Should Christians Drink Alcohol?
I first thought of titling this article “Why I Can Drink Beer, but You Can’t!”
But in the spirit of charity, I figured a title that could be perceived as click-bait might be too provocative and would push some over the edge who were already teetering on the brink of emotional frustration about an issue they might not truly understand.
That said, the original title still holds true in spirit.
This longer-than-usual-post is offered as a general response to multiple conversations I’ve had with Christians recently about the use of alcohol, particularly one that ensued recently on my Facebook page when I posted an invitation to the Beer and Psalms at the church where I currently worship.
In no way is this meager article meant to persuade a single soul to sin against his conscience and go bar hopping tonight. If your conscience forbids you to drink alcoholic beverages, I implore you to abstain! — at least until your conscience has been edified by the Word of God; then enjoy the good gifts God has given in the full faith and liberty of the gospel (Romans 14:23).
I do, however, intend to persuade any readers who are willing to rethink how they think about the subject. In other words, the real reason for this post, the reason behind the reason — is not to get you to drink alcohol or approve of my drinking of it, but to get you to think about how you have been trained to think, how you arrived at your current position.
Further, this post will, in no conceivable way, touch every rational argument for or against the use of alcohol by Christians. That would require a book or two, and many who are smarter and better than I at writing have already taken up the task on the subject.
What I will offer, though, is a little WD-40 to bust the rust loose and help get the gears turning in the right direction for some of my friends who should be rising above the typical emotive reactions, and thinking more rationally than they probably are. So, let’s see where this goes…
There are three positions Christian typically take concerning alcohol.
- First is the prohibition position. This position states alcohol as a substance is evil and drinking it in any context is sinful.
- Second is the abstention position. This position asserts that alcohol as a substance is not evil and drinking is not sinful, per se; yet, Christians should, for the sake of charity, entirely abstain from consuming it.
- The third position is the moderation position. This position affirms alcohol as a substance is a good gift from God, and should be used appropriately as all good gifts should be used — in moderation, with thanksgiving, and to the glory of God (Galatians 5:22–23, 1 Corinthians 10:30–31).
Affirmations of Alcohol in Scripture
When the Bible refers to alcoholic beverages, it mostly refers to wine, sometimes to strong drink. From here on in the post, for the sake of ease, I will lump all types of alcoholic beverages into one category, and use alcohol as a general rule. Throughout the whole of Scripture, there are at least four lawful uses of alcohol. Some divide these into more particular categories, but for our purposes, four works just fine.
Alcohol is a gift from God for drinking and celebration
“and spend the money for whatever you desire — oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.” (Deuteronomy 14:26, ESV)
“and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.” (Psalm 104:15, ESV)
“and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.”” (John 2:10, ESV)
Alcohol can be used to quench thirst.
“After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:28–30, ESV)
Alcohol is to be used in the sacraments
“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27–28, ESV)
“And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20, ESV)
Alcohol can be used for medicinal purposes
“(No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.)” (1 Timothy 5:23, ESV)
There are three kinds of prohibition concerning alcohol and two stern warnings.
First, as mentioned previously, in Scripture, all drunkenness is prohibited, period.
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,” (Ephesians 5:18, ESV)
Second, alcohol is prohibited in the undertaking of certain civic and religious duties.
The Levites were not to drink when they served in the temple.
“Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.” (Leviticus 10:9, ESV)
Kings were not to drink when they were sitting on the bench
“It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” (Proverbs 31:4–5, ESV)
Third, there was a prohibition for the Nazirites
“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried.” (Numbers 6:2–3, ESV)
A warning to those given to abuse alcohol
“Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them!” (Isaiah 5:11, ESV)
“Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” (Proverbs 20:1, ESV)
“Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.”” (Proverbs 23:29–35, ESV)
“Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink — you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” (Habakkuk 2:15, ESV)
A warning to those who would injure their own or their neighbors’ consciences.
“For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” (Romans 14:15, ESV)
“It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:21, ESV)
“But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23, ESV)
An Argument for Moderation
I was not raised in a Christian home, and although I heard the gospel as child and trusted Christ, I was never consistently active in church until my adult years. Through my teen years, I lived a typical worldly life in Las Vegas, abusing drugs and alcohol, mostly alcohol.
By God’s grace, after being stationed at Fairchild AFB, some Christians were placed in my path that mentored me in the faith, and I eventually joined an independent Baptist Church where it was taught that any use of alcohol was a sin. From 1992 until around 2006, I held the first position mentioned earlier and believed, as I had been taught, that alcohol as a substance was sinful. Because I believed it was sinful, I abstained to the glory of God, as a prohibitionist.
As a result of some years in the ministry, I became much more intentional about studying the Scriptures, church history, theology, literature, philosophy, etc. Having learned to read and think critically, many of my positions I had held as a younger Christian began to change. As a result, I embraced some of my earliest understanding of soteriology, became uprooted from my dispensational, pre-tribulational eschatology, and began to develop a different, but principled, approach to life and ministry, philosophically.
My journey wasn’t always pretty. Often it was awkward and clumsy. But in this journey, I have always sought to follow Christ and maintain a biblical foundation for my walk. As it should naturally follow, this is true of my position on alcohol as well.
Since about 2006, I’ve held the moderation position in principle, and since 2012, in practice.
What follows are few reasons I now affirm the moderation position concerning alcohol, rather than the prohibition or abstention position.
1. There is not a single prohibition against drinking alcohol given to all people for all occasions.
In every occasion where there is a general prohibition or warning, like that of Proverbs 20:1, the prohibition is against drunkenness, and not the alcohol itself.
The same way the pursuit of knowledge can potentially puff one up, as Paul warns (1 Corinthians 8:1), men who are overtaken by alcohol will potentially become a raging mocker. No one denies that the pursuit of knowledge is a bad thing in itself. But even concerning knowledge, there are warnings that must be heeded.
On this point prohibitionists are often unwittingly inconsistent in their application.
If we followed their logic on alcohol, and applied it to many other gifts God gives, married people would have to abstain from sex because it is so rampantly abused throughout the world. Healthy people would be prohibited from eating food because so many gluttons have destroyed their bodies with it. And–here’s a clincher–every gun-packing conservative would have to turn in his gun because people are killed by this evil vice at the rate of 91 souls every day in America alone. (Isn’t that the argument: guns don’t kill people, people kill people? And they just happen to use guns to do it.)
2. God gave alcohol as a good gift to humanity.
It’s humanity that abuses the good gifts of God. This cannot be denied by an honest reading of Scripture or an understanding of human nature. Remember, alcohol was one of the gifts God gave to the people of Israel in response to their obedience to him.
“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire — oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.” (Deuteronomy 14:22–26, ESV)
The Psalmist echoes this truth as he rejoices in the goodness of God:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent…You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.” (Psalm 104:1–2, 14–15, ESV)
The problem is not the gift itself, as was made plain in the first point, but the heart of man. When we place the onus of evil on the gift, we misplace the burden that should be on the heart of man who tends to abuse God’s gifts.
More importantly, we miss the gospel! One of the central theological truths regarding salvation is that man is depraved and needs a Savior, not another rule. As Spurgeon once stated when he was harassed for smoking cigars, “I find ten commandments, and it’s as much as I can do to keep them; and I’ve no desire to make them into eleven or twelve.”
In other words, to attack the object of abuse is to miss the real object of the sin, man’s heart. To do so is legalism and theological foolishness.
3. Jesus drank wine and celebrated with it.
On this point, many will be squirming in their seats. But the facts are there, and we have to deal with them. In Luke’s gospel Jesus said:
“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”” (Luke 7:33–35, ESV)
There would not have been an issue for the Jews to raise if Jesus was a teetotaler. But an honest reading of Scripture affirms that he drank alcohol, and did so publicly. Further, his very first miracle was to bless a large wedding celebration with an abundance of wine–like 150 gallons worth, give or take (John 2:1–11).
On this point, there are several arguments often raised.
Alcohol Content Is Different
One argument is that if it was alcoholic wine, then it was not as strong as the alcoholic beverages today. Many good scholars have raised this theory, and perhaps there is merit to it. Regardless, it doesn’t change the point that a gift is still a gift, and the abuse of that gift is still abuse of it, no matter where the threshold between use and abuse is placed.
For example, if it took ten glasses, say, to intoxicate a person in that epoch, and it only takes five glasses to intoxicate a person today, then the point remains the same. We are to enjoy the gift without abusing it, regardless if the intoxication threshold is just five glass instead of ten.
Alcohol is Destructive
Another point that is frequently raised is the narrative that alcohol destroys lives, makes drunkards out of men, kills people on the highway, and ruins families. This narrative is easily accepted on the basis of real stories of real people in rehab, who have been killed by a drunk driver, or who was the unfortunate victim of a father who abused alcohol, and in turn abused his family, etc.
To be sure, these circumstances are real and terrible. I am not in any way discrediting or diminishing the real pain people have suffered at the hands of alcohol abuse. But that is the problem! The alcohol didn’t do anything. The person who abused alcohol did though. That’s why the Scripture is filled with warnings about the abuse of alcohol. People are the object of those warnings; the inanimate bottle of alcohol is not.
The Bible Condemns Alcohol
A third objection is based on faulty hermeneutics. One of three or more fallacies are employed beyond the pathos of the previous objection.
One false hermeneutic often used, begs the question. This is a fallacy that ascribes all affirming mentions of wine in Scripture (yayin in the Old Testament; oinos in the New Testament) to non-alcoholic drink, and all negative mentions of wine in Scripture to alcoholic drink.
In other words, if a passage in the Bible speaks about wine in an affirming way, then the wine spoken of in that case is grape juice; and if it speaks about it in a prohibitive way, then it is alcoholic wine. This begs the question. Who says? On what standard are we to accept that hermeneutic.
And, yes, believe it or not, there are some who still argue this way… Additionally, to the chagrin of many prohibitionists using this line of reasoning, there is actually a word in the ancient world for non-alcoholic wine (the juice of the grape before it is fermented), but it is never used in Scripture. It’s the word, τρύξ, usually translated as must.
Another fallacy often used is a combination of circular reasoning, and the No True Scotsman fallacy. The fallacy of circular reasoning is to base a primary premise on a secondary premise that is itself based on the first premise. The No True Scotsman fallacy is when someone says something to the effect that no true Scotsman would do such-and-such-a-thing. Therefore, if you see a Scotsman doing the such-and-such-a-thing, then it must be that he is not a true Scotsman.
The way the fallacy is used in Scripture is usually in the context of John’s account of Jesus at the Wedding of Cana. When someone objects to the prohibitionist position by saying “Well, why is wine bad? Jesus turned water to wine.” The teetotaler will respond that he can prove Jesus made grape juice and not wine at the wedding of Cana. His reasoning goes something like this: Jesus is the Lamb of God, and the Lamb of God would never pollute his body with alcohol because it sinful to drink it, therefore the wine Jesus made must be grape juice.
One more problem with this argument is one of historical nature. Although there were ways in which grapes could be processed so as to keep them from fermenting, like boiling them into preserves, it wasn’t very efficient for making a drink. But in 1869, when Thomas Bramwell Welch pasteurized grape juice for the first time, to produce an “unfermented sacramental wine” for his Methodist church in New Jersey, Welch’s Grape Juice was born.
In other words, grape juice as we know it didn’t exist until more than 18 centuries after Jesus made wine in Cana. Futhermore, though a full treatment of this is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note, that from the time of Christ until the late 18th century in North America, wine was a staple throughout Christendom.
It wasn’t ever objected to the way it is today. As a matter of fact, one of the first works the Pilgrims accomplished upon settling in Massachusetts was to build a brewery.
4. The gospel is a gospel of liberty, not a gospel of slavery.
Paul exhorted the Galatian Christians this way:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, ESV)
Slavery in this context is referring to the yoke of legalism. Scripture warns us not to fall into this trap. The gospel is not a gospel of more rules; it’s a gospel of liberty and moderation. It’s the good news that Jesus has died and rose again for sinners and that he is making all things new. He’s bringing Eden back, folks–and, it’s going to be better than ever!
The gospel is a gospel of celebration and personal responsibility. On either side of this good news is a ditch. On one side is the ditch of legalism. On the other side is the ditch of licentiousness. To fall to either side is to fall, period. Both are sinful perversions of God’s grace, and not one more than the other.
In his graciousness, Jesus has called us to walk among those in this world who know not Christ and proclaim the good news to them. Drunkenness is certainly not good news, but neither is prohibition. Redemption and grace and kingdom living (celebration and responsibility) in the Spirit is good news. Part of our gospel witness is showing the world what it looks like to enjoy God’s good gifts as they were meant to be enjoyed (better read that line again).
In closing, I offer these final thoughts.
The sin of abusing alcohol has regrettably caused a great amount of heartache for multitudes. But so has the abuse of money, food, sex, guns, and a myriad other good gifts caused innumerable pain and suffering to millions of people throughout history. Prohibition of God’s gifts is not the answer. Grace and personal responsibility in the gospel are though.
TO THE FEARFUL OR WEAK
Many are fearful of alcohol because their conscience has been built up on a perverse teaching of the Scriptures; it’s like a brick house built on a crooked footing that needs to come down before it falls down.
Others are fearful because of pain involved from the abuse of alcohol. In either case, I encourage you to study the Bible, think through the issue rationally, not emotively, and build up your conscience, biblically. In the mean time, rejoice in your freedom to abstain to the glory of the Lord. He is pleased with you even though your conscience is weak.
If you are given to alcohol, meaning you have a propensity to abuse it and have issues with self-control, in honor of the Lord, and others who love you, and in honor of your health and sanctification, don’t drink alcohol! The Lord is pleased with you.
TO THE CONFIDENT
If your conscious is strong and you have liberty to imbibe, drink to the glory of God. But don’t drink alcohol when it’s unlawful to do so (when it’s illegal to drink under-age, before or while operating a vehicle, etc.), or when it causes a stumbling block to your neighbor. That is an abuse of the good gift (Romans 13:1–8 cf. Romans 14 & 15).
TO THE REST
But, where ever you stand, by all means, don’t pass judgment on your brother who imbibes in God’s good gift, and don’t despise your brother who abstains. Both are partaking of his liberty in Christ, and his drinking or abstaining honors the Lord.
Finally, if another’s drinking displeases you, this is not the same as offending you, causing a stumbling block. Displeasure is your problem, not your brother’s. It becomes his problem if he provokes you to drink against your conscience and causes you to sin.
And of course, this whole post has probably raised more questions than it answered, so leave your comments, but as you do, let us be reminded of the words of St. Paul:
“So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:12–23, ESV)