TO DRINK OR NOT TO DRINK, THAT IS THE QUESTION, OR IS IT?
by Nathan Walters
How should Christians deal with the issue of alcohol? Since the Bible does not tell us explicitly to abstain from any and all alcohol, can we address this issue with certainty? There are three views concerning the use of alcohol. One view is that alcohol should be outright prohibited. Another view is that alcohol should be consumed with thanksgiving, but in moderation. The third view is that abstinence is the best choice in dealing with alcohol. While it is true that the Bible does not explicitly tell us to abstain from alcohol, I will argue that Christians should abstain based on biblical principles.
Drink It Up: In Moderation?
Since this issue seems to be vague in Scripture there are those who adamantly defend their desire for a biblical permission of alcohol. Wine is in the Bible. Jesus turned water into wine. He gave His disciples wine at the last supper. When writing to Timothy Paul says that deacons are not to be “given to much wine” and then later he tells him to “drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.” These are just a few arguments for drinking in moderation.
First, the English word wine is used 233 times in the King James Version of the Bible. The main Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for wine is the word (yayin), which is a “generic word for wine (that) includes grape-juice in many states.” Since there is not a specific word used that only means a fermented wine “the biblical terms for wine beg the question of the precise condition, whether fermented or unfermented, of the juice to which they refer.” There are times where wine is mentioned alongside strong drink such as in Deuteronomy 14:26, which would indicate that there are differences in the use of the word wine in the Bible. Just because a word is used in the Bible does not mean that the Bible condones every use of the object.
Second, it is true that Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast (John 2). When the servants brought the wine to the master of the wedding he was surprised that it was so good. Just because Jesus turned water into wine does not mean that Jesus supports all uses of wine. Jesus gave the wine to the servants and then in Luke chapter 7 he healed a centurion’s servant. Does this mean that Jesus supported slavery? What was Jesus trying to do with these miracles? Live it up and party hard? No, John tells us, that Jesus did this to manifest His glory (John 2:11).
Didn’t Jesus give His disciples wine at the last supper? Some believe that when Jesus broke bread and gave the cup He was condoning alcohol. The Bible does not tell us He gave them wine, rather it tells us that He gave the cup. Jesus did tell them, “I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom (emphasis added).” It cannot be inferred from this statement that He was talking about a fermented drink. Furthermore Jesus and His disciples were celebrating the feast of unleavened bread. When giving instructions for the Feast of Unleavened Bread the Lord tells the children of Israel that they are to have no yeast in their houses and are not to eat anything that is leavened (Exodus 12). Since it takes yeast to turn the fruit of the vine into wine it does not make sense that Jesus would be giving fermented wine to His disciples at this time.
Paul tells Timothy that a bishop should not be addicted to wine and a deacon should not be given to much wine. If Paul says not much, he must mean that it is fine to have wine, just not too much. The argument here is how much is too much? This all depends on the strength of the drink and the make up of the individual drinking, which can be a very broad spectrum. What may not be much for one, may be way too much for another.
Paul later tells Timothy to, “drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities (1 Timothy 5:23).” Obviously, Paul would not tell Timothy to do something that was a sin. On the other hand it is important to realize what he is telling him. First of all, he had told Timothy that a bishop was not to be given to wine. Timothy was the bishop of Ephesus and most likely would have abstained from its use. Here Paul addresses some medical issues with Timothy and is telling him that it is okay to take some wine for his ailments or “stomach’s sake.” When people drink in moderation, they are not drinking for their stomach’s sake; rather they are drinking for their spirit’s sake. Today we have many types of medicine, some of them, like NyQuil, contain alcohol. The suggested dosage of these medicines is very low, for example a dosage of NyQuil for an adult is only 30ml. Taking alcohol for your stomach’s sake does not seem to fit in with the moderation view of alcohol.
The Bible does condemn drunkenness. Several times a warning is given that the drunkard will not inherit the kingdom of God. Solomon said, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). But it doesn’t say that the believer should not drink. So why does the issue of moderation versus abstinence matter? What is the point of arguing over it?
The Chief End of Man
The Westminster Catechism states that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. If bringing glory to God and enjoying Him is our main purpose in life where does alcohol come in to this picture? Paul writes to the Colossians and says:
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh. If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. (Colossians 2:20-3:2)
The Christian is not to focus on rules and regulations; rather he or she is to focus on things above, the things of God. The alcohol industry, to include its use, is based on a “self-centered morality” focused on personal pleasure and gain, but true Christianity is based on a God and others-centered morality that involves a “self-sacrificial devotion.”
Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me…Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples (John 15:4-8).”
If the believer is abiding in Christ and seeking after the things above, alcohol should be of little importance. Bearing fruit for the Lord should be more important than indulging in selfish desires. For it is the fruit of the Christian’s life, that brings glory to the Father, not the fermented fruit of the vine.
The greatest commandment according to Jesus was to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind … And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Being God and others-centered means denying self for the good of others. When a soldier enlists into the Army he gives up some of his rights including some of his unalienable rights. A soldier’s speech becomes limited, his pursuits of happiness are put on hold, and if necessary his life and liberty are given up. Why does a soldier choose to give up these rights? For the sake of others. As a soldier of Christ how much more should the believer be willing to give up some of his rights for the sake of others?
Alcohol is known for destroying people’s lives. Many Christians who drink in moderation do not see the negative and even evil effects that alcohol has on those bound in it’s snare. In many low-income apartment complexes across this country one can find that alcohol is a major factor in the brokenness of the people who live there. Among the brokenness brought on by alcohol is “violence, mental health issues, sickness, and premature death.” “If ‘alcohol causes the individual to be less than his best and…fall s(h)ort of the New Testament requirements,’ can Christians ever sanction this business?” The answer should be clearly, no. Christians who desire to see people brought to Christ must realize that alcohol is a major obstacle keeping many people from a relationship with Him. Liberty in Christ must be lain down for the sake of many lost souls.
Encouraging Christians to think of others, Paul writes:
For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God…Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another…It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. (Romans 14:17-21)
Edifying others and encouraging them towards righteousness should be at the heart of the believer’s mission towards his neighbor. This attitude of abstinence is not just pointed at alcohol, but at anything that may stumble a weaker soul. The truth is, though, that there may be no other substance or issue that “fits the definition of ‘causing some to stumble’ quite like alcohol.” The believer has been set free from sin, he is free in Christ, he is free to not drink. The Christian is “free indeed – when love naturally tempers [his] actions.”
It is important to remember that the goal of the Christian in all that he does should be to bring glory to God. Ephesians 5:18 says, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” This is not a passage so much against alcohol as it is an exhortation towards the things of God. The word used for excess is asotia,; reckless living, debauchery (a presumed derivative of sozo, heal, preserve, save, do well, be whole). Paul contrasts the difference between flesh and spirit with these words. In drunkenness there is debauchery, in the Spirit there is righteousness. In drunkenness there is an excess of alcohol, but in the Spirit you can never be too full. There are many people in the world, as well as in the church, who have had too much to drink, but there has never been anyone, nor will there be anyone, who has had too much of the Holy Spirit.
Paul tells the Galatians that if they walk in the Spirit, they are not under the law, but then he warns them:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-22)
It is important to note that there are three things related to alcohol that Paul warns about. First, is witchcraft, in the Greek (pharmakeia), which is where the word pharmacy comes from in English. Paul is warning here about one who abuses drugs to alter his mental state, “an enchanter by means of drugs.” Alcohol is classified as a drug (depressant) that is “in the same category as marijuana, barbiturates, amphetamines, LSD, and narcotics” and can be used for the same purpose. Second, drunkenness is an abuse of alcohol. Third, revellings which are often the result of over indulging in alcohol. These are no petty offences. Paul says that those who do such things “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” In His sermon on the mount, Jesus said:
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
These seemed to be very drastic measures, yet Jesus says that it is worth it to lose a part of your body that your soul would be saved. How much more then, should a person be willing to give up alcohol to avoid becoming dependent on it, a drunkard that will not inherit eternal life?
Christians should not be known by whether they drink alcohol or not, but should be known by their fruit. After giving this warning, Paul continues with,
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25)
To drink or not to drink, then, is not the question. Is your life bringing glory and honor to Christ or is it satisfying the desires of your flesh? Paul said “to live is Christ,” may that be the proclamation of the church today.
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