcohol. How, then, is the abstinence argument formed from the Bible?
The strong warnings of the Bible against drunkenness and the deceptiveness of alcohol are cited. The facts about the difference between alcohol produced by natural fermentation vs. modern methods are pointed out. The fact of significant dilution of wine in ancient times is cited. Biblical principles of testimony, holiness, freedom from the control of addictive substances, etc., are raised.
The anti-abstinence advocates scoff at making authoritative arguments from such principles and prohibitions of over-indulgence. “No authority here,” they say. “No ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” And so argument from biblical principle is discounted and dismissed as not authoritative or binding.
How then, can we argue against slavery?
If principles are not authoritative and all we have is a prohibition of man-stealing, how can we stand up as Christians and say slavery is wrong?
In fact, we are quite ready to proclaim that slavery is wrong, a moral evil, basing our authority for the statement on principled arguments from Scripture.
Likewise, we are ready to proclaim that drinking alcohol is wrong, a moral evil, basing our authority for the statement on principled arguments from Scripture.
The arguments are of the same kind. If it is legitimate to argue against slavery (and other evils), indeed to prohibit it for Christians, citing biblical principles as our authority for making these arguments, how is it wrong to do the same against alcohol consumption? Why are we bullied into silence simply because we have no “Thus saith the Lord”?
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC. He serves on the FBFI Advisory Board.
- All citations of Weld by Wayne Grudem in “’A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic: The Slavery Analogy’ (Ch 22) and ’Gender Equality and Homosexuality’ (Ch 23) by William J. Webb” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 2005; 2006), Volume 10:1, 106. [↩]