October 31, 2014.
When it comes to issues that drive huge wedges between Christians, the discussion over alcohol and whether or not it is sinful for a Christian to drink in moderation is probably one of the biggest wedges you can find. Some will say that any form of alcohol is bad in consumption while others will say that God has given alcohol as a blessing so long as we don’t abuse it just as with anything else we use in moderation. I’ve been considering writing about the topic for some time and I read an article today that pushed me to write about it. The article was well written and made some good points, and though I probably lean a little more to one side than the author did and might emphasize a few points more strongly, I did like what he had to say overall. I’ve decided to write my two cents on the debate, for what it’s worth, and hopefully let the scripture teach more than I can. I want to begin by saying that this is not a post of condemnation or a “holier-than-thou” discussion. I personally have never really had that much of a temptation towards alcohol. However, I have much bigger temptations and propensities toward other sins that you may never be bothered with. I know that we all have those sins that we struggle with and to bash on one that I don’t have a problem with would not be in the spirit of love that we are supposed to embody as Christians. I am writing this to explore the scripture that is given on the subject and to help anyone reading make wise decisions based in this scripture regarding alcohol.
For the sake of full disclosure, I must start out by saying that I don’t drink. I actually have a very bad view of alcohol and the effects that it has had on people throughout the ages. I was brought up in an environment that taught strictly against any form of drinking. From a young age, I have been taught how the bible is against alcohol in every respect and I have been trained how to present the argument from a scriptural standpoint that drinking, even if in moderation, is sinful. The problem, however, is that many of the arguments that I have been taught are simply incorrect (it almost feels bad to type that). Don’t get me wrong, I still think drinking is an unwise decision and I will lay out some better lines of reasoning (well, I think they’re better at least) later on, but some of the arguments that I was taught actually twist scripture to fit a certain doctrine, which is something those of my fellowship hate. We hate it when other people do it, but we don’t see it when we do the very same thing.
Let me give you an example. I’m sure that if you have any dogs in this fight, you knew the story of Jesus turing water into wine was going to come up at some point (I have yet to disappoint). John records this as Jesus’ first miracle done in Cana in Galilee. Those who say it is okay to drink in moderation will cite this passage night and day to show that Jesus approved of wine. I was taught how to battle this argument: For starters, the greek word for wine is (supposedly) ambiguous and can either mean wine as we think about it today or simply unfermented grape juice. Now, Jesus had them turn 6 vessels containing a combined total of up to 180 gallons of water. Habakkuk 2:15 says
“Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—
you pour out your wrath and make them drunk,
in order to gaze at their nakedness!”
If Jesus had made 180 gallons of intoxicating wine, he would have made enough wine to get the whole town drunk, and that would have been a sin according to Hab. 2:15. Jesus never sinned, therefore the wine he made must have been non-intoxicating!
The problem here is that we have taken so much out of context and fit it to our own theology here. First of all, let’s put Hab. 2:15 back into the context we ripped it from. Habakuk is a minor prophet who spoke in Jerusalem mostly against the Chaldeans (Babylonians). The first chapter consist of a dialog between God and the prophet with God answering the prophet’s complaints. In the context of which we find verse 15 of the second chapter, the Lord is giving a judgment on the Babylonians. So, from the beginning, this passage is specifically directed at the enemies of God’s people who had taken the people of God into captivity. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to find out one day that this passage had nothing to do with alcohol, but was rather using it as a metaphor. Regardless, for the time being we will take it literally. Notice what verse actually says. There are several things we have taken out of context when we apply this verse to Jesus turning the water to wine.
1. First and perhaps foremost, Jesus was not in the time of Babylonian captivity, nor was he with Babylonians or even Gentiles at this time.
2. The passage doesn’t actually say it is a sin to give alcohol to your neighbor. It says “woe to him,” which I guess can imply sin, but the next point will bear this out more, and it implies drinking to the point of drunkenness.
3. The point of this passage is the intent of giving the drink! “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—… in order to gaze at their nakedness!” There was sinful intent behind making the neighbor to drink, which is where the woe comes from. This, I can assure you, was not the intent of Jesus.
Furthermore, when we try to imply that Jesus would have sinned if he had made intoxicating wine or that we don’t know if it was intoxicating or not, there are several incorrect assumptions we have made based mostly on our lack of understanding of Jewish culture. Namely,
1. The wine that Jesus made must have had a high alcoholic content. Actually, there is no indication that necessitates this. The wine in those times was often diluted and did not always contain a high alcoholic content. Therefore, 180 gallons might not have been enough to make the whole town drunk. It probably wasn’t.
2. The people would abuse the wine. No, wine was a part of Jewish culture for different reasons. One of the reasons was that it was often safer to drink wine than it was water. The people in Jesus’ day knew how to handle wine and there is no indication that they would necessarily get carried away.
3. Jews didn’t have intoxicating wine at their wedding feasts. Ummm, that is simply wrong. Wine was a common thing to have at Jewish weddings.
3. There is no way we can tell if it was intoxicating or not. Actually, the context lends itself very well towards the notion that it was indeed alcoholic wine. There is a Greek word for non-intoxicating wine. That word is not used here. And though it is true that the Greek word here can be used for both intoxicating and non-intoxicating wine, the context necessitates that it was intoxicating. The master of the feast says “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). This really doesn’t make any sense if it was simply grape juice. As a further note, I had a friend point out that Jesus turning the water into fermented wine showed more power than if it was new (unfermented) wine, for he could have made that quickly. It takes much more time to ferment the wine.
I give you this long example not to say that I think we should all go out and socially drink, but to show that we too can do the very thing we get so mad at others for doing when they use the scriptures to teach their own man-made doctrines. If we are going to hold them to that standard, we must also hold ourselves to this same standard. The fact of the matter is that there is no scripture that outright condemns having a drink. There are plenty of passages that condemn drunkenness, but that really isn’t debated much amongst Christians. In fact, there are some passages that seem to speak favorably towards wine. I’ll list a few.
“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.”
This is guideline on tithes given to the Lord and what the children of Israel could do if they were unable to offer the tithe due to distance.
“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.”
A praise to the Lord by the Psalmist who comments on the fact that wine was considered a blessing from the Lord.
“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.”
A call from the Lord to come to Him. And yes, the word for this wine does imply fermentation.
“(No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.)”
(I Timothy 5:23)
This Paul’s admonition to Timothy to drink some wine probably because the water he had chosen to drink in abstinence to wine was making him sick. Again, wine was regularly used in this day because it was necessary for a clean drink.
I could go on or into more detail about these passages, but that’s not the point of this post. The point of the passages above is to say that the bible doesn’t always, beyond the shadow of a doubt, strictly condemn fermented wine. If you are ready to stone me for advocating drinking (which I haven’t, I’ve just pointed out discrepancies in our arguments and laid out some scripture on the subject), just stick with me for a little bit longer.
Okay, I know I said in the beginning that I am against alcohol, but it doesn’t seem like this post matches that statement. Now that I have laid the background and shown that though having a drink is not necessarily a sin, I would like to provide some words of wisdom though scripture and some points of if and when having a drink, even in moderation, would be sinful. These are the among reasons that I do not drink.
1. Strong drink is a brawler.
“Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,
and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”
Just because there are places in the bible that seem to be pro-fermented wine does not erase all the warnings against strong drink and the places where the bible is anti-alcohol. I would venture to guess that the scriptures warn against wine more often than they call it a blessing. This probably due to our addictive nature and our propensity to take what is can be considered good and take it to the opposite extreme. There are many time in the Proverbs where alcohol is heavily frowned upon and it’s consumption is in no way condoned. One extended passage is found in the 23rd chapter:
“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.”
The bible points out the deception of alcohol and how it has been a snare to many people. Drunkenness is often associated with a list of awful sins and there are many stories in the bible where alcohol plays a role in destroying lives (cf. Noah, Lot, David and Bathsheba, Solomon, King Nebuchadnezzar, ect.). Alcohol has indeed caused so many problems in the world, and it’s work is certainly not done. Is it really worth the risk to have a drink from time to time? I believe that the bible clearly shows that, though it may not be necessarily “sinful” for you to drink in moderation at times, it certainly isn’t wise. Most arguments to make drinking sound wise are justifications. We should not live our lives as close to the line of sin as we can get without stepping over.
2. Drinking alcohol is often an unwise decision that impairs judgment.
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”
(I Peter 5:8-9)
One of the biggest problems with alcohol, one of the reasons that it is so unwise to drink, is because it has a propensity to impair our judgment. It is never a good thing when our judgment is impaired. The passage above is not specifically in reference to alcohol, but it is in reference to having a clear and sober mind. You cannot think clearly if your judgement is impaired. How then are you to “judge righteous judgements”? (ref. John 7:24) We need to remember who we are fighting against and how cunning he is. Don’t be so naive to think that you can ward off the adversary without a sober mind. If you are to the point in your moderate drinking where you might do something that you wouldn’t do without the influence of alcohol, might I suggest reconsidering your definition of what being drunk means?
3. There is no absolute need for alcohol in our society today, and it is associated with sin.
As I have said above, wine was a common thing in Jewish culture, and the people knew how to drink wine without in any way abusing it. You would be very hard pressed to prove that Jesus himself never drank fermented wine. But I assure you it was never to the point of being drunk. Now let’s compare Jewish society in the first century to our society today.
Do we need alcohol to survive? No (contrary to popular belief, I know). We have clean water and plenty of other choices of beverages. Alcohol no longer holds the same place in society as it did for the Jews. What is it associated with today? Well, all you have to do is flip on the television for a few minutes until you see a beer commercial to see that it is associated with all kinds of sin. It is sold by sex, and there’s really no denying it. When we think of alcohol, we immediately think of college parties, drunkenness, scantily clad women, ect.. We do not need to be associated with sin. Yes, Jesus hung out with sinners, but I don’t think he ever participated in their wrongdoing, yet showed them love and compassion and called them to repentance. We often forget about the call to repentance when we want to talk about Jesus’ love for sinners. We are not to go out of the world, but we are to be a light to the world. We cannot be this light when the world cannot distinguish us from themselves.
“Abstain from every form of evil.”
(I Thessalonians 5:22)
4. It is a stumbling block to some, no matter how hard you try to deny it. Someone is always watching.
Paul deals a lot with the concept of stumbling blocks. He seems to be adamant that we do nothing that would cause one who is not as mature in the faith to fall. In his letter to the Corinthians, he gives a good discourse on eating food sacrificed to idols, which some weaker Christians saw as certainly sinful and even as partaking in false gods.
“However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
(I Corinthians 8:7-13)
He gives a similar discourse to the Romans, but seems to make even broader applications at the end:
“It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”
The fact of the matter is that drinking is indeed a stumbling block to many people, especially those who are young in the faith. We must ask ourselves the old question: Just because we can, should we? Earlier in the Corinthian letter, Paul makes a statement that many use in favor of drinking, or the concept of Christian liberty.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.”
(I Corinthians 6:12)
They quote “all things are lawful,” but leave out the “but not all things are helpful.” What’s more is that in context, Paul seems to be quoting what the Corinthians were saying in order to justify their actions and then giving a mild rebuke for it. They were saying “but all things are lawful! We have freedom in Christ!” But Paul told them that they were not given the right to do things that were harmful to other’s walk. In fact, this seemed to be the whole problem in the Corinthian church. In chapter 5 we see that they were even arrogant about accepting sin, allegedly because they had “freedom in Christ.” And this wasn’t just some trivial sin, but one had taken is father’s wife! And they were boasting about it! “Look at us, we are the cool church. We accept everyone, no matter what sin you are involved with and not trying to change.” Paul was not happy with this. So, when we see that he is rebuking their idea of “all things are lawful,” it is hard to use this passage to shine a positive light on alcohol. The article that I read today about this subject said it well: “Love limits freedom.”
Regardless of how much someone tries to argue that it is not a stumbling block in such and such public situation, remember that it very well could be. And remember that someone is always watching, even when you don’t know who it is. And I would doubt that someone who saw you in a bar drinking with friends is going to immediately think “Oh look, he/she is just have a drink or two in moderation and is not intent on getting drunk in the slightest.” Just like that you may have either caused another Christian to stumble and fall, or lost the influence of your testimony to someone who views alcohol as associated with sin, whether they are a Christian or non-Christian. Was the drink worth it?
5. God judges the intent of the heart.
This final point I think ties in many of the points above. Going all the way back to Habakuk 2:15, we see that it was the intent of the heart that caused the woe statement. God judges the intend of the heart. So I ask, in today society when you are out at a bar or at a party with alcohol, what is the point of the alcohol? Is there really any other point than getting drunk? At least drunk to the point where your judgement is impaired. What is your intent? When we compare this to the story of Jesus turning the water to wine, we know His intent was not to get drunk, nor was it to make other people drunk. We would be challenged to say that we have the same intent when going out and having a drink today. When we look at why Paul was telling Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach sake, again we would be hard pressed to prove that we have the same intent in our society today (though I would concede that one’s intent may indeed be the same as Paul’s if one decides to have a glass of red wine at home at night for the health benefits that have been suggested). We need to ask ourselves “why am I having this drink?” and then honestly evaluate our intention behind it before we decided to have it. Be sure that there is a true intent behind it, and regardless of what we tell ourselves the intent is, God will be the final judge on it. And He makes no mistakes. Thus, it is to our benefit that we are completely honest with ourselves. In American society today, I find it hard to believe that there are many places that we could go to have a drink without the wrong intentions.
Well, that’s my two cents on the debate at least. Take it for what you will. There are more points I could make, such as leadership in the church was to abstain from alcohol, but I have spent enough time on it already to loose some people’s attention. I do ask you to carefully considered the scriptures at least. I can say whatever I want, but that doesn’t mean my word is truth unless it is grounded in the ultimate truth of God’s word. And again, this is not to say I’m a better Christian than the next person, for I know that I too have my sins that I struggle to fight against. I admit that I, personally, am probably more against alcohol than the words of scripture (though there is a lot against the principle of drinking) as I am very strongly opposed to any form of drinking. I have seen the damage that alcohol has done to the lives of so many people and I honestly cannot see anything good that comes from its consumption. There are other ways to relax and there are certainly other ways to have a good time. I hope this helps you stand strong in the Lord. All for His glory.
Suggested Daily Reading: Genesis 9, Proverbs 23, Ecclesiastes 2, Romans 14, I Corinthians 6, 8.
Grace and peace.