The Moderate Use of Alcoholic Beverages
A defense of the moderate use of alcoholic beverages appears at first glance patently self-serving. “Well, naturally,” the abstainer says, “in order to continue drinking, they’ll find some way to make the Bible play their tune.” The use or non-use of alcoholic beverages is not a major issue at Tri-City Covenant Church. If it is an issue at all, it is a relatively minor issue. Unfortunately, it is often the so-called “minor” issues that distract and keep us from locking arms as a unified Body of Christ, marching forward, and engaging in the larger, more important task of building the kingdom of God; for that reason, in a genuine spirit of Christian love, and for our mutual instruction and edification, we humbly submit this brief Biblical defense of the Moderate use of alcoholic beverages.
Prohibitionist, Abstentionist and Moderationist Views
Some Christians believe that the use of alcoholic beverages under any circumstances is forbidden by Scripture, and is not only immoral, but unlawful and evil. This is the Prohibitionist position. Abstentionists, on the other hand, while allowing that alcohol is not strictly forbidden by Scripture, with its negative connotations and potentially detrimental social affects, alcoholic beverages, as a matter of personal testimony, should be voluntarily avoided. Alcohol, they believe, is to be shunned not as a matter of law, but of love. Moderationists hold that the prudent use of alcohol is not only permitted by Scripture, but is a gift of God to men; attempts to forbid or limit its use is to declare evil that which God has declared to be good. Prohibitionists and Abstentionists, Moderationists maintain, unfairly outlaw or stigmatize what God Himself allows.
Drunkenness a Curse
Despite differences of opinion regarding the lawfulness or impropriety of alcohol, all three positions agree that outright or habitual drunkenness is unquestionably condemned by the Bible. “And do not be drunk with wine…” (Eph 5:18), the Word says; and, “Let us behave properly in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness…” (Rom 13:13); and, “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness.. envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19,21); and, “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; not even to eat with such a person” (1 Cor 5:11). No Christian, therefore, can lawfully defend the abuse of alcohol. Not only are we prohibited from being drunkards ourselves, we are not to fraternize with Christians (or non-Christians) who are.
Drunkenness is to be seen for what it is: a curse, upon the individual, and eventually upon the culture at large encouraging and condoning its abuse. “For thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will give you into the hand of those whom you hate, into the hand of those from whom you were alienated.. .You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, the cup of horror and desolation'” (Ezek 23:28,33). Drunkenness is a destroyer: “For the heavy drinker and glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags” (Prov 23:21). Drunkenness distorts reality, robs us of our ability to lead productive lives, ruins our health, corrupts moral behavior, and, last but certainly not least, disqualifies men from positions of leadership in the Church. There is absolutely no argument between the Prohibitionist, Abstentionist, and Moderationist positions regarding the destructive potential of alcoholic beverages when misused or abused.
But a mere potential for abuse, although real, does not justify blanket condemnations. If the same logic were applied to the area of human sexuality, all sexual relations would be forbidden, or unnaturally restricted, even between husbands and wives. After all, if sexuality, like alcohol, can be abused, better to prohibit or abstain from sex of any kind rather than risk being tempted into clearly lawless acts of fornication and adultery. Gluttony is also forbidden. Yet no one suggests prohibiting or abstaining from all food. Somewhere between the obvious extremes of celibacy and promiscuity, between starvation and gluttony, between teetotalism and drunkenness, is the true Biblical standard; that is, the freedom to enjoy, and celebrate, the gift of sex, the gift of food, and the gift of alcoholic beverages, taken within the gracious and generous framework of Biblical law and Christian liberty.
Grape Juice or Wine?
Inevitably, in each camp’s scramble to find a Biblical justification for their position, attention is rightfully paid to the Biblical record and a lexicographical study of key words related to the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Of the numerous words used, two Old Testament words are of particular interest: yayin and tirosh. Of the word yayin, which occurs in the Hebrew text 141 times, Bible scholar J. D. Davis, employing the interpretive principle of “first mention,” observes that when the Hebrew word yayin first appears in Scriptures (Gen 9:21), it is referring to the fermented juice of the grape. “There is no reason,” Davis concludes, “to believe that it has a different meaning anywhere else.”1 Fundamentalist Old Testament scholar M. F. Unger agrees, stating, “The intoxicating character of yayin in general is plain from Scripture.”2 Although some have attempted to argue that yayin was of two varieties – fermented and unfermented – the lexicographic evidence weighs against them. In a careful analysis of the “two yayins” theory, Kenneth Gentry proves that time – in this case, the time required for the juice of the grape to ferment (or, more to the point, the lack of time) – is not persuasive in establishing the presence of a non-alcoholic variety of yayin.3 In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Not only is the contention that yayin as a beverage was both fermented and unfermented shown to be exegetically unconvincing, it is, according to lexicographer Dunlop Moore, “a modern hypothesis, devised during the present century, and has no foundation in the Bible, or in Hebrew of classical antiquity.”4
The Hebrew word tirosh occurs 38 times in the Old Testament, and is translated as either “wine” or “new wine.” Strictly speaking, tirosh is an immature form of yavin; nonetheless, even in the early stages of fermentation tirosh possessed yayin‘s intoxicating qualities. Regarding the fermentation process itself, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia’s comments are informative:
Unfermented grape juice is a very difficult thing to keep without the aid of modern antiseptic precautions, and its preservation in the warm and not overly clean conditions of Palestine made it impossible. Consequently, tirosh came to mean wine that was not filly aged (although with full intoxicating properties, Judges 9:13; Hosea 4:11; cf. Acts 2:13).
In the words of Ken Gentry, “The Old Testament knows nothing of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ wines; it is totally silent on any supposed attempt to keep wine from undergoing natural fermentation.”5
Exegetical and lexicographical attempts to transform New Testament “wine” into “grape juice” fares no better. The Greek word oinos occurs 33 times in the New Testament, and is equivalent to the Hebrew word yayin, with the Greek-English Lexicon defining oinos as “the fermented juice of the grape,” as well as the fermented juice of other kinds of fruit and grains.6 According to the Illustrated Davis Bible Dictionary, “The Greek oinos…means the fermented juice of the grape.”7 The intoxicating properties of wine are obvious when Paul warns the Christians of Ephesus to “be not drunk with wine [oinos]…” (Eph 5:18). Yet, in spite of these and other warnings, nowhere is the drinking of oinos forbidden. In regards to candidates for church office, Paul warns against the abuse of wine (1 Tim 3:3, Titus 1:7); but, as Gentry observes, “No New Testament apostle ever commands anything along the lines of ‘Drink no wine at all.'”8 The apostle Paul could have easily said, “Drink no wine under any circumstances,” choosing instead to qualify the use of wine (“Be not drunk,” “Be not addicted”) rather than forbid it.
What Would Jesus Drink?
Likewise, the Lord Jesus could have condemned the use of wine, but did not. He condemned drunkenness, but not the drinking of wine per se. In contrasting Himself to John the Baptist, who came eating “no bread and no wine” (Luke 7:33-35), in keeping with earlier Old Testament custom, and the testimony of the apostles to follow, Jesus said, “The Son of Man comes eating and drinking.” Whatever John’s reasons for abstinence might have been, they were clearly not normative, but particular to his ministry. The word oinos is used to describe the beverage miraculously created by Jesus for the governor’s wedding party (John 2:1-11), and refers, not only to the poorer quality wine initially served by the host, but to the superior, supernaturally produced wine created by the True Vine, the Lord Jesus. Both were alcoholic beverages.
What was the beverage served at the Last Supper? Wine, or grape juice? At the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). Is the “fruit of the vine” in question fermented wine, or unfermented grape juice? “The expression ‘fruit of the vine,” notes Dunlap Moore, “is employed by our Saviour in the synoptical Gospels to denote the element contained in the cup of the Holy Supper. The fruit of the vine is literally the grape. But the Jews from time immemorial have used this phrase to designate the wine partaken on sacred occasions, as at the Passover…. The Christian Fathers, as well as the Jewish rabbis, have understood ‘fruit of the vine’ to mean wine in the proper sense.”9 Wine in the “proper sense” is, as we have attempted to show, wine of the fermented variety. Drunkenness at communion services, after all, was a problem specifically addressed by the apostle Paul to the Christians at Corinth (1 Cor 11:21,22).
Weaker Brothers and Stumbling Blocks
It is argued that the wine, new wine, or sweet wines customarily consumed by the inhabitants of Palestine were not of the same alcoholic potency we have today, nor had the drinking of alcoholic beverages in Jesus’ day reached the same destructive levels of addiction and abuse found in modern society. Is the Christian obligated as a matter of “conscience” to avoid the use of alcohol for the sake of others? What is our responsibility to our “weaker brothers” who, following our example, fall, or may fall, into sin? The “weaker” brother of Romans 14:1 if is a believer “weak” in the faith, and is, by implication, juxtaposed against those who are “strong” in the faith. The strong are not to judge the weak, but are to accept them fully into the life of the Church, in spite of their weakness. In context, the “weak” are those abstaining from eating meat; the “strong” are those who understand that God allows the eating of “all things.” Our obligation to those weaker in the faith, then, is not to legitimize their weakness by refraining from lawful behavior, but to help the weak grow stronger in their faith by setting a godly and Biblical example in every area of life. We are not to regard fellow believers, strong or weak, with contempt for lawful behavior, even though we might personally disagree with their position. “But you,” Paul asks, “why do you judge your brother?” Similarly, Paul’s injunction urging mature Christians to avoid unwittingly placing “obstacles” or “stumbling blocks” in a weaker brother’s way (Rom 14:13) is a reminder, and a warning, that Christian liberty must be exercised in terms of God’s law. Excesses and abuses of liberty lead inevitably to licentiousness. The weaker brother, in order to enjoy the genuine, life-giving liberty of God’s law, must first learn to temper this freedom with self-discipline; for the weaker brother, otherwise lawful behavior can easily escalate into blatant sin.
Liberty and the Law
Space does not permit a fuller defense of the Moderationist view, but two last points can be made. Many of God’s people, in an earnest attempt to serve God and make the best possible impression on the unconverted, not only unnecessarily surrender their own God-given freedoms, but expect others to surrender theirs, as well. The issue is not simply wine, but liberty; liberty under God and God’s law. The alternative to God’s law is humanism, sometimes disguised as “religion,” but more often unleashed as the undisguised tyranny of man’s law and the traditions of men. Basic to Biblical law is the understanding that no one has the right to demand more from men than the law of God requires. “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” We are not to subtract from, or add to, the Word of God. Nit-picking over trifles while ignoring the weightier matters of the law is hypocrisy; outlawing what God clearly allows is itself an act of lawlessness, granting to men an authority they do not possess.
Lastly, God’s people are to be a rejoicing people, a victorious people, saved from the curse of the law, set free from the bondage of sin, adopted as sons and daughters into the family of the living God. We are a celebrating people, meant to rejoice in our deliverance by partaking of every good gift that our Heavenly Father graciously supplies. As it is written:
Here is what I have seen: It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage (Eccl 5:18).
He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart (Psa 104:14,15).
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works (Eccl 9:7).
Honor the LORD with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine (Prov 3:9,10)
Abraham received a gift of wine (yayin) from Melchizedek, king of Salem (Gen 14:18). Offerings of yayin were made unto the Lord (Ex 29:38, 40; Lev 23:13; Num 15:5, 7, 10). In return for faithful obedience, God instructed the Israelites to spend their money on “whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or strong drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household” (Deu 14:26). Wine, then, is symbolic of God’s blessing. “And 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 refined, aged wines on the lees” (Isa 25:6). Likewise, the “gladdening of the heart” associated with the moderate use of wine is portrayed in the positive light of strength and rejoicing: “Those of Ephraim shall be like a mighty man, and their heart shall rejoice as if with wine. Yes, their children shall see it and be glad; their heart shall rejoice in the LORD” (Zec 10:7).
The solution to irresponsible behavior, then, is not to condemn or outlaw that which God declares to be good, but rather to conform our hearts and conduct to the teachings of Scripture and the law-word of God. The blessings of God are meant to be enjoyed; when abused, even the “blessings” of God can become a curse.
- John D. Davis, Illustrated Bible Dictionary, p.867, Royal Publishers, 1973 2 Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p.1168, Moody Press, 1970
- Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 867, Royal Publishers, 1973
- Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Christian and Alcoholic Beverages, p.32, Baker Book Rouse, 1986
- Moore, Encyclopedia, III: 2536-2437
- Ibid., Gentry, p.42
- Henry George Liddle and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 5th Edition, Clarion Press, 1864
- Davis, Dictionary, p.867
- Ibid., p. 47
- Ibid., Moore, pp.2537, 2538