Would You Have Supported Prohibition in 1913?


Audio Transcript

Happy Friday, everyone. If you have listened for a while, you know we don’t delve into social and legal and political issues on the podcast very often, for various reasons that have been explained over the years. And that means attempts by APJ listeners to get us into that conversation, and whether or not the church should legislate sin, must get creative. And they do get creative — even resorting to hypotheticals, as in the case of today’s question, the most recent creative attempt.

And it comes to us from an anonymous man, a regular listener who writes this: “Pastor John, hello! I often wrestle with the question over what role our government should play in outlawing sin. Specifically, I would like to ask you a hypothetical question here. If you were an influential pastor-theologian back in 1913 America, would you have supported Christian temperance organizations and lent your voice to Prohibition?”

I will try to answer this question honestly, but I confess at the very beginning that this question leads into complex issues of church-state relations, where I do not have as many answers as I would like to have. But I will take you as far as I can, and then you can go further.

World Without Drunkenness

The question of whether I would have supported Prohibition in 1913 might mean, Would I have supported it with all the cultural assumptions I may have shared as a child of my times in that day, and without any of the hindsight that I now have? It might mean that, or the question might mean, Given everything I know now, would I have supported Prohibition if I could get in a time machine and go back?

Now, the answer to the first question is that I don’t know. Nobody knows. You don’t know who you would be. What would you be like? It would’ve been relatively easy to see that a world without drunkenness would be a vastly better world than the one we live in, or the one they lived in back in 1913. And I can imagine myself being persuaded that the benefits of sobriety in families and workplaces would justify taking away some legitimate pleasures that both the Bible and culture would ordinarily allow.

This is the sort of limitation on people’s pleasures and freedoms that we have embraced with regard to smoking, for example. When I was a boy, it would’ve been absolutely unthinkable to tell a person that he could not smoke in an airplane, or in the office where he works, or in a restaurant. Unthinkable. Rebellion everywhere — “Mandates! Mandates!” But little by little, society as a whole has become so persuaded that smoking is dangerous to our health, and so unpleasant to most people, that we are willing for governments and institutions to mandate the prohibition of smoking in most workplaces, and restaurants, and theaters, and transportation.

Now, I like these limitations. I like them so much that it’s easy for me to imagine supporting something like Prohibition for similar reasons. So I don’t know what I would have done in 1913.

Two Problems with Prohibition

But if the question means, “Given everything I know now, would I have supported Prohibition if a time machine could take me back?” the answer is no. I wouldn’t.

“The Bible does not require teetotalism. It prohibits drunkenness. It warns about the dangers of alcohol.”

First, because the Bible does not require teetotalism. It prohibits drunkenness. It warns about the dangers of alcohol. “In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast” (Proverbs 23:32–34).

That’s a great picture. But there’s no prohibition in the Bible. I think a very strong case can be made for total abstinence in our world as a matter of wisdom for oneself, but not as a requirement for others, except maybe in some limited institutional expectations. This is mainly a matter of conscience.

The second reason I would not get in my time machine and go back and vote for Prohibition is that it didn’t work. It had unintended consequences that may have been as destructive as the previous abuse of alcohol itself. And this is because, unlike the limitations on smoking in our day, the long-term societal support was simply not there. It seemed like it was there, because it takes a lot of people to get an amendment to the constitution passed in 1919. But by 1933, the adequate support had disintegrated, and it was reversed.

Guidelines for the Church-State Relationship

Now here’s where the issues are raised, like the one our friend asked in his question: What role should our government play in outlawing sin? That’s part of his question. That’s where it’s all leading, which gets us into the weeds here. I think a more precise way to ask the question is this: How does the state decide what actions should be outlawed that Christians regard as sin? And you’ll see in a minute why I think that’s a better question.

So here are my guidelines — four guidelines for wrestling with the question about the relationship between the revealed will of Christ in Scripture and the law-making power of the state, enforceable with the sword.

First, the church today — the people of Christ on this side of the cross, unlike Israel in the Old Testament — are not a geopolitical entity. The church is not a nation-state. Therefore, the Old Testament legal stipulations — with their punishments like capital punishment for idolatry or cursing one’s parents — are not simply brought over and implemented in the church. The church excommunicates unrepentant idolaters; it doesn’t execute them.

Second, this does not mean that those sins are less grievous or less worthy of capital punishment. It means that the church hands over that judgment to Christ at his coming. There will be a perfect reckoning from the judge of the universe. Christ will settle all accounts. That ultimate reckoning is not the job of church leaders.

“The entire history of Christendom-by-force, from Constantine to the Puritans, was misguided.”

Third, Christian faith, and all the heart obedience of faith that flows from it, cannot be coerced by the sword — that is, by the state. The entire history of Christendom-by-force, from Constantine to the Puritans, was misguided. Any arrangement of church-state relations that sanctions state penalties to promote true heart faith and the heart obedience of faith will eventually corrupt the church.

Fourth and finally, Jesus said in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Now, the inference I draw from that statement and other aspects of the New Testament is that Christ, in this age, does not sanction the use of the sword to punish those who disobey him. This means that the state, to whom God has given the sword, according to Romans 13, should not seek to compel obedience to Christ.

Purpose of the Sword

Now, listen carefully, because I’m going to make some distinctions here that are fine. I’ll leave a lot of questions unanswered, but I think these distinctions really help. Obeying a law that Christ would approve is not the same as obeying Christ, and disobeying a law that Christ would approve is not the same as disobeying Christ.

A person who doesn’t even believe that Christ existed can obey a law that Christ approves. Therefore, punishment for disobeying a law that Christ approves is not the same as punishment for disobeying Christ. I don’t think the state should ever punish a person for disobeying Christ. I think that is the prerogative of church discipline, and I think the most severe form of church discipline is excommunication, not death.

There is a difference between saying that Christ wills that a person be punished by the state for breaking a law Christ approves, and saying that Christ wills that a person be punished by the state for disobeying him. The former is right; the latter is wrong.

Christ does will that a person be punished by the state for breaking a law that he approves, but Christ does not will that a person be punished by the state for disobeying Christ. All of which implies that Christians should consult Christ in his word when thinking through what sins should be prohibited by law, because the use of the sword to enforce Christ-approved laws is not the same as using the sword to enforce obedience to Christ.

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