Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is Drinking Alcohol Allowed for a Christian?

One of the best articles on alcohol is "A Christian Perspective on Wine Drinking" by Norman Geisler (in Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 139). In it he deals honestly and openly with what the Bible does and does not say about alcohol. In today's post, I will summarize his article; but to get the full impact of the study, let me encourage you to find the article and read it yourself.

What the Bible Says About Alcohol
  • Drunkenness is a sin (cf. Deut. 21:20-21; 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:18).
  • "Strong drink" is deceptive and sinful (cf. Lev. 10:8-9; Prov. 20:1; 31:4-5; Isa. 5:11; 24:9). The Hebrew word for "strong drink" is a different word than the word used for "wine."
  • Drinking in excess is wrong (cf. Amos 6:1, 6; Hab. 2:15).
  • Church leaders are to be moderate in their use of wine (1 Tim. 3:3, 8).
  • Wine was used as a medicine (Prov. 31:6; 1 Tim. 5:23).
What the Bible Does Not Say About Alcohol
  • The Bible does not teach that New Testament communion wine was unfermented. All wine was fermented wine. Some Corinthians were drunk at the Lord's Table (cf. 1 Cor. 11:21), which would be very difficult to accomplish if the wine was unfermented.
  • The Bible does not teach that "new wine" was unfermented. Hosea 4:11 says that both "old wine" and "new wine" take away understanding. And Acts 2:13 tells of how the Spirit-filled believers were accused of drunkenness, being filled with new wine.
  • It is false to say that Jesus made unfermented wine (compare John 2:9-10 with Mark 2:22 and Eph. 5:18).
  • It is incorrect to say that the New Testament teaches that first-century Christians were not to use wine at any time.
  • It is a myth to say that total abstinence was a New Testament condition for church membership.
Is Wine Today Like New Testament Wine?

New Testament scholar Robert Stein points out that wine in the New Testament was essentially purified water.
  • Wine in Homer's day was twenty parts water to one part wine.
  • Pliny referred to wine as eight parts water to one part wine.
  • Aristophanes: three parts water to two parts wine.
  • Euenos: three parts water to one part wine.
  • Hesiod: three parts water to one part wine.
  • Alexis: four parts water to one part wine.
  • Diocles and Anacreon: two parts water to one part wine.
  • Ion: three parts water to one part wine.
  • Strong wine was typically considered to be one part water to one part wine.
  • Anyone who drank wine unmixed was called a Scythian or a barbarian. Ancient Greeks would say to us today, "You Americans are barbarians–drinking straight wine!" The pagan Mnesitheus of Athens was quoted as saying about wine, "Mix it half and half and you get madness; unmixed–bodily collapse."
  • According to the Talmud, wine used in the Passover was three parts water and one part wine.
In ancient times, water was sometimes unsafe to drink, just as it is in many undeveloped areas of the world today. Water could have been made safe in many ways: boiling (although it was costly and tedious), filtering (not always a safe method), or adding wine (which helped to kill the germs).
Today, wine has a much higher alcohol content than in the days of the New Testament. If you lived back in those days, you would have to drink twenty-two glasses of wine in order to consume the same amount of alcohol in two martinis today.
Today's wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages fall within the category of what Scripture calls "strong drink," which are forbidden.

Deciding About Drinking Alcohol Today

If you are considering drinking alcohol, you should first answer four questions:
  1. What are the facts about alcohol? Thirty-six percent of adults who drink alcohol can be classified as problem drinkers. There are over 3 million 14-17 year-olds who are problem drinkers. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the third greatest cause of birth defects. Drinking impairs your social and intellectual capacities. Half of all traffic fatalities and one-third of all traffic injuries are alcohol-related. A high percentage of child-abusing parents have drinking problems. A relatively high correlation exists between alcohol consumption and robbery, rape, assault, homicide, and suicide.
  2. Will wine-drinking lead to sin? First Corinthians 6:12 (NASB) says, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything." You may think that you are master of your drinking, but if alcohol is something you must have, then it masters you.
  3. Will wine-drinking lead anyone else to sin? Philippians 2:4 (NASB) says, "Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others." Romans 14:21 (NASB) says, "It is good not to eat meat or drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles."
  4. Can wine-drinking be done to the glory of God? First Corinthians 10:31 (NASB) says, "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." If you cannot praise and glorify God when you are drinking, then you don't need to do it.
Why Christians Need Not Drink Wine
  • People in the United States have plenty of wholesome, nonaddictive beverages to consume. This is different than in biblical times.
  • America is an alcoholic culture, but the New Testament culture was not. In the New Testament, there were relatively few drunks.
  • Total abstinence is the safer policy. How many people would fly if they knew there was a one in ten chance that their plane would crash? That is the same chance of an occasional or moderate drinker becoming an alcoholic.
  • Total abstinence is the more consistent policy. The biggest drug problem in the U.S. is not marijuana or heroin, but alcohol. Alcohol is the "establishment" drug, the adults' drug, the legal drug. We cannot expect our children or grandchildren to stay away from drugs if we refuse.
  • Alcohol cannot deliver on the expectation people place upon it. The main reason people drink alcohol is because they believe it will provide relaxation and enjoyment. But God says that real peace and joy comes through experiencing Him. "Do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18, NASB). "You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever" (Ps. 16:11; NASB). "The peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:7; NASB).
Geisler concludes his article with these words: "And it is an insult to the Holy Spirit for Christians to seek the superficial pleasure of stimulants when they can have the permanent joy of the Holy Spirit. God wants people to eat and drink with joy, but without jeopardy. He desires that man's pleasures be Spirit-directed, not self-centered; that they be helpful, but not harmful."


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At 9:36 PM, Blogger DavyLightning said...

Your recitation of Stein's position is not scholarship. You yourself point out that under his calculations, it would mean drinking 22 gallons of wine in order to feel any effect of alcohol. This flies in the face of scriptural commands (as you again point out) to avoid drunkeness, as it would be practically impossible, nor would such a concoction be of any use in treating wounds (Good Samaritan), or for Timothy's stomach ailments. In order to be used for these purposes, the alcohol content would have to be at least 10%, which is actually stronger than some modern wines. Nor does grape juice gladden the heart. You also conveniently left out the fact that most scholars do not agree with Stein's conclusion, nor is it supported by anything other than passing references in a few texts. In my opinion, this clearly falls into the category of a "disputable matter", and it is inappropriate to pretend that Christian brothers and sisters (especially those in other cultures) are lesser Christians because of their understanding of scripture. Such an interpretation of scripture would be seen as quite strange to most European Christians, and smacks of Americentrism.

At 12:01 AM, Blogger Dr. David H. Rhoades said...

Wow! There's a lot of passion in your response. Interesting. Here's my response to your points:

1. I wasn't writing a scholarly article. It was a pastoral article to answer a question with which Christians deal.
2. Stein said (and I reported) that it would take 22 glasses--not gallons--of New Testament era wine to equal the alcoholic content of two modern martinis. This is obviously an estimate using very watered-down wine. N.T. era wine would have different alcoholic content depending on the amount of water added.
3. As you point out, a higher alcoholic content would be needed for medicinal purposes. Nowhere did Stein nor I say otherwise. To assume that Stein or I said that only very watered-down alcohol would have been used for medicinal purposes shows that you are not reading the article carefully (as already proven by the "gallons" reference).
4. You say that most scholars do not agree with Stein's conclusions. First, what does that prove? Most New Testament scholars don't believe Jesus actually rose from the grave. The truth of a matter doesn't lie in its popularity. Second, before Stein came to his conclusion, he first studied what ancient extra-biblical Greek texts said about the alcoholic content of wine. If you have evidence to the contrary showing what Homer, Josephus, etc. said about the topic, I would be glad to inform Stein that his research is mistaken. Third, if you want to agree with the research and yet come to a different life-application, that is certainly your right.
5. I agree with you that alcoholic consumption is a "disputable matter." It certainly does not rise to the level of whether the Bible is God's Word or whether Jesus is Lord. If it is disputable, should I therefore not write or speak on the issue? Why are my conclusions labeled as "pretending that Christians in other cultures are lesser Christians?" I did not say that, nor was it implied anywhere. It seems to me that if a matter is "disputable," then by definition I should be afforded a measure of leeway to dispute the matter without being accused of denigrating the morality of my brothers and sisters in Christ who might disagree with my conclusions.
6. When dealing with controversial issues like alcoholic consumption, divorce and remarriage, etc., I take great pains to (as much as it is possible) "divorce" my preconceived and culturally-derived worldview from my study of Scripture. I take great pains in my study of Scripture to observe, interpret, and apply--in that order. If my studies conclude that most European Christians are wrong on the issue of alcohol, then so be it. On other issues (like materialism), I would easily conclude that most American Christians are wrong.

At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, I add your blog in my favourites.

I'm french and I want the catholic church to forbidden alcohol, I'm looking for a lot of information about that.

Of course it's a long job.

Sorry for the way in which I speak in english, by the way.


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