January 19, 2018

Does the Bible Condone Alcoholic Beverages?

Gary Reimers

Fundamentalists find themselves in a difficult and awkward position concerning alcoholic beverages. By instinct, tradition and Biblical principle they are convinced that believers should abstain entirely. Yet that position is under strong attack today by others who also claim to believe the Bible. Among new-evangelicals the trend is toward “social drinking” as an acceptable practice for Christians, and they point to the Word of God for support. Besides numerous Old Testament passages that speak favorably of wine (Judg. 9:13; Ps. 104:15; Gen. 14:18), the New Testament seems to permit the use of wine, even for church leaders (1 Tim. 3:8; 5:23). The only Biblical restriction, according to this position, is excessive drinking that leads to drunkenness. How should we respond to these arguments? Must we leave the matter to “personal convictions”? Or is there a standard for God’s people to follow? As always, the fundamentalist must turn to the Bible for the answers.

The Practices of Drinking

The first step in coming to a Biblical view of alcoholic beverages is to interpret the Bible historically. Was wine in the Bible the same as wine today? In other words, we must be sure we are comparing the proverbial “apples to apples” (or in this case “grapes to grapes”).

Alcoholic Beverages in the Ancient World

by far the easiest way to deal with this issue is to deny the alcoholic content of wine in the Bible. Perhaps it was only fresh grape juice. Unfortunately the Bible will not support that conclusion. The usual words for wine in the Bible occur in some contexts that demand an alcoholic content. For instance, without the presence of alcohol to fight bacteria, there would be no benefit in pouring wine on open wounds (Luke 10:34) or in treating stomach disorders (1 Tim. 5:23). Furthermore, there would be no possibility of intoxication (Gen. 9:21; Prov. 23:29-35; Eph. 5:18). With the possible exception of fruit of the vine, no Biblical terms clearly and consistently distinguish fermented wine from unfermented juice. In fact, without refrigeration or pressurized bottling, unfermented grape juice was available only immediately after grape harvest.

Fermentation is a natural process that takes place when grape juice comes into contact with the yeast released from broken grape skins (during the treading of grapes). Under normal conditions the resulting wine will contain no more than seven percent alcohol. According to secular authorities, people in Bible times would dilute this wine, usually with two parts water, reducing the alcohol to less than 2 1/z percent (see Encyclopedia Americana, 1989, Vol. 29, pp. 44, 45). The reason for this mixture of wine was very practical: pure drinking water was scarce. Even today travelers to the Holy Land must be careful about drinking the water. People in the ancient world discovered that the alcohol in wine killed enough of the harmful bacteria to make the water acceptable. The resulting mixture, however, was more like water than wine. At this alcohol level the average person would have to consume nearly a gallon of the mixture to become intoxicated. The same is true for other varieties of wine in the Bible. “Mixed wine” (Prov. 23:30) was wine flavored with herbs, and “strong drink” (Deut. 14:26; Luke 1:15) was the fermented juice of other fruits (strong refers to the flavor, not the alcoholic content). In every case, the wine was diluted with water. It is the use of undiluted wine, with its deep red color, that Scripture condemns as dangerous (Prov. 23:31).

Alcoholic Beverages in the Modern World

While the goal in the ancient world was to reduce the alcohol content of beverages, the modern world has sought ways to increase it. Standard table wines have as much as 14 percent alcohol due to the addition of extra yeast and the control of the heat generated by the fermentation process. Of course, wine is not diluted today so that modern wine has more than five times as much alcohol as the diluted wine of the ancient world. Furthermore, fortified wines such as port or sherry have alcohol added, resulting in an alcoholic content of 18 to 24 percent. Hard liquor produced by distillation, such as vodka or gin, has as much as 40 percent alcohol. Even beer, produced by fermentation of cereal grains, contains 4 to 7 percent alcohol. While this amount approximates the amount in naturally fermented wine, it is of course never diluted. In fact, each of these modern categories of alcoholic beverages, when consumed in their standard serving sizes, contain about the same amount of alcohol. That is, an average drink = 5 ounces of wine = 12 ounces of beer = 1 1/2 ounces of whiskey = 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. That would be about three times the alcohol contained in an 8 ounce cup of diluted wine in Bible times. Clearly wine today is not the same as wine in the Bible.

A second important difference is the purpose for using alcoholic beverages. In Bible times the purpose was to purify drinking water. In our world good drinking water is usually available. Instead, most people who drink alcoholic beverages today do so either because they like the effect of the alcohol or because they want to be accepted by others. Alcohol today is not so much a beverage as it is a planned intoxicant— exactly the use prohibited in the Bible. With the higher levels of alcohol, intoxication and even alcohol dependence can be difficult to avoid. Currently there are an estimated 10 million alcoholics in the United States and another 10 million are categorized as problem drinkers. National surveys reveal that alcohol is involved in as many as 65 percent of the murders committed in the United States, 50 percent of the assaults, 35 percent of rapes, 55 percent of domestic violence, 60 percent of child abuse cases and 60 percent of all traffic fatalities. The use of alcohol in our society is a raging menace, far different from anything imagined, permitted or encouraged in the Bible.

The Problems of Drinking

Both in the ancient world and in the modern world there were and are serious problems associated with alcohol. The Bible recognizes these problems and urges God’s people to avoid them.

Personal Problems

Those who love wine are susceptible to loss of resources (Prov. 21:17) as they spend their money and time on its purchase and pleasure. The annual consumption of alcoholic beverages in the United States has reached 2.7 gallons of pure alcohol for every person 14 years of age or older, the equivalent of 591 beers each, a substantial financial expenditure.

The use of alcohol also causes the loss of discernment. Isaiah knew of individuals who “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” (Isa. 28:7). Modern medical research has proven that even a few drinks impair mental ability.

The loss of control is probably the most dangerous result of alcohol use. Even a godly individual like Noah found that alcohol can lead to sin, shame and family divisions (Gen. 9:21). Today the loss of control seen in drunken driving is a serious problem facing our nation.

Spiritual Problems

God’s Word associates serious spiritual problems with the use of alcohol— problems that ought to make any believer shudder. First, wine is on the same level with sexual immorality in its ability to turn the heart of a person away from the Lord (Hos. 4:11). That is, it can cause a lack of love for God. Second, it can promote a lack of service for God. Matthew 24:48-51 pictures a servant who loses sight of the Lord’s return and turns to drinking instead of fulfilling his service for the Master. Third, the abuse of alcohol can indicate a lack of relationship with the Lord. Drunkards are regularly included in the New Testament lists of those who shall not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:10). Should God’s people be playing with such a dangerous substance?

The Prohibitions of Drinking

So far it is clear that alcoholic beverages come with a serious set of problems that would seem to be sufficient to convince any believer to abstain. Scripture also contains some clear commands concerning drinking that turn this issue into a matter of obedience or disobedience.

General Prohibitions

Christ frequently warned His disciples to be alert for His Second Coming. Together with the pleasures and cares of this life, drunkenness can dampen our expectation and weaken our preparation of Christ (Luke 21:34). Do not let alcohol divert your attention from Christ!

The influence of alcohol on our lives is not the only consideration. Given the weakness and inability of so many to withstand and control the effects of alcohol, God commands us to abstain lest we corrupt others (Rom. 14:21). Do not let alcohol destroy your brother!

Certainly no one ever took his first drink expecting or planning to become an alcoholic. There is a subtle deception about alcohol that leads people to believe that nothing bad will happen to them. Scripture says the one who believes that lie is a fool (Prov. 20:1). Do not let alcohol deceive you!

Specific Prohibitions

While the Bible does not prohibit the use of wine for people in general (assuming the proper dilution), there are three classes of people for whom no amount of alcohol is allowed. The priests serving in the tabernacle were not to use alcohol lest it hinder their ability to communicate the truth of God’s Word to others (Lev. 10:9- 11). Kings were not to use alcohol lest it distort their ability to discern what is right (Prov. 31:4, 5). Nazarites were not to use alcohol lest it deter their dedication to the Lord (Num. 6:3).

Those are not outdated Old Testament categories. God has designated us “kings and priests” (Rev. 1:5, 6) and calls on us to dedicate ourselves to serve Him (Luke 9:23). Certainly God’s standards for His kings, priests and dedicated servants today are at least as high as they were then. The only question is, “Are we willing to submit to His will and His Word?” Consider carefully the apostle Paul’s exhortation:

The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof (Rom. 13:12-14).

Dr. Gary Reimers is the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greenville, SC.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 1993. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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