What Does the Bible Say About Drinking?
Drinking is often seen as a way to celebrate, or for some, it’s a form of self-medication. The truth about drinking alcohol is that it is a violation of God’s teachings.
In Ephesians, it says, “do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:18-19).
Scripture also describes drinking as a past habit, before you found God’s love, stating, “we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles — when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries” (1 Peter 4:3). God desires for His children to move beyond the lusts of the flesh and serve righteousness. To love Him with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind. This is simply impossible to accomplish while drinking alcohol.
What is the Truth about Drinking?
A popular liquor commercial on television concludes with the words, “Drink responsibly.” Alcohol commercials depict healthy, athletic people having a good time and engaging in outdoor adventures. Are these commercials accurate? Are they painting the true picture of what alcohol will do for you? Is it possible to drink responsibly? Abraham Lincoln once said, “Alcohol has many defenders, but no defense.”
THE EVIL EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL
Let’s begin with the words of Proverbs 20:1, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” In the United States of America, 700,000 people receive treatment for alcoholism every day. In the year 2002, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 41 percent of all the deaths that occurred in traffic accidents were alcohol-related. That means that every 30 minutes, someone was killed in a traffic accident because of alcohol.
If there was a disease that was killing off this many people, the government would be vehemently warning against it. Funds would be given to study it to find a cure. We would be having telethons to raise money to find a vaccine. Instead, alcohol is promoted and advertised at every turn. In the year 2000, the alcohol industry spent 1.42 billion dollars on television, radio, print, and outdoor advertising. The resources spent on advertising alcohol are enough to feed 20 million people. One study says that young people view approximately 20,000 commercials each year, of which 2,000 are for beer and wine. That is an average of more than five TV commercials per day. The median age at which people begin drinking is 15.7 years. One statistic said college students spend approximately 5.5 billion dollars each year on alcohol. That’s more than they spend on soft drinks, milk, juice, tea, coffee, and books combined.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), one in every 13 adults—nearly 14 million Americans—abuse alcohol or are alcoholics. Alcohol is involved in 50 percent of spouse abuse cases, 38 percent of child abuse cases, 65 percent of drownings, and 54 percent of those in jail for violent crimes. Forty-nine percent of those convicted for murder, or attempted murder, had been under the influence of alcohol when they committed those crimes.
We could go on and on with similar statistics. Galatians 5:21 says that drunkenness is a “work of the flesh” committed by those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. That is very plain. In our society, the controversy surrounding drinking is generally not over drunkenness; it’s over what we call “social drinking” or “drinking in moderation.” Under that umbrella is drinking alcohol with their meals, at weddings, or gathering with friends for the purpose of recreation and “just having a few drinks.” For many people, the argument over alcohol begins at this point. What we will do is look at some of the arguments made by religious people and examine their best efforts to defend what we call social drinking.
ARGUMENTS MADE IN DEFENSE OF SOCIAL DRINKING
#1: There is no verse in the New Testament that specifically forbids drinking in moderation. All the verses address only the subject of drunkenness. There are many things that are not specifically condemned in the Scriptures that are still wrong. Using heroin is not specifically condemned, but who is going to argue that since the New Testament does not command people to abstain from heroin, its use must not be forbidden? A lot of things in the Bible are forbidden in principle, but many believe that is not the case with drinking! Someone might ask, “Where does the Bible specifically forbid drinking?” The answer is, “In every verse where it forbids drunkenness.”
At first glance this may not be readily apparent, so let’s illustrate this point. In Ephesians 5:18, the King James Version says, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” The phrase “Be not drunk” is translated from the Greek root, methusko. That word means: 1) “to begin to be softened,” Young’s Analytical Concordance; 2) “to moisten, or to be moistened with liquor, and in a figurative sense, to be saturated with drink,” S. T. Bloomfield; 3) “to grow drunk” (marking the beginning of methuo), E. W. Bullinger. Methusko is an inceptive verb. It is a word that marks the process of becoming drunk. What Paul is actually saying in Ephesians 5 is, “Do not begin the process of becoming drunk.” When a person consumes alcohol, he is beginning to be softened and intoxicated.
That’s why social drinking is condemned in the words drunk or drunkenness. The implication is that people begin to be drunk when they begin to drink. The reason people struggle with this is probably because of what they don’t see. If they don’t see the person staggering around or in a drunken stupor, they don’t consider him to be drunk. But that is not the basis upon which the Bible determines drunkenness. Science and medical studies also bear out the fact that when a person begins to drink, he is drunk to some degree.
How much alcohol does a person have to consume in order to be affected? As early as the 1960s, the Journal of the American Medical Association stated, “There is no minimum (blood-alcohol concentration or BAC) which can be set, at which there will be absolutely no effect.” Someone might say, “Well, that’s old. We’re wiser now. We’ve had scientific advancements in the last 40 years.” Listen to this quote from the Journal of the American Medical Association, May 3, 2000: “Although legal limits for BAC levels have been set in most states, impairment in driving skills can occur with any amount of alcohol in the bloodstream.” A website overseen by the University of Oklahoma Police Department allows a person to enter his weight, what he is drinking, the length of time, and the number of drinks. Using that information, the website informs him of his approximate BAC.
For example, a 160-pound person with 1 drink (5 ounces) of fortified dessert wine (drinking it immediately) put him at 0.05 percent blood alcohol content. A 160-pound person with 1 drink (12 ounces) of reduced alcohol beer (over a 1 hour period) put him at 0.02 percent BAC. Another website says that at 0.02 percent BAC there is loss of judgment, relaxation, slight body warmth, altered mood, decline in visual functions (rapid track of moving target), and decline in ability to perform two tasks at the same time (divided attention).
Even without consideration to religious people, the world admits some amount of drunkenness—impairment, loss of judgment and soberness—with one drink. In light of that, how can a Christian possibly defend social drinking? With one drink, a person is already affected, or impaired to that extent, and it gets worse with each consecutive drink. The Bible does condemn social drinking. It’s in the verses that talk about drunkenness. First Peter 4:3 says, “For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles–when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries.” Notice that Peter condemns drinking parties. A commentator, Albert Barnes, wrote about this verse: “The idea in the passage is that it is improper for Christians to meet together for the purpose of drinking.” What does that do to the idea of social drinking?
Another reference book by Richard Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, says this Greek word means “the drinking bout, the banquet, the symposium not of necessity excessive … but giving opportunity for excess.” If this is the correct understanding of this word, then the idea is that drinking parties are wrong regardless of whether or not we get drunk. Albert Barnes commented on the phrase “drinking parties” and had this to say: “The thing forbidden by it is an assembling together for the purpose of drinking … The idea in the passage is, that it is improper for Christians to meet together for the purpose of drinking—as wine, toasts, etc. … It would forbid, therefore, an attendance on all those celebrations in which drinking toasts is understood to be an essential part of the festivities, and all those where hilarity and joyfulness are sought to be produced by the intoxicating bowl. Such are not proper places for Christians.”
#2: Ephesians 5:18 shows that alcohol is only wrong when used in excess, thus moderate drinking is okay. In the King James Version, Ephesians 5:18 says, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” And so the argument says, “See, drinking alcohol in moderation is not condemned. It’s drinking in excess that’s a problem.” This argument is really a misunderstanding of the word excess. That word does not refer to an excessive amount
of alcohol; it refers to excessive (ungodly) behavior. The American Standard Version says, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is riot.” This better conveys the meaning of this passage. The idea then (remember this is an inceptive verb) is, “Do not begin drinking alcohol which brings ungodly behavior, but rather be filled with the Spirit, which will have the opposite effect.”
#3: Drinking wine has health benefits.
One of the arguments made by those who are seeking to defend social drinking is that it is actually beneficial to one’s health. They might cite the results of a study which states that drinking one glass of wine per day is good. First of all, this argument really diverts attention from the real issue. When people gather together to drink socially, they are not doing it for the health benefits. When people have a party with an open bar, the purpose for alcohol involvement is not out of concern for people’s hearts and medical conditions. This argument is a smokescreen.
The study often cited says there is a chemical substance in wine called resveratrol, which helps prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. Here is an excerpt from the Mayo Clinic website dated March 9, 2007: “The American Heart Association doesn’t recommend that you start drinking alcohol just to prevent heart disease. Alcohol can be addictive. Too much increases your risk of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, liver damage, obesity, certain types of cancer, accidents, and other problems. In addition, even small amounts of alcohol can cause cardiomyopathy—weakened heart muscle—and heart failure in some people.”
Here is a quote from Martha Grogan, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic. She is answering the question, “Does grape juice have the same health benefits as red wine?” She answers, “There is evidence that drinking red wine may reduce your risk of heart disease. This benefit is most likely due to a substance called resveratrol found in the skin and seeds of grapes–especially dark red and purple grapes. Resveratrol is also found in grape juice—especially juice made from the dark purple Concord grapes. Recent studies have suggested that red and purple grape juice may provide the same heart-healthy benefits of red wine.” She goes on to say, “Both red wine and grape juice also contain antioxidants … which have been shown to increased your … “good” … cholesterol and lower your risk of clogged arteries … and may help lower blood pressure.”
#4: Paul told Timothy to drink wine for the sake of his stomach.
In 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul writes, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities.” This passage is not talking about having alcohol at a party or with friends. It is discussing it as a medicine, like Nyquil. Most people believe Timothy’s stomach problem was related to the water in Asia Minor, which could be very dangerous. What Paul says is an elliptical statement. “Be no longer a drinker of
water [alone], but [with it] take a little wine.”
It is also worth noticing that Paul had to instruct Timothy to drink wine for his stomach’s sake, which suggests two things. First, Timothy had reservations about doing it. Second, if it was common for the early Christians to do this, then Paul’s encouragement would not have been needed here. On a side note, there is a big difference between Nyquil and Michelob. The person who wants to defend having a beer with his buddies is not going to find support for it in 1 Timothy 5:23.
#5: In Bible times they had no way to prevent fermentation, therefore they must have drunk alcoholic wine.
Here is how the fermentation process works. Grape juice is composed of two leading elements, sugar and gluten. The decay of the gluten causes the growth of yeast germs. In the presence of the yeast, the sugar in grape juice is gradually converted into alcohol.
The ancients had actually figured out a number of different ways to prevent this process from occurring. W. D. Jeffcoat in his book, The Bible and Social Drinking, goes into a detailed explanation of the four processes used to keep fermentation from happening. First is boiling: The water evaporates and fermentation cannot occur. Water is added again later to reconstitute the juice. Second is sulfur: The juice is exposed to sulfur flames, then sealed and kept cool until used. Third is cooling: The juice is placed in airtight jars and immersed in springs or stored in caves where the temperature remains below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The fourth is filtration: The yeast is strained out of the juice, thereby stopping the fermentation process. Plutarch said, “Wine is rendered old or feeble when it is frequently filtered. The strength of the spirit being thus excluded, the wine neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind and passions, and is much more pleasant to drink.”
#6: Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.
It is not always the case that any time we see the word wine in the Bible it refers to an alcoholic drink. Wine is a generic word. It can refer to either fermented or unfermented juice of the grape. The context must determine which type is meant. Alcoholic wine is mentioned in Proverbs 23:31-32, “Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper.”
Non-alcoholic wine is talked about in Isaiah 16:10, “In the vineyards there will be no singing, nor will there be shouting; no treaders will tread out wine in the presses.” Isaiah 65:8 says, “As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one says, ‘Do not destroy it, for a blessing is in it,’ so will I do for my servants’ sake, that I may not destroy them all.” The wine is mentioned as being still in the grapes, but it is called wine. In all of these passages the same Hebrew word is translated by our English word wine. The same thing is true in the New Testament.
There are five different Greek terms for wine. The one most commonly used is oinos. It is used of both fermented wine and unfermented wine (grape juice). When reading the Scriptures, one should never assume that word wine always refers to alcoholic wine. The person making the argument that Jesus endorsed social drinking by turning water into wine at Cana has to prove that it was alcoholic wine. That is difficult because the context indicates just the opposite. Notice in John 2:10 that after Jesus had turned the water into wine, the governor of the feast tasted
it, and said, “Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!” The interesting phrase in this verse is “well drunk.” Some translations translate is as “drunk freely.”
Thomas Summers states “drunk freely” suggests the idea of largely drinking. The way we might say it today is, “They drank until they had plenty.” If this were truly alcoholic wine then these people would have already violated the passages that everyone would agree prohibit drunkenness. If alcoholic wine is under consideration, then it describes a group of people who have “drunk freely” of alcoholic wine. They have drunk alcoholic wine until they were “well wined.” They have drunk alcoholic wine until they “had plenty,” and then Jesus made 120-160 gallons more of alcoholic wines for people who had already finished off the first round. How could the Lord forbid drunkenness and then do that? It is also interesting to note that the governor of the feast had not had his senses dulled. He could readily discern the “good” wine from the “worse” which is indicative of the fact that he had not been drinking alcoholic wine. The point of all this is that the oinos (wine) can refer either to an alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink, and the context of John 2 points to non-alcoholic wine.
#7: 1 Timothy 3:3 says elders are required to “Not be given to wine,” whereas in verse 8 deacons are to “Not be given to much wine.”
The argument being made here is, “This passage implies that elders can’t have any wine, but deacons can have some, just as long as it isn’t too much.” It is argued that the two phrases “not given to wine” and “not given to much wine” give implied consent for deacons to drink wine in moderation. First of all, we need to understand that warning against excess can never be used as approval for the action itself. For example, the Bible says, “Let not the sun go down on your wrath.” This verse is not an approval for practicing wrath prior to sundown. First Peter 4:3-4 again shows the fallacy of the “implied consent” argument.
Verse 3 mentioned the “excess of wine.” Some folks might look at that and say, “See, that only condemns wine in excess.” Or they might argue that this verse implies consent for wine, so long as it isn’t excessive. In other words, moderate drinking is not sinful. But the passage goes on in the next verse to the “excess of riot.” If this “implied consent” argument is accurate, then in this verse of the same context we have divine sanction for riot in moderation. And what about Ecclesiastes 7:17 which says, “Be not overmuch wicked”? (ASV). Would that imply that we have the right to be a little wicked? James 1:21 says, “Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness.” Does that mean it is all right to have wickedness as long as it isn’t overflowing? Of course not. Here is how absurd the argument regarding 1 Timothy 3:3, can get.
Let’s assume for a moment that although elders cannot drink at all, deacons can drink in moderation. The same phrase that is applied to deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8 is applied to the aged women in Titus 2:3. So the aged women could also drink in moderation. But interestingly enough it is not applied to the younger women. Therefore the younger women could not drink. In addition, 1 Timothy 3:11, in describing deacons’, wives uses the word sober in the King James Version. The New King James uses the word temperate. The Greek word nephaleous means to abstain from wine. Titus 2:2 requires aged men not to come near wine (me parionon). Let’s put it all together. Elders cannot drink, but deacons can. Older men cannot drink, but older women can. Deacons can drink, but their wives cannot. Who can believe this? It is absolute nonsense! This is where these arguments in defense of social drinking will take you.
#8: In Luke 7:33-34 Jesus was accused of being a “Winebibber.”
This accusation would not have been made had he not been drinking alcoholic wine. Luke 7:33-34 says, “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” The argument is that the people would not have accused Jesus of being a winebibber or a drunkard if he had not been drinking alcoholic wine. But the people also said John had a demon. Where was the evidence for that? There was none. That was a lie and so was the accusation of Jesus being a drinker. They were jumping to conclusions not warranted by evidence. There is no argument here.
#9: Colossians 2:16 says, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths…”
It is argued that we have no right to judge another person with regard to what they eat or drink. But this passage is dealing with matters of liberty or matters of opinion, not with matters in which the Lord has mandated right or wrong. These were issues relating to the old law. Some were trying to bind the food and drink issue to the law of Moses. The point of Colossians 2:16 is, “Don’t let any man bind on you what God has not.” The old law has been nailed to the cross. We are not accountable to it. The liberty in food and drink related to food and drink which was considered ceremoniously clean or unclean. It had nothing to do with matters that are sinful, such as drinking alcohol.
If you are not convinced that the Bible prohibits drinking, there is still one thing more to consider, and that is your influence. When a person who professes to be a Christian drinks alcoholic beverages, he is doing something that even the world sees as an adult vice and it greatly damages his influence. Also, he is likely to become a stumbling block to young Christians and new converts.
In 1 Corinthians 8:10-13 Paul is discussing meat offered to idols. The context is different because he is discussing something not wrong in and of itself. That is the argument of those who defend social drinking. They do not believe it is necessarily sinful. But listen to Paul: “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.
Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Paul is saying, “Someone may see me doing it, and it may cause him to sin, and in light of that, I will never do it.” Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” It is going to be a lot harder to do that, impossible in fact, with a beer in your hand. Thomas had had a stressful day at work. Production was down and the boss was unhappy, so a stop at the bar on the way home would help. After a few drinks, he bought an extra bottle for good measure and left. As Thomas approached his neighborhood, a bicycle darted out into the street. Thomas swerved and hit his brakes. Too late. His reflexes had been slowed down at the bar. In a panic, he fled the scene of the accident. Some time later, the police found him in his attic, crying and drinking, trying to forget the little boy on the bicycle. Down at the police station, Thomas staggered in between two burly policeman, only to be confronted by his tearful wife who fell on his chest weeping. “Randall is dead,” she choked. “Killed on his bicycle by a drunk driver!” “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).