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Alcohol: the Case for Moderation

 

    A few years ago I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, preparing to partake in the Lord's Supper with a number of believers in a small house fellowship. One of the brothers pulled out a bottle of wine for the occasion, remarking upon its quality--his wife's favorite--and how appropriate it was for the occasion. Sergei Timokin, a leader in the Russian church who was also present that day, noticed my discomfort and commented, "You don't drink, do you?"

    No, I didn't, I replied, but I would not let that get in the way of the Communion we were about to enjoy. I've been on enough foreign fields, and seen enough missions boards divided over this sort of subject, to know that when you're in Rome you do as the Roman Christians do, regardless of your personal convictions on so-called borderline issues in the church.

    Brother Timokin went on to observe, tongue in cheek, how the American Christians got upset with Russians for drinking, while the Russians got offended at the Scandinavian believers for enjoying a relaxing smoke on occasion, and the Australian Christian community is made to stumble at the zeal with which many American brethren go hunting. We all have our little hang-ups, none of them truly scriptural, but nevertheless, very important to us.

    Those little policies are in a constant state of flux. Look at Christian worship music today, for example. All that instrumentation and syncopation was heartily frowned upon and declared to be "of the devil" just two and a half decades ago by most of the evangelical church in our land. Now it is regarded as appropriate to bring before the Lord in the holy place. It could be that the alcohol debate is inexorably going the same way as syncopated music. Our American ban on drinking is slowly being recognized for what it is: not a scriptural command, but merely a cultural value of a past era that is being stubbornly, vigorously kept alive by the Christian community--a sacred cow.

 

Wine, a Blessing from the Lord

    The saints of biblical times knew no such ban on the consumption of alcoholic beverages. They were considered a part of everyday life, one of the blessings of an abundant harvest from the Lord. Priests, prophets, kings, princes and citizens indulged without guilt. A meal without wine was a bit of a hardship, something you would do only if fasting, or fulfilling a special Nazirite vow. Just look at a few of the many scripture references along these lines...

Gen 14:18/ Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High.

Gen 27:25/...So he [Jacob] brought it near to him [Isaac], and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank.

Gen 27:28/ Therefore may God give you of the dew of heaven, of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine.

1 Sam 16:20/ And Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a young goat, and sent them by his son David to Saul.

1 Sam 25:18/ Then Abigail made haste and took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep already dressed, five seahs of roasted grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and loaded them on donkeys.

Ps 104:14-15 / He [the Lord] 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.

Prov 3:9-10/ 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.

Jer 31:11-12/ For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and ransomed him from the hand of one stronger than he. Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, streaming to the goodness of the LORD-- for wheat and new wine and oil, for the young of the flock and the herd; their souls shall be like a well-watered garden, and they shall sorrow no more at all.

    Wine was an integral part of the tabernacle worship of the Old Testament. It was included in the offerings used to dedicate the altar, and the tithe that the people ate and drank in the presence of the Lord; the wine offerings were the possession of Aaron and his sons, to be consumed in a "most holy place;" it was even brought in the form of firstfruits offerings and drink offerings to the Lord Himself. No wonder the Bible says that "new wine...cheers both God and men." (I won't quote all the other references here, but you might get your Bible out and check just a few: Exod 29:37-40, Lev 23:10-13, Num 28:14, Num 18:8-12, Deut 18:3-4.)

    If the Israelites served the Lord obediently, they were to be blessed with an abundant harvest of wine, among other things...

Deut 11:13-14/ And it shall be that if you earnestly obey My commandments which I command you today, to love the LORD your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil.

    This promise is repeated several times in the pages of the Bible, and is also one of the blessings of the nation when they return from the Babylonian exile. (see Deut 7:11-13, 33:27-28, Prov 3:9-10, Joel 2:19,24, Amos 9:13-14)

 

A Merry Heart

Ps 104:14-15/ 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.

1 Chr 12:40/ Moreover those who were near to them, from as far away as Issachar and Zebulun and Naphtali, were bringing food on donkeys and camels, on mules and oxen-- provisions of flour and cakes of figs and cakes of raisins, wine and oil and oxen and sheep abundantly, for there was joy in Israel.

Eccl 9:7/ Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works.

    Not only did the people of Israel drink wine with their meals, but they were actually encouraged to drink enough to experience a "merry heart," to be "glad," to have "joy." Somewhere along the way, conservative Christians have embraced a real sourpouss attitude towards life. It's reminiscent of a tune I learned on the fiddle when I first began to play--it was called the "Devil's Dream" because it was happy and steppy, according to my old teacher... "Christians don't go in for that sort of thing, you know."

    God isn't mad, folks. He didn't get up on the wrong side of the bed. And today, while most of us may intellectually go along with the concept of the joy of the Lord, we still have the carry-over of the staid Christianity of the Victorian era in our hearts. Back in the 1800s, serious believers were to put a minimum amount of spices in their foods, and stay away from meats and other rich foods, as well as alcoholic beverages--these were all thought to be signs of immoderate living, that might actually heighten sexual and other base desires. Modern Christians probably don't think that tasty foods and sex are bad in and of themselves, but many still cling to the same feelings about alcohol.

    God is a joyful God who rejoices over His children with joy, and with singing and glad shouting (and that's Him doing the singing and shouting, too--see Zeph 3:17). When Israel read the Law and decided to turn to the Lord after the Babylonian exile, their first response was tears and weeping, but the leaders of the people told them...

Neh 8:10/ Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our LORD. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

This was to be a celebration; serving God is supposed to be fun, fulfilling--or, as Jesus put it, "life more abundant." Notice the presence of wine ("drink the sweet") again in this celebration.

 

Wine, a Two-edged Sword

    Certainly, God's people aren't supposed to get rip-roaring drunk. The Bible contains many warnings about the dangers of alcohol; drunkenness clouds your judgment, makes you lazy and unproductive, and can be a source of ruin in numerous ways. Priests aren't to drink while performing the duties of their office, and kings should also beware of the tendency of wine to pervert justice (Lev 10:9, Pro 31:4-5).

    Alcoholic beverages, like many other items in this world, can be powerfully effective for good or evil. Fire can save you from the cold of winter... or burn your house down, if you're not careful. A rifle can put meat on the table and protect one from enemies... it may also be turned upon someone in anger, or accidentally go off and kill it's owner. Sex is one of the finest expressions of true love and intimacy... but the misuse of it can break a heart, ruin a marriage and cause untold hurt to many innocent victims. Even so, wine and other intoxicating beverages can bring healing or hurt--it depends upon how they are used.

 

Jesus Himself Drank Wine

    Perhaps the most powerful argument for the moderate use of alcoholic beverages is the example set by the Master Himself. Buy his own admission, in contrast to the austere demeanor of John, He came eating and drinking wine...

Matt 11:19/ "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' But wisdom is justified by her children."

Luke 5:30/ And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, "Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"

    He made no bones about it. He had taken no Nazirite vow; He was the Son of Man in every sense of the word. Just like any other Israelite of the day, He ate the same food, drank the same wine, went to the same places--and often to those places that good holy men like the Pharisees didn't go! He was trying to reach people, so He lived among them and did as they did, except He was without sin.

    Jesus probably drank wine almost every day. It was served with meals, and He wouldn't have risked offending those who served Him by refusing their hospitality. That's why the Pharisees accused him of being a drunkard--they exaggerated, of course, but He never argued the basic fact that He did consume wine.

    At the wedding in Cana, Jesus even made some wine. How could the Master have performed a miracle that turned good wholesome water into that age-old tool of the devil, wine?!  I've heard others say just such things, but apparently the Lord Himself didn't consider wine so demonic. His concern (and His mother's) was more for the possible embarrassment of His hosts...

John 2:9-10/ When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, "Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!"

 

Real Wine or Grape Juice?

    The passage just above, from John chapter two, begs me to address the subject of whether or not all the wine in the Bible was truly alcoholic, or whether it's possible that "new wine" or "sweet wine" was merely grape juice. In the first place, both of these varieties of wine are said to make people drunk, so making an issue of the alcoholic content of various types falls a bit short of convincing...

Isa 49:26/ ... they shall be drunk with their own blood as with sweet wine. All flesh shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob."

Acts 2:13/ Others mocking said, "They are full of new wine." [in reference to the disciples unusual behavior on the day of Pentecost]

    There is really no reason, other than faithfulness to our "sacred cow" of prohibition, to suggest that the wine of the Bible was somehow non-alcoholic. No less of an authority than the New Unger's Bible Dictionary declares...

    The Hebrew yayin corresponds to the Greek oinos, and our wine. In most of the passages in the Bible where yayin is used (83 out of 138), it certainly means fermented grape juice; and in the remainder it may fairly be presumed to do so. The intoxicating character of yayin in general is plain from Scripture. To it are attributed the dull eyes... [etc. etc.]

...Some, indeed, have argued from these passages that yayin could not always have been alcoholic. But this is begging the question and that in defiance of the facts.

    This doctrine of grape juice/wine is not based on any scholarly approach to the Bible or the customs of the time, but rather on a stubborn cultural prejudice against alcoholic beverages in the American evangelical church.

 

Wine and Your Health

1 Tim 5:23/ No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach's sake and your frequent infirmities.

    The Apostle Paul apparently had insight on the medicinal qualities of alcohol that our modern doctors are just now starting to document. If Timothy was having stomach problems, wine was a good prescription: both red and white wine effectively wipe out bacteria responsible for food poisoning. There is now a worldwide consensus that the moderate consumption of wine or alcohol reduces the risk of heart disease, to the tune of anywhere from 20% to 50% (studies vary). Heavy drinkers and nondrinkers both fare much worse. Another recent study found that wine drinkers had a decreased waist-to-hip ratio, implying that wine drinkers may enjoy a leaner midsection and a lower risk for death. Furthermore, a Harvard research team recently reported that wine, among a field of 21 beverages, was most strongly associated with a decreased risk for the formation of painful kidney stones.

    It seems to me that perhaps God actually intended for us to discover the fermentation process, and to enjoy the health benefits.

 

 What About Causing People to Stumble?

    One of the more legitimate complaints, scripturally speaking, regarding the use of alcoholic beverages centers around causing your brother or sister in Christ to stumble. Look at what Paul to the Romans about this and other controversial subjects in the church...

Rom 14:20-22/ Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.

    The argument here is that if some brother or sister with a more sensitive conscience is offended by your having a glass of wine, then for their sake, if nothing else, you should refrain from it. Paul points out in this passage, and in a similar one in First Corinthians, that no food or drink is unclean or defiling in itself; it is people and their attitudes that make them potentially dangerous.

    For example, someone may be so upset by you having a beer, that he or she would leave the church you attend, and possibly fall away from the Lord. Actually, we need to base our faith on the truths of God's Word, not on the behavior of other people, but the apostle urges us to operate in a spirit of Christian love, and cut that weak brother or sister a little slack. Perhaps a newly converted brother has just overcome a lifelong addiction to alcohol, and when he sees you having a drink, he feels free to have one, as well, and it leads to his ruin. This is what Paul meant by causing your brother to stumble.

    On the other hand, in recent years I've noticed that many unbelievers or nominal Christians look at me in dumfounded amazement when I inform them I don't drink as a matter of religious conviction. When, in a recent sermon, I suggested that I would be interrogated, and possibly lose my credentials, if I were to be seen having a drink, one of the young men in our church was incredulous--he wondered what kind of cult he had become associated with!

    Likewise, while visiting Ireland recently, my wife and I had to repeatedly turn down the offer of a beer or glass of wine--by other charismatic believers. One pastor told us of a great distillery that we simply must visit while sight-seeing along the Antrim coast--they give out free whiskey, and not in miserly proportions either! I felt like a Pharisee, so bound up by my own customs and conscience that I could not appreciate the hospitality of fellow believers. I wonder sometimes if we haven't offended more people by not partaking than we might have by just relaxing and having a drink!

    The solution, according to Paul, is to have your faith to yourself (see verse above). In other words, don't flaunt your liberty before somebody who may be offended, but be discreet. Have a glass of wine in the privacy of your own home, but don't make an issue of it with somebody who has different convictions.

 

Does It Have to be All or Nothing?

    Americans are extremists; moderation is not one of our corporate qualities. Many of us grew up in homes where drinking meant getting drunk; nobody stopped at just one or two. Social drinking or the concept of a glass of wine or two at a meal was totally unknown. We associate drinking with drunkenness, broken families, driving under the influence, and the premature deaths of teenagers. So the church took a stance against it. It's now time to get over the knee-jerk reactions and start to intelligently assess the issue of alcohol consumption.  Moderation is a biblical value, even a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). Let's take another look at this subject, a look that is based on what the Bible says, not the negative experiences of other people. 

"Behold, the days are coming," says the LORD, "When the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them.

Amos 9:13-14

 

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Copyright 2000 Kim Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved.

 

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