Faith and Fermentation: Christianity’s Complicated Relationship with Alcohol

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine (John 2:11). Martin Luther was a home brewer. Beer mogul Arthur Guinness was inspired by a John Wesley sermon to use his business as a force for good. Many churches are finding that embracing drinking in moderation as a ministry activity is yielding results. And yet, Christianity has long been ambivalent about its relationship with alcohol, an ambiguity that exists for good reason.

The idea of theology over a schooner is not new to the Uniting Church. During his time as Minister of the Word at Blaxland Uniting Church, the late Rev. Peter Pereira ran a men’s ministry called theology at the pub, a monthly Wednesday meeting at the Lapstone Hotel.

The Greater Purpose Community Church in Santa Cruz, California, have taken this approach further, by selling their church building and setting up a new premises where they will brew their own beer. According to their pastor Chris VanHall, around 60 percent of the money this venture raises will be donated to charity.

In an interview with NBC Bay Area, VanHall said that the congregation “decided to sell the building, because for us a church is a community and a movement.”

“There’s nothing in the Bible that says you can’t drink alcohol in a responsible manner.”

“I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if a church could figure out a way to make a product where they split the profits with local community service organisations?” VanHall said.

“We were like, ‘Hey, we love beer. We love making beer. Why not do a brewery?’”

As well as providing a social context for churches such as The Greater Purpose to engage people, alcohol has often been something of a source of theological inspiration. Benjimin Franklin once suggested that wine (not beer as is commonly misattributed to him) was proof of divine love; “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”

Despite alcohol’s place in certain ministries and church history, many Christians opt to not drink at all, with many religious movements being teetotal.

Australian Methodists, one of the Uniting Church in Australia’s forebear churches, had a reputation for abstaining from alcohol and from gambling. While this gave Australia’s Methodists something of a ‘wowser’ reputation, it is not always appreciated that their opposition to these activities largely resulted from a high social cost that they associated with these activities.

Alcohol is, of course, a source of pain for many, and Australia’s drinking culture has long contributed to wider social problems. In 2010, the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation argued that dealing with the consequences of alcohol abuse cost Australia around $36 billion a year, double what it cost five years before that.

The growth in popularity for alcohol-free events like Dry July, a charitable event that raises money for people affected by cancer, demonstrate that people are aware of the downside to Australia’s drinking culture.  Churches do well to consider these downsides, especially considering that their members (like anyone else) can be susceptible to developing drinking problems.

In keeping with this theme, National Drug Research Institute’s Steve Allsop recently suggested Australians need to show alcohol “more respect.”

“For a lot of people, alcohol is ubiquitous, it’s everywhere,” Professor Allsop said.

“Quite a lot of people automatically reach for the bottle and can become dependent without even realising that they’re developing a dependence.”

Alcohol is something, then, that is fraught with potential dangers. While many churches are finding that drinking in moderation can be part of a healthy ministry, they would do well to consider that it might be unhelpful for many of their members.

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor




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