Social drinking is extremely common in society, but for some Christians, the invitation to go for a drink can be uncomfortable. Many Christians believe that drinking alcohol is a sin and should be avoided entirely. Others believe that it is a matter of exercising moderation as with other things like food and entertainment. If you find yourself awkwardly positioned because a colleague, client, or even your pastor invites you to go for a drink, how should you respond?
Resolving this question depends on some much needed context regarding biblical teaching, the Church’s historical positions, and the origins of the movements opposing alcohol. For the sake of brevity, I’m just going to focus on the Biblical context, but Wikipedia has a great article that describes the other two points. I’ll link to it at the bottom.
Was it Grape Juice?
Before we look at some revealing verses in the bible, it’s important to get something of a historical question out of the way. Some churches have taught that references to wine (oinos in Greek) in scripture actually refers to grape juice. The belief that grape juice was common in the ancient world depends on the belief that refrigeration methods were readily available. Without such methods, grape juice would spoil quickly making its widespread consumption (with the frequency that the Bible suggests) very unlikely. None the less the same word used for wine often makes references to drunkenness (see below for citations) so it’s clear that when the Bible says wine, it means wine.
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References to alcohol in the Bible
OK, let’s take a look at some biblical examples in which wine is described.
- Deuteronomy 14:26 describes the use of wine in celebratory praise of God.
- Psalm 104:15 says that God gave us wine to gladden our hearts. I’ve never heard of grape juice doing this except for sugar deprived children.
- Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34 describes Jesus as eating and drinking which led to his opponents accusing him of being a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus clearly consumed alcohol.
The bible also condemns drunkenness in several places:
- Ephesians 5:18 tells us not to get drunk because it leads to debauchery.
- Romans 14:21 implies that drinking wine can cause others to stumble, but it also says the same about meat; the implications of which are too heinous to consider for many a carnivorous Christian.
- Galatians 5:21 describes a variety of intemperance as a road block to inheritance of the kingdom of God.
- 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 tells Christians not to associate with drunkards. Chapter 6 goes on to explain that drunkards, among others, will not inherit the Kingdom of God. There are many more similar verses, but I think you get the point.
Is this a contradiction?
So some verses seem to treat alcohol with casual indifference and others with condemnation. Does the Bible contradict itself or is there an important distinction to be understood? I think the latter. In a similar way gluttony and impurity are condemned (in some cases in the same verses) but we don’t interpret this to mean that food and sex are, in and of themselves, evil and to be avoided. We understand this to mean that they should be used in their right order and in moderation. I think the same principle applies to alcohol. This doesn’t mean that we should throw caution to the wind, but rather, examine ourselves to determine our own disposition and susceptibility to abusing any of these things.
A final example
If you are still not convinced let’s look at one more example that has been the most convincing for me. It is the story of the wedding feast in Cana in John chapter 2. As most people know, the hosts of the wedding run out of wine so Jesus performs his first miracle by transforming upwards of 180 gallons of water into wine. This wine is, without a doubt, alcohol. The master of the banquet takes the bridegroom aside to compliment him for saving the best wine for last by pointing out that at most weddings the hosts will put the cheaper wine out last because by then everyone’s too drunk to know the difference. I’ve never heard of grape juice clouding anyone’s perception in this way.
I’ve heard people explain this away by saying that Jesus was using this as a teaching moment to use the wine as a metaphor for his sacrificial blood and so forth. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t reduce the fact that Jesus gave people alcohol which is the thing that you’re trying to convince us is evil. If alcohol is evil, Jesus wouldn’t use it as a teaching device. That would be like giving someone a hit of crack cocaine so that you could use the smoke as a metaphor for our prayers rising up to heaven. No matter how you slice it, Jesus was complicit in the consumption of alcohol and if that consumption was a sin, then Jesus also committed a sin. Otherwise, you have to be content with the conclusion that the mere consumption of alcohol is not, itself, a sin.
Personally, I don’t drink any alcohol at all because I’m allergic to it, so I’m pretty sensitive to people who can’t for whatever reason. While social drinking isn’t wrong, I think it’s important to be considerate of other people. Many people have been hurt by alcoholism and this might help us understand why some would prefer to adopt a conclusion that the bible condemns it entirely. Be wise about it and don’t give anything that you expose yourself to the power to control you. That, in all its forms, is idolatry.