In our missions organization, drinking alcohol is taboo. As a matter of fact, we all sign a contract saying that no matter what the cultural standards are in our mission field, we all agree that we won’t drink alcohol no matter what. (Yes, we all know that Jesus drank wine. But that’s not the point.) This puts everyone on the same level playing field theoretically, but it can cause cultural problems ON the field.
For example, we have friends who serve in Ireland where drinking beer is not just a mile stone for manhood, it IS THE DEFINITION of manhood. How a man holds his liquor is an indicator of how well he is respected in the community. It is “sissy” for a man to go to the pub with his friends and just order a soft drink. Not acceptable. No, he must prove his worth with a foamy head.
This is a major problem for our friends. They find themselves on the outs with the culture they want so badly to be IN with. What to do, what to do? (Personally, I have just enough ornery in me to break my written word when a higher need presents, if you know what I mean. But my friends are true blue and won’t consider my alternative.) So they are praying that the Lord will open up doors for them that don’t require alcohol for a key.
Missionaries have to deal with these kinds of ethical dilemmas all the time. In some countries, it’s alright for Christians to smoke or drink or go out to eat with a member of the opposite sex who is not their spouse, the list of acceptable vices is long and colorful! Gambling, movie going, using the Lord’s name in vain, all are cultural details that require a missionary to take care while searching for just the right stand to take. It’s complicated, to say the least. What do you do when someone gives you a bottle of wine as a welcome gift? What do you do if a tribal chief wants to smoke with you? What do you do when a pastor invites your secretary out to lunch just the two of them? Hmmm. This is getting messy.