Is It Christian to Drink?
Study No. 49
It has been said that "alcohol and gasoline do not mix." Is it also true that alcohol and Christianity donít mix? Some churches teach such a belief, even to the extent of making it a major doctrinal issue. But others either remain neutral or teach that they indeed do mix and, on occasion, even must mix. But so much for what men say. Letís look instead at what the Bible says. After all, we must be careful to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29) and to not become so caught up in the doctrines of men that we turn our backs on God (Matthew 15:8-9, Mark 7:7-9, Titus 1:14).
A survey of the many reference materials available brings out many important points, as does the Bible itself. First of all, every source this author could locate (a representative collection of which is listed at the end of the article) agreed that the terms for "wine" in the original languages in most cases make obvious reference to fermented, and therefore alcoholic, grape juice. In the instances where such blunt indication is absent, there appears no indication that it could be otherwise. As several authorities point out, no method of storing unfermented juice was known. The stated effects of wine throughout the Bible make it impossible to logically and rationally interpret it as being anything but alcoholic and capable of intoxication. As one author put it,
Intemperance was common enough, and the Bible contains a number of unfavorable references to excessive drinking. Wine is praised; it rejoices God and men (Judges 9:13); it gladdens the heart of men (Psalms 104:15); it gladdens life (Exodus 10:19); it makes the heart exult (Zechariah 10:7); it cheers the spirits of the depressed (Proverbs 31:6) . . . The attitude of Jesus toward wine, like that of the entire Bible, is neutral, praising its use and finding fault in its intemperate use. Certainly the production of wine at Cana (John 2:1-11) scarcely supports any belief that Jesus or the primitive Church regarded the use of wine as sinful in itself. (Dictionary of the Bible, John L. McKenzie, S.J., Bruce Publishing Co., 1965 ).
Alcoholic Wine Versus Grape Juice
Many churches apparently believe and avidly teach that biblical wine is really unfermented grape juice. According to all indications both implicit and explicit, there is no possible way for this position to appear at all feasible. First, Noah could not have gotten drunk on grape juice (Genesis 9:21), nor could have Lot (Genesis 19:32-35). "But," some will claim, "that was Old Testament wine which was obviously alcoholic. The New Testament is clear in its condemnation of the use of alcohol and the instances where Ďwineí is drunk it is grape juice only." Even a quick look at the New Testament exposes the error of this argument. In John 2:11, the already-mentioned miracle at Cana is recounted. In accordance with Jewish custom, they were drinking real wine. It was a joyful occasion with probably several hundred people attending, so Jesus helped when the wine supply became prematurely exhausted. The product had to be fermented wine, for if it had been mere grape juice, there would have been complaints rather than superb compliments. "A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes merry" says Ecclesiastes 10:19 with the Hebrew word requiring a fermented product! Then at the "Last Supper" Jesus passed around wine to His disciples. Since this was six to seven months after the grape harvest and since there was no way to preserve grape juice, this also had to be fermented wine. (The actual phrase is "fruit of the vine," but, as pointed out by The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, this expression was "employed by the Jews from time immemorial for the wine partaken of on sacred occasions, as at the Passover and on the evening of the Sabbath. The Greeks also used the term as a synonym of wine which was capable of intoxication.")
The Greek word used in John 2:1-11 for "wine" and in Paulís command to Timothy to drink wine (I Timothy 5:23) is the term oinos. This same word appears in Ephesians 5:18 ("be not drunk with wine") and Luke 10:34 ("and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine"). Can you get drunk on grape juice? Would you pour grape juice on a wound? Of course not! You get drunk on alcoholic wine and fermented wine would provide sufficient alcoholic content to serve as an antiseptic. The New Testament always refers to fermented wine. And how could the apostles stand to be accused of being drunk on grape juice (Acts 2:13-15)?
The Negative References
Those who preach that alcohol and Christians donít mix often quote verses which display a negative ó or at least apparently so ó reference toward wine. One of the primary ones is Proverbs 20:1 which states, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise." There are certainly problems attached to over-indulgence. The admonition here is that one not be deceived by it and use it too much. This applies to almost anything. Should honey also be eliminated from a Christianís diet? The approach taken by those who attempt to use Proverbs 20:1 to indicate that drinking wine is a sin would require a similar teaching about honey as well from its mention along a similar vein in Proverbs 25:27. This attitude is absurd and the intent of each of the verses is expressing a problem resulting from going too far with either product. The same applies to another section of Proverbs, 23:29-32, which again condemns drunkenness and alcoholism, but in no way prohibits or even discourages the moderate use of wine. The "red" wine that "moveth itself aright" is wine that is still fermenting. One should not "look" upon it to lust after it to drink it (compare Matthew 5:28 which would make it a sin for anyone to even look at a woman were this argument valid) as doing so before it is fully fermented can cause violent illness and even death. The completed product is not involved here whatsoever.
The references to the "wine of the wrath of God," and "the wine of the fierceness of His wrath," and "the wine of her fornication" (Revelation 14:10, 16:19, 17:2, and similar references) merely use wine as a pictorial vehicle. They in no way condemn the moderate use of wine any more than similar word pictures condemn other things. If such "unfavorable" references of this type constituted such a message, a Christian would then sin by: wearing a cloke (I Thessalonians 2:5, I Peter 2:6), drinking water (Numbers 19:9, 13, 20-21; I Kings 22:27; II Chronicles 18:26; Jeremiah 8:14, 9:15, 23:15), using an oven or heat or fire (Deuteronomy 29:24, 32:22; Psalms 21:9; Jeremiah 15:14, 17:14; Ezekiel 22:31, 38:19), eating bread (Deuteronomy 16:3; I Kings 22:27; II Chronicles 18:26; Proverbs 4:17, 20:17, 31:27; Isaiah 30:20), or take a shower (Ezekiel 13:13)! Just how ridiculous this line of thinking is becomes obvious when applied elsewhere!
The positive scriptures and commands which require fermented wine balance and bring into perspective the "negative" references. These include Christís example of making wine at Cana (John 2:1-11), Paulís command to Timothy (I Timothy 5:23), Melchizedekís sharing of wine with Abram (Genesis 14:18), Godís command to drink wine (Isaiah 55:1) and His preparing a feast for His people which includes wines as a part of the menu (Isaiah 25:6). It is also interesting to note that those who espouse total abstinence conveniently make all of the positive references to wine relate to grape juice and claim that all of the negative ones display fermented wine. In every case the words are the same, but somehow they think that they may supply a different meaning on those words to suit their own goals.
The Key to Christian Drinking
The proper relationship between alcohol and Christians is really quite plain. It is merely a matter of moderation. As Paul told Timothy, "Drink no longer water, but use a little wine . . . ." When he wrote to the Ephesians he specified, "And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess . . . ." He said to not get drunk, but he did not say to totally abstain from wine. What is absent is just as important as what is present. "Let your moderation be known unto all men" (Philippians 4:5). Christians and alcohol can mix and, when celebrating Christís death, wine is an integral and even vital ingredient. Paul again makes this point clear in I Corinthians 11:20-29 by outlining the aspects of the Passover service and making special mention of the proper spirit of this solemn celebration and admonishing against overeating and drunkenness. And again you do not get drunk from drinking grape juice, making the use of wine (as Christ obviously did) an obligatory part of the service. Abstinence is not taught by the Bible, but neither is drunkenness. Moderation is the key.
In addition to the mentioned amenities of wine in scripture, another is only hinted at. Wine has curative value as well, as implied in Luke 10:34 and I Timothy 5:23. Dr. Salvatore P. Lucia, professor of medicine at the University of California School of Medicine, wrote, "Wine is the most ancient dietary beverage and the most important medicinal agent in continuous use throughout the history of mankind . . . . Actually, few other substances available to man have been as widely recommended for their curative powers as have wines" (Wine as Food and Medicine; pp. 5, 58). Dr. Henry A. Rowe, M.D., has stated that a moderate amount of wine taken with a meal improves digestion and helps build up the blood. The Pasadena Medical Society says, "Taken intelligently and with discretion, alcohol (in wine and other drinks) can prolong life expectancy . . . . However, even temporary excess or prolonged overdrinking can lead to disaster." Wine and other alcoholic beverages have their place and have been provided for us by God to utilize intelligently for our benefit.
Aid to Bible Understanding, Watchtower, 1971, pp. 1658-59.
Dictionary of the Bible, McKenzie, Bruce Publishing Co. 1965, pp. 928-29.
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press 1957, pp. 564-65.
Harperís Encyclopedia of Bible Life, Harper & Row 1978, pp. 184-85.
New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, Westminster Press 1970, pp. 999-1002.
Peloubetís Bible Dictionary, Zondervan 1971, pp. 737-39.
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Eerdmanís 1967, Vol. V, pp. 162-66.
Ungerís Bible Dictionary, Moody Press 1966, pp. 1167-69.
ó written by Norman F. Rowe W
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