Christian Thought on Alcohol

There is no doubt alcohol is a dividing topic in the church. Christians of all kinds have opinions ranging from being teetotalers to using wine as part of church ceremonies, so it can seem like a confusing topic. But perhaps  the division is unwarranted. A cursory glance at my concordance shows over 200 verses talking about alcohol, mostly wine.  Let’s examine some  key verses and see if we can make sense of this issue.

As I discussed in my previous post, I believe that we should employ a three-pronged approach to determine answers to moral questions using 1) our knowledge of God’s character inferred from moral precepts in the Old Testament law, 2) the teachings of Jesus, and 3) the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s first examine the Old Testament. The only absolute prohibition against alcohol found the Old Testament apply to a special group called the Nazirites. The Nazirites took vows to be separate from the rest of the Israelites, and they had strict vows prohibiting not only wine, but anything derived from grapes, cutting their hair, or being near dead bodies. (Num. 6:1-10) The Nazirites were intended to be a special group set apart from everyone else. So clearly their laws did not apply to the rest of the people.

Most of the other discussion of wine in the Old Testament takes the shape of warnings against overindulgence, such as Isaiah 5:11 and Proverbs 23:21. However, there are also positive verses about wine, such as Proverbs 3:10, “Your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with wine.” Or Psalm 104:14-15, “He make grass grow for the cattle and … wine that gladdens human hearts.”

From these verses, we can infer that God does not condemn the responsible enjoyment of wine. In fact, according to Psm. 104, He wants us to enjoy it as a gift to gladden our hearts. But He offers warnings that too much wine can be unhealthy and dangerous.

Next let’s examine what Jesus taught on the subject. The most obvious example is that Jesus actually turned water into wine at a wedding feast when they ran out. In fact, not only did Jesus make some wine, but the host of the party said that it was the best wine at the party. (John 2: 1-11) So Jesus not only drank wine, Jesus rolled with top shelf hooch.

(Note, some believers advocate that the wine in this instance was not alcoholic but was more like plain grape juice, and thus, Jesus did not condone the consumption of alcohol. However, due to other clues in the text about guests being intoxicated and the context of a wedding where real wine was culturally expected, it’s very unlikely that the beverage was non-alcoholic. The specific Greek words of the original text also point to alcoholic wine.)

There are other examples of Jesus mentioning wine, such as Matthew 11:19, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard’ ” Now, clearly, the allegation of being a glutton and drunkard was a trumped up charge to discredit Jesus. If Jesus had been a known teetotaler who often preached that everyone should abstain from wine, this would have been an ineffective smear campaign. Jesus was not a drunkard, but he did drink wine in moderate amounts. I think we can scarcely go wrong if we follow the direct example of Jesus.

Paul agrees in his own writing. In fact, in an oft overlooked bit of medical advice, Paul suggested that Timothy drink some wine with his dinner to settle his stomach. (1 Tim. 5:23) But Paul also cautions against getting drunk with wine because drunkenness leads to debauchery.  (Eph. 5:18)

So, we have examined the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus and arrived at the same conclusion from both ends. That is good, but we still need to examine the crucial third leg: the Holy Spirit. I have made a case that the Bible gives permission to enjoy the fruit of the vine responsibly, but some Christians still feel very strongly convicted that they should not imbibe. Possibly, some of these people are misunderstanding certain scriptures and arriving at incorrect conclusions. But also I believe the Spirit can move a believer to understand that they specifically should not drink alcohol. This could be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps, in his infinite wisdom, God knows that you have a great risk of becoming addicted, and the Spirit guides you away from that temptation. Or perhaps alcohol is a problem for a close friend or a loved one in your life, and the Spirit could tell you that you should support them by abstaining yourself. It is not good to drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. (Rom 14:21)

So this is a situation in which I think it’s possible for individual believers to sincerely arrive at two different conclusions and both be right, for themselves.  It is an individual, personal decision, which should be informed by the Spirit. Romans 14: 22 says, “Whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God.” We are given freedom in Christ to choose to do things, but we should not judge our brothers and sisters who choose differently.

Some people might still object and say that the Bible clearly condemns drunkenness, and thus, drinking any alcohol is sinful. When we talk about murder or theft or greed, we do not insist that a little bit is okay but too much is sinful. However, the reason that this line of reasoning fails is that drinking wine is not inherently sinful. Where sin enters the equation is when the wine becomes an idol in your life. The same can be said for gluttony, but no one suggests that eating a reasonable amount of food is sinful. Likewise, drinking an occasional glass of wine is not sinful so long as it does not become an addiction or effectively an idol.

So, we have completed our triad of ways to examine the morality concerning the use of alcohol. There are numerous verses throughout Scripture that indicate it is perfectly permissible when used with wisdom and self-control, and the decision as to whether or not to partake is a personal one between you and the Spirit. Many people will continue to choose not to drink, which is fine, but I believe it’s important to recognize that we have freedom to choose and we are not bound by a blanket command to drink or abstain.

I am hammering this point a little because I think it is an important point that extends beyond the wine issue. Christ came to free us from the law, and we now have a relationship with Him through which we can inform our moral choices. I reject virtually all legalistic commands beyond Christ’s command to love God and to love one another. (Matt. 22:34-40) Those two commandments really are the sum of all the laws.