Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Perception for today...Christianity and Alcohol

I know I haven't posted anything in over a year, but I haven't really had much in the way of literary inspiration.  Today though I have.  We are coming up on a more festive time of year.  Thanksgiving is just around the corner, followed closely by Christmas and New Year's.  A common indulgence around these holidays is to have a drink or two, even for those that rarely if ever drink any other time of the year.  What should the Christian do though? Is it really OK for a Christian to have a glass of wine or champagne this holiday season?  And what does the Bible say about it?

There are many things that various Christians have differences over.  Alcohol is just one of them.  There are some churches and denominations that teach drinking alcohol in any amount is a sin, and there are others that teach that there is no problem with it, only drinking too much or getting drunk.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist church where it was taught that having any kind of alcohol in any amount is sinful and not for any Christian. 

There are many dangers to alcohol that give good reason to preach against it.  It impairs judgement and lowers inhibitions.  It slows reflexes and distorts speech, vision, and hearing.  Driving a vehicle while intoxicated, in my opinion, is one of the most dangerous and reckless things one can do. Over time it can cause liver damage.  A man prone to anger who drinks may become more violent.  It has ruined marriages, broken up families, and brought financial ruin on people.  Drinking too much in a short span of time is even lethal.

There is more than one verse that warns of the dangers of alcohol consumption:

Proverbs 20:1--"Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise."

Proverbs 21:17--Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and olive oil will never be rich."
Isaiah 5:11--"Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine."

Romans 14:21--"It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall."

Ephesians 5:18--"Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit,"

It seems that this is a fairly simple case that Christians should not drink alcohol and that doing so is sinful.  However, this is not the extent of what the Bible says about alcohol.

Numbers 15:5-7--"With each lamb for the burnt offering or the sacrifice, prepare a quarter of a hin of wine as a drink offering.  With a ram prepare a grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with a third of a hin of olive oil, and a third of a hin of wine as a drink offering. Offer it as an aroma pleasing to the Lord."

Psalm 4:7--"Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound"

Psalm 104:14-15--"He makes grass grow for the cattle,
    and plants for people to cultivate—
    bringing forth food from the earth:
15 wine that gladdens human hearts,
    oil to make their faces shine,
    and bread that sustains their hearts."

Proverbs 31:6--Let beer be for those who are perishing, wine for those who are in anguish!"

Ecclesiastes 9:7--Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do

1 Timothy 5:23--"Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses."

In the first set of verses, it seems that alcohol is condemned, while in the second set of verses, it seems that alcohol is allowed and in some cases even celebrated.  How do we rectify these sets of passages? 

A reasonable answer would be that the Bible is speaking of different types of wine, unfermented (what we would call grape juice) that is often referred to as "new wine," and fermented wine which contains alcohol.  This indeed is what many Christians and pastors say.  There is a bit of problem with this idea though. 

Fermentation is essentially a decaying process.  It is inevitable that if grapes are left, they will decay, ferment, and produce alcohol.  Have you ever left grapes or some other fruits out too long?  If you take a whiff of it, it will probably smell a bit likely alcohol or wine (I wouldn't recommend eating it or drinking that juice though).  The grapes have fermented.  Fermentation takes place in about 3 days or so (assuming the grape juice is not preserved).  This is a fairly quick amount of time.  Now, there is a way to prevent fermentation from taking place.  It is a process called distillation.  The problem is that distillation was not discovered until nearly 1900 years after New Testament times.  The ancient Jews and Christians had no way of preserving the grape juice.  New wine, even as new as 3 days old, was still alcoholic.

There is also a Biblical problem with saying that new wine is unfermented, containing no alcohol, and thus not intoxicating.  In Acts 2, at Pentecost, the believers were prophesying and speaking in tongues.  Some onlookers mocked them and instead accused them of being drunk.

Acts 2:13--"Others mocking said, "They are full of new wine."

If new wine is not intoxicating, how could people accuse them of being drunk?  We also see no distinction in the Old Testament between the intoxicating effects of old and new wine.

Hosea 4:11--"...old wine and new wine take away their understanding."

Another option is that the wine in Biblical times wasn't as strong as what we have today.  I see a couple of problems with this option.  First, this idea typically comes from sources such as Homer who wrote in the Odyssey about wine with a 20:1 water to wine ratio.  This likely had to do with the strength of the wine, needing to bring the alcohol content down to a drinkable level.  Furthermore, the Mishna and Talmud, ancient Hebrew writings, spoke of wine with a ratio of only 2 or 3 parts water to wine.  The wine would often be about 15% alcohol, meaning when diluted, it was still 5-7.5% alcohol, on par and in some cases more alcohol than today's wine. 

Also, wine diluted with water was symbolic of a bad thing, spiritual adultery. 

Isaiah 1:21-22--"See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!  She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her--but now murderers!  Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water."

The other problem I see with this line of thinking is that whether or not the wine contained less alcohol or the same, it still contained alcohol, and could still intoxicate.  An average person today could drink perhaps half a glass of wine and not feel any effects at all, whereas a few drinks in biblical times could still lead to intoxication.  Which is worse?

With all of this said, the greatest example of a Christian to have is that of Jesus.  What was his attitude about alcohol?  The most prominent story about Jesus and wine is the wedding at Cana.  In the story, found in John 2, Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are all at a wedding banquet.  At some point during the party, they run out of wine.  Jesus' mother comes to him and tells him that the wine is gone, basically expecting him to do something about it.  Jesus then commands for the servants to fill some jars with water and take some of it to the master of the house, having turned the water into wine.  Pay attention to the master's response.

John 2:10--"Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."

First, a note about the word "wine" in this verse.  Some might say that the wine here is referring to grape juice, or unfermented wine.  The word used in the Greek is "oinos."  This is the same word used in Ephesians 5:18 and Romans 14:21 that I quoted above which people will use to condemn alcohol of all kind.  Also, the Greek word used to refer to having had too much to drink in the passage is "methyo" which means to be drunken.

Second, this passage really only makes sense if we are talking about alcoholic wine.  A person can not be drunken, having had too much to drink, on grape juice.  That effect comes from alcohol.  The reason that a party thrower would generally bring out cheaper wine later is because the guests have already had enough of the good wine to become intoxicated and not notice (or care) that the quality of the wine has gotten worse.  And yet, the master of the house said this wine was the good stuff!  It was the quality of wine usually served first that people would get intoxicated off of.

What we are seeing here is that Jesus was serving alcoholic wine.  If drinking alcohol, in and of itself, were sinful, would Jesus really give it to somebody to drink?  He would be encouraging and enabling sin, something that Jesus, being God, does not do.

Even if you accept that Jesus served alcoholic wine, you may still not except that Jesus would ever drink it.  See what the book of Luke says though.

Luke 7:33-34--"For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man (Jesus) came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’  But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

Once again, the word used for wine here is oinos.  John the Baptist took a Nazarite vow, which specifically forbid drinking alcohol (wine).  Verse 34 contrasts Jesus to John though, saying that he did eat and drink.  And even more so than that, because of the fact that He drank he was called a drunkard by some! 

So what does all of this mean?  What it doesn't mean is that drinking in excess, becoming drunk, and being addicted to alcohol is OK.  The Bible does have many verses about not drinking "much wine." We also know how many problems that being drunk can cause.  From what I can see however, is that while being drunk would be a problem, the act of drinking alcohol is not forbidden in the Bible, and certainly not sinful.  If drinking alcohol were sinful, Jesus wouldn't have served it or drank it himself.

Furthermore, if a Christian wants to have an alcoholic drink, they should feel free to do so.  To mandate that a Christian should not drink because it is a sin amounts to legalism.  It is placing a man-made law on the Christian that God never gave.  Looking down on a Christian who drinks alcohol (when you yourself do not) would be self-righteous.

On the flip side of that though, a person who does not wish to drink should never be forced to or looked down upon for not drinking.  There are many reasons that people do not drink.  Some people feel convicted and led by God to not drink, and that conviction should be respected in those people.  The same goes for any reason that a person wishes to honor God by not drinking.  You can substitute wine for meat in the following verses.

Romans 14:5-6--"One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." 

Some people choose not to drink because they have or had a relative that was an alcoholic.  They may also be a recovering alcoholic themselves.  It also might be that they are unsure of their ability to resist alcohol and drinking too much.  These are all good reasons to not drink.  In cases like these, we should be careful to be respectful.  In these cases, it may be best to not drink in their presence.  To do so may be flaunting your decision to drink, and you would be no better than the rich men who would plunge their coins in the offering pot merely so that all could see their giving (Matthew 6:1-4).

So should a Christian drink alcohol?  The answer is...maybe.  A Christian has the freedom under Christ to drink if they so choose.  It would be foolish to drink in excess (and there is no single, standard answer as to how much would be excess).  A Christian also has the freedom to choose not to drink.  Both Christians can honor God in their choice.

A related note:  Do I drink alcohol?  Yes, sometimes I do.  There are some kinds of beer and wine that I drink on occasion because I happen to like the taste.  I tend to not drink much hard liquor because honestly there isn't much hard liquor that I do like the taste of.  Because of the higher alcohol content, I also drink less when it is a mixed drink with harder liquor.  I also don't drink often for two reasons:  1) It is expensive.  2) I have an alcoholic in my extended family and I know that increases my chances of being more easily addicted to alcohol. 


  1. A rather lengthy but very well thought out and written post! Thanks for writing this and welcome back to the blogosphere! :) - Rachel

  2. Oh and btw....I do believe we agree on this topic. :) Love you hubby! - Rachel