Few issues have generated more heated debate among Christians than that of the morality of alcohol consumption. The dispute has generated responses ranging from local educational temperance movements to federal amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Certainly there is evidence of widespread abuse of alcoholic beverages today; this few would deny. Furthermore, the Bible clearly condemns all forms of alcohol abuse, by binding precept and by notorious example. Yet the ethical issue before us is, Does the Bible allow for a righteous consumption of the beverage alcohol? The fundamental question is ethical, not cultural or demographical; it requires an answer from a Biblical, not an emotional, base.
Among evangelicals, the fundamental approaches to alcohol use may be distilled (no pun intended) into three basic viewpoints.
(1) The prohibitionist viewpoint universally decries all consumption of the beverage alcohol. Adherents to this position do not find any Scriptural warrant for alcohol consumption, even in Biblical times.
(2) The abstentionist perspective discourages alcohol use in our modern context, though acknowledging its use in Biblical days. They point to modern cultural differences as justification for the distinction: widespread alcoholism (a contemporary social problem), higher potency distilled beverages (unknown in Biblical times), and intensified dangers in a technological society (e.g., speeding cars).
(3) The moderationist position allows for the righteous consumption of alcoholic beverages. This position, while acknowledging, deploring, and condemning all forms of alcohol abuse and dependency, argues that Scripture allows the partaking of alcoholic beverages in moderation and with circumspection.
The Importance of the Question Often, non-moderationist argumentation inadvertently and negatively affects certain aspects of the Christian faith. It can undercut the authority of Scripture (in that any universal condemnation of what Scripture allows diminishes the authority of Scripture in Christian thought). It may distort the doctrine of Christ (in that any universal censure of something Jesus did detracts from His holiness). It adversely affects our apologetic (in that any denunciation of that which Scripture allows sets forth an inconsistent Biblical witness).
My approach to the issue before us involves three presuppositions:
(1) the Bible is the inerrant Word of God;
(2) therefore, the Bible is the determinative and binding standard for all ethical inquiry; and
(3) the Bible condemns all forms of alcohol abuse and dependence. The moderationist viewpoint in no way compromises any of these three fundamental commitments.
The Wine of the Bible
Undoubtedly, the starting point for any rational discussion of the matter must be with the nature of the wine in Scripture. The moderationist position is that the wine righteously employed by and allowed for consumption among God’s people in the Bible is a fermented quality, alcoholic-content beverage. Consider the evidence for this assertion.
- Lexical Consensus. The leading Old and New Testament lexicons and etymological dictionaries affirm that the major terms used of wine represent a fermented beverage, a “wine,” not “grape juice.” The most important terms for the debate that are employed in Scripture are yayin and shekar (Hebrew) and oinos (Greek).
- Translational Consensus. The major English translations of Scripture translate these words by English equivalents that bespeak alcoholic beverages, rather than terms such as “juice,” “grape juice,” and so forth. Translations include “wine,” “strong drink,” “liquor,” and “beer.”
- Lexical Relationship. One of the major words in our debate is shekar (“strong drink,” NASB). It is the noun form of the verb shakar, which means “become drunk.” This is evidence of the inebriating capacity of shekar.
- Contextual Usage. Many of the verses that condemn drunkenness make reference to such beverages as yayin, shekar, and oinos. In addition, yayin is said to “make glad the heart” in a number of places. This surely has reference to the effect of an alcoholic beverage, when used in moderation.
- Descriptive Reference. In certain places in Scripture the aging of the liquid express of the grape is specifically mentioned (Isa. 25:6; Luke 5:39 ). Aging is an essential factor for wine to be alcoholic.
- Circumspection Requirement. On some occasions, “strong” Christians are instructed to forgo the use of wine (Rom. 14:21 ), when there is a serious likelihood of “destroying” (Rom. 14:15 ) a “weaker brother” (Rom. 14:1; 15:1). This surely indicates the temporary forgoing of an alcoholic beverage, rather than grape juice.
- Ecclesiastical Expectation. Church officers are required to use wine in moderation (1 Tim. 3:8; Titus 2:3), indicating its fermented quality and intoxicating capacity.
- Qualified Silence. Interestingly, there are no Biblical distinctions between “safe” wines. Scripture lacks any commendation of “new wine” (fresh grape juice) over and exclusive of “old wine” (fermented beverages). Scripture lacks any commendation of watered wine over undiluted wine (it even disparages watered wine, Isa. 1:22 ). Scripture lacks any encouragement to retarding fermentation, which occurs naturally. Evidence exists that wine was intentionally exposed in order to accelerate the fermentation process (Isa. 25:6; Jer. 48:11).
Wine Use in the Bible Having demonstrated the fermented quality (and consequently the inebriating potential) of the wine of the Bible, I will now set forth several Biblical evidences of its righteous employment.
- Righteous Example. In Genesis 14:18 Melchizedek gave yayin to Abraham in righteous circumstances. There is no evidence of any divine disapprobation in this episode. (See also Neh. 5:16–19.)
- Sacred Employment. The Scripture teaches that both yayin (Exod. 29:38ff.) and shekar (Num. 28:7) were used for offerings to God. This is important for two reasons: (1) these (alcoholic) beverages had to be produced for worship, and (2) they were acceptable as offerings to God. If alcoholic beverages were unsuitable for human consumption, why were they acceptable in divine worship?
- Positive Blessing. God’s Law allowed yayin and shekar to be purchased with the Tithe of Rejoicing and to be drunk before the Lord. “You shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine [yayin] or strong drink [shekar], for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household” (Deut. 14:26 ). In fact, the psalmist attributes to God the production of yayin, which makes man’s heart glad (Ps. 104:14–15). Surely God’s provision has in view a righteous employment of alcoholic beverage. Furthermore, Scripture speaks of the satisfaction of life as illustrated in the eating of bread and drinking of yayin with gladness (Eccles. 9:7).
- Spiritual Symbolism. The rich symbolism of God’s redemptive revelation makes bold use of fermented beverages. The blessings of salvation are likened to free provision of yayin: “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1).
Kingdom blessings are symbolized by the abundant provision of yayin: “`Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, `when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed … I will bring back the captives of My people Israel … They shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them'” (Amos 9:13 –14). Elsewhere we read: “In this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of well-refined wines on the lees” (Isa. 25:6). Clearly, wine — even carefully aged wine — is viewed as a symbol of God’s blessings.
- Christ’s Witness. Interestingly, our Lord Jesus Christ miraculously “manufactured” an abundance (John 2:6) of wine [yayin] for a marriage feast. This wine was deemed “good” by the headmaster of the feast (John 2:10) — and men prefer “old [i.e., aged, fermented] wine” because it is good (Luke 5:39).
Having “manufactured” wine in His first miracle, it is no surprise that the Lord publicly drank it. This put a clear distinction between Him and the ascetic John the Baptizer: “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, `He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, `Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” (Luke 7:33–34).
- Prohibitional Silence. Scripture nowhere gives a universal command on the order: “Take no wine at all.” In fact, select groups that forgo wine are worthy of mention as acting differently from accepted Biblical practice, e.g., the Nazarites (Num. 6:2–6) and John the Baptizer (Luke 1:15 ). Others are forbidden to imbibe wine only during the formal exercise of their specific duties, e.g., priests (Lev. 10:8–11) and kings (Prov. 31: 4–5).
All prohibitions to partaking wine involve prohibitions either to immoderate consumption or to abusers: Do not be drunk with wine (Eph. 5:18 ). Do not be with heavy drinkers (Prov. 23:20). Do not be addicted to wine (1 Tim. 3:8; Titus 2:3). Do not linger long over wine (Prov. 23:30).
Conclusion When all is said and done, we must distinguish the use of wine from its abuse. Sometimes in Scripture gluttonous partaking of food is paralleled with immoderate drinking of wine (Deut. 21:20 ; Prov. 23:21). But food is not universally prohibited! Sometimes in Scripture sexual perversion is paralleled with drunkenness (Rom. 13:13 ; 1 Pet. 4:3). But all sexual activity is not condemned! Wealth often becomes a snare to the sinner (1 Tim. 6:9–11), but the Scripture does not universally decry its acquisition (Job 42:10–17)! Each of these factors in life is intended by God to be a blessing for man, when used according to His righteous Law.
It would seem abundantly clear, then, that the Scriptures do allow the moderate partaking of alcoholic beverages. There is no hesitancy in Scripture in commending wine, or embarrassment in portraying its consumption among the righteous of Biblical days. Wine is set before the saints as blessing and gladness (Deut. 14:26; Ps. 104:14–15), even though it may be to the immoderate and wicked a mocker and curse (Prov. 20:1; 23:29–35).
Supplemental Materials Available at www.KennethGentry.com
God Gave Wine, a book thoroughly analyzing the Biblical issues in the drinking question. It defends the practice of moderation in alcohol consumption.
Wine, the Bible, and the Christian (Set #118), a three-tape, audiocassette series defending moderate use of alcohol. “Does Scripture Permit Alcoholic Beverages?” (AR 10), a published print article debating the question of wine consumption by Christians today. Debaters: Kenneth Gentry and Dr. Stephen Reynolds.
by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D. » Bio
Kenneth Gentry is Chancellor of Christ College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and a full time pastor. He is the author of fourteen books and contributor to several others from Zondervan, Baker, Kregel, P&R and other publishers. He operates the Christian educational website www.kennethgentry.com where he offers a correspondence course in Christian research, writing, and publication.