At Lucky Baldwins Pub in Pasadena, California, a handful of people are hanging out, beer in hand, having a very different conversation than you might expect. The event is called “Conversations About Jesus” and is sponsored by nearby Christian Assembly Church. At each table is a card with a spiritually themed conversation prompt, and at the end, the event leader brings everyone together to share their thoughts and help answer questions.
On the church’s website, the event is described as “a great place to bring questions” and church members are encouraged to “come, bring a friend, a co-worker, or a family member and have a casual conversation with others about who Jesus is, His relevance today, and listen to others share stories about Christ’s impact in their life.”
“Food and drinks,” the website says, “are available for purchase.”
Not long ago, an official evangelical church event taking place in a pub, with alcohol consumption encouraged would have been unthinkable. Today, it represents a sizable shift on how alcohol is viewed within the church. According to recent Barna research, while evangelical Christians are more conservative about alcohol consumption than the general population, nearly half say they drink alcoholic beverages occasionally. This mirrors a growing, public acceptance of alcohol in certain growing theological strains like the reformed movement, and The Gospel Coalition pastors. Village Church Pastor Matt Chandler, for instance, has talked openly both from the pulpit and at the Southern Baptist Convention on the theological freedom to drink. While this feels like a dramatic reversal of a long-held Christian doctrine, it’s actually far more in line with the church’s historical opinion on alcohol.
In the 1st Century influential Church, father Clement wrote “It is fitting, then, that some apply wine by way of physic, for the sake of health alone, and others for purposes of relaxation and enjoyment. For first wine makes the man who has drunk it more benignant than before, more agreeable to his boon companions, kinder to his domestics, and more pleasant to his friends. But when intoxicated, he becomes violent instead.”
Clement, and most church fathers in the centuries that followed, advocated a “drink, but in moderation” theology. However, the rise of the temperance movement in 1800s America shifted parts of Christianity toward a hardline abstinence doctrine. In the 1950s, Christianity Today published an article by Protestant Church historian Roland H. Bainton arguing for a Christian theology of alcoholic abstinence. In his fascinating, nuanced argument, Bainton claims that while the Bible does not command abstinence (he harshly criticizes the temperance movement he believes twist Scriptures to say this), the cultural rise in alcoholism combined with the commands regarding the “weaker brother” necessitate Christians to abstain. Barna’s statistics suggest that this argument is still influential both in and out of the church.
Over one-quarter of respondents who don’t drink say it’s because they have witnessed the negative effects of alcoholism or are currently in recovery. Another quarter of respondents don’t drink because they don’t like how alcohol tastes; 13 percent don’t like the way it feels. Only 14 percent say they don’t drink for religious reasons. These results suggest that while most people don’t believe their religion prohibits drinking, there is still a sizable group of people wary of it. This lends credence to the argument of alcohol being a “stumbling block.”
And yet for churches like Christian Assembly, meeting in a pub and drinking moderate amounts of alcohol is a form of cultural engagement, introducing Jesus to people who wouldn’t darken the door of a church otherwise. It’s hard to read the story of Jesus at the wedding party in John 2 (where he clearly makes a fermented beverage, based on the reaction of the wedding guests), or him being called a sinner and glutton by Pharisees, and not conclude that Jesus would be frowned at by those who believe being caught in the liquor aisle is a scandal.
It’s possible then that another of Paul’s teachings—that he has become all things to all people to reach some—gives churches the freedom to take different positions based on the prompting of the Holy Spirit and their calling to their unique cultural context. If so, this would mean the most damaging theological position a church could take would be to publicly judge other church communities for trying to reach unreached people where they oftentimes congregate.