One thing, among many, that is different now I’ve given up big city living in Raleigh for the sake of low-budget living in Wendell is the frequency with which I run into people I know on a quick run to the grocery store. In fact, I can scarcely think of such a trip without running into at least one person I know. Couple that with my after work unwinding ritual involving a single cold beer, well, that’s a potential combination for “witness” combustion.
In fact, one of the big no-nos in the religion of the South is buying alcohol, especially in a place where you can be seen buying alcohol. Which reminds me of a joke: What’s the difference between a Baptist and a Presbyterian? A Presbyterian will say hey to you in the liquor store.
Joking aside, there is a serious reality underlying the brown-bagging / teetotaling disposition toward Christian practice in the religion of the South, and it all falls under the umbrella of “Preserving One’s Witness.” Scarcely have many bothered to define what this “witness” is, though it’s preservation could mean the salvation (or not) of one’s very soul.
It goes like this: Matt walks into the local Food Lion. Matt makes a beeline toward the beer aisle. Matt goes to the counter and purchases beer from the beer aisle. Unbeknownst to Matt, a person, who is considering Christianity and knows that Matt is a Christian, sees Matt purchasing the beer and is instantly turned away from the Gospel because of it. Matt, because of his beer purchase, ruins his witness and sends the person to hell.
The problem with this scenario is multi-faceted. First, Matt’s witness, as a Christian, is never toward himself. When a person bears witness to something, say in a court of law, it is concerning something that happened or concerning some reality with which the witness is well-acquainted. Having been saved by Jesus Christ, Matt’s witness should be solely about what Jesus Christ has done to save him from his sins, not about what Matt does or does not do. When we see the apostles bearing witness about Christ in the book of Acts, they do not go about flaunting their religiosity and piety, but they go about flaunting Jesus Christ–the one who died for sinners, who was raised from the dead, and who is now sitting enthroned as King over all. That is the weight of a Christian’s witness, not his ability not to buy a beer in front of sinners.
Secondly, this scenario misrepresents Jesus Christ and the Christian religion. Jesus Christ did not come into the world to keep people like Matt from drinking beer or to teach them how to conceal it. No, Jesus came, as the angel declares at his birth, to save his people from their sins. In fact, if Jesus’ mission were to keep Matt from buying and drinking beer, he started off poorly with his first miracle, viz. turning the water into wine (not grape juice). And if Matt is ruining his witness by buying beer at the local Food Lion, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus ruined his witness at the Wedding at Cana. And maybe Jesus did ruin his witness … toward the Pharisees at least. Of them Jesus says:
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Mt. 11:19).
The fact is that Jesus’ tendency to drink alcohol publicly (which he did) created a barrier between himself and some, and the some that were offended by his drinking were those who already had everything worked out, religiously speaking. They were the ones who thought themselves right with God, and even went above and beyond what God commanded so as to make sure that they were hyper-right. In their blind dedication to Moses, they missed the greatest command of Moses, namely, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). That “drunkard” whom they questioned and ridiculed was the prophet that they should have been waiting for, instead they were so blinded by their amended law and self-righteousness that they missed him altogether.
The lesson of the Pharisees should strike fear into those among us who seek to “witness” by bolstering our self-righteousness to a law that God did not give. Search and you shan’t find a law that says, “Thou shalt not drink nor purchase alcohol in the presence of thine enemies.” That is good ol’ timey Pharisaical religion, and believe me, it didn’t begin in the South. It has existed as long as men have tried to work and commend themselves to God by their good deeds, and it has only worked for one Man–Jesus Christ, who just so happened to drink alcohol. The Pharisees did it by their fasting, their alcohol-abstinence, and their perfect tithing; the Judaizers after them did it through circumcision–all to whom the apostle Paul screams, “Christ is no advantage to you!” (Gal. 5:2).
Third, and closely related to the second, such a “witness” detracts from the true Witness that we should presenting–Jesus Christ and him alone. Jesus did not come into the world to keep Matt from drinking beer, though he can save an alcoholic from his sins and his obsession. Jesus Christ came into the world to glorify his Father, and he accomplished it perfectly and completely. He glorified his Father when he turned the water to wine, when he fed the five thousand, when he died for the sins of his people, and when he was raised from the tomb. Every breath Jesus Christ breathed was unto the glory of the Father, as was every drink he drunk and every morsel he ate. To say or to even hint that Jesus acted unwisely in anything that he did, whether it was working on the Sabbath or drinking an alcoholic beverage is not simply unwise, it’s blasphemy. And to lay burden on his followers that Christ did not place upon them by calling certain behaviors “unwise” is tantamount to saying the same of Christ.
As followers of Christ and students of his Word, we must remain open to understanding him and his Word and be willing to change our traditions and presuppositions for his sake and ours. We must not be like the Pharisees who religiously and blindly followed after the traditions of their elders so as to miss Jesus Christ in his glory and thus found themselves his enemies and damned. In other words, “Life is short. Drink to the glory of God.”