This is the first in a series of posts Pastor Mark will do on frequently asked questions.
Let me start by saying that I don’t advocate alcohol consumption for all people. But, what frustrates me is when people who oppose alcohol interpret the Bible as if they’ve been drinking. My stance on alcohol is quite comprehensive. It entails historical, biblical, and personal considerations.
Historically, God’s people have greatly enjoyed alcohol. For example:
Saint Gall was a missionary to the Celts and renowned brewer
After Charlemagne’s reign the church became Europe’s exclusive brewer
When a young woman was to marry, her church made a special bridal ale for her, from which we derive our word bridal
Pastor John Calvin’s annual salary package included upwards of 250 gallons of wine to be enjoyed by he and his guests
Martin Luther explained the entire reformation as, “…while I sat still and drank beer with Philiip and Amsdorf, God dealt the papacy a mighty blow.”
Luther’s wife, Catherine, was a skilled brewer, and his love letters to her when they were apart lamented the fact he didn’t have her beer on hand to drink
When the Puritan’s landed on Plymouth Rock, the first permanent building they erected was the brewery
During the turn of the 20th century, with the temperance movement in the US, some denominations began to condemn alcohol as sinful, and the Methodist pastor Dr. Thomas Welch created the very “Christian” Welch’s grape juice to replace communion wine in 1869.
People influenced by teetotalling traditions simply assume that consuming any alcohol is sinful without really considering the entirety of what the Bible says on the issue. Rather they just pick out a few verses against drunkenness and declare something to the effect of, “Well, there you have it.”
Anticipating this, Martin Luther once wryly said, “Do you suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused? Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women?”
Some Christians foolishly argue that such terms as new wine and mixed wine in the Bible speak of non-alcoholic wine.
But, new wine can still intoxicate according to Scripture (Isaiah 24:7; Hosea 4:11; Joel 1:5), and mixed wine refers to special wines where various wines are mixed together and/or mixed with spices, and does not refer to wine cut with water (Psalm 75:8, Song of Songs 8:2). God refers to pouring out the wrath of his mixed wine on his enemies, which does not mean he will dilute justice (Psalm 75:8). The only time the practice of diluting wine is mentioned in the Bible is in regards to merchants who cut wine in order to rob customers (Isaiah 1:22). The Bible speaks of grape juice (Numbers 6:3), and if God meant to speak of non-alcoholic wine, he would have used that word to avoid confusion.
Regarding alcohol, perhaps it is best to start with the obvious. All Bible believing Christians agree that drunkenness is a sin.
The Bible is abundantly clear that drunkenness is a sin (Deuteronomy 21:20; Ecclesiastes 10:17; Matthew 24:29; Luke 12:45; 21:34; Romans 13:13; I Corinthians 5:11; Ephesians 5:18; I Peter 4:3).
The matter is so serious that no priest was to drink alcohol while performing his duties (Leviticus 10:9; Ezra 44:21), though he could consume while not working (Numbers 18:12, 27, 30). Additionally, no king was to drink while judging law (Proverbs 31:4-5), an elder/pastor cannot be a drunkard (I Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7), and no drunkard can inherit the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:10; Galatians 5:21).
Sins associated with drunkenness include incest (Genesis 19:32-35), violence (Proverbs 4:17), adultery (Revelations 17:2), mockery and brawling (Proverbs 20:1), poverty (Proverbs 21:17), late night and early morning drinking (Isaiah 5:11-12), hallucinations (Isaiah 28:7), legendary antics (Isaiah 5:22), murder (2 Samuel 11:13), gluttony and poverty (Proverbs 23:20-21), vomiting (Jeremiah 25:27, 48:26; Isaiah 19:14), staggering (Jeremiah 25:27; Psalm 107:27; Job 12:25), madness (Jeremiah 51:7), loudness combined with laughter and then prolonged sleep (Jeremiah 51:39), nakedness (Habakkuk 2:15; Lam. 4:21), sloth (Joel 1:5), escapism (Hosea 4:11), depression (Luke 21:34), and staying up all night (I Thessalonians 5:7).
In his well argued book, God Gave Wine, Kenneth Gentry Jr. describes three basic positions regarding alcohol, which are common among Bible-believing Christians (Jim West, “A Sober Assessment of Reformational Drinking”, Modern Reformation 9, no. 2 (March/April, 2000), 38-42.). Gentry’s work is particularly helpful because while he argues for the Biblical freedom among God’s people to consume alcohol in moderation, he himself does not consume any alcohol and is therefore arguing from very pure motives and concerned only with the truth.
First, prohibitionists wrongly teach that all drinking is a sin and that alcohol itself is an evil. This position is untenable because the Bible teaches that God makes “wine that gladdens the heart of man…” (Psalm 104:14-15). Scripture is clear that Jesus’ first miracle was creating over 100 gallons of wine at a wedding party, and Jesus ate enough food and drank enough alcohol to be accused of gluttony and drunkenness (John 2:1-11; Matthew 11:19). So, if alcohol is inherently evil, then God is evil because he makes it, and Jesus is sinful because he drank it.
Second, abstentionists wrongly teach that drinking is not sinful but that all Christians should avoid drinking out of love for others and a desire to not cause anyone to stumble.
Christians should avoid drinking in the presence of others who are unable to practice moderation and self-control (Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 10:31-32). But, it is unreasonable to demand that all Christians abstain from all alcohol.
The Bible teaches that God gave wine to his people even though they used it to worship the false pagan god Baal (Hosea 2:8). Jesus drank alcohol even though there were undoubtedly people in his day who were alcoholics (Matthew 11:19). Paul says that only a demon would compel Bible teachers to forbid things that God made good (1 Timothy 4:1-5) and that drinking alcohol can be done in a way that glorifies God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Christians should avoid causing an actual person to actually stumble, but to seek to avoid causing a hypothetical person to hypothetically stumble is unreasonable, if not impossible when applied to every single issue.
For example, if a skinny person eats dessert in front of a dieting, obese glutton, they could tempt them to sin by also eating dessert. So, in love they should forego it. But, to tell the skinny person to never eat dessert again, even at home alone with only his or her skinny spouse, because someone, somewhere, who eats cakes by the sheet instead of the slice, may hear about this dessert consumption and be thrown into a frosting frenzy, is unreasonable.
Third, moderationists rightly teach that drinking is not a sin and that Christian conscience must guide each person without Christians of differing convictions judging one another.
This position is both reasonable and Biblical because wine itself is neutral and can be used in both good and bad ways (1 Samuel 1:14, 24; 25:18, 37; Joel 1:9,10). When used in a right and redeemed way, alcohol is a gift from God to be drunk with gladness, particularly when associated with feasting (Psalms 104:14-5; Ecclesiastes 9:7; 10:19). When used in this way, feasting and drinking is a foretaste of the Kingdom that will contain new wine (Joel 2:24; Isaiah 25:6; 27:2-6; Jeremiah 31:12; Hosea 2:22; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13-14). This also explains why in Scripture a lack of wine reflects the absence of joy (Isaiah 16:10; Joel 1:5, 12).
Biblical occasions to drink alcohol in moderation
Celebration (Genesis 14)
The Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18)
Medicinal purposes (Proverbs 31:6; 1 Timothy 5:23)
Thanksgiving to God (Proverbs 3:9-10)
Happiness (Deuteronomy 14:26)
For many, the issue of alcohol is deeply painful to discuss. And, I’m one of those people.
My family history, particularly among the men, involves abuse of alcohol and alcoholism. This abuse led to poverty, violence, and early death, including an uncle who died from gangrene because he refused to stop drinking despite a bad infection.
Because of my family history of alcoholism, that by God’s grace stopped with my father, I myself didn’t drink until I was 30 years old and had been a Christian for about a decade.
I didn’t believe alcohol consumption was a sin, as even my wife occasionally had a glass of wine or cocktail with dinner, but for me it was an issue of conscience. For anyone who has an issue of conscience, I would encourage them to abstain from drinking any alcohol. For this reason, at Mars Hill Church, we provide both grape juice and wine at our weekly communion in order to not encourage anyone to violate their conscience.
My first ministry position was as a college pastor at a church that asked me to sign a document saying that I would refrain from any alcohol consumption. I did so in good conscience because I didn’t drink at the time, believed (and still do) in submitting to spiritual authority, and felt called to serve at that church.
I honored my covenant not to drink alcohol during my entire time serving that church. My counsel for anyone in a church or denomination that requires total abstention is to either honor the position humbly or leave graciously. Do not sign something and then fail to keep your word, because that is lying. And, do not become contentious or divisive. If there is a reasonable way to work for a more biblical position, feel free to do so while maintaining exemplary character.
Around the age of 30, my biblical convictions didn’t change, but my conscience did. Subsequently, I began enjoying a drink upon occasion. I don’t drink to drunkenness, don’t drink in front of any actual person who I might cause to stumble because they are easily tempted to overconsume, and from time-to-time, I simply enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner, which also has numerous health benefits for the heart and stomach. As an aside, this may be why Paul commanded Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:23 to, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”
For further study
God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says About Alcohol by Kenneth Gentry is the most balanced and biblical treatment I’ve seen on alcohol. He himself does not drink, but he does argue for the moderationists position I have summarized from him above.
Also interesting is Drinking With Calvin and Luther by Jim West on the history of alcohol in Christianity.
I also spoke on what I tell my kids about alcohol at the Elephant Room.