Sunday, January 22, 2012

Is Drinking an Alcoholic Beverage a Sin?

If reading the title of this post got your blood pumping, then that reaction is exactly why I wanted to post on this topic in the first place.  The question is often raised within (and without) the body of the church regarding what the Bible really has to say about having an alcoholic drink.  You might just be surprised.

**Now, before I go any further, let me preface everything I am about to say with the disclaimer that you should never accept any interpretation of the truth at face value without subjecting it to confirmation by the Word of God.

Now, I believe the Bible is not ambiguous at all on the subject of alcohol consumption. From my experience, the reason this issue is so often contentious is because the scripture, which is clear, is taken out of context and misapplied.  There are many passages in scripture that clearly define drunkenness, debauchery, various indiscretions, and other patterns of behavior which demonstrate a lack of self control with sinful living (i.e. Eph 5:18, Gal 5:21, Prov 20:1, Prov 23:29-35, 1 Cor 6:10, Is 5:11, etc).  Because of this, there is well grounded reason to say, "Be careful."  Add to this the dangers of addiction, long-term abuse, accidents, and broken homes affecting millions of families and suddenly alcohol consumption starts to look like sinful activity - ipso facto.  Young people are educated in this way because of the very real and rampant illegal abuse of alcohol by teens and young adults as they exhibit natural curiosities, desire acceptance with peers, and are eager to enter adulthood.  So again, because this is a contentious subject, you often find there isn't much clarity beyond the words of warning on the subject taught in our congregations.  In some cases the teaching from the pulpit in some churches say flat out: drinking is a sin.

So let us examine the scripture, apply some common sense, and I think we can bring clarity to this often controversial subject. This will admittedly cover the topic in part, but please consider the following with Christian charity and appreciate the fact that I am trying to keep it brief. I will present three points before I conclude with my thoughts:

First, what is sin? Sin is falling short of God's standard. It is making a conscious choice to disobey Gods clear command to do or not to do. There is not room for relative interpretation.  There are no exceptions or exemptions. Sin is acting on a temptation when our conscience tells us we ought not to. It is also failing to act obediently when we know we should. Ultimately, it is an act of the will. According to the Bible - all have fallen short of Gods standard and all have sinned, save Christ alone.

When does alcohol become sinful? The most direct command on alcohol consumption is found in the New Testament letter to the Ephesians 5:17-18, which says "Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery (wild living). Instead, be filled with the Spirit." That literally means: don't get drunk. Period.  Further, we know drunkenness is offensive because it harms the body. The first letter to Christian church at the Corinth (6:19-20) says, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." The Bible says we commit sin if we become a stumbling block to another person. Romans 14:20-23 says "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin." (there was a lot of arguing going on during the time of this letter among early Christians regarding Jewish dietary laws - Paul isn't saying we should not discuss the matter, he's just saying to stop arguing about the wrong things.) Finally, the ten commandments were given as Gods standard for judgement to His people. The first was to Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, mind and the second, to worship God alone (no idols, so nothing should come before God in your life). Either of these laws are defiled if alcohol becomes more important than obeying God, if it inhibits your ability to worship and glorify Him, if you become drunk, or if by drinking you lead another person astray.

What was Jesus' take? Let's look at a few facts. Jesus first miracle was at a wedding banquet when He turned water to wine and spared a family from embarrassment at a public celebration. This wasn't grape juice folks, it was clearly fermented (see John 2).  If drinking were itself sinful, then we would have to further ascribe that Christ sponsored an entire supply of wine at a party which he and his disciples very clearly took part.  Further, Luke makes it crystal clear that Jesus himself drank wine (Luke 7.33-34).  Luke, being a physician, would know the difference.  We also know wine was drank on a regular basis at meals in Jesus day. This was deeply embedded in the culture but it was also used for ceremonies.  When Christ prepared the infamous Last Supper, before being crucified, He shared a cup with His disciples.  Matthew 26: 27-29 says, "Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” This seems to indicate there may be wine at the great banquet in heaven. Again if drinking a fermented drink were inherently sinful, it would present some serious theological problems but the Bible never says having a fermented drink is a sin.

Other supporting passages - The Nazarites (special people set apart by God) were NOT allowed to have wine during their vows, but were allowed afterwards (Num 6.20).  David gives thanks for wine--'which gladdens the heart of man' (Ps 104.14-15).  In Is 25.6, YHWH prepares a feast for us His people involving the 'choicest of meats and the best aged wine'.  Interestingly, this was actually before aging wine was common due to poor storage abilities when wine began to be stored in glass.  Church leaders throughout the New Testament are cautioned against excess but it does not say it is forbidden.

In closing, the Bible is pretty clear, by my reading, that drinking an alcoholic beverage does not constitute a sinful act. Christians need to understand where healthy enjoyment ends and temptation that leads to sin begins. Moderation is the key. Alcohol, much like a beautiful woman, can be an intoxicating temptress. Drinking alcohol in excess until one becomes drunk, or drinking when it brakes the laws of the land, or developing an addiction as a result of alcohol abuse -- these all cross the line of temptation and result in sin. A fermented drink is a miracle of nature intended by God to enhance our lives, we - being creatures of free will - too often choose to abuse it and break God's command. On the other hand, in our attempt to guard against sin, some have invented a legalistic prejudice against anyone who has a drink, taking God's word out of context and calling something sin that is not. Professing Christians would be wise to exercise caution and discretion if they choose to enjoy a drink, being EVER conscientious of the undeniable fact that negative stigmas exist. We must take care to consider those around us and the potential impact enjoying a drink in their presence may have on our ability to set an example and be a Christ-like witness to them. If having a drink will compromise your ability to be an ambassador for Christ to another person, the choice is clear - abstain.

Again, this is my interpretation of the scriptures on the subject of drinking alcohol. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter, help answer any questions you may have, or if you care to help me clarify the point, that is welcomed.


  1. Can we be sure that the wine from Jesus' day is as strong as the wine and other alcoholic beverages of today?

    I agree with you on the facts, but think most Christians should consider deeply the consequences of drinking in public or even buying alcohol at a store then drinking privately in your home. Non-believers watch us carefully so we are not always conscious of who we may be leading astray just by them seeing us with a drink.

    It is a sticky subject for sure but the Spirit will convict believers personally as to what they should do if they are sensitive to His speaking.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Laura! You bring up valid points regarding thoughtful/ responsible consumption of alcohol. Your counsel is wise for all Christian believers.

    While we can only speculate as to the precise strength or volume of alcohol consumed in Jesus' day, the Bible makes it clear wine was consumed and offered by Jesus. It was also evidently strong enough to cause a person to become drunk, which is why the Bible has to provide guidance and warnings on the topic. Note the best wine was often served first (some evidently would have enough wine that they could no longer discern the difference once the good wine was gone). On that note, the Bible makes clear that to drink to the point of drunkenness is indeed sinful. We want to simply exercise good hermeneutics so that what the scripture actually says (or doesn't) is clear.

    Again, thanks for the comment!

    - SRM

  3. This is definitely one of those issues where believers have to weigh all the dynamics of exercising their freedom. Understanding our responsibility to other believers, especially weaker/less mature believers, is important when discussing this issue. Paul discusses this principle in depth in 1st Corinthians 8. This is an example asking "Is this the wise thing to do?" rather than asking "Is there a verse for or against this?" Tougher question to answer, but a question that is often more applicable to everyday life than a simple right vs. wrong question.

  4. Hi Matt! How's it going? The blog is looking good!

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with your comments whole heartedly. If we come up for air a bit on this deluge, I find we encounter two basic polar teachings on the subject of alcohol consumption in the church which I wanted to address. These can be summarized simply as:

    1) Drinking alcohol of any kind under any circumstance is sinful.
    2) Drinking is not a sin, so long as one does not become drunk, and can be enjoyed by Christians freely and openly regardless of the circumstances.

    To be clear: I would have strong disagreement with either position as both are inconsistent with clear Biblical testimony. Individuals may find they find they have differing degrees of personal conviction in keeping with scriptural teaching (as in whether a person chooses to eat or abstain from meat). My point is to make clear what the scriptures do and do not say on this controversial subject so we might better understand our freedoms in light of our responsibilities. The first view is a legalistic one that, while well intended and clearly more conservative, is not scripturally defensible. The second view does not factor in the impact of exercising freedom with respect to responsibilities to uphold our testimony and the call to be set apart from the world as Paul makes clear.

    One final point I would make is the Bible and this post do not teach a relative truth on this subject or any other, rather our freedom should be exercised conscientiously with respect to the dynamics in play (as you rightly point out). Again, the outworking may be that believers have differing degrees of personal conviction, but the teaching is not relative.

    I love the thoughtful discussion and input!!