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Can we be more moral than Jesus?

Every evangelical I’ve ever known would consider the question absurd. With Jesus as the standard for moral conduct, it should be impossible to be more moral than he—our Redeemer. However, what we claim to believe is often at odd with our actions.

For instance, while my fellow Southern Baptists consider Christ to be the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos, we would not consider him fit to serve as a trustee for the Southern Baptist Convention. Not only was Jesus a “user of alcoholic beverages” (Luke 7:33-34), but he had the audacity to turn perfectly good water into wine. If performed today, the miracle at the Canaanite wedding would meet with frowns from Southern Baptist believers, who are in “total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages.” (According to the Gospel of John, Jesus would be guilty of all but the advertising.)

Unfortunately, SBC committee rooms are not the only place where his behavior would be considered inappropriate. In fact, many in other evangelical circles consider such pro-alcohol behavior unacceptable as well. A prime example is evangelical higher education. On almost every evangelical college campus in America, Jesus’ consumption of wine would put him in violation of the code of conduct.

While a handful of colleges (Calvin, Dordt, Wheaton) would have no problem with his imbibing (provided he drank his wine off-campus), the vast majority would consider such behavior inappropriate if Jesus were enrolled as an undergraduate, seminarian, or faculty member. Bethel, Biola, Covenant, Eastern Nazarene, Messiah, Liberty, and Oral Roberts University are just some of the colleges and universities where The Savior’s wine-bibbing would get him a scolding from the dean.

Although most schools do not give an explanation for their policies, it is likely that they take a view similar to that advanced by Regent University:

Regent also forbids the use of alcohol on campus and prohibits the abuse of these substances. The Apostle Paul exhorted the Body of Christ that, if they truly loved their fellow man, they would set aside their personal freedom by refraining from behavior that might be a stumbling block to their weaker brother. Regent University encourages members of the Regent community to exercise their personal responsibility and, guided by Paul’s admonition, appropriately set aside their personal freedom and refrain from the use of these substances.

The “weaker brother” argument often serves as a justification for self-imposed (and institutionally mandated) teetotalism. And for good reason. It is a scriptural admonition that must be prayerfully considered. However, as pastor Chuck Swindoll has said, “Be careful, there are some people out there who are professional weaker brethren.” Likewise, we should be leery of professional weaker brother arguments that would rein in all Christian liberty because of the abstract concern that innocuous behavior might cause someone, somewhere, somehow, to stumble.

Although I tend to refrain from consuming alcohol—I have a difficult enough time getting people to take me seriously when I’m stone cold sober—my own view on the issue is similar to that held by theologian D.A. Carson:

[I]f I’m in one of those parts [of the United States] and everyone’s going to be all upset if I drink alcohol, then—I don’t drink alcohol, it’s not worth the fight and so on. But if somebody says to me, “You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,” I will say, “pass the Bourgogne’!” Do you see? Because you do not ever allow anything to jeopardize the absolute sufficiency of Christ. Not anything!

As sympathetic as I am to the prohibitionists’ rationales, their arguments never address the obvious question: Why did Jesus not refrain from drinking alcohol if it is an obvious “stumbling block” to our “weaker brothers”?

There is no disputing the fact that alcohol abuse is, as my SBC brethren point out, the cause of much “physical, mental, and emotional damage.” No doubt that was as true in first century Palestine as it is in twenty-first century America. So why didn’t Jesus warn that we should avoid alcohol? If nothing else, why did he not refrain from drinking alcohol himself in order to set an example for future generations of believers? The answers to these questions have implications that extend beyond concerns about drinking beer or wine.

Where does Christian liberty end and institutional authority over matters of conscience begin? Obviously there are times when we need to delineate such boundaries, especially for young Christians. But we should be careful about where we mark those lines—especially when they put Jesus on the wrong side.

Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.

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