What’s wrong with having the occasional alcoholic drink? Why does the Coptic Church make such a big fuss over this issue?
The Coptic Orthodox Church strongly recommends that alcohol not be a part of its member’s lives, apart from Holy Communion of course. Today, I’d like to take a look at both sides of the story.
Critics of this policy attack it on the following grounds:
– The Bible never condemns the drinking of alcohol, only drunkenness
– Jesus Himself changed the water into wine.
– Most other Christian Churches allow social drinking of alcohol. Even their clergy drink.
– The Coptic Church bans alcohol only because it exists within a Muslim society where alcohol is banned by Islam.
– Alcohol is not evil in itself. What counts is how you use it. People are responsible enough to use it wisely, so there is no need for it to be banned.
I will address these points below. On the other side of the debate, the following points need to be made:
– Alcohol is responsible for a tremendous amount of disease and death in our society.
– Alcohol is a drug. If it were only newly discovered today, it would never be released for use, not even on prescription, because of its incredibly toxic profile of side effects. It is far more harmful than many other drugs that have been scrapped because of their side effects.
– Alcohol is a drug of addiction. Research has shown that 10% of “social drinkers” will go on to become alcoholic at some stage of their life. Interestingly, this cuts across all social classes, both genders and all personality types. There appears to be no such thing as a ‘strong personality’ who is less at risk of becoming alcoholic – we are all equally vulnerable.
To my mind, the most powerful arguments against the use of alcohol are the health issues. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our health is a gift from God, a wonderful gift that we don’t appreciate perhaps, until it is taken away from us. Alcohol is a known poison. Yes, you can die directly from alcohol overdose – it is rare only because the drinker usually passes out before he can kill himself. Does it make sense for the faithful Christian to abuse this gift in this way?
On a statistical level, while I have no actual figures, I can say with some confidence that within our Coptic community the incidence of alcoholism is vanishingly small. It does happen, but it is very rare, and certainly nowhere near the incidence of the wider Australian community. I have no doubt that this excellent health outcome is due to the Church’s policy against even social drinking. Weigh it up: what do we lose and what do we gain? We lose a little bit of chemical stimulation at social events, but we gain better health for thousands of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, who are allowed to continue caring for their families and living useful, fulfilling and productive lives.
In Biblical times, there was little choice in what a person had to drink. They didn’t have the rows upon rows of juices and soft drinks we have today. Nor did they always have clean water, and at times, alcoholic drinks were much safer to drink than water from a polluted source. Alcohol can have short term beneficial effects as well, and was often used as a medicine, but today we have far more effective and far less dangerous medicines available to us.
The Church also bans cigarette smoking. No one disagrees with that policy,even smokers, who spend most of their smoking life wishing they could stop. And yet, cigarettes and alcohol cause damage to the user of roughly the same magnitude. I wonder why there is a difference in the community’s attitude between the two?
In response to the arguments above in favour of drinking, think about this:
– Whilst the Bible never condemns alcohol in itself, it does teach us to be wise in how we use our Christian freedom. “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” 1 Corinthians 6:12. To be a social drinker is to put oneself at a 1 in 10 chance of being brought under the power of a drug. “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” 1 Corinthians 10:23. Alcohol does not edify – it does not build us up or improve us as human beings, and it certainly does not help us to become better spiritually.
– At the wedding of Cana of Galillee, Jesus changed the water into oinos. This is the Greek word used in the Gospel of John. It actually denotes the juice of the grape in general and was most likely very low on alcohol content. Dr Morris writes: “This ‘good wine’ had been miraculously created by the Creator and was brand new, with no time to ferment and become old, intoxicating wine. The Greek word oinos was used for the juice of grapes in general, the same word for both unfermented and fermented wine, with the context determining which.” (http://www.christiananswers.net/dictionary/wine.html).
– Other Christian Churches do indeed accept social drinking. But is it good for them? I recall one day having a discussion with a teenager at Church on the topic. “I go to a Catholic School, Abouna,” she told me, “and we had a celebration there the other day. The Catholic priest was drinking alcohol.” She said this confidently, but then paused in thought. “Actually,” she went on, “he got drunk.” Why leave this door open? If even a consecrated and celibate clergyman can give in to the temptation of drinking to excess, why should I put myself in that position? What’s the point of asking God to, “lead us not into temptation” when I am going to live my life in a way that plummets me into temptation on a regular basis?
– Doubtless, the Muslim society in which the Church has developed for fourteen centuries has contributed to this no alcohol policy, but what difference does that make? Does it matter why we have the policy? Isn’t it much more important whether it is a good policy to have or not? I think that there are many public health workers today in Western societies who wish dearly that they could introduce a policy like this! Practically speaking, this is probably too hard, as the prohibition days of the 1930s in the United States proved. But imagine the health benefits if it were possible! We as a Coptic community already have this policy – who cares where it came from?
– It is true that alcohol in itself is not evil. That is why we can use it as the material which becomes the very Blood of Christ. It is a good antiseptic that can prevent nasty infections in wounds. Emergency doctors can use it to save lives – given intravenously, it is the antidote to poisoning with antifreeze. But we have seen that addiction to alcohol does not discriminate. Anyone, regardless of who they are, is vulnerable. The simple fact is that all of us will go through times of great stress in our lives. If alcohol is available, 1 in 10 of us will be drawn to it and find comfort and escape through it, thus falling in to the pit of alcoholism. If alcohol is simply not an option – it is not in our homes or on our dinner tables in the first place, then this solution to our problems with all its drawbacks will simply not even come up, and we will find other ways of coping.
Finally, think about the others in your life. You might be one of the 9 in 10 who could drink socially all your life and never become an alcoholic. But what if your child is among the 1 in 10? By allowing alcohol to be a part of your home and your family customs, you are partially responsible for his or her suffering.
Is it worth it?