Alcoholic Drink and the Christian

Alcoholic Drink and the Christian 

I openly acknowledge that Judy and I do not drink alcohol. The traditions of our families and our churches were that of total abstinence. We never saw our parents drink alcohol, and our churches were not bashful in speaking against drinking. We are both grateful that we grew up in such an environment. However, I also openly acknowledge that not all of our siblings are total abstainers, nor are all members of the third generation.

At some point early in my ministry, I determined that I must tackle this issue on the basis of an objective study of the Scripture, and that my conclusions about the Bible teachings should inform my practice rather than my family heritage or church tradition. There had to be no sacred cows. Such studies are often painful and as a result, I came to believe that my church based its teaching on a faulty interpretation of the Scripture. I never knew for sure, but I suspect my family’s practice was based on the teaching of the church rather than the Scriptures. I did not deem it worth pursuing with my father because I came to essentially the same practice, only for different reasons.

So, this paper is a brief attempt to wrestle with the tension between the Biblical data regarding the use of alcoholic beverages and the pervasive and damaging use of alcoholic drink in our society. What is the Christian to do? Is there a right or wrong practice?

I will not deal with every Scripture, nor will I flesh out the nuance of every argument. I am not presenting a history lesson, nor is this a detailed academic research paper. Rather, I will offer pastoral comments that I hope will help clarify issues for the average Christian as he/she makes lifestyle decisions based on an informed conscience.

Such As It Is

Drinking alcohol has been a cultural reality since the earliest days of our nation. Various historians note that the ship which carried Governor Winthrop to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 had forty-two tons of beer aboard!

And the attitude regarding drinking is not much different today. Drinking is socially acceptable and is considered normal. To suggest differently is to be clearly out of the mainstream. As Dr. G. Aiken Taylor observed more than thirty years ago:

Let a deodorant be shown to contain some ingredient that appears to produce cancer in mice, and it is likely to be forced off the market by prompt government action.

After the Surgeon General's report that smoking is injurious to health, laws were passed requiring solemn warnings in cigarette advertising and on every package of cigarettes...

But let it be shown that approximately nine million Americans are excessive drinkers, that an alcoholic's lifespan is shortened by ten to twelve years, that at least half of the 55,000 automobile deaths per year are directly traceable to drinking, that three-fourths of all prison inmates committed their crimes after drinking, that alcohol is now in first place on the teen-age drug-abuse scene - let all these grim statistics be cited, and most people simply shrug their shoulders and turn their attention to something else. (Christianity Today June 7, 1974)

The American church embraces nearly the same perspective. For the last half century or more, major denominations seemed determined to certify the acceptability of social drinking while at the same time promoting the disease model of drunkenness. And many individual Christians have sought to validate their perceived need to drink at professional, business, or social occasions. It is not enjoyable to be out of step with "everyone else."

So, I recognize that even addressing this subject is a pointless waste of energy in the view of many Christians. And to assert that total abstinence is a possible and reasonable lifestyle choice verses drinking in moderation is even more absurd.

The Scripture Speaks

The headlong charge to embrace drinking apparently conflicts with some remarkable passages of Scripture that point to its hazards. In Proverbs alone, one of the seven Hebrew words used for alcoholic beverages (!yIy: - a general term normally translated “wine”) often paints an unflattering picture of drinking. Consider that...

Excessive drinking leads to ultimate demise: NAS Pro 21:17 “He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; He who loves wine and oil will not become rich.”

Excessive drinking leads to an array of ruinous results that include woe, sorrow, strife, worry, unnecessary wounds, loss of vision, physical malady, mental damage, and addiction:

NAS Pro 23:29 Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? 30 Those who linger long over wine, Those who go to taste mixed wine. 31 Do not look on the wine when it is red, When it sparkles in the cup, When it goes down smoothly; 32 At the last it bites like a serpent, And stings like a viper. 33 Your eyes will see strange things, And your mind will utter perverse things. 34 And you will be like one who lies down in the middle of the sea, Or like one who lies down on the top of a mast. 35 "They struck me, but I did not become ill; They beat me, but I did not know it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.

Drinking is inappropriate for leaders of state: NAS Pro 31:4 “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, It is not for kings to drink wine, Or for rulers to desire strong drink, 5 Lest they drink and forget what is decreed, And pervert the rights of all the afflicted.”

Drinking is suited for those condemned to death: NAS Pro 31:6 “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, And wine to him whose life is bitter. 7 Let him drink and forget his poverty, And remember his trouble no more.”

The effects of drinking are attributed to the wine itself as one of its properties: NAS Pro 20:1 “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, And whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise.”

Excessive drinkers do not make good associates: NAS Pro 23:20 “Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, Or with gluttonous eaters of meat; 21 For the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty, And drowsiness will clothe a man with rags.”

We also have to grapple with many other scriptures that contain negative descriptions of and prohibitions against alcoholic drink to various extents.

NAS Isa 28:7 “And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink: The priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, They are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; They reel while having visions, They totter when rendering judgment. 8 For all the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place.”

NAS Isa 5:20 “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And clever in their own sight! 22 Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine, And valiant men in mixing strong drink;”

NAS Num 6:2 "Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, 'When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to dedicate himself to the LORD, 3 he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink, neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat fresh or dried grapes.”

NAS Eph 5:18 “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,”

On the other hand, many Scriptures speak of wine as a special blessing from God to be enjoyed by his creatures:

NAS Deu 33:28 "So Israel dwells in security, the fountain of Jacob secluded in a land of grain and new wine; His heavens also drop down dew.”

NAS 2Sa 16:2 “And the king said to Ziba, "Why do you have these?" And Ziba said, "The donkeys are for the king's household to ride, and the bread and summer fruit for the young men to eat, and the wine, for whoever is faint in the wilderness to drink."

NAS Psa 104:14 “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the labor of man, So that he may bring forth food from the earth, 15 And wine which makes man's heart glad, So that he may make his face glisten with oil, And food which sustains man's heart.”

NAS Pro 3:10 “So your barns will be filled with plenty, And your vats will overflow with new wine.”

NAS Isa 25:6 “And the LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, And refined, aged wine.”

NAS Joe 2:24 “And the threshing floors will be full of grain, And the vats will overflow with the new wine and oil.”

NAS Joh 2:1 And on the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 and Jesus also was invited, and His disciples, to the wedding. 3 And when the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus *said to Him, "They have no wine." 4 And Jesus *said to her, "Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come." 5 His mother *said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it." 6 Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. 7 Jesus *said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water." And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And He *said to them, "Draw some out now, and take it to the headwaiter." And they took it to him. 9 And when the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter *called the bridegroom, 10 and *said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first, and when men have drunk freely, then that which is poorer; you have kept the good wine until now.

It is also noteworthy that Jesus and his followers may have imbibed the wine of the day: NAS Luke 7:33"For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, 'He has a demon!' 34 The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!'

To Drink or Not?

I must state the obvious: drunkenness is a sin, not a disease. This should not be debated; it is the clear teaching of Scripture. The issue is whether the Christian should drink alcohol if he/she can do so without becoming drunk.

As with all issues of biblical belief and practice, our intent must be to honestly handle the Scriptures. Personal preferences, family practices, or church traditions must be referenced only as secondary considerations in the process of interpreting Scripture.

One study tabulates 33 negative, 50 positive, and 128 neutral usages of the various terms for alcoholic drink appearing in the Bible (A Biblical Survey of Wine, nd). This piece of data alone seems to lead to the conclusion that moderation rather than abstinence is the teaching of the Bible.

From an abstinence perspective, it would be tempting to agree with some who assert that whenever the term "wine" is used in the Bible it refers to fresh, unfermented juice. However, this simply can not be substantiated.

Or, it would be attractive to conclude that in passages where wine is condemned, the reference is to fermented drink, while passages which commend wine refer to fresh juice. However, it is impossible to prove this linguistic meaning of the term. In fact, there may not be a single, clear cut instance of the term as “unfermented drink” in the Scripture. Whatever the biblical “wine” was, it had intoxicating qualities. Though it is proper to defer to the context when the linguistic factors are not decisive, context usually does not help prove the “unfermented” usage. Rather, it typically supports either a fermented or neutral use. An example of this may be the Leviticus prohibition of priests from using wine when they perform priestly tasks:

NAS Lev 10:8 The LORD then spoke to Aaron, saying, 9 "Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you may not die-- it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations-- 10 and so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, 11 and so as to teach the sons of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them through Moses.

So, if "wine" refers to grape juice, why then is it prohibited? Yet if "wine" refers to fermented drink, which it probably does, then the prohibition is clearly not universal and total abstinence cannot be supported.

It must, therefore, honestly be concluded that the Scriptural terms normally, if not exclusively, refer to alcoholic drink.

This, however, does not necessarily mean that moderation is the only valid conclusion that can be drawn from the biblical data. More likely, the use of alcohol as a beverage falls into the general arena of wisdom. Each believer must make his/her choice based on a Spirit-informed conscience. Consequently, I offer a number of considerations that may argue for total abstinence as the wisest lifestyle choice.

  1. It is hard to ignore the judgmental language used in the passages which condemn wine and wine users. For instance, Proverbs 20:1 speaks so derogatorily of the drink itself that it is reasonable to question the practice of drinking at all.
  2. In light of the possible disaster associated with drinking alcohol, the discerning Christian will at least ask, "Why must I drink? Why is drinking so important to me? Why should I risk it?" Anyone who cannot conduct business, or engage in pleasant social interaction, or celebrate romance or special occasions without alcohol needs to take a penetrating peek at himself.
  3. Even if it is biblically sound to generally conclude that drinking is permitted but becoming drunk is sinful, the Christian may choose abstinence rather that moderation because he fully understands his innate tendency toward lack of self control! He may choose not place himself in jeopardy because he identifies with Paul's lament: NAS Rom 7:18 “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.”
  4. Wine was used in biblical times as a common beverage in part because of water purification problems. The use of wine was not a social evil. This of course is not true in western culture today. How does the wine used in Bible days compare with today’s alcoholic drinks? Though there is much historical debate and the question is difficult to answer, the wine of biblical times was probably not high in alcohol content. Today's alcoholic drinks may bear little similarity to those of biblical times. In biblical times water was normally mixed with wine in at least 3x1 and up to 20x1 ratios; yet drinkers could still become intoxicated. Drinking unmixed wine and low water-content wine was perceived as a barbarian custom (Robert Stein, "Wine Drinking in New Testament Times,” Christianity Today, June 20, 1975,). Because the alcohol content of common alcoholic beverages today may be ten times greater than in the biblical era, the Christian should at least think twice about drinking.
  5. Only total abstinence, not moderation, assures that the Christian will never be drunk or become a drunkard. Most often people do not intend to get drunk. Certainly they do not intend to become dependent on alcohol. Therefore, one might reason that the wisest decision is to refuse to have the first drink.
  6. Drinking may give the wrong message, albeit unintended, to our children. Sadly, it is often true that what the parent does in moderation, the child often does to excess. Statistics demonstrate that 28% of teens have their first drink at home or the home of one of their friends! (Indianapolis Star, July 16, 1995). In light of this, the concerned parent may chose not to drink at all. To be sure, this does not guarantee that the children will adopt the life practices of the parents.

Consequently, as a simple matter of wisdom, one may choose abstinence rather than moderation. I have intentionally not introduced the cause-my-brother-to-stumble argument frequently used for abstinence. Though the nuances of Christian liberty may be germane, they are not the driving factors in my consideration of this matter.

Conclusion

Clearly total abstinence cannot be supported as a direct biblical injunction. The matter is left to the believer’s discretion. Therefore, the use or non-use of alcoholic beverages should not be a mark of orthodoxy nor should it become a test of fellowship between believers.

However, wisdom may lead some Christians to choose abstinence rather than moderation. In the same manner that emancipation rather than slavery, monogamy rather than polygamy, and the doctrine of the trinity are accepted by orthodox Christians on the basis of deductions from Biblical principles rather than direct Biblical didactic, so it may be concluded that abstaining from alcoholic drink is the wisest lifestyle choice for the believer.

An After Word

I offer a thought or two regarding whether leaders in Christ’s church are held to a different standard.

Aspiring elders are required to be "not addicted to wine" (mh. pa,roinon) according to Paul's qualification lists (NAS 1Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7). Literally this noun describes one who is "alongside of wine." A common rendering is "drunken or addicted" (see NIV, ESV, RSV). However, one could naturally take this as an injunction to avoid having any association or contact with wine at all. Nonetheless, this may not be an adequate reason to reject the common rendering of “drunken.”

On the other hand, acknowledging this as directive against any drinking does make sense in light of the nature of the overseer’s task and is in harmony with the previous requirement (1Timothy 3:2) to be "temperate" (nhfa,lion which conveys the notion of sobriety or self-controlled but without reference to alcohol per se). This also coincides with the special prohibition for Old Testament priests in the performance of their duties (NAS Ezekiel 44:21 “Nor shall any of the priests drink wine when they enter the inner court.”).

Whatever this requirement of elders may be, it is apparently distinguished from the directive given to deacons as well as that given to older women (NAS 1 Timothy 3:8“Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine {mh. oi;nw| pollw/| prose,contaj literally meaning to have toward} or fond of sordid gain.” NAS Titus 2:3 “Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine (mh. oi;nw| pollw/| dedoulwme,naj), teaching what is good.”)

All of this has led me to a preference, as opposed to a conviction, that elders abstain from drinking alcohol as a matter of wisdom. However, disagreement over this issue does not diminish the respect I and my fellow elders have for one another, nor does it inhibit our harmonious ministry together.

I also want to acknowledge that because of these considerations I do require that members of the vocational pastoral staff practice abstinence during the time of their service to the church whether they agree with this position or not.

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.