The Christian and Alcohol: Does the Bible Permit Drinking in Moderation?
In recent days, the subject of Christians and alcohol has become front and center. Not that this problem is new. This debate is a long one, and one that is not likely to be settled any time soon. Recently, our friend Scott Aniol offered an interesting series of blog posts on the Christian and alcohol. Many believers today permit drinking, and some argue that prohibiting it is sinful. Mark Driscoll, for instance, suggests that it is a sin not to drink. God made alcohol, and so long as one does not drink to excess, one is free to enjoy God’s good gifts.
Well, I want to ask the question . . . does the Bible permit “drinking in moderation”? This is no mere academic debate, for since the Temperance movement of the 19th century, many Christians have argued that the Bible teaches total abstinence from alcohol. This is done in some rather creative ways, all in an effort to keep the saints sober. Some might argue that despite the fact that people drank some alcohol in Bible times and that the Bible seems to sanction it, no Christian today should drink. Others suggest that since Jesus drank wine, so can we. So which viewpoint is correct? Can Christians drink in moderation or not?
My contention is that the Bible does not address at all “drinking in moderation.” This is not a question any Old or New Testament person would ever have asked. For him, it was a fact of life that there was a very high probability that everyone would consume alcohol. It was virtually impossible to avoid it. The emphasis of the Bible was on warning the saints to exercise great caution lest they fall victim to the pernicious effects of consuming too much alcohol. But how does what the NT believer did out of necessity intersect with the modern believer who drinks alcohol out of choice? The real question today is, “Is there any real correlation between the use of alcohol in the culture of the Scripture and the use of alcohol in our day?”
This is a much more complex question and one that needs an answer. In Jesus’ day, what were the hydration choices? The three basic options were water (often unsanitary), animal milk (hard to keep for any length of time without refrigeration), and the fruit of the vine (also hard to preserve in its fresh, unfermented state). Fermentation is a natural process that changes the chemical structure of the juice from sweet to alcoholic. This happens quickly in the absence of refrigeration. At the same time, it was discovered that alcohol actually had helpful qualities. It apparently had some limited medicinal value where modern medicine had not discovered antibiotics. It also killed bacteria in other liquid—like water. In biblical times, alcohol was often mixed with water to purify the water and make it safe to drink.
But by itself, wine was also very dangerous—thus the numerous warnings against drunkenness. From the time of Noah, the Bible cautioned of alcohol’s power to wrest control of the individual and cause him to do some very sinful things. Why the need for these statements at all if the OT or NT saints were expected simply to abstain? Answer: virtually everyone consumed the fermented fruit of the vine—it simply could not be avoided.
So back to my question—what does the result of a natural process in ancient times have to do with the commercially produced beverages of today? Little if anything. Alcohol consumption today is a social activity, often associated with raucous living. This hardly fits the biblical world where alcohol consumption in some form was virtually unavoidable. Today, we have numerous choices for hydration. In the first century, those choices were greatly reduced. Alcohol was a safe choice, provided it was used very carefully. In our current American culture, we actually forbid children from consuming because of the ease of abuse. I find no contemporary arguments for the use of alcohol among Christians for hydration. The arguments simply revolve around Christian liberty. Many argue that they have liberty to drink because the Bible does not forbid it.
How would I respond to this? In the same way I would respond to the Christian who would try to make an argument for polygamy or for slavery. The Bible never expressly forbids either practice, though clearly Christians are right today to reject them both. Can a Christian drink? My answer is simple—why should they? What benefit does alcohol offer today?
There are, of course, several good biblical reasons for choosing to abstain from alcohol today, and I will seek to provide these in an upcoming post.