Were you to ask the Christian world, “Can Christians drink alcohol?” you would receive different Christian answers.
Your hard-core Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, and others would shout, “No!” in glorious unison. Your Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Anglicans and others would scream, “Yes!” with equal fervor. Non-denoms, Lutherans, and Reformed guys would fill in the spectrum with generous helpings of “maybe”, “sometimes”, and “what do you mean by ‘can’?”
Dallas Theological Seminary recently changed their position on the subject, which has got me thinking about the whole question again. Is it ever right for a Christian to drink alcohol?
Well, as is always the first step, let’s look at the Bible. What references are there to drinking in particular? If there are any, are there any restrictions outlined or common to all? Are there any relevant biblical concepts that can be applied in the question of alcohol use?
Answer: Yes all around.
First lets look at the stories of drinking. Remember, these are just historical accounts. Unless specifically stated, it’s up to us to interpret them and determine the rightness or wrongness of the actions described.
Noah gets off the ark and starts farming. His three sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth start farming too. Pretty quickly, Noah starts growing grapes, making wine and drinking said wine. He gets drunk and “uncovers himself in his tent,” and Ham goes in and “sees it.” (“Sees it” is in quotes because verse 24 says noah awoke and “knew what his youngest son had done to him.” Maybe there’s a euphemism in here somewhere.) Whatever the case, the other two sons avert their eyes and take measures to protect their father’s honor. When Noah wakes up he curses Ham’s descendants, the Canaanites (the people Israel eventually wreck shop on in the book of Joshua) and sentences them to be subjects of the other two sons.
Lot flees from Sodom and Gomorrah. He goes and hides in a cave outside Zoar with his two daughters. The older daughter convinces the younger that they should get their dad so drunk that he doesn’t even know when he’s “laying” with his daughters. (“Laying” is in quotes because there’s no question that this one’s a euphemism. He has sex with them.) Each daughter does the deed and gets pregnant. Their two sons go on to father Moab and Ammon, two of Israel’s greatest enemies.
Isaac raises Jacob and Esau. Jacob, schemes with his mother to steal the blessing of the first-born from Esau. Jacob brings his blind father food and wine (though it doesn’t say he got drunk) pretending to be Esau and Isaac mistakenly blesses Jacob instead of Esau.
While there’s not an express mention of drinking wine, something’s going on here… Jacob goes off to Haran and sees his cousin Rachel and wants to marry her. Laban says “Sure” so he “gathers all his men and makes a feast.” Something about this feast makes Jacob unable to tell until morning that he’s been making wedding-night-love to Laban’s older daughter Leah. The text is kind of funny, when it says, “So it came about in the morning that, behold it was Leah!” Maybe wine played a part here…?
Samson’s mother gets instructed in a vision not to drink wine or strong drink while pregnant with Samson, because he would be a Nazarite. (Part of the Nazarite vow was to abstain from drinking.)
1 Samuel 1
Nobody actually drinks anything here, but Eli, the High priest, accuses Hannah of being drunk while praying silently but moving her lips. It’s clearly considered negative by Eli.
1 Samuel 25
Nabal is a guy who proves himself to be a rather unpleasant fellow. He refuses hospitality for David and his soldiers. Later, he gets “very drunk” and when the drink wears off, his wife Abigail tells him something that makes his heart “die within him so that he became as a stone.” 10 days later God kills him.
There are many others from the OT that you can look up for yourself. Here’s a short reference list.
2 Sam 13 (Absalom and Ammon); 1 Kings 16:8-10; Esther 1 (Ahasuaras sends away Vashti); Job 1 (the children of Job feast and drink) Daniel 5 (Belshazzar drinks a lot… and loses the Empire that night)
From the New Testament there are a few stories that include drinking.
A wedding takes place at Cana and Jesus is there with his disciples. Everybody gets pretty loosened up and Jesus turns water into wine. The headwaiter even commends the wine as being the best.
Matthew 11:19 (and Parallels)
Jesus claims to have come “eating and drinking” in contrast to John the Baptist having come “not eating or drinking.” In the context it is very clear that Jesus is talking about himself having drunk alcohol because his opponents try to use his consumption of alcohol to discredit him! “Behold,” they say, “a gluttonous man and a drunkard!”
Matthew 26 (and Parallels)
Jesus drinks, and instructs the disciples to drink, “the cup” of a Passover feast. There are all kinds of nit-picky arguments you can read all over the internet trying to prove that it wasn’t wine inside the cup. However, if you ask any Jewish scholar he will tell you that you actually drink four cups of kosher wine at Passover Seder and it would be astronomically unlikely for Jesus to have used unfermented wine at Passover.
There are more I’m missing I’m sure, but you get the idea. Lots of stories about people drinking and/or getting drunk. But, they don’t tell us the principle of the thing, only an event that happened! We have to decide the moral of the story. What about actual direct instructions concerning alcohol? The Old Testament holds a copious amount. Here’s a small sampling.
This passage gives a description of the dangers of “heavy drinkers of wine.” And pairs them up with the gluttonous.
Leviticus 10 and Numbers 6
These passages tell the priests and the Nazarites, respectively, not to drink.
Proverbs is replete with warnings of the folly of “drunkenness” and “strong drink.”
God instructs Aaron and his sons not to drink “wine or strong drink” when they go to the tent of meeting to address God.
This is a very revealing passage. In it, there are two personified women: Wisdom and Folly. The woman named Wisdom prepares a rich banquet with wine and food and tells the naïve to come and eat with her, thus turning away from Folly. The mixed wine here is not a vessel of evil, but one of celebration and understanding. But at the end of the chapter, the woman of Folly calls to the naïve telling them to turn in and to drink “stolen water” and eat bread in secret. In this passage, wine is the thing used to symbolize purity, celebration, and wisdom while water is the thing used to symbolize impurity, isolation, and folly.
In the New Testament there’re a few important instructions to note.
1 Tim 5:23
Paul actually instructs Timothy to stop drinking only water and to use a little wine because of his stomach illness.
1 Tim 3
One of the qualifications for elders was that they were “not given to wine.”
Rom 13:13 (and Others)
Paul tells Christians in various places almost identical instructions to “live decently” and contrasts living decently with “drunkenness” (and a list of other common sins.)
What does all of this mean? What’s the answer to the question? Based on the scriptures we’ve seen, (and there are a lot of them), what is the biblical standard concerning alcohol use?
First of all, it seems that the correct course of action is very dependent upon the situation. In some cases, we actually see Jesus and Paul instruct their disciples to drink alcohol, and we see Jesus claiming to have drunk alcohol in contrast with John the Baptist’s abstinence.
Since Jesus is God in flesh, and God can’t sin, and Jesus drank alcohol, we cannot say that drinking alcohol is, in and of itself, sinful. The text does not allow this view.
Second of all, I notice a ridiculously huge amount of passages that describe the deleterious effects of “drunkenness” or “drinking too much” or “a person drinking when they shouldn’t” or “a person drinking alcohol for the wrong reasons” etc. etc. etc. There are many wrong ways to use alcohol, so we cannot say that drinking alcohol is, in and of itself, always permissible. The text does not allow this view.
What then are the guidelines? How do we walk this tightrope? How far is too far with alcohol? I’ve outlined four rules that, if followed, will help a person remain biblical in their alcohol use.
Four Rules for Partaking
- You can drink, but don’t get drunk. There are far too many passages saying to abstain from “drunkenness” to ignore the fact there is such a thing as “drinking too much.” However, it is also obvious that a person is not drunk after their first sip of alcohol. Drunkenness is a state entered into after several drinks in a short period of time. It is characterized by a lack of self control or judgment. Drunkenness is sinful and should be avoided by the Christian. A woman who knows herself and knows that she will become drunk after a whole Long Island iced-tea needs to stop before she reaches the bottom of the glass. Christians should not get drunk. In the event that a Christian, freely exercising his liberty to drink, drinks too much, he must repent of that sin, confess it to God, and accept forgiveness for it… just like all the other sins out there.
- Don’t drink if you can’t stop drinking. With drinking, as with many other Christian freedoms, the cardinal virtue of temperance must be practiced. If one cannot remain temperate, he must remain abstinent. A man who knows himself and knows that he can’t drink only one beer, needs to drink no beers. The pleasure associated with drinking is not worth the harmful effects of habitual sin in the life of a believer.
- Don’t drink if your friends can’t stop drinking. It may be the duty of any Christian at a given time to abstain from drink for the sake of their Christian brother or sister who cannot follow rules one or two. You are never supposed to tempt a fellow Christian to sin, and if you do so, you yourself sin. Be very cautious and know the people you drink with. Have the courage to tell them to stop, and have the courage to abstain for their sake, even if they don’t want you to.
- Don’t drink for the wrong reasons. There are a few categories I can see in the bible for “good drinking” and they are as follows: celebratory, sacramental, and medicinal. Alcohol, when used in a celebratory manner seems to be good, so drink in celebration my friends! Toast at a wedding! Drink a beer when you’re watching the big game! Make a margarita at for your friend’s birthday party! As long as rules one, two, and three are followed, rule four will be edifying, not detrimental. Good wine, like good food, can be used to facilitate the knitting together of a community.
Medicinal uses for alcohol have been passed by for better means of medicine. Therefore, celebration and the Lord’s Supper are the only right reasons I can see in the bible for drinking alcohol.
There may be other categories that the bible does not comment on, but by logic we can determine are either right or wrong. Here, the conscience is very helpful in determining all the wrong reasons for drinking. If you have a glass of wine to experience the simple pleasure of flavorful taste as you settle down by a warm fire and a good book, one could hardly call it a sinful habit. If, on the other hand, you have a glass of wine as a means of escaping the world and yourself because your kids asked to go to the zoo one too many times and you’re about to blow, you need to turn to the Holy Spirit for sustenance, not fermented grape juice. Misapplying and abusing a pleasure is often the formula Satan uses to draw us farther away from God. We must not follow the plans of the enemy, but the plans of God.
In the end, the answer to the question is somewhere in the middle. The few clear limits we can see are that drinking isn’t inherently sinful, but drunkenness is. There may be situations in which drinking is to be either encouraged or discouraged and it is based largely on the believer in question. A hard and fast rule, however, is this: if you believe something to be wrong, don’t do it. Abstaining from alcohol use is not a sin. You may miss out on a minor pleasure created by God for us to enjoy, but you will endure.
If you choose to abstain, the responsibility you have is to remain humble and not look down on your Christian brother or sister who does partake of that pleasure. Remember that they are not wrong in drinking alcohol, unless they break one of the four rules. Do not allow your abstinence from drinking (which isn’t a sin) to fuel your spiritual pride (which is a sin).
If you choose to partake, the responsibility you have is to follow the four rules of partaking. Don’t allow your drinking to cross over into sinful territory.
The responsibility you two share is to diligently pursue a deeper relationship with Jesus the Christ and God the Father by means of the Holy Spirit and the Son’s intercession. If your drinking or lack thereof interferes with that pursuit, you are following the wrong path. Make a change and right the wrong. Get back on the straight and narrow. As Paul would say in my favorite bible verse, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
So now you know. That’s what the Bible says about Christians and Booze.