By Max Alpin
In our day, there are probably billions of people around the world who regularly drink alcohol. At the very least, the number must be many hundreds of millions. Quite a large majority of those who drink it would claim not to suffer any ill effects from doing so. For most, having a drink or two is something enjoyable that is viewed positively. On the other hand, however, no one could deny that abuse of alcohol causes enormous problems. Every year worldwide, there must be millions of people who die prematurely because they have drunk too much of it. And there must be tens of millions alive today, maybe more, who suffer from alcohol addiction. Alcohol, then, is a widely used and abused substance, and Christians need to know what attitude to take to it.
TURNING TO THE BIBLE
When forming our views on any moral issue, the most important thing we can do is see what the Bible has to say. Unlike some moral issues, which involve things that didn’t exist when Scripture was written, we are at an advantage when considering alcohol. It has been around for thousands of years, and people have enjoyed and abused it throughout that time. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Bible contains teaching on this topic.
As we will see in what follows, Scripture speaks about alcohol in two ways. First, it teaches clearly that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol is not wrong in itself. And second, it is equally clear that taking this substance to excess is a serious sin. Let’s consider each of these points in turn.
DRINKING ALCOHOL IS NOT A SIN
There are a number of biblical passages which show that drinking alcohol is not in itself a sin:
In Romans 14:21 the apostle Paul states:
“It is good not to eat meat or drink wine [oinos] or do anything that makes your brother stumble.”
(Scripture quotations in this article are my own translations of the Greek text.)
To begin with, we need to be clear that the wine Paul is referring to here is alcoholic wine:
The Greek word underlying “wine” in the above translation is the noun oinos. This was the standard word in first century Greek for alcoholic wine.
It is sometimes claimed, however, that this word was occasionally used to refer to non-alcoholic grape juice, and that this is what Paul is talking about in this verse.
This is impossibly implausible.
First, it is doubtful that oinos was ever used to refer to a non-alcoholic drink.
Second and more importantly, Paul cannot be referring to non-alcoholic grape juice in this verse. In it he warns his readers against making a fellow Christian stumble by drinking oinos. In the context of chapter 14, this means that Christians shouldn’t drink oinos if doing this encourages a fellow believer to drink it against their conscience. However, it is inconceivable that anyone’s conscience would be troubled by drinking non-alcoholic grape juice. So an alcoholic drink must be in view.
There is no doubt, then, that Paul is referring to alcoholic wine in Romans 14:21.
The next thing we need to recognize is that Paul’s reference in this verse to drinking wine is set in parallel with a reference to eating meat.
Importantly, in verses 2-3 of the same chapter Paul has already said something about meat:
“2 One person believes that he may eat anything, but the person who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats must not treat with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat must not judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.”
Paul says in these verses that those who believe (rightly) that it is morally OK to eat meat must not treat with contempt those whose consciences are (mistakenly) troubled by eating it. He is not saying that eating meat is wrong in itself. Note especially how it is the “weak” Christian who eats only vegetables. Besides, we know from the rest of the New Testament anyway that eating meat is in itself morally acceptable.
So, given that eating meat is morally acceptable, and given that drinking wine is parallel to eating meat in v. 21, it is surely true that drinking wine is morally acceptable too. If Paul actually thought that drinking wine was in itself morally wrong, then his words in v. 21 are extremely misleading. But we can be sure that he has not written so clumsily.
Romans 14:21, then, clearly implies that it is not a sin to drink alcohol.
In John 2:1-11 is the well-known account of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
Verse 3 says:
“When the wine [oinos] ran out, Jesus’ mother said to Him, ‘They don’t have any wine [oinos].’”
And in verses 9-10 we are told:
“9 When the man in charge of the banquet tasted the water that had become wine [oinos], without knowing where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), he called the bridegroom over 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine [oinos] first, and then, when people are drunk [methusthosin], the poorer wine [oinos, understood]. But you have kept the good wine [oinos] until now.’”
The Greek word for wine in these three verses is oinos, which, as I have already mentioned, in itself strongly suggests an alcoholic drink.
Furthermore, the context very strongly implies that the wine Jesus creates from water here is alcoholic. In v. 9 the man in charge of the banquet tastes the wine Jesus has created. Then in v. 10 he remarks that the usual practice is to serve good quality wine like Jesus has made at the beginning of a party, and then poorer quality wine when the guests have become drunk. This strongly implies that the wine Jesus created is the type that has the potential to make people drunk.
The Greek verb underlying “people are drunk” in the above translation of v. 10 is methusthosin, a passive form of methusko, which in the active voice means “cause to become drunk.” The passive form methusthosin means “become drunk.”
More than a few English translations, however, avoid an explicit reference to being drunk in this verse. They translate methusthosin by “people have drunk freely” or something along these lines.
I doubt that the translators of these translations were trying to make it seem as if Jesus created non-alcoholic wine. But even so, they have not faithfully translated the Greek. The passive of methusko specifically means “become drunk,” and English translations should include an explicit reference to drunkenness.
Of course, for Jesus to have made alcoholic wine doesn’t mean that He was responsible for any drunkenness that resulted. If people chose to drink Jesus’ wine to excess, that was their fault, not His. Besides, we are not told that at the wedding in Cana anyone did in fact drink too much.
However, there should be no doubt that the wine Jesus creates in this account is alcoholic wine. And this makes it very clear that drinking alcohol is not in itself wrong.
In Luke 7:33-34 and Matthew 11:18-19 the practices of John the Baptist and Jesus are contrasted. I will comment on the passage in Luke, although some of the same points could be made about Matthew’s text too.
In Luke 7:33-34 Jesus states:
“33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine [oinos], and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man has come has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”
The first thing to note here is that Jesus is clearly implying that He drinks oinos. John is said to abstain from drinking oinos, and what Jesus does is contrasted with this. So Jesus is certainly implying that He drinks oinos.
The accusations of drunkenness that Jesus refers to in v. 34 exaggerate how much He drinks, just as the accusations of gluttony exaggerate how much He eats.
Again, we need to recognize that the word oinos in itself strongly suggests an alcoholic drink.
A consideration of Luke 1:15 makes it even more certain that in 7:33-34 Jesus is saying that He drinks alcohol.
In 1:15 the angel Gabriel prophesies to Zacharias about John the Baptist:
“For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine [oinos] or liquor [sikera] . . .”
The Greek word sikera refers to an alcoholic drink that was typically not made from grapes. And the related term oinos is also undoubtedly being used in this verse to refer to alcoholic wine.
Given that in 1:15 Luke uses oinos to refer to alcoholic wine, all other things being equal, we would most naturally expect his usage in 7:33 to be the same.
Even more importantly, 1:15 clearly implies that John was unusual in his abstention from alcohol. Historians of ancient Judaism agree anyway that for a first century Jew to have abstained from alcohol would have been unusual.
Given that John’s abstention from alcohol was unusual, and given that Luke 7:33-34contrasts the drinking of John and Jesus, we have even more evidence that Luke 7:33-34 refers to Jesus drinking alcohol.
There are very strong reasons for believing, therefore, that Luke 7:33-34 is telling us that Jesus drank alcohol.
IT IS WRONG TO PRESSURIZE PEOPLE
Because drinking alcohol is not sinful, it is wrong for those who choose to abstain from it to pressurize people to become teetotal.
There are even some churches where, in order to become members, people have to agree that they won’t drink. This is completely unbiblical and reminds us of Colossians 2:20-23 and 1 Timothy 4:1-5, where people make up restrictive rules that were never the will of God.
Of course, in the case of someone who has a history of drink problems, it does make sense to lovingly exert pressure of a kind. But in normal circumstances this is the wrong thing to do.
It should also be obvious that those who choose to drink alcohol should themselves not pressurize anyone to start drinking. As we have seen, Romans 14:21 makes it very clear that those who drink need to be very careful not to cause problems for those who don’t.
WHY IS IT NOT WRONG TO DRINK ALCOHOL?
Since drinking alcohol was first practiced, there has surely never been a time when it has not been abused. So there is no doubt that it was abused in biblical times.
Why, then, does the Bible teach that drinking it is not wrong?
I think there are several reasons:
First, there is the point that God is not a killjoy. Many people enjoy drinking alcohol in moderate quantities, and it is not in God’s nature to hinder people’s enjoyment of things unless there is sin involved.
Second, neither is it in God’s nature to restrict people’s activities more than is necessary.
It is true that if Christians were all teetotal, those who are in danger of abusing alcohol might be more discouraged from drinking. Nevertheless, the downside of this would be quite significant. It would mean that Christians were in all cases barred from doing something that is not in itself wrong. Apparently, God finds this scenario too restrictive.
Third, God must see alcohol as a substance that is not excessively addictive. This makes sense insofar as a large majority of those who drink it are not addicted to it, and the people who become addicted are those who have ignored warning signs.
Fourth, God must also see alcohol as a substance that is not damaging if taken in moderate quantities. It is worth noting that the medical profession by and large seems to take this view.
DRINKING TO EXCESS IS A SIN
Although the Bible makes it clear that drinking alcohol is not in itself wrong, it is equally clear that drinking to excess is a serious sin:
1 Corinthians 6
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul warns the church in Corinth:
“9 Or don’t you know that those who are immoral won’t inherit the kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who sleep with men, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor those who are verbally abusive, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Note the reference to drunkards in v. 10.
Paul says here that those who unrepentantly continue to practice the sins he mentions will not inherit the kingdom of God. At least part of his meaning must be that those who commit these sins will not reach heaven. He is saying, then, that practicing drunkards, as well as those who unrepentantly commit other sins, will end up in hell.
The seriousness of getting drunk could hardly be put more starkly.
In Galatians 5:19-21 Paul tells the Galatian churches:
“19 Now the deeds of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, 20 idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, outbursts of anger, quarreling, conflicts, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild partying, and things like these. I am telling you now, as I have already told you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Note the reference to drunkenness in v. 21. Again, Paul says that those who practice drunkenness will not inherit the kingdom of God, which means that they will not experience final salvation.
Other New Testament passages
There are many other New Testament passages that explicitly or implicitly condemn drunkenness. These include Matthew 24:48-51; Luke 12:45-48; 21:34; Acts 2:12-15; Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 11:21; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:7; 1 Timothy 3:8; Titus 2:3; Revelation 17:2, 6.
The Old Testament
The Bible is very clear, therefore, that getting drunk is a serious sin.
WHY IS DRUNKENNESS SO BAD?
Why is it, then, that getting drunk is so wrong in God’s sight?
There is one obvious reason. Drunkenness leads inevitably to lack of self-control, and drunk people often do things that they shouldn’t do and that they wouldn’t do if they were sober. Clearly, God wants everyone to be in control of their actions.
I believe there is also another, overlapping, reason why it is wrong to get drunk. We humans have been made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9). This is an extremely dignified position to be in. However, to become drunk involves acting in a very undignified way. In fact, I would suggest that for a person to get drunk involves a kind of unconscious attempt to move away from their dignified position as a human closer to the position of animals over which we have authority (Genesis 1:26, 28). To act with disregard for the dignity that God has given us is a form of meddling with His creation. And to meddle with His creation is to insult Him.
HOW MUCH ALCOHOL IS TOO MUCH?
We have seen that the Bible teaches that drinking alcohol is not wrong in itself, and that getting drunk is a grave sin.
But this raises a question. How much alcohol is too much? Where do we draw the line?
In answering this, it is very important to remember that we live in New Covenant times. This means that the Christian life is not about following lots of rules, but is about learning to tune our spiritual ears to the direction of the indwelling Spirit (Galatians 5:16-25; Jeremiah 31:33-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Therefore, as we would expect, Scripture contains no specific instruction about how much alcohol people may drink. It is up to each Christian to seek God’s leading about where they should personally draw the line.
In view of the effect that alcohol has on people, it is certainly right to describe it as a recreational drug.
Given that God is clearly not against people taking this drug in moderate quantities, it follows logically that there may be other recreational drugs that He also permits.
We do, of course, need to tread very carefully here. For God to give a green light to a recreational drug, there are doubtless important criteria that need to be fulfilled.
Firstly, it is certain that God doesn’t want people to become addicted to things. This means that any recreational drug that He approves of would have to be something that is not particularly addictive. This criterion alone would serve to rule out many recreational drugs. Personally, I would be firmly against people taking any substance that is more addictive than alcohol.
Secondly, God surely doesn’t want people to take substances that, even in moderate quantities, do them harm, physically, mentally or in any other way. This would serve to rule out many more drugs.
Other than alcohol, the only recreational drug that I myself feel comfortable about endorsing is caffeine. There may well be others that God would permit, but I don’t know of any.
I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com