Alcohol and Liberty: What’s a Christian to Do?

While there has been a historical temptation to drink alcohol and too many have followed that desire too heartily (resulting in drunkenness and addiction), the prevalence of alcohol in Christian circles seems much stronger today than it has been in past years.  I have heard multiple pastors and church leaders speak repeatedly about the virtues of particular beers and whiskeys — and then mock those who do not follow their lead of drinking.  I have observed that there are far fewer arguments being made for the consumption of alcohol and many more assumptions about the right to consume alcohol (without thinking of the biblical perspectives of it).  And conversely I have also observed and counseled numerous people who have suffered consequences of their own too-frequent use of alcohol.  So what is a Christian to do?  What does the Bible teach about alcohol?  And is it permissible for a Christian to drink?  Is drinking alcohol a Christian liberty?  And if so, is it wise for a Christian to drink alcohol?

Paul addresses the question in passing in Romans 14, seemingly putting it in a category of a liberty decision.  He seems to allude to the right of the Christian to drink in verse 17 (there admittedly is significant debate without consensus about what “drink” means in that verse).  Then in verse 21 he mentions wine specifically, noting that it is good for a Christian to give up drinking if that drinking causes a brother to stumble.  With the statement that it is “good not to…drink wine,” he also seems to be suggesting that it falls into the category of a liberty.

This brief article won’t answer every question about alcohol, but I’d like to approach the topic by offering six biblical observations about alcohol before offering a conclusion about whether or not it is a genuine liberty and whether or not it is wise to drink alcohol.

The consistent message of the OT is that drinking alcohol has dangers attached to it.  On some of the first pages of the Bible, alcohol is associated with debased activity:  Noah gets drunk and naked and Ham responds in an ungodly way to that nakedness (Gen. 9:20ff). Just a few pages later, Lot’s daughters get Lot drunk and then have incestuous relations with him to get pregnant by him (Gen. 19:30ff).

The Law also prohibits the use of strong alcoholic drinks (Lev. 10:9; Dt. 28:39).  Proverbs regularly warns of the dangers associated with alcohol.  Consider just a couple of examples:

Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,
And whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise. (Prov. 20:1)

He who loves pleasure will become a poor man;
He who loves wine and oil will not become rich. (Prov. 21:17)

Do not look on the wine when it is red,
When it sparkles in the cup,
When it goes down smoothly… (Prov. 23:31)

The warnings against the misuse of alcohol are plentiful; rare are the examples of beneficial uses of alcohol (apart from what is noted below).

Scripture makes provision for some drinking done in moderation. There are examples in both testaments of “accepted” drinking. The Old Testament acknowledged the possibility of drinking wine — it was partaken at Jewish feasts (Dt. 14:23, 26; 16:13), given as sacrifices to the Lord (Ex. 29:40; Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:5ff; 18:12), and was sometimes used as a picture of celebration (Ps. 104:15; Prov. 3:10; Song 5:1; Joel 2:19ff; 3:18).

In the New Testament Jesus turned water into wine, and the text is clear that He indeed made wine:  a simple concordance study demonstrates that the Greek word used in John 2:3, 9-10 (oinos) could not refer to a simple juice, but that it must have alcoholic content (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:3, 8 is nonsensical if oinos is not some form of alcoholic beverage). In addition, Timothy was encouraged to drink some wine for its medicinal purposes (1 Tim. 5:23), and the qualification for elders was that they not be addicted to wine, not that they abstain totally (1 Tim 3:3, 8).

Drunkenness is always called sin in Scripture.  While there may be occasions for “acceptable” drinking, there is never an occasion for drinking to the point of excess that leads to drunkenness or repeated dependence on alcohol (Dt. 21:20; Ps. 107:27; Hab. 2:15; Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 5:11; Eph. 5:18; 1 Pt. 4:3).  In fact, those who are perpetually drunk are among those whose lives demonstrate that they are not believers and followers of Christ (1 Cor. 5:11; 6:10; 11:21; Gal. 5:21).

The alcoholic content of drinks in Scripture was significantly different than the alcoholic content of drinks today.  In a very helpful article, Norman Geisler demonstrates that most wine in biblical times was diluted:

…wine in Homer’s day was twenty parts water and one part wine (Odyssey 9.208-9). Pliny referred to wine as eight parts water and one part wine (Natural History 14.6.54). According to Aristophanes, it was stronger: three parts water and two parts wine. Other classical Greek writers spoke of other mixtures: Euenos — three parts water, one part wine; Hesiod — three to one, water to wine; Alexis — four to one; Diodes and Anacreon — two to one; and Ion — three to one. The average was about three or four parts of water to one part of wine.

Sometimes in the ancient world one part water would be mixed with one part wine; this was considered strong wine. And anyone who drank wine unmixed was looked on as a Scythian, a barbarian. That means the Greeks would say today, “You Americans are barbarians — drinking straight wine.” [“A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking.”]

As Geisler demonstrates elsewhere in the article, wine was often used in biblical times as something akin to water purification.  And Scripture also makes clear that it is acceptable to use wine for medicinal purposes (1 Tim. 5:23, as noted above).

So to make the argument, “people in the Bible drank wine so I can drink wine” is to misunderstand the kind of wine that was drunk in the Bible and to misinterpret how it was used.

Anything that enslaves one (like alcohol often does) should be forsaken if it enslaves.  The Scriptures are clear that the believer in Christ should “not be mastered by anything…” (1 Cor. 6:12; cf. also Titus 3:3-4). Being enslaved to anything apart from enslavement to Christ is dishonoring to the believer’s salvation.  And it is well-documented both in secular and biblical resources how alcohol tends to lead to enslavement.  It is possible to drink without enslavement; but it is also possible (likely?) that drinking alcohol will lead to enslavement to alcohol and a host of other associated problems and sins.

It is good to give up drinking wine for the sake of those who are weak (who are not convinced that it is a liberty; Rom. 14:21).  Given that Paul considers himself a “strong” Christian (Rom. 14:14) and a defender of liberties (1 Cor. 8), we might assume that he would say, “it is good to eat meat and drink wine as an expression of our liberty.”  But what he says is “It is good [“beautiful”] not to eat meat or to drink wine or to do anything by which your brother stumbles” (Rom. 14:21; my emphasis).

It’s better to give up drinking wine than to persist in drinking it and so lead others to sin against their consciences and do something they do not believe they have the liberty to do.  It is not important for us to be able to engage in legitimate liberties; it is important for us to build up and stimulate other believers to godly living.  The choices we make should reflect that commitment.

Having made those six observations, let me answer two questions.  First, is drinking wine or alcohol a liberty?  To be a liberty and freedom, it must be something that is acceptable for all believers everywhere to always do because God has given blanket permission to do it.  For instance, in Romans 14, Paul is clear that eating food that had been declared to be “unclean” in the Old Testament was now permissible to be eaten.  The prohibited foods had been declared “clean” by Christ (Mk. 7:19).  There is no situation in which eating those foods is sin (unless it leads others to sin, Rom. 14:15-17, 21).  That cannot be said of alcohol because there are clearly occasions when it is sin to drink it (when it is drunk to excess, when it leads to other sins, or when it leads to enslavement).  So drinking alcohol is not a liberty — it is not a unilateral privilege that every believer can always practice without sinning.  Instead, it is an issue of conscience, wisdom, and preference.  And as a wisdom issue, there is another self-evident question to ask.

Secondly, is it acceptable and wise to drink alcohol?  I cannot dogmatically say that one cannot drink alcohol — there are too many examples in Scripture of some moderated uses of alcohol.  Yet the question isn’t simply, “can I drink?” but “Does it glorify God when we drink alcohol?”  And “Are people helped to walk with Christ when I drink?”  Before we dogmatically assert, “I have a right…,” we would be wise to consider all the evidence from Scripture about alcohol and seek to be convinced (absolutely sure) about our decision.  And then if we choose to drink according to the biblical mandates, hold that privilege very lightly, for the sake of our brothers.

Finally, remember that no decision is ever made in a vacuum.  Every choice we make and every action in which we participate will impact the lives of others around us.  And the Biblical mandate is that the choices we make should stimulate others to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24), and what is most important is not our own personal desires and interests, but the interests of others (Phil. 2:4).

Here are a few resources that you might find helpful on the topic of alcohol; this is not an exhaustive list, but merely a few things I have found helpful:

Geisler, Norman L.  “A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking.”  Bibliotheca Sacra.  January, 1982, pp. 46-57.

MacArthur, John.  “What to Do in the Gray Areas.”

Palmer, Keith.  “Christians and Alcohol.”

Piper, John.  “Total Abstinence and Church Membership.”  A sermon delivered on October 4, 1981.

Picture from Creative Commons; originally posted to Flickr as Glass of wine.

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