Does Drinking Disqualify a Pastor?
Warnings We Cannot Ignore
It was the summer of 2016 when the shockwaves passed through some evangelical circles. The preacher of one of the largest and fasting-growing multi-sites in the country had been removed from his post. After a prolonged process, the other leaders in his church had deemed him disqualified for ministry, citing, among other more general factors, 1 Timothy 3:3 and his entrenched overuse of alcohol.
It was surprising for many, not just because they didn’t see it coming with one well-known preacher, but because they never had heard of a pastor being disqualified for drinking. Sexual immorality and financial mismanagement — those tragic accounts have been all too common. But the overuse of alcohol?
The Teetotal Generation
Of the fifteen qualifications for pastor-elder in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, “not a drunkard” may be the one the previous generation of evangelicals passed over most quickly. Not because that generation was deaf to the dangers of alcohol, but because, for so many, partaking at all was almost unthinkable. The legacy of Prohibition endured. In large swaths, drinking was frowned upon for all Christians, and especially pastors.
My, how the times have changed.
Of course, teetotaling wasn’t assumed in every stripe of evangelical association, or in every region, but the vestiges of the nineteenth-century temperance movement continued to hold sway in many sectors. For my Southern and Baptist grandmother, for instance, it was imponderable that the same lips could touch a drink and still make a credible profession of faith.
Such a sharp reaction to the perils and excesses of alcohol (especially hard liquor) in previous generations doubtless created its own problems, but these are not typically the troubles we face today — at least not in the circles I run. The pendulum has swung indeed. Whereas evangelicals of a bygone era may have overreached related to the dangers of alcohol, we find ourselves today in fresh need of church leaders who will not fall victim to the same set of new temptations our flocks are facing.
The new call is for pastors and elders stable and mature enough in the faith to not only know their freedoms in Christ but also stand ready, in love, to forgo their rights at times for the good of others.
Wine to Gladden the Heart
Paul’s list of qualifications for the office of pastor-elder begins with seven desirable traits, and then gives four negatives, or disqualifiers, before finishing with three final requirements. “Not a drunkard” (Greek mē paroinon, only here and in Titus 1:7) is the first of the four disqualifiers. Deacons, also, according to 1 Timothy 3:8, must be “not addicted to much wine.” These are not requirements for teetotalism. “Not a drunkard” hardly means “no alcohol whatsoever.”
Psalm 104:14–15 celebrates God’s good gifts in creation, including bread and oil and “wine to gladden the heart of man.” Proverbs 3:10 mentions “vats . . . bursting with wine” as a blessing, not a curse — as a promise to those who honor God, not an evil. John the Baptist chose the lifestyle of the ascetic, while Jesus came eating and drinking, and both were wise and righteous (Matthew 11:18–19; Luke 7:33–35). For his first miracle, of course, Jesus made wine from water (rather than the inverse), and Paul instructed his protégé to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23).
Those who stand against the ancient attempts to teetotalize the church stand on the side of the angels, and against the teaching of demons (1 Timothy 4:1–5).
Warnings We Cannot Ignore
The above affirmations, however, are by no means all that God has to say to us about wine and intoxicating drink. As John Piper summarizes, “Even though wine was permitted and was a blessing, it was fraught with dangers.” In both the Old and New Testaments, the warnings far exceed the commendations (by some counts, more than three to one). That doesn’t mean we should ignore the clear commendations. But it does mean, all the more, that we cannot ignore the warnings.
In every place across the canon, drunkenness is emphatically condemned. It often serves as a metaphor of unbelief and judgment. Luke and Paul make connections between staying awake to God and staying awake (sobriety) in this world (Luke 12:45–46; 21:34–36; 1 Thessalonians 5:7–8). Excess drink can be associated not just with violent anger (“not a drunkard, not violent,” 1 Timothy 3:3; also Luke 12:45; Matthew 24:49), but with rebellion (Deuteronomy 21:20), sexual immorality, and division (Romans 13:13–14).
Proverbs links excess drinking with folly (Proverbs 20:1; 23:29–35; 26:9–10) and poverty (Proverbs 21:17; 23:20). The goodness of drink in God’s created world is not denied, but the itch or lust for Encore (as C.S. Lewis called it) is exposed and challenged. God’s prophets pronounce woe to those who “rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them! . . . Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink” (Isaiah 5:11–12, 22).
Models of Judgment
Accordingly, drunkenness becomes a recurring image of divine judgment in the prophets — in Isaiah (19:14; 24:20; 28:7–8), Jeremiah (13:13; 25:17; 51:7), Ezekiel (23:33), Nahum (3:11), Hosea (4:11, 18), and Amos (2:8; 4:1; 6:6). When we turn to the New Testament, drunkenness has no place in the church but belongs to the course of this fallen world and the pattern of rebellion against God (1 Corinthians 15:34; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Peter 4:3). Without exception, references to intoxication are negative (Acts 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:21; Titus 2:3) — a manifestation of the unbelief from which Christians are being saved, or otherwise will not inherit the kingdom (1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:10; Galatians 5:19–21).
The dangers are live for all of God’s people, and yet, in some sense, even more so for leaders. Proverbs 31:4–5 warns that “it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” The more sheep entrusted to his care, the more tragic when the shepherd checks out, and the watchman abdicates his post (Isaiah 56:10–12). “Happy are you, O land, when . . . your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!” (Ecclesiastes 10:17).
Forgo Your Freedom?
God’s call on his people, and particularly on the leaders who serve as examples for the flock (1 Peter 5:3), is not simply to acknowledge the goodness of God’s creation alongside his litany of gracious warnings. God calls us to love. To look not only to our own interests, but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). “In humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Not just to keep our own noses clean, but to look past our own noses to the needs of others.
It is good to know that “nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14), that “everything is indeed clean” (Romans 14:20). Yes and amen. But little is distinctively Christian about such knowledge. It may even be said that such “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
Negatively, Paul cautions us over and over again not to put a “stumbling block” before others (Romans 14:13, 15, 20–21; 1 Corinthians 8:9, 13; 9:12). Or, positively said, walk in love (Romans 14:15). Pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding (Romans 14:19). And additionally, “do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil” (Romans 14:16) because of your careless, loveless actions in the presence of less mature brothers and sisters.
To clarify, the “weaker brothers” aren’t typically the prohibitionists who seek to press their personal convictions on others, but rather those who “through former association” would have their weak consciences defiled (1 Corinthians 8:7). In modern society, such a concern for others may mean never partaking, or it may mean doing so with caution and regular attention to context and company. And not contributing a culture of leisure and indulgence that will yield abuse in only a matter of time.
Even at a Feast
How might pastors today seek to practice these principles? To begin with, as husbands, fathers, and Christians, we never want to be unable to help others — whether it’s a feast or not. Emergencies don’t announce themselves ahead of time. And our drinks are larger and stronger than they were in previous generations.
As fuzzy as the line between a glad heart and overuse can be, one aspect of modern life gives us a way of objectifying sobriety: operating a motor vehicle. As men ready to care for our wives and children and for others in time of unexpected need or emergency, we never want to be unable to drive someone safely to a hospital. And no matter how great the feast, we never want to be unable to think clearly enough to help or counsel someone in our care. God calls us to be sober and available, always able to set aside our own interests to serve the needs of others in an unexpected moment. “Not a drunkard” means more than just “doesn’t get intoxicated.” It calls for men who are always reliable, “ready in season and out” (2 Timothy 4:2) — men never checked out and incapacitated by their own lack of self-control when you call on them for help.
Qualified leaders in the church should be men who have grown into the personal maturity of seeking to fill the emptiness we often feel with the fullness of Christ and his Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). We should lead the way in turning restless hearts Godward rather than medicating with alcohol, or any other substance. This is a vital test: where will we turn to fill an empty soul? How can we call our people to feast on Christ when we are defaulting elsewhere? Pastors are to be exemplary in self-control (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8), to lead the way in the Pauline sentiment “I will not be enslaved to anything” (see 1 Corinthians 6:12) that we might instead be gladly enslaved to our Lord, and eagerly ready to act, when he calls, in love for others.
Pastors also have the opportunity to model glad-hearted moderation. Young Christians who grew up in teetotaling contexts may only know two options: total abstinence or drunkenness. In certain settings, pastors can set an example for the flock, as in other areas, of wise, loving, glad-hearted celebration in the use of alcohol.
Christ Didn’t Please Himself
But leaders in the church should be ready to rise to more than simply avoiding intoxication. Paul doesn’t single pastors out as those called, at times, to forgo exercising Christian freedoms for the sake of others. He would have all Christians grow into such love. Yet, as with other hoped-for maturities in the faith, the leaders in particular should exemplify and model them (so that all grow into such maturity): “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor . . . not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:24, 33).
Relative to Christian freedoms, church leaders aren’t necessarily held to a higher standard but more rigorously held to the standard of the whole church. Leaders should be among those who best know the truth that neither partaking nor abstaining can commend us to God (1 Corinthians 8:8), and that we taste uniquely satisfying joys not just in the times we partake in safe contexts but also in the times we abstain for the sake of love.
At bottom, what inspires such love and concern for others, in shepherds and in the flock, is our Savior himself. Paul says, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:1–2). Then he gives the all-important reason: “For Christ did not please himself” (Romans 15:3).
Jesus did not simply know and exercise his divine rights. Rather, he chose to give up his rights (Philippians 2:6–7) to love and rescue us. Christ did not please himself. Jesus loves us like this. What a privilege and joy to receive and echo such love, when he calls, as we anticipate the day we will enjoy with him, without any peril, the fruit of the vine in his Father’s kingdom (Matthew 26:29).