Is underage drinking a sin?

Heather-
I know this is silly, but I really need someone's advice. Is drinking a sin? The Bible passage "Give to Caesar what is his, and give to God what is his" keeps coming into my mind, and since I'm not 21 yet, I guess that means I should follow laws. I also know that my body is God's temple, and I should treat it as such. But, even though I'm a teen, I don't think that one or two drinks would really hurt my body or me.  What do you think?
 


Dear Friend,
Thanks for asking such an honest question!  Many teens (including myself when I was a teen) have wondered about this, so you're not silly at all. Unfortunately, I don't think there is a simple answer, but there are a variety of perspectives that make a great deal of sense, in my opinion, so I'll share them with you.

First of all, I believe you are asking whether or not under-age drinking is a sin...not just drinking. I'll try to explain, the best I can, how drinking is acceptable (though it can be sinful), and why under-age drinking is not a good idea and is, in fact, sinful.

1. Drinking is not sinful-drunkenness is!
Simply drinking alcohol is clearly NOT a sin. In the Bible, alcoholic beverages are referred to on numerous occasions in usage of celebration or spending time with friends. Jesus clearly drank and approved of drinking alcohol-He changed water into wine and was even called a "drunkard" (and a glutton) by his critics.  Of course He was neither, but He was called these because He was seen drinking and eating with sinners-something most Jews never expected from a Savior. They exaggerated what they saw simply to criticize Him.

However, drunkenness is a sin-this is also a clear fact from reading Scripture, especially in the New Testament. No matter your age, you should avoid being drunk at all costs.

Galatians 5: 19 - 21 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Corinthians 6: 9 - 11 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Luke 21: 34 Jesus said, "Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap."

There are more Scriptures to prove the point that drunkenness is a sin, but I won't list them now. Check out the other words that precede or follow drunkenness in the lists above. Orgies, rage, hatred and others are not terms we typically take lightly. Therefore, as Christians, we must understand that drunkenness is not a laughing matter-it is clearly offensive to God. Therefore, it is vitally important, as Christians, that if we choose to drink alcohol, we are very mindful of the potential for drunkenness and stay on our guard to avoid sin and live righteously. The line we cross from social fun and celebration with alcohol to sinfulness/drunkenness is different with every person and even different for the same person on different days (lack of sleep or food will negatively affect our response to alcohol).

2. Maturity is needed for drinking.
One needs to be mature in order to know his or her limits. God does not tell us to never drink, but he calls us to avoid "crossing the line" (drunkenness). In any area of life - drinking, romantic relationships, watching movies, Internet use, there are many temptations to cross the line by giving into sin. We must constantly be on our guard, so that we can live in love and in freedom. A truly mature individual would not need to focus on "the line" because they are more concerned with loving others and respecting themselves. For example, a mature couple living chastity knows themselves well enough to know when to stop before playing with the "how far" question. The same is true with drinking. It takes a mature person to know him or herself well enough to know when to stop and to not be concerned with "how much can I drink without drinking too much?"

3. Underage drinking is typically not mature.
If you think a romantically mature, chaste relationships are difficult to find, then try finding mature, social drinking teenagers - they are an especially rare breed. Why are they hard to find? A pre-requisite for knowing your line is self-knowledge; something a teenager is still forming. I will admit that I don't have all the answers and adults are still learning about themselves on a daily basis. However, the transformation that occurs from teen years to mid-twenties is tremendous in the area of self-knowledge.
For most teens, this lack of identity is clearly noticeable through the masks that many teens wear - trying to be someone they are not. How many teens would you consider extremely mature and emotionally stable for the majority of the time? Such maturity is typically not part of being a teenager - your emotions are all over the map, you struggle with decision-making, everything is a BIG deal and more. It's an exciting time that you'll never repeat and I'm not going off on it at all. I'm merely saying that because of the rapidly changing hormones, many teens have a difficult time making good, wise choices - even without alcohol. Most teens, therefore, do not need the added confusion of alcohol. It's a strange time in your life, why add the blurring effect of alcohol? It's difficult enough to figure out who you are and what you want when you're sober!

4. Underage drinking for "mature" minors is not good.
a. Breaking the law is sinful.
So, let me address the sinful nature of under-age drinking (yes, I finally got to the meat of your question). Obeying the law is important as Christians - you even quoted the Caesar verse. Breaking the law is a sin. The only excuse we have for breaking it is if it's something that is morally wrong (an unjust law), like participating in an abortion; thankfully we're not required to do that. This is very challenging for me because I am saying here that even breaking the speed limit is a sin (although that is usually not as severe as drunkenness). Therfore, I shouldn't do it.

A good friend of mine, Tim Chik, put it rather clearly:
"We follow our civil laws because in that way society continues to protect the rights and freedoms that all currently enjoy. The proper restraints and enforcement of those restraints/privations enable our civil
community to 'work.' Thus, following a just law IS a moral imperative."

However, there are varying degrees of sinfulness. Ten-year-olds are not allowed to drive a car. Why? They are not mature enough to handle it. A fifteen-year-old, one day away from getting their driver's license or permit, would be a better driver, not endangering as many people, but still choosing something illegal. On the same token, a 20-year-old who takes a couple drinks is acting illegally, but the severity of their sin is most likely not the same as if a 16 or 17-year-old were doing so. Why? As stated previously, and in the case of under-age driving, they are not mature enough to drink responsibly - they're not endangering themselves and others to such a strong degree.

Is under-age drinking or drunkenness a mortal sin? That depends. There is a criterion for a sin to be mortal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that "for a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be met: 'Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.' " (Paragraph 1857). And the severity of any sin, venial or mortal, depends on the person and the circumstances. I believe that it is more serious when I drink a little too much around minors or those who look up to me or when I'm supposed to drive than if I'm just with one friend, watching a movie at my house. Both are sinful (drinking too much/getting drunk is never right), but one I could consider mortal and another I would not. Also, it could be a mortal sin for someone who was an alcoholic or has such tendencies to drink at all. It could be a very "grave" matter for such a person.

b. Keep your freedom.
It is much easier, especially while hanging out with other teens that could be making poor decisions, to lose your freedom by experiencing negative consequences that could enslave you. I have heard too many scary examples of times when one or two drinks (or even one drink after not eating enough) allowed for teen to make painfully poor decisions they deeply regret. In regards to sexuality, studies have shown that teens can often make very poor sexual decisions when alcohol is involved.

Among the findings from the study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 43 percent of the 15- to 24-year-olds surveyed reported they are concerned they "might do more sexually than (they) had planned because of alcohol or drugs." Other findings of the study included:
-Teens who use alcohol or drugs are more likely to have sex than those who do not.
-Almost 1 out of 5 people between 13 and 19 were drinking the first time they had sex.

A good friend of mine was molested by a "friend" because she didn't have the strength to say no after only a few drinks. And, another very good friend had her beverage drugged by a person within her group of friends at a bar and was unaware of the drug's power upon her-she thought it was just the alcohol. She was raped that evening. The majority of the rapes and "we went too far" situations I've heard about involve alcohol. I mention these instances simply because I care. When you begin drinking, you must always be on your guard and there are very few truly safe places out there - so be careful whenever you start drinking.

c. Christians are called to witness.
Lastly, I hope you will consider something that continues to call me to excellence and holiness (although I'm far from it). Your friends are watching you. If you call yourself a Catholic, then how you act reflects Christ and Catholicism. Those watching you may not be as mature as you are in dealing with liquor. If they see you, a pronounced Catholic, maybe a very mature individual, drinking alcohol, they might take it as permission to drink (most teens think they are more mature than they really are). Those who are watching you might think, "If **** is drinking, then I should be fine in doing the same-she's a very moral person." It would be easy for us as mature young adults to say, "If they're not mature enough, that's their problem. I'll take care of myself and they should do the same." However, as Christians, we are called to love our neighbor and look out for our brothers and sisters. We can do that by being an example. The responsibility of representing Christ can seem overwhelming at times. However, remember that we're not called to be perfect, we're called to love God and our friends the best we can and repent when we don't do so well. The weight of being a witness can be heavy, but the benefits of helping others open up to God and change their lives for the better makes it worth the challenge.

5. NOT drinking under-age has it's benefits.
Sure, I understand the desire to have fun and there are moments, don't get me wrong, when I have a drink or two and it can seem like more fun. However, there are great positive side-effects for choosing to wait to drink until you're 21-making our governmental mandates not as crazy as most teens would like to think they are. Here are the notes from a talk I gave about the good consequences of staying close to Christ and making good decisions (for me, not drinking until I was 21):

FREEDOM TO BE MYSELF: When I was a minor, I chose to strive to have fun without drinking. I decided to wait until I was 21 to drink. So I went to high school and frat parties drinking water or soda. I discovered how to have fun and be comfortable with myself in social settings without alcohol. To this day, I can go to a party and laugh, be totally comfortable with others and myself and have tons of fun without alcohol. Many friends from high school started partying with alcohol and have never stopped-they can't socialize without alcohol. Now that I'm over 21, one or two drinks every once in a while is fine, I enjoy them, but I don't need them to be comfortable with myself and I love partying with or without alcohol.

As teens figure out who they are, it is important that they have a clear and confident vision of their own personality. When you can socially relate and be comfortable in your own skin around others, you can mature in a much more healthy fashion. You can learn social skills as yourself, not as one who needs a drink to do so.

So, yes, under-age drinking is a sin. Is it as bad as breaking some other laws? That all depends on circumstances involved. However, as Christians, we need to not focus on how much sin we can get by with, but how we can glorify God and love others. You can either leave high school being known as the party animal, as the Catholic who drinks, or as the girl who inspired me to live my life well.  What kind of witness do you want to be?