Alcohol - to drink or not to drink?
Stephen Arbuthnot, Glasgow, Scotland
The purpose of this article is to suggest reasons for the proposition that Christians should totally abstain from the consumption of alcoholic beverages. As with any issue we need to begin by firstly referring to scriptures which directly relate to it. Those which seem to either condone or even promote drinking will be cited first, then those which warn against drinking will be considered. Thereafter, reasons will be suggested for totally abstaining based on the applicatory challenge of a variety of scriptures.
Verses which seem to condone or even to promote the consumption of alcohol include:
Genesis 14. 18, ‘And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God’.
Numbers 18. 12, ‘All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the firstfruits of them which they shall offer unto the Lord, them have I given thee’.
Deuteronomy 7. 13, ‘And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee. He will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee’.
Deuteronomy 14. 26, ‘And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink’.
Psalm 104. 15, ‘Wine that maketh glad the heart of man’.
Proverbs 31. 6, ‘Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts’.
Ecclesiastes 9. 7, ‘Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works’.
These Old Testament verses show that wine drinking was part of everyday life in Bible times. The following New Testament verses show that only excess is prohibited:
Ephesians 5. 18, ‘And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess’.
1 Timothy 3. 3, ‘Not given to wine’.
1 Timothy 3. 8, ‘The deacons be not given to much wine’.
1 Peter 4. 3, ‘For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries’.
Additionally, Paul actually instructs Timothy, for a particular reason, to take wine – this will be referred to in more detail later. To crown them all, in John chapter 2, the Lord Jesus provides wine at the wedding in Cana.
Now, abstention in principle is quite scriptural. There are commands to abstain from ‘fleshly lusts’, 1 Pet. 2. 11; and from ‘all appearance of evil’, 1 Thess 5. 22. These necessitate deciding what comes under ‘lusts’ and ‘evil’. In the light of the scriptures cited above one may argue that total abstention from alcohol cannot be so included and therefore cannot be scriptural. However, two factors can be put forward which show how our situation today differs vitally from that of Bible times and therefore allow an abstinent approach.
Firstly, in Bible times there was not available the vast range of non-alcoholic drinks as there are today – no tea, coffee, soft drinks, fruit juices – and, in many places, no safe drinking water. Thus for many there was no alternative to alcoholic drinks. We, however, do not have to drink them because of the various alternatives available. We can therefore give the warnings against drinking full force by totally abstaining. Indeed as there are non-alcoholic alternatives the reason for our drinking might come within the term ‘fleshly lusts’ which we must abstain from by command!
Secondly, it is submitted by some that alcoholic drinks today, especially wine, are generally very much stronger than in Bible times. If this be the case the wine drunk in Bible times is not the product available to us today. Drinking wine as we know it today would at least put you much nearer ‘excess’ than taking a similar quantity in Bible times. This matter was written about in detail by NORMAN L. GEISLER, Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary, in an article entitled ‘A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking’ in Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March 1982, pp. 41-55). In this he maintained that wine particularly was substantially weaker than we know it today and could be nothing more than a form of purified water such was the level of dilution involved. Bible times, wine was intoxicating but much more of it had to be consumed to become drunk compared with the ‘strong drink’ that wine is today.
Verses which warn against the dangers of drink include:
Genesis 9. 21, ‘And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent’.
We might respond, ‘If this could happen to Noah, who “walked with God”, how much more to us?’
Leviticus 10. 9, ‘Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die. It shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations’.
This was commanded because of the danger of indiscretions in divine service in a physical environment. Since all Christians are priests and operate in the true spiritual sphere, how much more we need to be sure we don’t fail.
Proverbs 20. 1, ‘Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging. And whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise’.
This should teach us that we’re certainly not missing out on anything by not drinking and we’re foolish should we be taken in by the conventions of the world which insist that you can’t get by without drink.
Proverbs 31. 4, ‘It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink’.
Isaiah 28. 7, ‘But they also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment’.
These two verse emphasize the need for our decision-making abilities to be free from any intoxicating influence, and how easy it is for mistakes to be made if they are not. We may not have the official responsibilities of those mentioned in the verses but all of us in our roles in the home, the assembly and society in general, are constantly responsible before God for all that we do.
Reasons for totally abstaining from the consumption of alcoholic beverages:
1. Prevention of sin: drunkenness is a serious sin as the following verses show:
Romans 13. 13, ‘Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying’.
Galatians 5. 21, ‘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’.
1 Corinthians 5. 11, ‘But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat’.
We might work amongst people who love to regale their colleagues about their drunken exploits of the previous night or weekend and this can be the cause of much amusement and a perverted form of admiration. They might also eagerly anticipate how they are going to similarly enjoy a coming weekend or night out. But for believers drunkenness can never meet with our approval but only strong disapproval. It’s not even something to make jokes about.
Abstaining from drink ensures we can never commit the sin of getting drunk.
In addition, abstention prevents the many sins into which drunkenness often leads people. Many crimes, including some linked with driving, would never be committed apart from drink.
2. Maintenance of self-control
The following scriptures show the importance of being in total control of our faculties:
Galatians 5. 23, ‘The fruit of the Spirit is . . . meekness, temperance, (ESV, self-control). Against such there is no law’.
2 Peter 1. 6, ‘And to knowledge (add) temperance; and to temperance, (ESV, self-control), patience; and to patience godliness’.
Self-control is one of the beautiful virtues produced by the Spirit of God. We should do everything to encourage it and nothing to oppose it. Now, while one or two drinks in themselves may not make you drunk, it is the consumption of the first drink that begins the process of the loss of self-control. So we oppose the work of the Spirit of God by even starting to drink. We should not do that which contradicts the operation of God’s Holy Spirit whose role is to keep us as far from sin as possible, not to take us as near to it as we dare! We are also responsible to ‘add’ self-control – we do the opposite if we start the process of its loss by drinking!
Furthermore, what is immediately affected by the consumption of alcohol are those abilities we have to form moral decisions. An entry in the 1974 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica said about the effects of alcohol, ‘Low concentrations lead to an excitement phase which includes loss of socially expected restraint . . . the immediate effects of alcohol are to affect thinking, learning, remembering, making judgements, these progressively deteriorate . . . e.g., the well behaved become disorderly, the sexually repressed become amorous’. An NHS Health Scotland leaflet called What’s in a drink? comments, ‘Alcohol affects our judgement and makes us less sensitive to other people’s feelings. If you drink, it might make you do or say things you’ll regret later’.
So even after one or two drinks, some people, for example, might make comments of a doubtful nature which they would normally have the wisdom and control to keep to themselves because of their possible adverse consequences. As the apostle James teaches so clearly the control of the tongue is vital. By totally abstaining we can avoid even the beginning of this dangerous loss of self-control.
Of 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 3, ‘Not given to wine’, JIM ALLEN has written in the What the Bible Teaches commentary, ‘Not merely the absence of drunkenness . . . but the absence of that rudeness and selfassertiveness, that flow from a diminution of control caused by wine’. Of Ephesians chapter 5 verse18, ALBERT LECKIE has written, in the same What the Bible Teaches series, ‘Be not drunk’, methusko, to grow drunk, signifying the beginning of a state of drunkenness’.
3. Testimony to the world of the reality of knowing Christ
Drink plays such a dominant role in modern Western society it is unusual for people to come out as never touching a drop. Drink for many is a refuge and a resource for coping with the varied circumstances of life. It is a drug which people rely on to get through times of stress and difficulty and to give them a kind of joy that otherwise eludes them. What an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate they don’t need this, or any other mind-altering drug, as they find their joy in Christ and His strengthening grace in troubled times. Testimony is of particular importance at special occasions, like weddings or funerals, when drink can be so prominent among the ungodly.
In a society where there are so many non-alcoholic beverages available, the question must be asked, ‘Why drink alcohol?’ Fundamental to the biblical doctrine of Man is that we have within us a sinful nature of flesh which is set on committing sin. As previously noted, the Christian must ‘abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul’. One such wrong desire is the desire for intoxication, and coming under the control of mind-altering substances. We must not allow such desires to be expressed for we have been declared to be ‘dead to sin’, Rom. 6. 2, and we are not to continue in it. Drinking alcoholic beverages when it is entirely unnecessary to do so is strongly motivated by our old sinful nature.
Furthermore, we have to make no ‘provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof’, Rom. 13. 14. Drinking certainly opens a door of opportunity for this.
Some people may not drink just for the sensation of intoxication. They may do it because it is the done thing and don’t want to look odd or different. But this is really the sin of the ‘pride of life’ which 1 John chapter 2 verse16 warns against. Others may drink to cope with the stresses and cares of everyday life and work. But the Christian has to cast all his care on the Lord Jesus, 1 Pet. 5. 7.
5. A good example
1 Timothy chapter 5 verse 23 says, ‘Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities’. Sometimes, people use what Paul says to Timothy as authority for drinking. The opposite is the case! Paul is instructing Timothy to use alcohol for medicinal purposes. His total abstention had resulted in health problems, perhaps because of the lack of safe drinking water. So this is authority to use alcohol medicinally, if necessary. But the health issue aside, this scripture shows that the only man in the New Testament called a ‘man of God’ was a total abstainer from alcohol – we should follow his good example of total abstention!
6. An example to others
We should remember with this issue that we have a particular responsibility for the welfare of other Christians. Romans chapter 14 verse 21 states, ‘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’. If we drink we run the risk of not only damaging ourselves and our testimony, but also of bringing others down with us. In fact, others following our bad example may suffer more than we ourselves.
Total abstention is without doubt the safest position for the child of God to take. Hopefully, the foregoing also shows that it is the right position in itself for a Christian to take in today’s society. Let us take the opportunity in this drug-crazed age to show that Christians have something in their souls that is far better than all the drink or drugs that the world could ever supply.