Context: Jesus is saying that the religious leaders of His day rejected both the ministries of John the Baptist, who fasted and abstained from feasts and from drinking alcohol, and of Jesus, who did not fast during His ministry, attended feasts, and drank wine. Either ministry would have been an acceptable path to knowing God, but the religious leaders remained unwilling to change their ways by accepting either one.
Analysis: The fact that John the Baptist and his disciples abstained from wine proves that others in Jesus’ day believed alcohol consumption to be a sin. The Pharisees also thought it inappropriate for a holy man to drink wine. That’s why they called Jesus a drunkard. Jesus openly defied this man-made standard for holiness and showed everyone that a holy man follows God’s standards for holiness, not man’s. God’s standards require that we love others, not that we follow man-made rules about what to eat and drink.
John 2:9-10, “…the headwaiter called the bridegroom, and said to him, ‘Every man serves the good wine first, and when men have drunk freely, then that which is poorer; you have kept the good wine until now.’”
Context: This is the last verse of the story of Jesus’ first miracle, in which He turned water into wine at a wedding.
Analysis: This story does not say that Jesus drank wine at the wedding, but the fact that He created it for others proves that He allowed its consumption. What’s even more remarkable is that He turned water into wine at a wedding, an occasion in which people tend to over-indulge. This may indicate that Jesus permitted drunkenness on special occasions, much like gluttony is permitted at a feast. This approach is consistent with the Old Testament, in which God denounces drunkenness in conjunction with other indulgences (like music, lounging on couches, and gluttony) that lead people to fruitlessness and self-destruction. God permitted these pleasures at weddings and appointed feasts, but He opposed indulgence in pleasure as a way of life.
If we accept this interpretation, we are free to occasionally have a few too many drinks, but we must take care not live a life of pleasure-seeking in which we waste our time on alcohol, TV, movies, sports, fishing, and other hobbies. Christians who abstain from alcohol, but allow entertainment to dominate their lives, anger God far more than Christians who consume alcohol, but do some good in the world in Christ’s name. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the pleasure of alcohol that holds us back or the pleasure of gardening, video games, or shopping for clothes, all are unproductive for Christ. In biblical times, people didn’t have all the fun hobbies and activities that we have today, so they would entertain themselves by getting drunk. Today, we can waste our lives on pleasure without ever tasting alcohol.
Many not-one-drop-of-alcohol Christians have said that this wine that Jesus created (as well as the wine that He drank in other verses) was unfermented grape juice. Not only is there no evidence whatsoever to support this claim, but in this verse, the master of the banquet refers to Jesus’ wine as “good wine.” He says that when people have had too much good wine to drink, then the cheap wine is served. In other words, people eventually become too drunk from the good wine to be able to taste the difference when they drink the cheap stuff. So what kind of wine contained alcohol leading to drunkenness? The good wine! What kind of wine did Jesus create? The good wine! There’s a huge taste difference between alcoholic “good wine” and unfermented grape juice. The master of the banquet would have been disappointed with the grape juice.
1 Corinthians 5:11, “But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even eat with such a one.”
Context: In this chapter, the Apostle Paul addresses the matter of a Christian who was having sex with his stepmother. The members of the Church had apparently found this behavior to be acceptable, so Paul is understandably upset. He reminds them that he had previously instructed them not to associate with church members who practiced various sinful ways.
Analysis: Simply another example of how God is opposed to a lifestyle of drunkenness.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10, “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
Context: In chapter 6, Paul writes to the Corinthian church for believers not to sue each other or continue wronging and defrauding one another. Paul then again lists some of the practices in which we wrong other Christians.
Analysis: How do we wrong others when we abuse alcohol? Ruined marriages, drunken-driving accidents, abusive parenting, lost jobs, fighting, etc. Alcohol abuse is a serious sin, but that fact never convinced God to forbid moderate alcohol consumption.
Galatians 5:19-21, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Context: Paul instructs these Christians to follow the ways of the Holy Spirit rather than follow the desires of the flesh. These fleshly desires that he lists are the equivalent of animalistic selfishness—doing whatever feels good without regard for the negative effects that such behavior has on others.
Analysis: Drunkenness is cited as one of the many ways in which we lose self-control and succumb to the desires of the flesh. Notice that disputes, which are common among Christians, especially between members of different denominations, are on the same level as drunkenness.
Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.” (NRSV)
Context: In chapter 5, Paul encourages the Ephesians to live according to God’s will and discourages them from giving in to their selfish and destructive desires.
Analysis: In verse 15, Paul advises the Ephesians to make the most of every opportunity. He then follows by discouraging drunkenness here in verse 18. Being alert and active enough to take advantage of ministry opportunities is impossible when we indulge in recreational desires. Again, he refers to drunkenness, not moderate alcohol consumption, as debauchery—a lifestyle of indulgence.
Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore, let no one act as a judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things of which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Colossians 2:20-23, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit to decrees such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”
Context: Paul says to the Colossians in Verse 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ,” as he warns them to avoid man-made rules that serve no purpose. Paul spends most of Colossians refuting a heresy that likely included aspects of Gnosticism (a religion that believed that the spirit world is good and the physical world is evil; therefore, Gnostics could not believe that the Son of God would dwell in evil human flesh).
Analysis: The “drink” mentioned in verse 16 is most likely alcoholic, since cultures and religions rarely regulated non-alcoholic drink. Paul makes it clear that such regulations are of no value.
Paul could have done what many modern-day Christians do by telling the church that it’s okay to promote these man-made alcohol consumption rules as a part of Christianity, but he didn’t. God doesn’t want us to play it safe by erring on the side of too many rules. He wants us to be free from rules that originate from anyone other than Him.
1 Timothy 3:2-3, “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money.”
Titus 1:7, “For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain.”
Context: The Apostle Paul gives advice on what type of character is best for leaders in the church.
Titus 2:3, “Older women likewise are to be revered in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good.”
Context: Paul gives instructions for the personal conduct of both young and old women.
Analysis: To become addicted (or enslaved) to wine (or any other form of alcohol) takes at least five years of abuse (2). Moderate consumption never results in addiction.
1 Timothy 5:23, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”
Context: This verse appears to be unrelated to the verses that precede and follow it.
Analysis: This is the only biblical instance in which someone is instructed to drink wine. It appears that even 2,000 years ago, people were aware of wine’s health benefits.
It’s odd that well-meaning modern-day Christians often recommend soda over wine. Soda has no nutritional value, and can only be harmful to the digestive system.
1 Peter 4:3, “For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries.”
Context: Peter encourages the believers to leave their old way of life behind and live as God desires.
Analysis: The pursuit of drunkenness may be a way of life for non-Christians, but it’s not a lifestyle fitting for a Christian.
So there you have it: every Bible verse that reveals how God feels about alcohol consumption. Of these 34 verses, none prohibit moderate alcohol consumption, but 22 of them indicate that God hates alcohol abuse.
From these verses we see that alcohol abuse was as big a problem in biblical times as it is today, and that some people considered it wise to abstain from alcohol as some people do today, so we have no reason to deny moderate alcohol consumption under the claim that times have changed.
The Freedom Defeaters
How did we get from the biblical allowance of alcohol consumption to the modern-day, Evangelical church’s prohibition of it? We need to look no further than the Freedom Defeaters, which I described in the Christian Freedom study.
Many anti-alcohol Christians deny our biblical freedom to consume alcohol on the grounds that a person’s first taste of it may someday lead to alcoholism, the lifestyle of drunkenness God opposes. They say, “You can’t become an alcoholic if you never take the first drink.” That’s why I categorize this non-biblical belief as a sin-preventionism. Just as the Pharisees created religious rules to keep God’s people from coming anywhere close to sin, many churches today do the same by forbidding alcohol consumption. How did Jesus deal with these sin-preventionisms that robbed God’s people of their freedoms? As we saw in the Christian Freedom study, He opposed them and broke them in plain view of everyone.
Some may say, “Where do you draw the line between drinking alcohol in a reasonable manner and the drunkenness that God clearly despises?” It’s this desire to have a sin-boundary that classifies alcohol consumption as a measurable sin. Since God has given us no boundary between moderate consumption and drunkenness, some of us create our own boundary at the starting line by prohibiting the consumption of any alcohol. Why does God leave us without a sin-boundary? Since God “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart [Hebrews 4:12],” He draws the line based upon our intentions, not our deeds. Two people could drink the same amount of alcohol, one because he wants to get drunk, and the other because he is thirsty, and God would count the first act as sin and the second as permissible.
As we saw in the Old Testament, gluttony also counts as sin. Most churches ignore it, because they cannot prohibit the eating of food, since we need food to live. This inability to set a sin-boundary doesn’t make gluttony any less of a sin in God’s eyes, however. To be free of gluttony, we must exercise self-control. To many Christians, self-control equals abstinence, but that’s not how God sees it. To Him, we exercise self-control when we enjoy good things in moderation, and alcohol is one of those good things.
Some Christians deny moderate alcohol consumption, because they believe that God is pleased when we forsake pleasure. That’s why alcohol abstinence is sometimes a penitent deed. As I stated before, we never have to give up a non-sinful pleasure to please or appease God, because Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins perfectly justifies us in God’s sight. Now that we are justified, we are to become more like Jesus, and Jesus consumed alcohol moderately.
Some churches want Christians to abstain from alcohol as a means of wearing the Christian uniform, an outward appearance that makes one’s Christianity clear to others. They believe that a Christian who refuses to drink alcohol in a public setting will serve as a witness to others. When others ask, “Why don’t you drink alcohol?” your answer of, “I’m not allowed to drink it because I’m a Christian,” is somehow supposed to make them want to become Christians. However, they usually think, “I’m glad I’m not a Christian,” when they realize that becoming one would require them to abstain from alcohol for the rest of their lives.
To the contrary, I find that drinking alcohol in moderation is a great witness to non-Christians. Their surprised reaction provides me an opportunity to tell them that Christianity isn’t a bunch of pointless rules, but that its laws are designed to prevent us from harming one another out of selfishness. Having the freedom to drink alcohol provides better opportunities to share one’s faith than alcohol abstinence does.
I’m not saying that all Christians must drink alcohol as a statement to the world that alcohol prohibition is anti-biblical. It’s perfectly okay to abstain from alcohol, just as it was for John the Baptist and the Rechabites. However, the church must stop preaching that alcohol consumption is a sin, because, first of all, such a message is untrue, and second, it keeps some people away from the faith. While we Christians might argue that knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior far surpasses any enjoyment that alcoholic drinks might provide, those who do not yet know Christ will fail to see this point. We must not place “stumbling blocks” (a term used in Matthew 18) in the middle of the road that leads to Jesus. It’s fine for Jesus to be a stumbling block to some people, as the Bible says He is, but it’s not fine for a man-made rule to be a stumbling block that trips people before they ever get to Him.