My goal in this post is not to give an exhaustive presentation of the biblical teaching on alcohol. Rather, this is meant to simply raise five points regarding the issue for the purpose of engaging in discussion. Comments are welcome, humility is encouraged.
1. Sin of Drunkenness
2. Good Gift of Wine
3. Not Causing Others to Sin
4. Not Sinning Against your Conscience
5. Need for Wisdom
The Sin of Drunkenness
The Bible uniformly condemns drunkenness as sinful. From the first mention of alcohol, we hear the Spirit of God telling us to beware of this sin. Noah’s wine is the first mention of alcohol in the Bible, and Noah got drunk off of it, leading to far-reaching family consequences. The sin of drunkenness is explicitly condemned by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:18. Also, there are several passages in the Proverbs that link drunkenness with foolishness. This is not necessarily stating that drunkenness is a result of stupidity. Rather, the biblical definition of a fool is one who either states or acts in such a way as to declare that there is no God. So, when the fool is a drunkard, he is allowing alcohol to be his master, rather than the Lord. See Proverbs 20:1.
The Good Gift of Wine
This aspect of biblical teaching is often overlooked in the discussion about alcohol. Briefly, the Bible states in several places, in both Testaments, that wine is a good gift from God and He has given it to us for our joy.
· Psalm 104:14-15 You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
· Deuteronomy 14:22-26 “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.
· Isaiah 25:6-9 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
· John 2 – I will not quote this passage, but it is the wedding a Cana. Jesus turned the water into wine. It was good wine. The master of the feast said so.
· Matthew 26:29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Lest we think that Jesus perhaps only used non-alcoholic wine, there are several things we need to remember. First, and least importantly, there is no evidence whatsoever that suggests anyone made or was able to make non-alcoholic wine in the first century. Second, and of middle importance, the master of the feast at the wedding of Cana suggested that the wine Jesus made was better than the wine that had been previously served. Now, I am no wine connoisseur, but I doubt he would have suggested that non-alcoholic grape juice was better wine than the previous wine. And third, and this is of highest importance, the Scriptures teach us that Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard. No one gets the reputation for being a drunkard by being a tee-totaler. Rather, if we are to believe the Scriptures here, we are constrained to admit that Jesus must have drunk normal wine just like everyone else, and that wine must have been alcoholic, to at least present the possibility of legitimately accusing Jesus of being a drunkard.
The Weaker/Stronger Brother
Romans 14:20-23 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
These verses are in the context of a long argument Paul is making regarding weaker and stronger Christians. The weakness and strength describes the Christian’s faith. The flow of the entire chapter begins with Paul establishing that the Master of every Christian should be the Lord. Each person should be convinced in his own mind and focus on the work of Jesus Christ and His gospel. God will be the one who holds us accountable for our actions. Therefore, Paul tells us not to put a stumbling block in the way of our brother. Rather, we are to walk in love.
So, Paul is telling the stronger brother, “if you exercise your freedom in such a way that it causes a weaker brother to stumble, then you have not only caused that weaker brother to sin, but you yourself have sinned because you are not walking in love.”
So, how do we do this in everyday life? I do not believe that Paul is calling us to live in a bubble or in our cellar and never come out in public lest we do something that someone else thinks is a sin. He covered that earlier in the chapter – the one who abstains must not pass judgment on the one who partakes and vice versa. Regarding alcohol, I understand Paul to say that the stronger brother may be able to exercise his faith in God by enjoying his freedom to partake of alcohol (obviously, without getting drunk). The weaker brother may believe that all consumption of alcohol is sinful. In this case, it would be a sin for the stronger brother to cause the weaker brother to stumble, by causing the weaker brother to partake in alcohol and therefore sin against his conscience.
I do not believe it is a sin for someone to drink alcohol (without getting drunk) in the presence of someone who thinks all consumption of alcohol is sinful because of their particular understanding of the biblical teaching on the issue. Paul, again, has already covered this. We are not to pass judgment on these issues because God will hold us accountable and judge us for our actions (see Romans 14:1-12). The issue of stumbling is not about differing interpretations of Scripture. Rather, the issue is about someone actually causing someone else to act contrary to his conscience and perform an action that they are convinced is a sin. These are two different things.
To spell it out – Bill is a Christian who partakes of alcohol without getting drunk. George is another Christian who thinks all consumption of alcohol is sinful. If Bill causes George to drink alcohol, Bill has caused George to stumble into sin because George has just acted contrary to his conscience. And therefore, Bill has also sinned, because he did not walk in love.
To spell out another possible situation: Bill is a Christian who partakes of alcohol without getting drunk. George is a Christian who thinks all consumption of alcohol is sinful. Bill and George find out about the other’s differing interpretation of Scripture. Bill and George, in brotherly love (hopefully) discuss their varying interpretations of Scripture for the purpose of better understanding Scripture. Bill remains unchanged in his understanding. George remains unchanged in his understanding. George never consumes alcohol, despite Bill stating that he believes it is not a sin to do so. Neither Bill nor George has sinned. However, as I understand Paul, if either of them judges the other one as sinning, they are breaking the command of Scripture: i.e. If Bill judges George for not enjoying a good gift of God (the wine) or if George judges Bill for partaking of something that, if used to excess would be sinful, then Bill and/or George would be guilty of sin.
Now, it is important to also stress that Paul calls us to live at peace with one another. So, for the believer who thinks it is ok to drink without getting drunk – he should not understand his freedom to include flaunting alcohol in the face of different minded Christians. That would be contrary to peace. But that does not mean that this issue should never be discussed. There are ways to discuss the relevant Scriptural passages without breaking the command for peace and love. In fact, Romans 14:14 suggests, by Paul’s example, that those with weak consciences should have their consciences better informed by Scripture. Also, the strong brothers need to have their consciences checked by Scripture.
The Christian Conscience
This leads us to a brief discussion of the Christian’s conscience. Your conscience is not your Lord. Jesus is Lord. Therefore, we should strive as best we can to inform our consciences according to biblical teaching. But assuming you are diligently pursuing this goal, your conscience should be respected. The Lord has designed you this way and warns against searing the conscience. Therefore, if upon Scriptural study and reflection, you come to the conclusion that the Bible does in fact teach that alcoholic consumption is sinful, you should not consume alcohol. If you did, you would be sinning against your conscience which is directed by your understanding of Scripture. Again, this does not mean that further discussion and study on the topic is not prudent and useful – but for the time being, your mind is convinced. Do not sin against your conscience.
The Need for Wisdom
The final issue to remember is that we are called to use wisdom, regardless of which side of the issue we are on. It requires wisdom to know how to apply the diverse teachings of Scripture on this subject particularly. It takes wisdom to know how your culture will approach the subject. In other words, alcohol is not an issue that is as cut and dried as other issues. This is not because the Bible does not mention the issue. Rather, it is because the Bible mentions alcohol in many different contexts. Some contexts refer to sin – the sin of drunkenness. Some contexts refer to worship and rejoicing – Psalm 104. Therefore, as with all such subjects in Scripture, we are called to meditate upon the word day and night and seek the mind of Christ and ask the Spirit of God to conform us to the image of Christ.
There are many more things that could be said. And whichever side of the issue you are on, there are faithful Christians who disagree with you. Therefore, we should pray for humility and wisdom so that we can walk with one another in love.
**Update** – July 15, 2010
One issue I failed to mention: if you are constrained by a church covenant that calls its members to abstain from all alcohol, then you should abstain from all alcohol. To ignore the church covenant that you have submitted to by being a member of that church would be sin. Also, you may have voluntarily associated with a group of people or organization that stipulates they will abstain from alcohol. If that is the case, you should abstain from alcohol as a member of that group. Or, you should break your association as a member of that group. Example: Southern Seminary stipulates that all of its students abstain from alcohol while they are students of the school. Even if a student believes it is not sinful to drink alcohol, they should not drink alcohol while they are a student at Southern. To do so would be to sin, because, by voluntarily associating with the school, you agree to submit to the stipulations of the school. To break those stipulations would be to break your own word. If a stipulation were deemed unscriptural or unreasonable, you should break the voluntary association before breaking the stipulation. So, in our example, if a student at Southern thought drinking alcohol were more important than keeping the voluntary association with Southern, they should withdraw from the school before they partake of alcohol. If that is your decision, your prudence and priorities might be questioned, but at least you would have kept your word.
 Lest anyone think that this is license to commit any and all manner of sins – beware. We are not to sin so that grace may abound, or so that God will be seen righteous in judging us, or any other excuse we could come up with to commit sins. Rather, Paul’s command for us to refrain from passing judgment is on matters of conscience where there may be a legitimate disagreement over what the Bible teaches about a given subject. No one, on biblical grounds, can disagree with the statement “drunkenness is a sin.” Many people, on biblical grounds could disagree with the statement “all consumption of alcohol is sinful.”