Q: #455. Can a Christian drink alcohol / wine and beer?
By: Steve Shirley
A: Perhaps more than most people, I have seen the devastating effects of alcohol. I had a grandfather who was an alcoholic, and have heard horrible stories of the things he did while drunk. I have seen the damage his drinking caused for his children (including my dad). I have seen one of those children (an uncle), lose nearly everything (he was a millionaire) from drinking, and gambling while drinking. I have seen another uncle drink to deaden the pain from killing in the Korean War, and eventually die from alcohol. I have had a cousin, and a best friend from high school who had problems with alcohol later commit suicide (probably while drunk, or high). I have personally witnessed firsthand the damaging effects of a DUI, and having to bail that loved one out of jail. Just a few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine walked out of her door at night after drinking, fell of the steps, and broke her leg.
Alcoholism runs through my family on both sides. These are but a few examples from my family (and friends) of the damage alcohol can do. I can also say this, not one of the alcoholics in my family set out to be an alcoholic. No one sets out to be an alcoholic when they take that first drink. It often starts harmlessly enough: social drinking with friends, a few glasses after a stressful day, a glass or two with dinner, etc.... For many, it never goes any farther than this, but for some, it eventually becomes more. Do you know for certain that you will not become one of those for whom it "eventually becomes more?" I know your answer: "Yes, I do. It will never become "eventually more" for me." Each of my family believed the same thing. Each alcoholic has believed the same thing. No one can know for SURE that it won't lead to more someday.
Let me throw out a few quick statistics here. Of all traffic fatalities in the U.S., 28% are alcohol related, and there are 88,000 total deaths each year from excessive drinking in the U.S. (cdc.gov) (3.3 million deaths globally: NIH - 2015). Approximately one-third of all suicides involve alcohol (nytimes.com). From the Washington Post on (8-11-2017) "A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry this month finds that the rate of alcohol use disorder, or what's colloquially known as "alcoholism," rose by a shocking 49 percent in the first decade of the 2000s. One in eight American adults, or 12.7 percent of the U.S. population, now meets diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder, according to the study." These are but a few of many gruesome statistics about the devastating effects of alcohol.
In addition to these, because of abusive alcohol use, we have countless numbers of marriages and families destroyed, prisons filled with people who committed crimes under its influence, victims of those crimes whose lives have been damaged, victims of it in hospitals, babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and more...
Leaving out the Bible for a second, what I have said to this point alone is enough for me to urge people to abstain from drinking alcohol. Why open that door? Why take that chance? If you never take that "first drink," you never run the risk of it becoming more eventually. If you are beyond the point of taking that first drink, I still urge you to stop. Do not run the risk. Why put something in your body that has caused such destruction?
***Interesting fact: Ethyl alcohol (ethanol), the active ingredient in alcohol that makes you drunk, is also used as a chemical solvent, and is added to most gasoline we use today.
Now, bringing the Bible into the discussion, what does it say about drinking? First off, I will freely admit that the Bible doesn't really say much about abstinence, or not drinking alcohol socially, although a few verses point to the dangers of alcohol (Hos 4:11)(Prov 20:1)(Prov 21:17)(Prov 23:20,29-35)(Isa 28:7)(Isa 5:12)(Ecc 2:3). However, the Bible does clearly point to being drunk as a sin (1 Cor 6:9-10)(Eph 5:18-21)(Rom 13:13)(Gal 5:19-21)(1 Cor 5:11)(Hab 2:15)(1 Pet 4:3). It also shows a number of examples of people who got drunk, and the damage it caused - Noah: (Gen 9:20-21), Lot: (Gen 19:32-38), Ben-hadad: (1 Kin 20:16-21), King Ahasuerus: (Es 1:10-11), King Belshazzar: (Dan 5:1-5), The Corinthian Church: (1 Cor 11:21-22).
Drinking alcohol, particularly wine, was common in Bible times. Besides water, which was often not very clean, there was little else to drink. It is said by some that unsafe water was often purified by mixing it with wine or alcohol, however, I can find no clear evidence for this (it would probably taste terrible if it was done). Jesus pretty clearly drank wine (Lk 7:33-34). His first miracle was turning water into wine (Jn 2:1-10). Jesus likely drank "wine" at the Last Supper (although only "the cup" [Mt 26:27, Mk 14:23, 1 Cor 11:25] and "fruit of the vine" [Mt 26:29, Mk 14:25] are mentioned).
Some in the abstinence movement try to make a case that the wine Jesus drank was more like grape juice and not alcoholic wine. There is some evidence this is possible, in that the Hebrew word "tiyrosh," translated as "new wine," and defined by Strong's as "must or fresh grape-juice (as just squeezed out); by impl. (rarely) fermented wine" is used in a number of places in the Old Testament (i.e. Hos 4:11, Hos 9:2, Hag 1:11). However, the Hebrew word "yayin" which is "fermented" wine is used far more. Only one Greek word is used for "wine" in the New Testament: and that word is "oinos." The evidence seems pretty clear that oinos is referring to "fermented wine" (Acts 2:13 uses oinos for "new wine"). In addition, the fermentation process (which is where the alcoholic content comes from in wine) was basically the same in Bible times as it is today. Alcoholic content helped preserve the wine longer.
***Note: It should be noted though that the "hard liquor" ("strong drink" = Gr. shekar, see: Isa 28:7, Mic 2:11) we have today is MUCH more potent than what they had in Bible times. This is due to "distillation," which came about in the 9th century. Distillation removes water from alcohol, thereby creating a higher alcohol content (concentrated alcohol). Distilled beverages generally have an alcohol content of 30% or higher. This is how we get drinks like vodka, gin, rum, and whiskey. Wine and beer are not distilled though, but fermented. If wine is distilled, it becomes "brandy."
Having said this, one of the primary reasons why Jesus, and people in Bible times often drank wine does not apply to us today. Today, for the most part (at least in the U.S.), we have clean, pure water, and many other things to drink as well. We do not NEED to drink wine, or alcohol. We also have refrigeration and pasteurization to keep things from spoiling which they did not have in Bible times. If Jesus was alive today, would He still drink wine? Obviously, I can't say for sure, but think there is a good chance He might not, for the very reasons I am stating in this study.
***Note: In 1869, Thomas Bramwell Welch, a minister and Communion steward at his church, objected to alcoholic wine being used in Communion, so he "successfully pasteurize(d) Concord grape juice to produce an "unfermented sacramental wine"" (from the Welch's Grape Juice website).
I would also like to contrast the wine drinking done by many today with the wine drinking Jesus did. Do you believe that Jesus came home (whatever home was) after a hard day (He had a lot of them) and said, "I need to have a few cups of wine to unwind from this stressful day?" Do you believe that Jesus drank to take His mind off of His problems? Do you believe that Jesus drank to lower His inhibitions so He could more freely interact with those around Him? I know I don't think he did these things. How did He deal with the stresses and problems He faced? Let's look.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was about to be arrested, beaten, and crucified, He went out alone to pray 3 separate times (Mt 26:36-46)(Mk 14:32-42)(Lk 22:40-46). When He was told that John the Baptist had been murdered by Herod, He "departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself" to pray (Mt 14:12-13). When He was weakened, hungry, and tired after 40 days in the wilderness, and then tempted by Satan, He turned to Scripture (Mt 4:1-17)(Mk 1:12-13)(Lk 4:1-13). When a "great tempest" arose while He was at sea with His disciples, He said to them "Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?" He then calmed the sea (Mt 8:23-27)(Mk 4:35-41)(Lk 8:22-25).
Can you imagine Jesus dealing with these situations by having a few glasses of wine to relax, unwind, or calm down?
Yes, Jesus may have had an occasional social drink, or perhaps even with a meal, but He did NOT drink to "alter His mood," as a vast majority do today. In addition to this, we must consider the Bible admonitions about the sin of being drunk. If we use a modern day calculation for being drunk, .o8% Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) is considered drunk. Using a BAC calculator, I wanted to see what the BAC would be for a 160 lb man after having (2) 5 oz glasses of wine in an hour (assuming he might drink two glasses over dinner). Two glasses equals 0.0696 (almost drunk). If we increase this to three, it equals 0.113 (drunk). Three glasses over 2 hours equals 0.096 (drunk). Three glasses over 3 hours equals 0.079 (basically drunk).
Making that 160 lb man Jesus, I think it is safe to assume that since Jesus was without sin, and being drunk is a sin, He almost certainly drank very little wine when He did drink it. Can you say the same about when you drink wine (or alcoholic beverages)? Speaking for myself, it is the rare social occasion I am at where I see people stop at just one or two drinks (in fact, I just returned from one).
***Note: It is a fact that women, who drink more wine than men, become drunk from wine (and alcohol) faster than men. If a 160 pound woman were to have the same (2) 5oz glasses of wine in an hour, her BAC would be 0.07675. However, if we make that woman 125 lbs instead, her BAC is 0.103 (drunk). Two glasses of wine over dinner, and she is drunk, and therefore in sin! (Weight, as well as sex, makes a difference in BAC.)
Having said all of this, I want to focus on the main reason why I believe Christians should avoid drinking from a "Biblical" standpoint. That reason is to avoid what the Bible calls being a "stumbling block." I speak of this in great detail here.
However, in short, Paul goes into great detail in (Rom 14)(1 Cor 8:1-13)(1 Cor 10:23-33) about how Christians have liberty to do certain things that aren't necessarily sinful, but we should not do them anyway, simply because someone else might believe it is wrong and it will cause them to stumble in their walk. When we do this (1 Cor 8:12) says, "But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, YE SIN AGAINST CHRIST" (caps emphasis mine). Paul uses the example of eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. He said that while they (as Christians) knew there were no other gods and there was nothing wrong with eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, there WERE people who believed it to be wrong. Therefore, Paul says in (1 Cor 8:13), "Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend."
Applying this to drinking, is drinking wrong from a Biblical standpoint? Maybe or maybe not. But, that is not the point. The point is, do a number of non-Christians and weak Christians believe drinking is wrong? Do they believe it is something a Christian should not do? Assuming drinking is equal to the idol meat Paul referred to above, and we have the liberty to drink, does that mean we should act on that liberty? Let's say a weak Christian (or even non-Christian) knows you are a strong Christian, and they believe that Christians should not drink because it is wrong. Then one day, they walk into a restaurant and see you drinking. This opens up several possibilities:
#1. Since they see you "sinning," in their eyes it is going to weaken your testimony.
#2. They are going to believe Christians are hypocrites (condemning things as sin, but then turning around and sinning themselves).
#3. They are going to think, "Hey, if Bill is drinking then maybe it is ok, even if I am not sure it is." They may even decide to have a drink themselves.
What does the Bible say about this? It says in (Rom 14:23) that if a person does something that is not sin, but they BELIEVE it is sin, it is sin for them to do it. Your action has caused someone to sin! Therefore, do we have the freedom to drink? Maybe. Is it worth drinking if we might cause someone to stumble? I believe the Bible makes it clear it is not.
Let me share a good example I read about the great pastor from the 1800's named Charles Spurgeon. This is regarding smoking rather than drinking, and I am not sure all of it is true, but it still makes my point.
One day in 1874, Spurgeon invited a guest speaker (Dr. Pentecost - what a great name for a preacher) to co-preach with him at his church (The Metropolitan Tabernacle). The subject was the sinfulness of little sins. First, Spurgeon preached, and then he turned it over to his guest speaker. Unexpectedly, Dr. Pentecost spoke fervently on the sin of smoking, and he told how he had struggled and fought with his habit of smoking, and had finally overcome with God's providence. Spurgeon did not expect this sermon, and was caught off-guard because he himself was a smoker. He followed Dr. Pentecost by telling his congregation that he did not consider smoking to be a sin, and said quote: "Well, dear friends, you know that some men can do to the glory of God what to other men would be sin. And notwithstanding what brother Pentecost has said, I intend to smoke a good cigar to the glory of God before I go to bed to-night."
Unfortunately, newspapers reported on what had been said during the service, and the phrase "smoking to the glory of God," came to be associated with Spurgeon and his smoking. The conflict from this became so bad that eventually he wrote an article to The Daily Telegraph defending and explaining his position. All of the above is fact, but what follows is debated. However, it still makes my point.
It also is said by some that after Spurgeon made these comments, cigar companies capitalized on it, advertizing and selling the cigars that Spurgeon smoked. At least one sign was seen which said, "Spurgeon smokes." I envision other signs like, "smoke the cigars that Spurgeon smokes" or "buy our cigars and 'smoke to the glory of God'." Some accounts say that this so upset Spurgeon that he eventually stopped smoking. While this appears to be untrue, I feel absolutely confident in saying this: Spurgeon's acceptance of smoking made smoking acceptable for many who may have been unsure it was before he said it. His powerful influence brought some people to smoking. In addition, while it may not have been habit-forming for Spurgeon, for some who followed his example to smoke it DID become habit-forming. His example lead others to addiction.
***Note: Today, we obviously know more about the harmful effects of smoking than they did in the 1800's. These harmful effects on the body lead me to call smoking sinful, just as Dr. Pentecost did. It should also be noted that while it appears Spurgeon smoked until his death, the evidence seems strong that he did eventually give up drinking. Several quotes can be found in his teachings that point to this (i.e. "I sincerely believe that, next to the preaching of the gospel, the most necessary thing to be done in England is to induce our people to become total abstainers" - The Sword and the Trowel: pg. 201)
Carrying this over to my life, it would be personally devastating to me if someone was asked, "Why did you start drinking," and their response was: "I saw my (Christian): dad / friend's dad / role-model / friend / Bible teacher / Church leader drinking, so I figured it was okay." It would be even worse if something bad happened to them as the result of that drinking (i.e. addiction, injury, injuring another, death).
Whether we like it or not, as Christians, our lives are a continual witness to the world. They are watching our actions and listening to our words (especially those of us who work in ministry, like Spurgeon). Of course, this applies not only to drinking, but many other things as well. Sadly, Christians are falling short on many fronts. Christians have a divorce rate that is nearly the same as non-Christians. Christians are living together and see nothing wrong with it. The entertainment and music we listen to is most often no different from the rest of the world. The words we speak on a daily basis do not distinguish us from non-Christians. Swearing and taking the Lord's name in vain (the common "Oh my G--") are not even thought about twice. And, there are plenty more...
Ask yourself these questions: Do the people around you see a difference in you? Do your children see a difference in you? Are there things you are doing that you would not want them to do in the future? Are your actions opening doors to things that could be problems for them down the road? Do others want what they see in you? Do they even know you are a Christian?? If they do, and you proclaim it, you better expect that your life might be examined by someone at any moment. A long time ago, I heard a Christian radio personality with a very distinctive voice say he was at a store and asked a clerk something and someone beside him said, "Hey, I know you." She recognized him by his voice. He immediately thought, "What if I had been saying something negative to that clerk?" We can NEVER know who is watching!
***Note: I continually cringe when I see people who call themselves Christian flaunt their drinking by posting pictures of it on social media.
Finally, it is worth noting that there are three groups of people in the Bible that God forbade from drinking alcohol at all.
#1. Priests were not to drink at all while serving in the Tabernacle (Lev
#2. Kings were not to drink (Prov 31:4).
#3.Those who had taken a Nazarite (Nazirite) vow were not to drink wine (Num 6:1-4)(Judg 13:4-7,14).
***Note: Samson failed to keep this vow (Judg ch. 13-16). John The Baptist (Lk 1:13-15) kept his.
A good question to ask is, "Why did God not allow these groups of people to drink?" Notice why (Lev 10:10) (NASB) says priests were not to drink: "so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane." Notice why (Prov 31:5) says kings are not to drink: "Lest they drink, and forget the law, And pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted. And, those who took a Nazarite vow were not to drink because they were to be: "separate and holy to the Lord" (Num 6:8).
In short, if we combine these, we might say that a "Christian" is "holy and separate to the Lord, and as such, needs to have a clear and discerning mind, with good judgment." Drinking ANY amount of alcohol impairs these things to some degree. Here are a few Biblical admonitions to keep in mind regarding this as we wait for the return of Jesus: "(to) be of sound mind and sober spirit" (1 Pet 4:7)(NASB), to be "alert, ready, and not "eat and drink with the drunken" (Mt 24:42-51). To "take heed," not be "self-indulgent," and "watch" (Lk 21:34-36). To "watch and be sober" (1 Th 5:6-8).
In closing, I ask you to think about this. Clearly, as we have said above, there is no doubt that as Christians we have liberty to do certain things that the Bible does not outright call sinful. Things such as drinking, smoking, gambling, using marijuana (where legal), etc... However, while I believe a case can be made that each of these is sinful, my primary problem comes with those who adamantly feel the need to "defend" this right. To use it as a hammer to smash people over the head. To flaunt it and show it off. "Jesus drank wine, so I have the right to drink wine wherever and whenever I want." "The Bible doesn't condemn smoking, so I am going to enjoy smoking or a good cigar, and I don't care who knows it." "The Bible doesn't condemn using marijuana or gambling, so I am doing it."
Did anyone defend their rights like this in the Bible? In fact, I would say the Bible teaches the exact opposite. Can we picture Jesus shaking His fist defiantly in people's face and saying, "I have rights!"? This is what the "world" teaches, "We want our rights!" Instead, as Christians, we are to die to ourselves and what our "flesh" wants (Gal 5:24)(Col 3:5)(Eph 4:22). We are to give up our rights (Rom 15:1-3)(1 Cor 10:24)(1 Pet 2:16)(1 Cor 9:19), especially when our actions can possibly affect others negatively.
Keep these two verses in mind:
I like how the NLT closes the Romans 14 chapter on Christian liberty: (Rom 14:22) "You may have the faith to believe that there is nothing wrong with what you are doing; but keep it between yourself and God." (In other words, don't flaunt your Christian liberty!)
(Gal 5:13) For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
P.S. If you are drinking for the supposed health benefits, here is what the Mayo Clinic website says, "You don't have to drink any alcohol, and if you currently don't drink, don't start drinking for the health benefits. In some cases, it's safest to avoid alcohol entirely - the possible benefits don't outweigh the risks." "The potential health benefits are not certain."
P.S.S. Amazingly enough, as I watched the news last night (May 2018), they were talking about a new study published in The Lancet medical journal titled: "Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies." Their conclusion, after following some of these participants for more than 40 years, was that drinking more than 5 glasses of alcohol per week could shorten life expectancy by as much as 2 years. "People who reported drinking more had higher rates of stroke, heart disease, deadly high blood pressure and fatal aortic aneurysms" (NBC.com quote on the study).