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The Christian and Beverage Alcohol
by Kevin L MooreIt has been estimated that approximately 85% of New Zealanders drink beverage alcohol. While this statistic no doubt excludes children, one of our local teenagers recently informed us of a survey done at his school, which reveals that 68% of these students admit to drinking alcoholic beverages to some degree. Regardless of how one views the practice of alcohol consumption, it is obviously an established part of our society that is not going to be abandoned anytime soon. As a matter of fact, statistics show that alcohol consumption (per person) in New Zealand has steadily increased each year since 1960 (Alcohol Facts & Effects, Alcoholic Liquor Advisory Council, Wellington NZ).
When discussions arise about whether or not this is an acceptable practice for Christians, emotions can run high on both sides of the issue. No conscientious child of God wants to forbid something that has divine sanction or condone, promote or practise something of which the Lord disapproves. Possibly more than anything else, personal experience can create strong biases (either way), which may cloud objective reasoning and hinder constructive dialogue. And interpreting God’s word through these preconceived biases may very well lead to a compromise of truth (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:15). May we all have the courage and conviction to rise above such a shallow approach to scripture and possess the integrity to acknowledge what the Bible actually says and does not say (both explicitly and implicitly) on this controversial subject.
This study addresses the issue of what is commonly referred to as “social drinking,” by which we mean the consumption of alcoholic beverages (i.e. beverages that can induce intoxication) in “moderate” amounts for purely social or recreational purposes. We are not discussing the possible non-social (e.g. medical, survival) use of ethyl alcohol. The Bible does not explicitly state, “Thou shalt completely abstain from all alcoholic beverages.” But neither does it say, “Drinking beverage alcohol for personal enjoyment is acceptable to God.” The biblical information that is relevant to this discussion must be carefully examined to determine: (1) what is actually said; (2) what is implied; (3) what was meant when it was first recorded; and (4) how it applies today.
Much of the Lord’s will has been communicated in general principles rather than by explicit statements. The law of Christ is not simply a legalistic system that specifically itemizes all the do’s and don’ts of the Christian life. For example, the Bible does not specifically address the issues of skirt length, adult movies, raunchy music, erotic dancing, gambling, etc., but these issues are addressed generally in biblical principles. Principles are generic exhortations requiring basic common sense and mature reasoning to make specific, practical applications (cf. Heb. 5:14).
Let it be understood from the start that it is hard to make legitimate comparisons between wines of antiquity and alcoholic beverages of today, since modern alcoholic beverages are far more potent, having been fortified by additional alcohol. Moreover, ancient wines were commonly diluted with water, sometimes as much as twenty parts water to one part wine (cf. W. Patton, Bible Wines 42), so let’s be cautious about trying to draw parallels where none exist.
The modern word “wine” generally connotes “the fermented juice of grapes, used as an alcoholic beverage” (Webster’s New World Dictionary p. 1630), but the same word in our English Bibles does not always have this meaning. As with many other biblical words, the modern usage is not always equivalent to how it is used in scripture, and we must be careful not to read the Bible solely through our tainted “21st-century glasses.”
In the Hebrew OT there are about eighteen words that relate to this study, including the following. (1) The word yayin, found 136 times, is frequently rendered “wine”; (2) tiyrôsh, used forty times, is generally translated “new wine”; (3) shekar is found twenty-two times, but the rendering “strong drink” is an unfortunate translation since there were no distilled liquors in Bible times. This word actually refers to wines made from fruits other than grapes. Additional terms include: asis (“sweet wine” or “juice”), shemarim (“lees” or “dregs”), sobe (“wine” or “drink”), chemer and chamar (“wine”), mesek (“mixture”), mimsak and mezeg (“mixed wine”), dam-anabim and dam-enab (“blood of grapes”), mishrath-anabim (“juice of grapes”), ashishah (“raisins”), chomets (“vinegar”), yekeb (“winepress”), and mamtaqqim (“sweet”).
In the Greek NT there are five relevant terms. (1) The word oinos, used thirty-four times, is generally rendered “wine”; (2) gleukos is found only once and is translated “new wine”; (3) sikera is also used once and is rendered “strong drink”; (4) oxos is found six times and is translated “sour wine” or “vinegar”; and (5) the phrase gennema tas ampelou, meaning “fruit of the vine,” is used three times.
Despite its modern connotation, however, the word “wine” in the Bible is generic and is applied to both fermented and unfermented fruit juices. Clear examples of the non-alcoholic use of this word include the following. The juice still in the grape is called “wine” (Isa. 62:8-9; 65:8 [tiyrôsh]; Jer. 40:10 [yayin]). The grapevine is called yayinin Num. 6:4 and Judges 9:13. The word “wine” [tiyrôsh] is used to describe the firstfruits of the harvest (Num. 18:12; Neh. 10:37). That which is gathered from the fields is called “new wine” [tiyrôsh] (Deut. 11:14; 2 Chron. 32:28). Joel 1:10-12 speaks of the “new wine” [tiyrôsh] dried up in the fields. That which is treaded out in the presses is called “wine” (Isa. 16:10 [yayin]; cf. Amos 9:13).
In the Septuagint [Greek OT], the Greek word oinos is used to translate not only yayin, but is always used (except twice) to translate tiyrôsh. The fact that Jesus made and distributed up to 684 litres of oinos for those who had already “well drunk” or “drunk freely” (John 2:1-11) is a clear NT example of the word “wine” used in a non-intoxicating sense (cf. Hab. 2:15; Prov. 31:4; 20:1; 23:20-21, 29-35). The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in relating the story of Joseph, recorded that he “saw three clusters of grapes hanging upon three branches of a vine, large already, and ripe for gathering; and that he squeezed them into a cup which the king held in his hand; and when he had strained the wine, he gave it to the king to drink” (Antiquities 2,5,1).
Because the Bible was originally written neither in modern times nor in the English language, it is a mistake to superficially interpret it as though it was. A few years ago an article in a NZ church bulletin stated: “So we can see that from the Scripture drinking alcohol was acceptable . . .” No doubt many accept this conclusion as factual, but is it really true? In a discussion with a non-Christian I was told that church people are a bunch of hypocrites because “they say you’re not supposed to drink alcohol but the Bible says ‘eat, drink and be merry’!” Most of us recognize this as a gross misapplication of scripture, but some Bible believers are almost as reckless in their misuse of the sacred writings. To handle accurately the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) demands that we define biblical words biblically rather than reading our modern misconceptions into them. Since the word “wine” in the Bible can apply to either fermented or unfermented substances, both the context and the overall teaching of scripture must determine which of these was intended by the inspired writer.
Drunkenness is clearly condemned in the Bible (Eph. 5:18; 1 Cor. 6:10), but is it permissible (or even possible) to drink alcoholic beverages without getting drunk? The Greek word methuskô (“drunk”) in Eph. 5:18 (cf. 1 Thess. 5:7; Luke 12:45) means “get drunk, become intoxicated” (Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon 499); “to make drunk, or to grow drunk (an inceptive verb, marking the process of the state expressed in methuô [intoxicate], to become intoxicated” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of NT Words 343); [Note: the term “inceptive” expresses the beginning of an action]; “to begin to be softened” (Young’s Analytical Concordance 275); “to grow drunk (marking the beginning of methuô)” (E.W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon & Concordance to the English & Greek NT 238). What stands out in all these definitions is that “drunkenness,” as biblically defined, is not simply what might be considered “full-blown inebriation,” but it incorporates the very beginning stages of this process.
According to the American Medical Association: “There is no minimum (blood-alcohol concentration) which can be set at which there will be absolutely no effect” (“Are You Fit to Drive?” JAMA, 1960). The immediate effects of alcohol can be described as follows: “The action of the brain is slowed down causing changes in inhibitions, judgement and self control” (Alcohol Facts & Effects 2), and these effects begin with the very first drink (Sportsmanlike Driving, American Auto. Assoc., 5th Ed.).
As opposed to being inebriated [methuskô], Christians are admonished to be “sober” [nêphô] (1 Thess. 5:4-8; cf. 1 Pet. 1:13; 5:8). This word means “to be sober, not intoxicated; in N.T. met. to be vigilant, circumspect . . .” (H. K. Moulton, The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised 277); “signifies to be free from the influence of intoxicants . . .” (Vine’s 1067); “to abstain from wine; thus, to be sober, fig., to be self-controlled” (The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance & Lexicon 592). Furthermore, to be “temperate” [nêphalios] (1 Tim. 3:2, 11; Titus 2:2) means: “sober, temperate, abstinent in respect to wine, etc.” (H. K. Moulton 277). Both Josephus (Antiquities 3,12,2) and Philo (De Specialibus Legibus 4,183), contemporaries of NT events and writings, used the word nêphalios for total abstinence from wine. Although several lexical sources also include the metaphoric definitions of “vigilant, circumspect, clear-headed, self-controlled,” and some argue for this figurative interpretation in the NT exclusively, the literal meaning (complete abstinence from intoxicants) should not be carelessly disregarded. A Christian who drinks alcoholic beverages, even “moderately,” cannot strictly adhere to these biblical mandates.
Ethyl alcohol [grain alcohol or ethanol], made by fermentation of sugar with yeast, is the main ingredient in all alcoholic beverages and is a habit-forming narcotic drug (Alcohol Facts & Effects 3; Frank Overton, Applied Physiology Including the Effects of Alcohol & Narcotics 140).
Anyone who drinks alcohol has the potential of becoming an alcoholic. According to Dr. A. C. Ivy, when a person starts to drink occasionally, he or she takes a one in nine chance of becoming a heavy drinker or chronic alcoholic, and if the current rate of increase continues, that ratio could soon reach one in five (Alcohol as a Depressant 20-21). Even if a person insists that he can drink “moderately” without getting addicted, he cannot both drink and unhypocritically encourage others (who may get addicted) not to drink. A Christian’s influence is one of his/her greatest teaching tools (1 Cor. 11:1; 9:19-23; 1 Tim. 4:12, 16). As a Christian I must not only think about my own interests (Phil. 2:4), but I must seriously consider how my actions may affect my children, my family, my friends, my brethren, and my neighbours (cf. Mark 9:42; Rom. 14:13-20). Moreover, what Christian would want to be found participating in a drinking party when the Lord unexpectedly returns? (Matt. 24:48-51; cf. 1 Pet. 4:3-5).
“Drinking alcohol at all carries with it some risks. As more research is done on the effects of alcohol on the body, the amount that can be recommended as safe to drink gets lower. . . . There is no need to drink alcohol for the sake of your health” (How Much is Too Much? Alcoholic Liquor Advisory Council, 3); “. . . a growing body of scientific evidence shows the detrimental effects of alcohol on human health far outweigh any potential benefits” (Bill Sloan, “Alcohol and Your Heart,” New Idea July 1989, 37); “evidence indicates that there is no guarantee of a ‘safe’ level of drinking, no absolute threshold below which alcohol fails to damage or destroy groups of cells in the brain and other vital organs” (Readers Digest, 6-70). “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19-20 NKJV).
Fruits of Drinking Alcohol
There is a mountain of literature available documenting the long-term effects of alcohol consumption, including: addiction, birth defects, child abuse, delinquency, divorce, physical and psychological problems, accidents, suicide, traffic fatalities, drownings, poor work performance (costing NZ $1.3 billion each year), money troubles, violent crime, et al. Even if one argues that these consequences are mostly attributable to alcohol abuse, it all begins with the first drink. “Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22).
No, the Bible does not explicitly state: “Thou shalt not participate in social drinking.” But there are certainly biblical principles which govern this issue. Because drunkenness is a matter of degree and the effects of alcohol begin with the first drink, and a “drinking Christian” cannot (in so doing) be an influence for good, and beverage alcohol is associated with so much evil in the world, it is the conviction of this writer that a faithful child of God must not engage in either excessive or “moderate” drinking. May God help us to “not be conformed to this world” but rather “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2).This item originally appeared at The Exhorter (April-June 2001)