May Christians Drink Beverage Alcohol?

Chuck Phelps

In 1979 a drunk driver veered off the road, tore across a well-manicured lawn, and struck a parked car. In that car, tucked safely into her baby seat, was my friend’s infant daughter. While the little girl’s mother was escorting her brother and sister into her grandma’s house, the drunk driver struck, and the baby’s short life ended.

One person dies every twenty-two minutes in the United States because of an alcohol-related accident.[1] Americans ages seventeen to twenty-four are more likely to die from drinking and driving than from any other single cause.[2] “An estimated 310,000 [Americans are] injured in [alcoholrelated accidents] each year”—a rate of one injury “every 2 minutes.”[3] Alcohol can also lead to violence. The United States Justice Department reports that “4 in 10 violent” crimes “involve . . . alcohol.”[4] “The abuse of alcohol is present in 70% of all murders.”[5] “Victim reports show [that] on average each year . . . 183,000 rapes and sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the offender, as do just over 197,000 robberies, about 661,000 aggravated assaults, and nearly 1.7 million simple assaults.”[6]

The Bible is right! Though God’s words have long been ignored and forgotten in our culture, accident and crime statistics attest that what He says is true: “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder” (Prov. 23:31, 32). “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise” (Prov. 20:1).

Where Is the Voice of the Christian Community?

Not long ago the Christian community stood united in its opposition to the use of alcohol. On April 24, 1965, Christianity Today warned the Christian reader to abstain. “People must be informed that the use of alcohol is not unlike Russian roulette: every tenth person becomes automatically hooked. The only solution is total abstinence.”[7] Yet on April 3, 2000, the same magazine published this statement by J. Lawrence Burkholder, president emeritus of Goshen Christian College in Indiana:

Christians who do not commit to a principle of total abstinence should follow a guideline that would represent both discernment and Christian freedom by allowing limited use, now and then, and within the context of family, friendship, religious celebration, and diplomatic protocol. These limits need not imply the strictness of an absolute principle. Still, they should be taken seriously. Such a policy offers the practical advantages of sobriety, the personal advantages of responsible maturity, and the theological advantages of biblical wisdom.[8]

As moderation and toleration replace abstinence and intolerance as the common view held by our Bible-teaching churches and schools, warnings like that printed by Christianity Today in 1965 are seldom heard.

Could the present silence and ambivalence of the Christian community in America be partially responsible for our nation’s ever-increasing alcohol-related tragedies? It is especially disquieting that a Christian college president would suggest such a policy, given the state of secular campuses across the nation. Scientific studies have shown that secular college campuses are overrun by alcohol-related problems. “Between 2% and 3% of the current American college population will die from alcohol-related causes.”[9] “Thirty percent of college failure is alcohol related.”[10] The United States Department of Health and Human Services has reported that “each year, more than 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.”[11]

Such chaos is spreading to those even younger. According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future project, 43% of eighth graders, 65% of tenth graders, and 73% of twelfth graders used alcohol in the previous year. Eight percent of the eighth graders, 24% of the tenth graders, and 32% of the twelfth graders were drunk in the last thirty days.[12] Yet Christian college presidents such as Joseph Stowell of Cornerstone University[13] and Duane Litfin of Wheaton College[14] have opened the door to these same problems by modifying policy to allow faculty, staff, and graduate students the liberty to drink. As the conscience of the Christian community is cauterized by her leaders the toll that alcohol is exacting continues to rise.

The Bible Has Much to Say about Alcohol

The King James Version of the Bible refers to wine, drink, and drinking 637 times. Most American readers read “wine” and assume it means a drink containing alcohol. However, “the word wine has a wide range of meaning in the Bible. Thirteen different [Hebrew and Greek] words are translated wine” and can include “everything from grape juice to concentrated grape syrup to alcoholic wine” (Gen. 40:9–11; Prov. 3:10; 1 Sam. 25:18; Prov. 31:4, 5; Luke 10:34).[15]

It is apparent that some of the wine in the Bible contains alcohol. In Luke 10:34 wine is used as a cleansing agent for an open wound. Nonalcoholic wine would not be much help in such a case. In 1 Timothy 5:23 the apostle Paul encourages Pastor Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake. This recommendation was clearly made for medicinal reasons and reminds us, incidentally, that if Timothy were in the habit of “taking wine,” the advice would be unnecessary. Genesis 9:21, Proverbs 23:29–35, and Ephesians 5:18 all speak of wine’s power to intoxicate. While there are those who will argue that the ancients knew how to preserve fruits and keep the juice of the grape from fermentation,[16] it would seem clear that some Bible “wines” had the ability to intoxicate.

The Wine of the Bible Was Not Like Wine Sold Today

Having noted that some wines in the Bible could intoxicate, we need to understand how they become intoxicating. Natural fermentation occurs when the juice of the grape comes into contact with the yeast released when the grape skin is broken. Under normal circumstances, naturally fermented wine contains 2% to 14% alcohol.[17] Ordinary wines in Palestine contained 2% to 6% alcohol,[18] and wines that neared 14% sacrificed taste for strength because their sugars turned into vinegar.[19] Many modern table wines contain 14% alcohol due to temperature regulations and the addition of extra yeast during the fermentation process. Modern fortified wines such as port or sherry have alcohol added, which increases the alcoholic content to 18% to 24%. Hard liquor produced by distillation, such as vodka or gin, has as much as 40% alcohol, with stronger products reaching levels of 75%. The distillation of spirits is a fairly modern process, dating back to around ad 1200; it was totally unknown in Bible times.[20] Since wines of Bible times could not have more than 14% alcohol and modern wines seldom have less, it is clear that comparing ancient wines to modern wines is not comparing grapes to grapes. “You cannot defend wine drinking today on the basis of the wine drinking in the Bible times because the two are totally different.”[21]

The Wine of the Bible Was Diluted

Though ancient wine was far less potent than today’s table wine, the ancients avoided drinking undiluted wine. According to secular authorities, people in Bible times would dilute their wine with at least “3 parts water”[22] (sometimes with as much as 20 parts water),[23] reducing the alcoholic content to 2.5%. It would require nearly a gallon of this mixture to intoxicate the average person.

Innumerable scholars, many impressively credentialed, testify of the ancient custom of mixing wine with water. R. Forbes, professor of History of Pure Applied Sciences in Antiquity at the University of Amsterdam, says, “In all these countries [Syria, Palestine, Egypt], wine was always diluted with water, a long standing custom in Mediterranean regions, where pure potable water is not very common”[24] Maynard A. Amerine notes that “the wine of classical antiquity . . . was very different from modern wine. They . . . always diluted it with water before consumption. . . . Only barbarians drank undiluted wine.”[25]

Whereas people in ancient times sought to reduce the alcoholic content of their wine, people today do the opposite. This is exactly what the Bible forbids in Proverbs 23:31: “Look not thou upon the wine, when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright.” Norman Geisler, former dean of Liberty Center for Christian Scholarship, Liberty University, affirms such an application of this passage: “Many wine-drinking Christians today mistakenly assume that what the New Testament meant by wine is identical to wine used today. This, however, is false. In fact, today’s wine is by biblical definition strong drink, and hence forbidden by the Bible. What the Bible frequently meant by wine was basically purified water. . . . Therefore, Christians ought not to drink wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverages for they are actually strong drink forbidden in Scripture. Even ancient pagans did not drink what some Christians drink today.”[26] John MacArthur concurs. He maintains that becoming intoxicated in ancient times “would have required consuming a large quantity” of wine that had been diluted with water. “The wine of Bible times was not the same as the unmixed wine of our own day. Even the more civilized pagans of Bible times would have considered the drinking of modern wines to be barbaric and irresponsible.”[27]

Specific Reasons a Christian Should Just Say “No”

Take the time to consider the following Biblical principles.

  1. Alcohol is very addictive. Studies continue to indicate that for every ten people who drink, one will become addicted.[28] One in ten! In 1 Corinthians 6:12 the New Testament believer is warned to avoid anything that may cause addiction: “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Though some argue, “I’ll not become addicted,” the truth is they cannot be certain of the outcome of their first drink. For one in ten, one drink will lead to a lifetime of enslavement.
  2. Alcohol harms the body, which, for the believer, is the temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 3:16, 17; 6:19, 20). According to Dr. Haas, the former president of the American College of Sports Nutrition, “Beer, wine, and hard liquor form toxic substances called aldehydes that can destroy the liver, kidney, and brain cells.”[29] The results of ongoing indulgence are predictable and pernicious. Binge drinking may be fatal.
  3. The Bible specifically forbids the use of “strong drink” (Prov. 20:1; 23:29–31). All modern alcoholic drinks are forbidden by this prohibition! In Bible times taking strong drink (unmixed, highly alcohol- laden intoxicants) was reserved for those who were “ready to perish” (Prov. 31:6) as a deathbed pain reliever and sedative.
  4. When surrounded by a corrupt culture, believers should choose abstinence as a testimony to their dedication to God. The Hebrew heroes of the Book of Daniel lived under the kosher dietary laws of the Old Testament and necessarily refused the “king’s meat.” Note, however, that Daniel and his compatriots in conviction also refused “the wine which he [the king of Babylon] drank” (Dan. 1:8). Though no dietary law in the Old Testament prohibited the appropriate use of wine, Daniel and his friends refused to drink the same wine that took the reasoning powers away from Babylon’s King Belshazzar (Dan. 5). These Old Testament men of spiritual conviction living in corrupt cultures are models of abstinence for New Testament believers living in the corrupt culture of the last days (1 Thess. 5:1–8).
  5. Believers are to guard their actions so that they do not cause others to stumble. “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” (Rom. 14:21). “According to a survey . . . by the Daily Journal . . . October 26, 1988, one of the top five reasons teenagers drink is [that] their parents drink.”[30] Church covenants and leadership policies have long recognized the responsibility believers have to one another in the battle against alcohol.
  6. New Testament believers are “kings and priests” (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Rev. 1:6; 5:10). Are you aware that the Bible says kings and priests are not to drink? Consider Proverbs 31:4, 5 and Leviticus 10:9. Because of the New Testament believer’s wonderful position as a royal priest in Christ, abstinence is warranted.
  7. The Bible consistently paints a very unflattering picture of the effects of drinking. Though the world speaks of gusto and good times brought about by alcohol, the Bible says that alcohol removes inhibitions, leading even the godliest of souls to debauchery, immorality, and shame. Noah, Lot, the drunkards of Ephraim, the inebriated earthlings who are unprepared for the Lord’s coming—all the Biblical characters under the influence of alcohol were led to unrighteous acts (Eph. 5:18).
  8. Alcohol is a sedative that dulls the mind (Isa. 28:7). As our Lord’s appearing draws near we are commanded to be especially attentive (Luke 21:34).
  9. Ancient wines contained such a small amount of alcohol that when Peter and the Spiritfilled believers were accused of being drunk on the Day of Pentecost, he protested the impossibility of such a condition saying, “It is but the third hour” (Acts 2:15). Drunkenness by 9:00 am in the first century was virtually impossible because becoming drunk would require premeditation, a large quantity of intoxicating beverage, and time.

Convicting Conclusions

It is unfortunate that many Biblically literate Christians are becoming vulnerable to the satanic dangers and deceptions of alcohol. The modern liberated believer says, “They drank in moderation during Bible times. Since they were moderate, why can’t I be? We’re talking about a little ‘social drink!’” Be warned. The wine of the ancients typically did not contain as much alcohol as modern beer. The ancients could not imagine or even produce the alcoholic content of modern table wines. Though some Bible wine was not free from alcohol, that fact does not compel us to drink alcohol today. The Bible includes laws that address slaves and slave masters, but we do not argue for the enslavement of fellow citizens. The nation of Israel was instructed to aggressively occupy the homelands of the Canaanites, but we do not argue for aggression against our civil neighbors. Just because it was culturally and Biblically acceptable for the disciples to mix a moderate amount of wine into the water drawn from the family well or cistern, we cannot assume that God will look favorably on a New Testament king-priest who chooses to lift a glass of wine for an occasional toast. In fact, the believer is not to join the toast of the world. He is not to be “conformed” to the world (Rom. 12:1, 2). Alcohol is perhaps the most widely recognized symbol of worldly conformity known to modern men.

God will not look favorably upon the believer who refuses to limit His liberties in order to expand His ministries. Modern believers think that they are giving up something by not drinking when in fact they are actually giving up more when they drink. Believers who imbibe must be warned that they are putting themselves, their testimony, and others at risk. May Christians drink—even in moderation? NO!

Dr. Chuck Phelps serves as senior pastor at Colonial Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2010. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

UPDATE: For a podcast of a debate on the subject of alcohol involving Dr. Michael Harding, another FBFI Board member, see this link.

  1. Chris Bigsby, Erin Ratcliff, Letitia Rexrode, “The Myths and Facts of Alcohol,” Alcohol Awareness Page, http://www.radford. edu/~kcastleb/myths.html (accessed January 7, 2003). []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. David L. Brown, “Seven Good Reasons Christians Should Not Drink,” http:// drinking.htm (accessed January 7, 2003). []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Bigsby, Ratcliff, Rexrode. []
  6. Brown. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. J. Lawrence Burkholder, “Good Question: A Little Wine for the Soul?” Christianity Today, April 3, 2000. []
  9. Bigsby, Ratcliff, Rexrode. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “What Colleges Need to Know Now: An Update on College Drinking Research,” NIH Publication No. 07-5010, November 2007, http://www.collegedrinkingprevention. gov/1College_Bulletin- 508_361C4E.pdf. []
  12. []
  13. Kym Reinstadler, “Cornerstone University Lifts 68-Year Ban on Staff Drinking Alcohol, But Students Must Stay Dry,” Grand Rapids Press, November 21, 2009, http:www.mlive. com/news/grand-rapids/index. ssf/2009/11/cornerstone_university_ lifts_6.html (accessed January 6, 2010). []
  14. The Union Leader (Manchester, NH), March 13, 2003, A10. []
  15. See Peter Masters, Should Christians Drink? The Case for Total Abstinence (London: The Wakeman Trust, 1992). 16 Samuele Bacchiocchi, “Wine in the Bible: A Biblical Study on the use of Alcoholic Beverages,” http://www. wine_in_the_bible/3.html. []
  16. Samuele Bacchiocchi, “Wine in the Bible: A Biblical Study on the use of Alcoholic Beverages,” wine_in_the_bible/3.html. []
  17. Brown, or see Masters, Should Christians Drink, 19. []
  18. Masters, Should Christians Drink, 19. []
  19. Ibid. []
  20. Ibid., 21. []
  21. John MacArthur, Living in the Spirit (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), p. 31. []
  22. Brown. []
  23. Masters, Should Christians Drink, 23. []
  24. Encyclopedia Americana, 1989, vol. 29, pp. 44–45. []
  25. Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1994, vol. 23, p. 518. []
  26. Brown. []
  27. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 237. []
  28. U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “Fact 8: Alcohol Has Caused Significant Health, Social, and Crime Problems in this Country, and Legalized Drugs Would Only Make the Situation Worse,” Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization, http:// htm (accessed January 11, 2009). []
  29. Brown. []
  30. Ibid. []