As she toiled away in the kitchen, Martha’s senses were suddenly overwhelmed by a distinct aroma. It wasn’t the smell of the food she had been busy preparing for her special guest. It was sweet smell, yet woody and musky. It was a fragrance that Martha knew, but didn’t often encounter. As the pleasant scent filled the entire house, it became apparent to Martha and all the dinner guests, that this was a very special moment.
In the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India blooms a pink, bell-shaped flower, not too distantly related to the honeysuckle. Although the flowers are pleasant enough, the real treasure of nardostachys jatamansi is hidden beneath the soil. When distilled, the roots and rhizomes of the plant give up an amber-coloured oil with a distinct fragrance. Variously described as sweet, woody, earthy, spicy, and musky, the precious perfume culled from the plant came to be recognized as the very aroma of luxury.
The scarcity of the plant, the transportation costs from India, and the difficulty of the extraction process, made the price of the resulting spikenard out of reach for the average household. Even a vial of just a few ounces would be handled with extreme care.
When Jesus and the others had finished dinner, Mary went and retrieved one of her most valuable possessions. It was twelve full ounces of pure spikenard (John is sure to tell us that it was pure, and not diluted). Such a quantity of the precious perfume would cost the average laborer a year’s wage. How did Mary come to posses it? Was it a family heirloom? A rare gift? We don’t know. One thing is sure though, it wasn’t meant to be used all at once, and certainly not at a simple dinner among friends. Perhaps a dab here and a dab there, and only on very special occasions.
In Mary’s heart however, she knew that there would come no other day as fitting for an act of extravagance as this one. This was the perfect time to expend all of her precious perfume.
Mary poured every last drop of her oil onto the feet of Jesus. However, even expending an entire pound of pure nard wasn’t enough to capture the heart of worship she had toward her Lord so, she proceeded to wipe the oil with her hair. She laid her treasure, her pride, and her very person at the feet of Jesus as an act of holistic worship. Like incense wafting upward in the temple, the aroma of her worship was acceptable to the Lord, and wholly appropriate considering the sacrifice he would soon make for her.
The sweet savour of worship wasn’t pleasing to everyone in the room however. As Judas inhaled the thick, scented air, he could only think of money. What was a display of true worship to the others, was a disgusting display of waste to him. To Judas, the room reeked of squandered wealth, and gratuitous expense. He spoke up with feigned words of altruism. He said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” Lest one take his objection at face value, John is quick to add, “He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.”
Judas loved money, and not Jesus. This did not keep him from associating with the Lord and the disciples however. In his covetousness, he saw the authority and influence of Jesus as the perfect vehicles to hijack in order to gain personal wealth. In doing so, he became the progenitor of a long line of money-loving hypocrites who have sought to impersonate genuine disciples in order to satisfy their sick worship of money.
Today, the world over, there are men and women who claim to represent Jesus, while actually being disciples of Judas. To them, the inherent authority and influence of Christianity make it ripe for abuse. They seek out positions behind pulpits and TV screens and from these places of influence, they victimize their hearers through promises of monetary gain, and financial breakthrough. They claim to be pastors, bishops, or even apostles, the whole while being money-worshipping charlatans.
To be sure, their listeners bear guilt as well. All the talk of money and wealth only finds a hearing because their audiences are cut from the same covetous cloth. These are people who “having itching ears [have] accumulate[ed] for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Nevertheless, those who claim to be teachers “will be judged with greater strictness,” and so those propagating the prosperity gospel, or any other money-driven theology have a greater condemnation awaiting them. As Peter warned, “Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”
This same breed of false teachers was active on the island of Crete when Paul wrote his list of qualifications for spiritual leadership to Titus. He warned Titus that a man was not qualified for eldership unless it could be proven that he was not “greedy for gain (Titus 1:7)” He continued:
Titus 1:9-11 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. 10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.
The elders whom Titus would appoint to oversee the churches in Crete had their work cut out for them. Not only was the Cretan culture steeped in deceitful, and debauched living (Titus 1:12-13), but operating among the people were false teachers, who taught error for money. These scheming confidence men gained the trust of the people through their façade of religion; the whole while being nothing more than greedy pretenders. Chief among the perpetrators were those of “the circumcision party.” These Jews operated just like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. These were men who “devour[ed] widows’ houses;” because they “were lovers of money (Mark 12:40; Luke 16:14).” They were men who scoffed with contempt at Jesus when he declared “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Luke 16:13)”
For this reason, in addition to holding firm to the apostolic teaching, faithful elders would have to learn to skillfully wield the word of God in order to silence the avaricious heretics. This would be an impossibility, or an overt act of hypocrisy, if these elders were not themselves first free from a love for money.
You and I are in the very same situation. The church has a bad rap because greedy men and women have used the faith to enrich themselves. The multi-million-dollar homes, private jets, and otherwise extravagant lifestyles of religious charlatans have become fodder for tabloids and the focus of primetime exposés. Since separating genuine believers from the phonies is not in the interest of Christianity’s detractors, they are content in defining our faith by its abuses. Therefore, we have an even greater impetus to ensure that our reputation in and outside the church is free from anything which even remotely appears like covetousness or greed.
Antidotes to Greed
Timothy had to deal with equally rapacious false teachers in Ephesus. In his first letter to his young emissary, Paul described such men as those who “imagine that godliness is a means of gain.” He then went on to write for Timothy a powerful corrective to that perverse kind of thinking. If he, and the elders he would appoint, would be faithful under-shepherds then they would have to have a godly attitude toward money, possessions, and eternity. Paul wrote:
1 Timothy 6:6-8 But godliness with contentment is great gain, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.
According to Paul, the antidote to greed, is contentment. Whereas greed writhes under one’s circumstances, lusting after something more, or better, or fairer, contentment receives its circumstances as those sovereignly chosen by the Lord. The Lord is the loving, heavenly Father who knows what we have need of before we ask and who delights to provide it all for us. Knowing this, the contented person rests in his arms, trusting that he has orchestrated their circumstances for their ultimate good, and that he will be with them through it all. As the writer of Hebrews says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you. (Heb 13:5)”
Contentment however is not the same as morbid resignation. That is, a desire for healing, for a spouse, for a home which accommodates one’s family, or other legitimate needs, is not the same as discontentment. The difference is found in the heart-attitude which drives each. The contented person can seek the Lord’s face for provision, put feet to their prayers through personal effort, while also maintaining a continual posture of submission to however the Lord ultimately chooses to provide. For instance, in times of trouble he can cry with Jesus, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” while also maintaining a willingness to immediately follow that cry with, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will. (Matt 26:39)”
A Proper Assessment of Needs
Notice also that Paul’s emphasis in his letter to Timothy is upon needs and not wants. He says, “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”A key to experiencing the restfulness of genuine contentment is to have a proper sense of needs versus wants. Food and clothing are needs, while anything we may be lusting after for the sake of luxury, status, or pride, are mere wants.
It is easy to lose perspective, forgetting that even a low-income individual in the West is affluent by global standards. It is also easy to succumb to societal pressure to believe that success or status is determined by our income or possessions. We should be quick to heed the Lord’s warning, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15)”
A faithful elder is content with his needs being met, understanding that there are serious temptations which accompany both poverty and riches. He can say with the proverbialist, “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God (Prov. 30:8-9).”
Godliness with Contentment
Notice also in Paul’s words to Timothy that he not only mentions contentment but that he joins godliness with contentment. Here were find that it is not only a submissive posture toward the Lord’s provision which combats covetous but also a spiritual priority. That is, Paul takes the focus off the material, and places it on the spiritual. For Paul, holiness, righteousness, and godliness are rare jewels to be sought and treasured. Greater than money, fame, or material things is godliness. A man finds contentment when he begins to value spiritual growth and maturity over material gain. It is this spiritual priority which Jesus taught when he said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matt 6:33).”
This is an essential attitude for an elder, since his labour is often rewarded with spiritual dividends and not material things. Although it is his right to be compensated by the congregation, the elder does not first serve for money. Seeing others come to Christ, and then continue to grow in Him, brings far more satisfaction to the godly elder than material blessings or financial gain. He is not caught up in hoarding earthly riches or coveting human accolades, but is instead driven to faithfulness because his eyes are fixed on that day when the Chief Shepherd will appear and he “will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Pet 5:4).”
A word of balance may be necessary here. Whereas elders are forbidden from exercising oversight for “shameful gain,” or being “lover[s] of money,” that does not mean they should not be compensated. The warnings focus upon a man’s heart-motivation. Is his ministry a money-making endeavour? Does he see the church as an avenue by which he can become rich? Does he have an unhealthy love for money and possessions? If so, he is disqualified from eldership. On the other hand, if an elder faithfully fulfills his calling to exercise oversight of Christ’s flock, labouring in the word so that he can feed the sheep with sound teaching and preaching, then he is a man worthy of compensation. A church would do well to give, and even sacrifice, to free such a man to focus entirely upon ministry. Paul maintained this same balance in his letter to Timothy. Prior to his warnings about money, he had written:
1 Timothy 5:17-18 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
While such an elder should not serve for material gain, he should also be able to “plow in hope,” knowing that the Lord will reward his labours. With spiritual fruit? Yes. But also, with material provision. The man who has given his life to ministry, should be free to also “get his living” from ministry. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel (1 Cor 9:14).” The faithful shepherd is not a hireling who is in it only for the money, but is a man who loves and labours among the sheep. When a church finds such a man, it should provide for him in such a way that he can focus on ministry work without anxiety over material things (cf. 1 Cor 9:13; Gal 6:6).
Back to 1 Timothy 6
Along with a submissive posture toward the Lord’s provision, and a spiritual priority when considering our values, Paul also indicates that maintaining an eternal perspective will help us remain content while fighting against covetousness. He says, “for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.”
As Christians, we live in the shadow of eternity. Since, “we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells,” we can hold loosely to the things of this life. The focus of our attention and efforts should instead be fixed upon whatever brings eternal reward. Paul would encourage the rich to “be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim 6:18-19).” By generously using their money and material goods to aid in the advancement of the kingdom, they would see their temporal blessings produce eternal fruit. This is the same principle which Jesus taught when he said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:19-21).”
How important is it that elders have a proper attitude toward money and possessions? After encouraging Timothy, and those he would later train for eldership, to maintain a submissive posture toward God’s provision, a spiritual priority regarding what they value, and an eternal perspective when considering material things, Paul then goes on to describe the consequences if these attitudes are not kept. He says:
1 Timothy 6:9-10 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
At the root of many personal and social ills is an unhealthy love for money. It is the love of money which led the Pharisees to victimize the poor; Ananias and Sapphira to lie to the Holy Spirit; the rich young ruler to miss salvation; and Judas to betray the Lord. It is a love for money which drives people to steal, cheat, and swindle. How many men and women have compromised basic principles of morality to make a quick buck? How many have freely victimized others for money? How many have traded their self-respect for cash? Worst of all, how many, out of a love for money, have renounced the faith they once confessed?
Money produces apostates, and leads such men into all sorts of trouble (1 Tim 6:10). These are men who have left the ranks of Jesus’ followers, in order to fall in line with Judas. Their tragic stories stand as dire warnings to any who might serve as an elder.
Flee and Pursue
After profiling the money-loving hypocrite who brings about his own destruction through covetousness, Paul then turns to encourage Timothy with some positives. Not only should Timothy, and we, flee from greed, but there are some things which we must actively pursue. He writes:
1 Timothy 6:11-12 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
Ever before the faithful elder are the spiritual priorities of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. He loves the Lord, loves what is holy, and loves his fellow believers. Further, he is faithful and consistent, leaving no fear among the congregation that he might suddenly swerve from orthodoxy, or into the world. Lastly, since he sees people as precious souls with whose watchcare he has been entrusted, he maintains a Christlike gentleness as he ministers to them. The pursuit of these things provides a natural protection against the various pains and pitfalls which come from a love for money, or a greed for material gain.
We now turn to address another fatal flaw which Paul indicates prevents a man from serving as elder.
An Elder and Alcohol
As we have seen, greed is a disqualifying vice which bars a man from eldership. In both his letter to Titus and his letter to Timothy, Paul cites another such disqualification. He writes:
Titus 1:7-8 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.
And to Timothy:
1 Timothy 3:2-3 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
Crete, where Titus was charged with appointing elders to oversee its fledgling churches, was known for its production of sweet wine. So much so that when Rome conquered the island nation in 66 BC, they quickly took advantage of the fertile lands and Cretan skill, and oversaw the export of their wine throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. This golden age of Cretan wine was often captured by the maxim, “Rome conquered Crete, and Cretan wine conquered Rome.”
Wine and its abuses were abundant in Crete. Cretan wine would have featured prominently in the worship of the Greek god Dionysus. Dionysus, known as Bacchus to the Romans, was the Greek god of wine, winemaking, and grape cultivation. Some legends even suggested that Crete was the birthplace of Dionysus. In addition to being the god of wine, Dionysus was also known as the god of fertility, ritual madness, theater, and religious ecstasy.
Considering how prominently wine featured in life and culture in Crete; how common its abuse would have been among the soldiering class who lived there; and its association with the ecstatic religious worship of the Greek god Dionysus, you can understand why the prohibition against drunkenness would feature prominently in Paul’s qualifications for elders.
For many, drunkenness is a welcomed escape from dealing with the stresses of life. When drunk, streams of dopamine bring a wave of pleasure and relaxation, lifting one’s mood and even providing new motivation. Endorphins are also released, dampening feelings of pain and bringing a powerful sense of well-being. Inhibitions are lost, and the drunk is overwhelmed with a sense of freeness. The introvert becomes a social butterfly, and the generally quiet person becomes a drunken philosopher. It’s no wonder that alcohol and other intoxicants are embraced by those struggling to cope with life.
Along with the waves of physical relaxation and reduced stressed however, are a host of negative effects. The tranquillizing effect of alcohol severely alters one’s judgment and decision making. The internal controls which generally inhibit poor decisions and inform wise judgment are suppressed and so the drunk person is likely to act impulsively, only for the moment, without the ability to measure long-term consequences. It’s this loss of inhibitions and decrease in cognitive ability which can often lead to violence, drunk driving, and other humiliating behaviour. Drunkenness has the potential to produce lasting damage to others, and to one’s own reputation.
Further, since alcohol and other intoxicants have a powerful effect on the brain, they can also lead to addiction. As the reward system of the brain is repeatedly triggered through intoxication, a habit is formed. The habit leads to withdrawal symptoms, which feel a lot like the opposite of the pleasant feelings listed above, and so alcohol is sought as the antidote. This continual cycle leads to dependency and addiction. Remorse, embarrassment and shame brought on by this new dependency are assuaged through more alcohol use and so a destructive cycle causes one’s life and character to spiral ever-downward.
In light of the destructive nature of intoxication, it is no wonder that the universal testimony of scripture is that drunkenness is sin. Drunkenness is debauchery; it is to be grouped with the sins of sexual immorality, idolatry, and sorcery; and should not be present in anyone who calls themselves a Christian (Eph 5:18; Gal 5:19-21; 1 Cor 5:11; Rom 13:13). To be drunk is to live in the “human passions” which once characterized us as unbelievers, and not for the will of God (1 Peter 4:1-3). Further, the drunk is one of the “unrighteous who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10).”
To be intoxicated is to feed and enflame the worst of human passions. So much so that for Paul, drunkenness is a suitable antithesis to being filled with the Spirit of God (Eph 5:18). Whereas the Spirit brings order and control, intoxication brings disorder and a loss of control. Whereas the Spirit speaks truth, intoxication brings forth nonsense. While the Spirit produces holiness, intoxication leads to sin. And, as we’ve already noted, while the Spirit produces Christlikeness, drunkenness enflames the passions of the flesh.
The elder, like all believers, is to be known for his sober-mindedness, self-control, discipline, and otherwise even-keeled temperament. Christians are to be masters of their own passions, and in such control of their faculties that they can satisfy the Lord’s command to be ever-watchful. Peter warns us to, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).”
As Christians, we are to be ever-watchful, always in control, continually sober-minded, sound in judgment, and known for our reasonableness. Our faith enables us to face the fears, anxieties, and disappointments of life with grace, without the need to run to intoxicants to dull our senses or manufacture a chemically-induced sense of well-being. We can face life head-on, rear up under its challenges, all the while experiencing genuine peace. For the Christian, it is faith, not escape, which enables us to deal with the stresses of life. This is why Paul could confidently encourage the believers in Philippi in this way:
Philippians 4:5-7 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
A man fit for eldership is a man who has learned how his faith enables him to deal with the difficulties of life. This is important because ministry is often stress-inducing. An elder is continually concerned with meeting spiritual needs; comforting the grieving; counseling the struggling; dealing with the weak; handling critics with grace; balancing ministry and homelife; all the while struggling with the tyranny of the urgent, and the looming responsibilities of Sunday. If a man has not learned how to lean into his relationship with Jesus, and to cope with ministry pressures in a God-honouring way, he will be tempted to find other, less helpful, or perhaps sinful, means to manage his stress. As he considers if, or how much alcohol he will drink, he should take these potential temptations into serious consideration.
The Elder, Liberty, and Alcohol
Despite the destructive potential of alcohol, the scriptures do not say that it is a sin to drink. While drunkenness is always presented as sinful, the moderate use of alcohol is not. How then should the elder relate to alcohol? Here are some principles which may be helpful.
In 1 Corinthians chapters 8 through 10, the apostle Paul deals with a similar question of Christian liberty. In his cultural context, a question which loomed large was whether or not a Christian could eat meat which had been previously dedicated to idols. Some suggested it was sinful, since eating would be tantamount to acknowledging the false god to whom it was first offered. For others, since idols were actually non-existent, the meat was just that – meat, and suitable for eating.
In addressing this question, Paul first established what was true. He affirms that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” So then, was the case closed? Did he swing open the door to the meat market and tell believers to dig in? No. Instead, he introduced some other factors which would have to be considered before someone made a decision about how they would exercise their Christian liberty. After establishing what was true, he immediately offered a “however:”
1 Corinthians 8:7-13 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
According to Paul, before we make a decision about how we exercise our Christian liberty, we must first consider how that decision might affect other people, specifically, those who are weaker than us.
The weaker believers in view were those whose consciences were not yet fully reshaped by scripture, but were still influenced by their former lifestyle. When these individuals considered the meat in the idol’s marketplace, they associated it with everything wrong with that system. For them, to eat that meat would be to acknowledge the idol, associate with that religion, and to betray Jesus.
Paul is clear that “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Again, he wasn’t focused upon whether or not it was technically permissible to eat meat. He was dealing with a much bigger question. His concern was not whether or not eating the meat was right, but whether or not eating the meat was helpful. We should ask the same question about alcohol.
Is there potential to harm a weaker brother or sister through our drinking? Might it offend the weaker Christian who has a bad history with alcohol, but has since come out of that lifestyle? Might it embolden a fellow believer to partake in alcohol, who doesn’t have the self-control to exercise moderation? Might my exercise of legitimate Christian liberty, put a stumblingblock in front of one of my brothers or sisters in Christ? Before we decide what to do with alcohol, we must heed Paul’s warning: “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
As Christians, we are called to humbly, “count others more significant than [our]selves.” This means that we will continually, “look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others.” In other words, when making decisions about Christian liberty, others must come first. It’s for this reason that something not sinful, like drinking alcohol (or eating meat), can easily become sinful, when it harms the faith of others. Paul made this clear to those among the Corinthians who were willing to put their Christian liberty before the spiritual wellbeing of their brethren. He said:
1 Corinthians 8:11-12 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
According to Paul, a sin against our weaker brothers is a sin against Christ, and such sin is possible when we misuse legitimate liberties. Considering how fraught with danger the exercise of this particular liberty was in Paul’s day, how did he choose to handle it? He continues:
1 Corinthians 8:13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
The spiritual vitality of others was so important to the apostle Paul that he was willing to sacrifice his personal liberties to prevent their stumbling. On the one hand, he was a champion of the liberty which we have in Christ; on the other, he was careful to always keep the spiritual wellbeing of others on his radar. If it came down to his liberty, or the protection of others, he always erred on the side of self-denial. His priority was not merely “what was right” but, “what builds others up.” As he continued his discussion on Christian liberty in the tenth chapter of 1st Corinthians, he said:
1 Corinthians 10:23-24 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.
Lest we think this discussion on meat offered to idols has no relevance to our topic at hand, we should note how Paul finishes his discussion on Christian liberty. He concludes:
1 Corinthians 10:31-33 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
According to Paul, if we are to do everything to the glory of God, it will require us to ensure that we remain inoffensive to others. When it comes to how we decide to exercise our Christian liberty, it means we will always place the benefit of others above our own indulgence.
The willingness to lovingly limit one’s liberty for the spiritual good of others, is a mark of Christian maturity. Believers who are willing to abstain from legitimate liberties for the sake of their brothers and sisters in Christ show that they have a healthy understanding of their freedom in Christ. They aren’t “liberty hounds” bent on grasping their liberty at all costs and daring others to question their use of it. Instead, since they are secure in their knowledge that they are free in Christ, they also feel free to place their own limits on their liberty, for the sake of others. In this way, they behave just like their self-sacrificing Lord who emptied himself in order to become a servant to all (Php 2:6-7).
Although the above principles apply to all believers, you can see how elders, above all people, should be careful to apply them. The very calling of pastors is to exercise a spiritual watchcare over Christ’s people. How much the more then should elders be careful not to become the very stumblingblock which they are called to protect against?
Considering all of this, a few practical guidelines may be helpful. First, elders should not flaunt their liberty. If you choose to take part in some area of liberty which, although legitimate, might have the potential to offend weaker brothers, then be careful in how you make it known. It is not helpful to announce, post on social media, or otherwise broadcast your exercise of that liberty. Your example may embolden some who can’t exercise moderation, or offend others who can’t grasp their liberty. The need to broadcast one’s exercise of Christian liberty seems to betray a certain insecurity. The individual who feels compelled to post on social media whenever he chooses to drink, comes across like he’s trying to win an unspoken argument about the rightness of alcohol consumption!
Next, elders should consider their own character and their own ability to exercise moderation. Since alcohol is addictive, and destructive when not imbibed in moderation, we should do a serious self-assessment before drinking at all. We should ask ourselves whether or not we might be susceptible to addiction. Everyone is different, and what one might to able to handle in moderation, might bring disaster to another. In our determination not to be a drunkard, we might find that we should not drink at all, but rather abstain entirely.
Further, we should be careful not to make our decision to drink, or not to drink, based upon what freedoms others are exercising, but upon what we can or cannot personally handle. Our overarching concern ought to be whether or not drinking alcohol might hinder our ability to remain above reproach.
Lastly, feel the freedom to defend the Christian liberty of others, while limiting your own. Repeatedly the apostle Paul defended the rights and liberties of others, while refusing to avail himself to his own. He defended the right of pastors to be paid, while he worked for a living (1 Cor 9:12-15); and defended the right to eat meat offered to idols, while maintaining a willingness to give it all up for others (1 Cor 8:13). This is not a contradiction, but an exercise of wise prudence.
Paul understood that his position as spiritual leader made his example very influential. In observing his example, others might become emboldened, offended or even accusatory, and so he sought to avoid it all by limiting his own liberties. When we choose not to exercise our Christian liberty in one area or another, we are not denying that liberty or withholding it from others. Instead, we are simply modelling what it is to put others first. Feel free to preach freedom in Christ, even in the area of alcohol, while setting an example of abstinence.
Greed and drunkenness might seem like unrelated vices, but both emerge from the same corrupt root. Both are the product of uncontrolled lust. One, a lust for money and stuff and the other a lust for physical release. Both focus on the earthly and fleshly instead of the heavenly and spiritual. Both flow from discontentment. Greed flows from a discontentment with what one has, and so seeks satisfaction through stuff. Drunkenness flows from a discontentment with what one experiences, and so seeks satisfaction through escape. Both sins have the potential to bring about extreme consequence, and so the presence of either disqualifies a man from eldership.
What is your relationship to money and possessions? Have you fallen prey to the rat-race mentality, causing you to always covet that bigger and better thing? Do you put too much emphasis on the size of your house, the newness of your car, or the balance in your bank account? Do you see money and stuff as a measure of success? Or are you content?
Do you view ministry as an opportunity to serve, or to be served? Do you see it as an opportunity to gain, or to give? Do you see it as a job, or a calling?
Regarding alcohol, do you drink only in moderation? When you drink, are you always aware that this exercise of liberty carries the potential to embolden, or offend weaker brothers? Do you put the spiritual wellbeing of others before your “right” to drink? Are you prepared to limit your liberty out of love, like the apostle Paul? Are you willing to lay aside your privileges out of service to others, like Jesus? Have you approached the question of whether or not you should drink at all with serious self-reflection? Have you considered your own propensity for sin, potential immoderation, or susceptibility to addiction? Have you entertained the possibility that total abstinence from alcohol might be the best option to protect your reputation as one who is above reproach, as well as the best way to ensure that your use of alcohol could never be a stumblingblock to others?
As you consider these questions, keep Paul’s words in the forefront of your mind, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”