The Christian and Alcohol

feature-article.gifFor decades, alcohol has been considered entirely “unchristian.” Christians, it was commonly assumed, were “teetotalers,” abstaining completely from drinking alcohol. Bending beneath the world’s unending parade of television commercials and billboards touting the joys and excitement of alcohol, the Christian community has become ambivalent about its relationship to alcohol in recent years. Questions that were once taken for granted are now open for discussion. What about social drinking? How much is too much? When must a person say “when”? Is there a place for alcohol in a Christian’s life?


Can vs. Should
First and foremost, we must frame this question correctly. Many argue that since the Bible does not expressly forbid the drinking of alcohol, the Christian is free to imbibe. In their minds, the question is merely, “Does the Bible say a Christian can’t drink alcohol?” We cannot turn to any passage that says, “Thou shalt not drink alcoholic beverages,” just as there is no Bible verse that says, “You may drink alcoholic beverages as long as your blood alcohol level is below the legal limit of the state in which you reside.” Therefore, the question we should ask is much broader than simply, “Does the Bible say I can’t?”
In all of life, what can be done is not the same as what should be done. The question, then, is not whether a Christian can drink alcoholic beverages. Certainly he is capable. The question ought rather to be, should a Christian drink alcoholic beverages?
Jesus Christ has redeemed the Christian’s spirit, soul, and body by his death on the cross (1 Cor 6:19–20). In light of God’s gracious work in salvation, the believer is responsible to obey and glorify God with his entire life (Eph 2:8–10; 1 Cor 10:31). The believer does not have the right or the freedom to do as he pleases with his life since he belongs to God. Therefore, we must ask whether or not God would be most glorified by a Christian drinking alcohol. With this in mind, let’s look at what the Bible says about alcohol.
“Be Not Drunk With Wine”
First, God’s Word is clear that a Christian should not be intoxicated. Ephesians 5:18 says, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” The Bible forbids drunkenness and commands the believer to be under the control of the Holy Spirit, which results in obedience to the Word of God (cf. Eph 5:19–22). Drunkenness and drinking bouts are characteristic of an unbeliever’s life, not a believer’s (1 Pet 4:3; Gal 5:21; Rom 13:13). Those whose lives are characterized by drunkenness will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:10). Therefore, a local church must discipline a professing believer who is a perpetual drunkard out of its membership and treat him as an unbeliever (1 Cor 5:11).
Scripture forbids drunkenness, yet some Christians argue for drinking in moderation. How drunk is “drunk”? When is a person no longer under the control of the Holy Spirit?
“Wine is a Mocker”
The Old Testament is full of warnings about the dangers of alcohol. Although it looks alluring, its effects are devastating (Prov 23:31–32). Alcohol is a “mocker,” and those who fall prey to its deception are unwise (Prov 20:1). Those who love alcohol doom themselves to a life of poverty (Prov 21:17). Isaiah pronounces a woe on the people of Israel who have pursued alcohol with a passion (5:11). In fact, Isaiah says that this passion for alcohol is one of many sins causing the downfall of the nation (5:13).
In addition to warnings about the dangers of alcohol, Scripture also provides vivid examples. Noah, a godly man, became intoxicated and exposed himself (Gen 9:21). Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had an incestuous relationship with him (Gen 19:30–38). In no way did the use of alcohol draw these men closer to God, nor did it spur their families on to godly behavior.
Furthermore, the Bible forbids the Christian to be controlled by any substance, even if that thing is not sinful in and of itself. 1 Corinthians 6:12 says, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”
The New Testament places specific requirements on local church leadership regarding drinking alcohol. An overseer must be characterized by being “not given to wine” (1 Tim 3:3). Deacons and older women are also commanded to be “not given to much wine” (1 Tim 3:8; Titus 2:3).
The Bible clearly prohibits drunkenness, issues caution regarding the abuse of alcohol, and provides examples of dangers of alcohol.
Is Wine Always Wine?
The purpose of wine in biblical times differed drastically from the use of alcohol today. In Scripture, it served to disinfect (Luke 10:34), relieve pain (Matt 27:34; Prov 31:6), and purify drinking water (1 Tim 5:23). Drunk as a beverage, wine in biblical times was always mixed with water, sometimes as many as ten parts water to one part wine. If it was not diluted by at least three parts, the rabbis could not bless it. To drink unmixed “strong drink” was abuse. In contrast, alcoholic beverages today, distilled for drastically increased alcoholic content, are designed to intoxicate.
Several different Hebrew and Greek words are translated by the English word “wine” in the Bible. Wine in the Bible is not identical to the beverage we call wine today. In fact, the word “wine” in the Bible may not even refer to an alcoholic beverage at all. The context must determine what kind of beverage to which the passage refers.
The wine referred to in Scripture can involve anything from “new wine” (unfermented fruit juice) to unmixed wine (“strong drink”). For example, in Matthew 9:17, Jesus said, “Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.” Here the same word translated “wine” refers both to “new wine” (unfermented grape juice which is put into the wineskins) and fermented wine (which breaks the old wineskins apart and runs out). The context is essential to determining whether the wine referred to is alcoholic or not.
Context sheds light on some passages in the Old Testament that seem to commend alcohol or its intoxicating “buzz.” For example, Zechariah 9:17 says, “For how great is his [God’s] goodness, and how great is his beauty! Corn shall make the young men cheerful, and new wine the maids.” Is alcohol a gift of God’s goodness and beauty? Look carefully at the verse: Corn and new wine are the gifts of God, the gifts of a bountiful harvest (specifically in the context of the restored nation of Israel during the Millennium). The passage describes the abundant harvest of grains and fruit from God, and that harvest will bring joy. The Bible is not commending intoxication here.
Some have argued that God actually commanded the drinking of “strong drink” (a clearly alcoholic beverage) in the tithe offering. Deuteronomy 14:26 says, “And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household.” In the context (vv. 22–25), God commands the Israelites to bring one tenth (a tithe) of the produce of their fields, vineyards, olive groves, flocks, and herds to him each year. If they lived too far away from the central altar to bring the actual goods, they were to bring the monetary value and buy those goods near the sanctuary and offer them there. However, in verse 26 it speaks of “strong drink,” that is, unmixed or concentrated alcohol. Unmixed wine was not for drinking, but was valuable as a disinfectant, medicine, and water-purifying additive. Therefore, God was not commanding the drinking of unmixed wine in opposition to the many warnings and prohibitions found throughout the Old Testament (Deut 29:6; Prov 20:1; Isa 5:11, 22; Isa 24:9; 28:7).
“Use a Little Wine”
Some see Paul’s command in 1 Timothy 5:23 as a loophole for the Christian: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” Here Paul commends wine to Timothy, but to say that this verse pronounces an apostolic blessing on drinking in moderation proves too much. First, this command implies that Timothy did not feel free to drink alcohol. Timothy understood that alcohol was not conducive to a Christian life and completely abstained, even to the point of refusing alcohol to purify water or medicine that contained alcohol. Second, the purpose of drinking this alcohol was not to relax with friends at social gatherings; rather, this was a medicinal use of alcohol. Since we have no need to treat our drinking water today, using this verse to argue for social drinking is unreasonable.
Should A Christian Drink Alcohol?
In conclusion, the Bible forbids drunkenness and issues many warnings about the dangers of drinking alcohol, even though the wine of Bible times contained significantly less alcohol than today’s alcoholic beverages. Drinking in order to become intoxicated or for recreational purposes was considered an abuse of alcohol in Bible times.
This is a far cry from the world’s perspective pushed by television and Hollywood. “Are you celebrating?” they ask. “No party is complete without alcohol. Are you depressed? Drown your sorrows in alcohol. Feeling amorous? Nothing is more romantic than alcohol. Want to show off your machismo? Want to look cool to your friends? Want to impress your coworkers? Drinks all around!”
The world offers alcohol as the answer to every situation of life. Alcohol has become one of the world’s many gods, another manifestation of mankind’s fundamental rebellion against God. Man seeks to avoid worshiping and submitting to God (Rom 1:21–25) by putting another god (in this case, alcohol) ahead of the one and only true God (Exod 20:3).
How should a Christian respond? The culture and purpose of the alcoholic scene is decidedly anti-God. The Bible forbids drunkenness, issues warnings about the dangers of alcohol, and gives examples of its destructive power. The answer the Bible commends to us is not a chapter-and-verse command, but a matter of biblical wisdom.
In light of the Bible’s warnings, the dangers of alcohol, and our desire to please God in all things, it is wise to abstain completely from alcohol. Only by total abstinence can a Christian absolutely avoid the controlling power of alcohol, its harmful effects, and potential damage to his testimony.

September 2006

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