The Believer and Alcohol

Culture endorses the use of alcohol as a beverage. Multiplied millions in the United States drink wine, beer and distilled spirits. Many professed followers of Jesus Christ socially participate. Even some ministers endorse the practice. What should the believer do?

In theory, apart from the dire warnings of Scripture, responsible alcohol consumption is acceptable for a Christian. In reality, few responsibly use alcohol. Statistics abound to show the result of alcohol abuse in the break-up of marriages, destruction of health and the loss of life. Without using one Bible verse, just looking at the devastating effect of alcohol on our society should cause a person to be a total abstainer.

Believers in Jesus Christ use the Bible as the final rule for faith and practice. Using the Bible, a person should be able to come to a conviction about the use of alcohol.

It is obvious to the casual reader of the Bible that wine was a common drink of people of faith. From Noah to Paul, Bible heroes used wine. Strong drink is mentioned in the Bible as well. There is little doubt that many godly biblical figures drank alcohol as a beverage. Various Scripture verses indicate the blessing of God on the people of Israel in the Old Testament through wine (Psalm 104:15). Some worship incorporated the use of wine (Exodus 29:40). To deny the use of wine in the Bible is not a defensible position.

There were other practices in Bible times that we do not do today. Multiple wives, concubines, even slave ownership were accepted practices, regulated and not directly forbidden in the Scriptures. Today, benefiting from the full counsel of Scripture, we have come to understand that these practices are unacceptable.

A biblical inerrantist sees difficult passages in the Bible, even paradoxes, but no contradictions. To believe in biblical inerrancy one must have a high view of the nature of Scripture. However interpretation within the bounds of inerrancy is very wide. With all of the perceived endorsements of wine in the Bible, some could see a conflict when Scripture warns about the use of wine and strong drink.

Proverbs 23:31 makes perhaps the strongest case for a command to not use alcoholic wine. While some Hebrew scholars point to the difficulty of the translation to English, there is little dispute that the verse gives a prohibition to even look on fermented wine in this context. Proverbs 20:1 is another verse condemning the use of wine and strong drink. Virtually every mention of wine in the book of Proverbs is a warning about the use of alcoholic beverages. Wisdom says stay away from it.

An interpretation tool known as the “law of first mention” would lead us to believe that the use of wine as a beverage is not a good practice. Genesis 9:20-25 tells of the sad account of Noah drinking wine, becoming intoxicated and bringing a curse upon his grandson. Drunkenness is universally condemned in Scripture (Ephesians 5:18).

Those who refrained from the use of alcoholic drink were commended and used in a great way. Numbers 6 tells of the Nazarite vow that even went beyond abstinence from alcohol to forbid the use of grapes and raisins. The Rechabites were commended by the Lord for obeying their father in abstaining from wine (Jeremiah 35:14). John the Baptist was great in the sight of the Lord and did not drink wine or strong drink (Luke 1:15).

Civil and spiritual leaders are told to abstain from alcohol as a beverage (Proverbs 31:4; 1 Timothy 3:3). Daniel refused to drink wine and God blessed his conviction (Daniel 1:8). Evidence abounds that God is pleased when people avoid alcohol as a beverage. His blessing can and will fall upon those who refrain from imbibing.

Without too much appeal to history or extra-biblical material, evidence exists that shows the ancients used a very different beverage than today’s wine. Several techniques were practiced to prevent or delay the fermentation process. Storage in a cool place extended the life of grape juice. This could have been done in caves and wells. Boiling prevented the fermentation of grape juice.

Wine was diluted for consumption. Scholars say that it varied from 1 part wine/4 parts water, to 1 part wine/20 parts water. The latter was more water purification than cutting the strength of the alcohol.

Word studies in the original language point to the possibility of generic usage of the words translated “wine.” Some scholars say “yayin” and “tirosh” (Hebrew) and “oinos” (Greek) can mean non-fermented, non-alcoholic drink (Isaiah 16:10, Joel 1:10). “Tirosh” in some English versions is translated “grapes” (Micah 6:15). In the same verse “yayin” is translated “wine.” Cider is an English word that can mean alcoholic or non-alcoholic juice. “Wine” as translated in most English versions could refer to fermented or non-fermented liquid.

There is biblical evidence that the ancients drank non-alcoholic “wine” or what we would call “grape juice.” In Deuteronomy 32:14, Moses said the Israelites drank the “blood of the grape,” not an alcoholic beverage. Perhaps the greatest example of grape juice use is found in Genesis 40:11. Here grapes are pressed into a cup and given to Pharaoh to drink. This “pure blood of the grape” could not have been alcoholic. Jesus avoided the use of the word “oinos” when He instituted the Lord’s Supper. He referred to the “fruit of the vine.” Was this euphemistic or did Jesus use a word that would avoid the endorsement of an alcoholic drink? We cannot be dogmatic either way.

Those who advocate a Christian’s use of alcohol as a beverage point to New Testament passages to contend for their view. Four particular places of contention:

The wedding at Cana (John 2:1-10) – Advocates of beverage alcohol say that Jesus turned the water into alcoholic beverage. Since “oinos” could be non-fermented, the drink could have had no alcoholic content. Habakkuk 2:15 would seem to condemn promotion of alcohol use to the point of drunkenness. The wedding participants were already apparently intoxicated. Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence in the text that Jesus drank the wine, whether it was intoxicating or not.

“Drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake” (1 Timothy 5:23) – Again, two reasonable explanations help us understand the circumstances. First, Timothy must have been a total abstainer, because Paul told him to no longer drink only water. Secondly, alcoholic drink was used as a medicinal agent. Several times in Scripture wine or strong drink is employed as an antiseptic or anesthetic. For whatever reason, Paul recommended wine for a medicinal purpose. This is not beverage alcohol.

“Jesus was a winebibber” (Matthew 11:18, 19) – Advocates of alcohol as a beverage might say that Jesus drank alcoholic beverages; therefore we should be free to do so. Jesus was not a winebibber any more than John the Baptist was demon possessed. The critics of Jesus had slandered John. They had no credibility.

“The Lord’s Supper element is wine” (1 Corinthians 11:20, 21) – The Corinthians were guilty of the wrong attitude toward the Supper. It is not too great a leap to think they would be guilty of using the wrong element, a beverage with alcoholic content. The Corinthians were not known for their orthodoxy. Factions in the Corinthian church practiced open immorality in the membership, sectarianism, and the abuse of spiritual gifts.
Christian Liberty

Can a person drink alcohol as a beverage and be a Christian? Yes. Is it best for a person to drink alcohol as a Christian? No. The question is not, “How much liberty do I have in my lifestyle?” The question should be, “How much can I seek to please the Lord Jesus and be the best testimony for Him?”

Some behavior is regulated. Theological adherents to the regulatory principle may say that alcohol use is not forbidden; therefore I am free to participate. Some behavior is regulated by precept where the Bible says, “Thou shalt not.” In other areas behavior is regulated by principles. The horrible practice of slavery was defended from Scripture because the Bible not only did not specifically forbid it, but actually gave guidelines for the practice of it. Virtually everyone sees the Bible teaching that slavery is not the best for societies seeking to live out Christ’s law of love. Abortion, tobacco use and even marijuana use are not specifically forbidden by name in Scripture, but biblical principles are clear on these practices.

Some professed believers and even ministers of the gospel are advocating alcohol as a beverage as a Christian right or liberty. They would say to call for total abstinence is legalism. Legalism is the observance of outward rules for self-exaltation. Christian spirituality is the performance of outward conduct for Christ’s exaltation. Some who advocate abstinence become prideful in their practice.

Abundant warnings are found concerning exercising liberty:

1 Peter 2:16 – “…not using liberty as a cloak for vice,”

2 Peter 2:19 – “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage.”

Galatians 5:13 – “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
Corinthian Principles

Certain teachings that the Apostle Paul used to help the believers at Corinth have been called “The Corinthian Principle.” This is making conduct choices on the basis of how it affects others, how those choices affect you and how it advances the Kingdom of God. Applying these principles to the use of alcohol should bring every believer to the position of abstinence.

Spiritually weak Christians will stumble if we exercise our liberty in the use of alcohol (1 Corinthians 8:13, 10:23, 24).
The potential of alcohol abuse and addiction is present with anyone. The best route is abstinence (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Unbelievers can be distracted from Christ by a Christian’s exercise of liberty in the use of alcohol as a beverage (1 Corinthians 10:23).

Arguments can be given that someone somewhere will be offended about almost anything. This is true. However, the use of beverage alcohol in our current American culture will violate at least two of three principles on a regular basis.

In the Baptist Faith and Message, Article 15 mandates that we seek what is best for our culture. For society’s benefit and the advancement of the Kingdom of God believers should practice total abstinence from alcohol as a beverage. All followers of Jesus Christ should live holy and separate in the world (1 John 2:15). Our focus in life should be the Lord Jesus, not our liberty.

by Jim Richards

reprinted from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission