After going though a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program in the 6th grade, I've had a fairly easy time identifying "bad" substances. Tobacco is bad since it is one of the few products that will kill you if you use it according to the directions. Cocaine and heroin are bad because the government says so. Alcohol is a depressant that leads to depression, alcoholism, and on the college scene, unwanted pregnancy and STDs.
As a baptist, it's been fairly easy to follow a zero tolerance, abstinence only approach to these substances. As an outspoken baptist in school, no one even offered them to me because everyone knew my religious stance and my desire to follow God's law. Simple. Easy. Not quite.
My first real exposure to other views on these substances occurred during a mission trip to the South American nation of Peru. A mission trip no less! On one weekend we were able to go to an "Indian" market to buy crafts and other artesanías from the local Quechua people. Among the llama wool blankets and alpaca fur jackets were various t-shirts. One such t-shirt read, "La hoja de la coca no es droga." For you non-Spanish speakers, that's, "The coca leaf is not a drug." The coca leaf is one of the primary ingredients used to make the highly addictive drug cocaine. In spite of my desires to take back something of the Peruvian culture, I decided not to buy the shirt. This little crossing of cultures and ideas didn't really change my thoughts.
Then I traveled up into the Andes mountains to Cuzco, the second-largest city in Peru and link to the ancient Inca city of Macchu Pichu. To help us adjust to the altitude we were served by our hosts a yellowish brown tea that was said to help relieve the effects of altitude sickness. They called it coca té. This tea is made by boiling the coca leaf to extract some of its nutrients and has a calming effect on your nerves. Remember, in the U.S. it is illegal to possess coca leaves in any quantity. Here we were drinking freely from a tea that contained some of the same properties as cocaine. This tea had nowhere near the effects of actual cocaine. To process cocaine it takes many more leaves than the few we were using. Think of it like corn--you can't fill up your hybrid car with boiled corn juice. Clearly this practice would be illegal in the U.S. (simply for possession), but it was perfectly fine in Peru. Still, I believe hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are wrong to use whether or not it is legal in the area you're in. The traditional definition of "drugs," at least the illegal ones, doesn't cause any problem with me. I'm content to say those things are bad.
Then I traveled to Spain. Spain is a wonderful country located on the Iberian Peninsula next to Portugal, Andorra, and France. It was in that country that I first tasted alcohol. Actually, I digress. When I was a child I usually got sick once or twice a year and had to rely on cough medicine to help me get better. Most cough medicines contain alcohol, but few people actually take it when they're not sick, and fewer still take it to get drunk. Anyway, while I was in Spain, studying Spanish for a study abroad, I was invited to dinner with the other students in my class. Our teacher, who was a Puerto Rican, and the other three or four other students enjoyed a communal pitcher of sangría, a type of wine-mixed-with-fruit drink. I enjoyed an ice-cold Coke. At the end of the dinner, I was encouraged to have a taste of the sangría, and I did. I drank a glass of the stuff, and I was surprised to find it... tasty. Still, I had never had alcohol before and I didn't want to risk my reputation by drinking any more than that one glass lest I become intoxicated. Later on that trip I tasted a wonderful red wine made from not only grapes, but cherries as well. Finally, I tasted sidras. Sidras is a low-alcohol content beverage made from apples, kind of like a spiked apple juice, I suppose. Honestly, despite my writing here, I am rather inexperienced in the field of alcohol. I never drank beer. I never had vodka, a margarita, or tequila. My experimenting with a glass of wine with lunch or a bit of sidras with dinner had more to do with experiencing the European/Mediterranean/Spanish culture than with my personal and religious views on alcohol. After all, I was under the impression (by this time) that alcohol was not wrong if it was in small amounts.
Spain represented much more to me than alcohol. Actually, alcohol was only a tiny part of it. I was able to visit many of the sites in the classic book, Don Quixote, the cities of Toledo, Madrid, Aranjuez, and Segovia, and I got to see the soccer stadium for Atlético de Madrid, my favorite team. Even still, it was very important for me to have experienced the interesting aspects of culture and Spain as it relates to alcohol. The most influential experience I had with alcohol occurred after a music night at one of the churches in Madrid. The "youth," aged 14 to 29, got together after the service and went to an outdoor restaurant to sit and discuss life, God, the church, etc. About half of these people ordered beer, wine, or some other alcoholic beverage. I, wanting to try the sidras again before returning to the U.S. where I cannot drink, ordered a glass of the apple-flavored beverage. And it was good. No one drank too much. No one could question the faith of these believers. Nominal Christians aren't as common in Spain as they are in the U.S. Being a true believer in Christ becomes much more life-changing when 99.5% of your country is not. That's right. Only 200,000 people in a nation of over 40 million share the basic evangelical beliefs that we share with other Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. in our nation. That's less than 1/2 of one percent.
Some might argue that those Spanish believers had been corrupted in their practice by the culture around them. This happened with the Corinthian church, did it not? They (the Corinthians) approved of a sexual sin in their congregation that the local non-believers didn't even condone. But is alcohol really a sin? No.
As a law-abiding citizen, I cannot drink alcohol in America until next month when I turn 21. I have held to that standard, and the only time I ever drank any alcoholic beverage was in Spain when I was of the legal age there. But when I turn 21 may I drink alcohol? Yes. There are certainly some restrictions on the practice, and many of those who are against drinking alcohol would point to the verse in scripture that says not to do anything, specifically mentioning wine, if it causes my brother to stumble. Both John the Baptist and Sampson were called by God to abstain from alcohol for their entire lives. Sampson failed to do so and committed wicked acts which ultimately led to his own downfall. John obeyed the Lord and was killed for his faith. But in both cases God was calling individuals to a life of abstinence from alcohol.
However, there are plenty of verses that point to wine as being okay so long as certain standards are kept, which most of us are aware of, especially about not getting intoxicated. Jesus drank wine and was criticized for it, as I may be also for writing this article. I think that a demand for total abstention from wine from all believers is legalistic and diminishes the great heritage we have in it. Melchizedek, a foreshadow of Christ, used it as a blessing when he was with Abraham. Isaac asked God to bless his son with wine. As most Nazirite vows were short-term, people who took the vow were permitted to drink wine upon its completion. The Lord God Himself gave it to the priests to drink. Solomon paid the workers who built the temple, God's temple, with wine. The psalmist even says that God uses wine to gladden men. And, possibly the most notable, it is present at the feast of the ages.
I've heard pastors and seminary graduates (with Ph.D.'s) tell me that the Bible never mentions wine in a positive sense. I've heard people say that "new wine" wasn't alcoholic. After doing my own study of what the Bible has to say instead of what tradition says, I learned that there were examples of wine being used in good ways and in ways honoring to God. I also learned that new wine, though it may have been made without fermentation, it certainly could ferment to a state that would cause intoxication.
If God has called you to a lifetime of abstinence, please, stay faithful to our God. There is certainly judgment on those who cause others to break their vows to God. Also, there are many warnings in the Bible about the effects of the misuse of alcohol. Many of us have seen the devastating effects of alcohol addictions and drunk driving. There is much out there to discourage you from drinking. But don't stand in judgment over those who choose to have a glass over dinner, especially when they aren't trying to show off their "liberty." Please try to honor those who view alcohol, within moderation, as a blessing, like Isaac and Melchizedek did. I won't drink too much or in front of you if you don't try to hold me to a legalistic standard. I think we can all get along. Then again, I'm more of an idealist.