Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Christians and Alcoholic Beverages

I hope you will take a few minutes to read the letter below. It was written by Rev. Bill Smith, then pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Sulphur, La. Bill wrote the letter to his good friend and fellow Baptist minister, who was also his former roommate at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis.

Bill wrote the letter because his friend called Bill very concerned because he found out that Bill’s understanding about Christians and the consumption of alcoholic beverages had changed (Bill no longer believed it was a sin to drink a beer or glass of wine). The conversation did not go well, and Bill sat down, after they hung up, to explain from Scripture why his position had changed from a belief in total abstinence to one of moderation. I hope you find this interesting.

In Christ,
Dear R---,

I haven't heard from you since that last e-mail, and I didn't know if it was just because you were busy or because I am anathema now because of my position on alcohol and tobacco. One of the reasons I am writing this e-mail is because I talked with J.'s uncle Al last night. He called me asking me about this. We had an interesting discussion.

I guess a lot of water has passed under the bridge since we have discussed anything, and I did kind of shock everyone. I probably shouldn't have said anything, but it is nothing about which I am ashamed. This e-mail will provide some explanation as to why I came to this position. I hope that this will be passed along to J. and ultimately Al also. Al and I are supposed to talk again sometime.

I have learned that, in fact, it was the Unitarians who actually began the temperance movement in the 1800's. The "conservative Christians" fell in with them because of their distorted view of God's creation, holding an ancient gnostic dualistic view of physical and spiritual; i.e., matter is inherently evil and the spiritual is good. This poses all sorts of problems with biblical Christianity (of which I am a strong adherent).

This brings me to the biblical argument which changed my thinking. Remember, the Bible, God's inerrant revelation of Himself to us, is our only rule of faith and practice. Emotional arguments, arguments from personal experience and cultural practice cannot dictate what we believe and do. Only God's Word should govern our thinking.

The first area with which I would like to deal is our common ground. The Bible is very clear about drunkenness. Drunkenness is a sin which is deplorable in the sight of God. From the Old Testament through the New Testament God has made this very clear.

Prov. 23:21 For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.

Is. 28:1 Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower, which are on the head of the fat valleys of them that are overcome with wine!

Luke 21:34 And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares.

Rom. 13:13 Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.

Eph. 5:18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.

In fact, drunkenness is a picture and a sign of God's judgment:

Is. 19:14 The LORD hath mingled a perverse spirit in the midst thereof: and they have caused Egypt to err in every work thereof, as a drunken man staggereth in his vomit.

Is. 24:20 The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again.

Is. 29:9 Stay yourselves, and wonder; cry ye out, and cry: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. Et. al.

The Bible clearly states that the drunkard (i.e., those whose lifestyle is characterized by drunkenness) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1Cor 6:9-10) because this is a work of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21). I detest drunkenness, and, in fact, have begun church discipline (that might be a new one for you too) on people who have been publicly drunk. Many people do not see how this position is consistent with what I am about to say, but the Bible is perfectly consistent about the issue. The Bible's teaching on alcohol as a beverage is quite clear.

The first word in the Old Testament that is translated wine is the Hebrew word yayin. Some have tried to argue that this word as well as others does not refer to a drink that has the ability to intoxicate in order to maintain the position that abstinence is the only way to think about alcohol, but their arguments are in vain according to the use of the word in the OT. The word is used 141 times in the OT.

This is the fruit of the vine by which Noah became drunk (Gen 9:21, 24), Lot's daughters led their father to drunkenness by yayin (Gen 19:32-35), Eli thought Hannah was drunk with yayin (1Sam 1:14-15), and Nabal was also drunk with yayin (1Sam. 25:37). Many more examples could be cited, but I think this is sufficient.

The interesting thing about yayin, wine, is that it is also seen as a blessing from God (Gen. 49:12 "His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk;" this is in the pronouncement of blessing from God on the tribe of Judah from which our Lord would descend).

In fact, God required yayin to be a part of offerings offered to Him in the OT ceremonies (Ex. 29:40 And with the one lamb a tenth deal of flour mingled with the fourth part of an hin of beaten oil; and the fourth part of an hin of wine [yayin] for a drink offering; cf also Lev. 23:13; Num. 6:20; Num. 15:5, 7, 10; Num. 28:14).

One of the tithes required by the Lord involved the people tithing of all of their produce each year. They were to take this tithe to the tabernacle. But if the stuff they were to take would spoil on the journey, this was God's command:

Deut. 14:26 "And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine [yayin], or for strong drink [shachar], or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household."

God is commanding them to go out and buy these potentially intoxicating beverages so that they and their households may partake and rejoice before the Lord for His goodness! Now, is God promoting sin? Does not God know that this stuff is potentially intoxicating? Is God the author of sin? God forbid!!! The fact is alcohol is seen as a good gift from God to be enjoyed in His presence and for His glory. He is strictly against the abuse of this good gift and all of His other good gifts. But He is NOT against the proper use of His good gifts.

A sign of God's cursing upon His people would be that they would have vineyards but would not be able to drink the yayin from them

(Deut. 28:39 Thou shalt plant vineyards, and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them. Cf also Is. 16:10.)

But the blessing of the Lord would be just the opposite:

Amos 9:14 "And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them."

God says, in His Word,

Psa. 104:15 "And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart."

The facts are that God prohibits drunkenness, but He encourages the proper view and use of His good gift of alcohol. There is much more that could be said from the OT, but I will move on to the NT for the sake of boring you with all the facts.

The NT is also replete with examples about the use of wine. The Greek word is oinos. Another phrase that is used is tou genematos tes ampelou, the fruit of the vine. The cup Jesus used in the Last Supper was a common term used for the cup of blessing which was understood to be wine. But let's deal with the biblical uses of oinos and oinos neos (new wine).

Jesus compares the kingdom of God as revealed in Himself as new wine (oinos neos). He says that you don't put new wine in old wineskins because the fermentation would burst the already stretched out wineskins. If this stuff were so deplorable, why would our Lord use it for an example of the kingdom of God? Wasn't He as smart as our culture today?

Real liberal theologians say that Christ just kind of mixed in with the times, controlled by the prevailing culture of the day. As a conservative Bible student, I can't hold to this view. Christ was controlled only by the law of God which He came to fulfill. Christ even goes so far as to say that aged wine is much better than new wine (Luke 5:37-39)! And then there is that incident where Christ actually turned water to wine in John 2, His first miracle. Some have tried to say that this word here means "grape juice," but they cannot prove that from the prevailing use of the word oinos. The same word is used throughout this passage to speak about wine.

This wine was potentially intoxicating. Didn't Christ know that there were potential alcoholics there? Did He not know that wine was used in pagan temples? Did He not know that there were problems with drunkenness in His culture (for there was)? Yet He made six waterpots of approximately 40 gallons each of good wine. Gee, that is about 240 gallons of wine! The arguments simply do not stand up to the Word of God.

God does not promote abstinence. He promotes the proper use of His good gifts. In order to say otherwise one would have to deny the example of our Lord, who knowing that people would be following His example in keeping God's law, would have abstained completely if that had been the law of God for us to follow. The people that Jesus really perturbed during His day were the Pharisees. You see, the Pharisees added all of these laws and traditions to the law of God, making void the commandments of God by their man made commandments (Matt 15).

The Pharisees, like the many Christians today, believed that external things such as not washing hands ritualistically before eating defiled a person. Jesus response to the Pharisees was:

Matt. 15:11 "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man."

The principle here is that external things of God's creation are not in and of themselves evil. Evil is within the heart of man, not in the things which he puts in his mouth (which would include alcohol!). But just like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, many professing believers want to judge their spirituality by external things; e.g., "I don't do this," "I go to church," "I don't drink alcohol," "I don't use tobacco," "I don't dance," etc. These are all things that make us feel spiritual, but they are not God's standards of spirituality. God's standard of spirituality goes to the heart; i.e., that which comes out of man. Because while one may have "external" righteousness and look real "spiritual" before the world, his heart is corrupt. Paul warns us that spirituality would be judged by these things, and he warns believers against this heresy.

Col. 2:16-17, 20-23 "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ . . . Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh."

He also says in another place:

1Tim. 4:1-5 "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer."

Though wine is not specifically mentioned, the principle is there. All of God's creation is good and can be used for good and enjoyment when left in its proper context. Those who say otherwise are, according to Paul, promoting "doctrines of demons." One thing that I hope you can see is that my position is clearly the biblical position on the matter.

I have not appealed to you on some emotional or some experiential argument. Some will say that nothing good comes from the use of alcohol (or tobacco, etc; insert your favorite external sin). "My father was a drunkard, and I hate the stuff." These people believe that all of those who promote the use of alcohol in moderation have never had bad experiences in their lives with it. Not true !

My biological father was a drunkard. I have seen the devastating effects of the abuse of alcohol. But my thinking is held captive by the Word of God and not my experience. God's Word dictates what I believe and do, not emotions or experience. My opinions and personal scruples are not the dictates of God. I cannot judge someone liberal or conservative based upon my personal opinions.

There are some objections that have been raise with which I had to deal and have dealt with Scripturally. First, there is the issue of the potential alcoholic (or tobacco abuser; again, insert your favorite external standard of righteousness). The first thing to say about being a drunkard is that this is not a disease, as if it could be cured medically. Drunkenness is a moral problem ground in a lack of self-control. For the Christian, the Spirit supplies this needed attribute to our lives (cf. Gal 5:22-23). Addictions are modern euphemisms for a lack of self control so people can blame their evil on something that "they cannot help." This is simply not true.

Those who are in the Spirit do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Gal 5). You know, people focus in on this alcohol issue as the big abuse. But God condemns abuse of food, sex, etc. Every time I take food to my mouth I am a potential glutton. Every time I have sexual relations with my wife I am a potential adulterer (another thing my biological father was). The logic is absurd when taken to its conclusion. Just as with sex and food, left in proper context, the use (not abuse) of all of God's gifts is good and enjoyable. Taken out of proper use and context they are deplorable and immoral.

The second objection is that the Nazarites vow included the abstinence from alcohol. Actually, though, their abstinence was much more inclusive. It involved abstinence from ALL fruits of the vine including grapes, raisins and the skin of grapes (cf. Numbers 6). After the time of his vow was complete and he went through the proper ceremonies, the Nazarite was free from his vow, and God specifically says "He may drink wine" (Numbers 6:20). If God thought it was the best thing for people to do, why didn't He require this of all people? Why didn't He, at least, keep the Nazarites from drinking wine for the rest of their lives?

Let me say at this point, those who wish to abstain from alcohol are welcomed to do so. BUT they are to realize that its not because God commanded them to do so, only by personal conviction (which is a sign of a weak believer). Paul deals extensively with these issues in 1Cor 8--10 and Rom 14. In Romans 14 Paul deals specifically with the eating of meat and drinking of wine. He categorize those who can do these things as "strong" and those who cannot as "weak." This deals with a trained or untrained conscience on these matters.

The point I want to make here is that neither the strong nor the weak can judge the other based upon his own personal convictions that do not deal specifically with God's Word. We do judge things such as immorality (which takes on many forms, 1Cor 5), but on these issues one brother does not have the right to judge another brother. That would include categorizing another as "liberal" or "conservative" based on these non-essential issues!

This brings me to the objection of the use of alcohol being a bad witness. The appeal might again be made to Romans 14 where someone would say, "You are to act in love and not put a stumbling block before your brothers." This is absolutely true. But you must understand what a stumbling block is. This is not merely perturbing another believer. This is a serious offense. This is aiding--or even causing--a brother to sin against his conscience. It would be like inviting you to a party not telling you that there was alcohol in the punch and then telling you after you drank it. You would have sinned against your conscience. That would be wrong. But you feeling uncomfortable around me because I do it, is not included here.

As I said earlier, the Pharisees were constantly perturbed with Jesus because He did things as a "Rabbi" with which they did not agree. This did not stop him from doing these things. He was about the business of correcting their thinking, and bringing every thought captive to the law of God.

To say that it is a bad witness before the world is also erroneous. We have led this world to believe through unbiblical views on alcohol that Christianity is a "touch not, taste not" religion based on external morality. The truth of the matter is that it is a sin to preach or teach anything to be a sin that God does not declare to be a sin. That is adding to the Word of God. This is precisely what the lost Pharisees did, and Jesus condemned them for it.

A good witness would be to help people understand that all of God's creation is good and can only be enjoyed if used within proper context and for His glory. I could keep going on about this, but I hope you can see that I have done my homework. My views come straight from the Bible. Now, if anyone is like I used to be-- "I don't care what the Bible actually says, I know what I believe in my heart"--that person will not be convinced of anything. As long as people let emotions, experience, culture, man-made commandments and external righteousness govern their thinking, they will never be transformed by the renewing of their minds.

Quite frankly I am sick and tired of people trying to impose upon God something that He has not said. Our job is to preach, teach, learn and submit to the Word of God for what it says NOT what we want it to say or think it ought to say. We are not wiser than God on these issues. We are not more righteous than God.

My prayer is (if you have made it all the way through this) that you will not simply pass this off in an unthinking manner. Deal with it. Take an honest look at the Word of God as I had to do and continue to do. I am not the same person I used to be because I am constantly being transformed by the renewing of my mind which comes by the Word of God. I am being sanctified by truth. God's Word is truth (John 17:17).

I refuse to be controlled by man's commandments and traditions. When all is said and done, I am not the one who could be classified as a liberal here. It is my understanding that conservatives believe the Bible, liberals do not. I believe what I have shown you is that I do believe and practice the Bible. I welcome any comments, criticisms or admonitions, but I only take them from God's Word. If I can be proven by sound reason and the Word of God to be wrong, I will change. But if sound reason and God's Word cannot be used to change my thinking, I can do no other. My conscience is bound by the Word of God.

Here I stand!

Passionate for God's truth,


P.S. If you have any questions about what I believe, please call me. I have been misunderstood and misinterpreted enough. I am not a beast who will attack. I will gladly talk in a congenial way.


If you would like to know more on this subject I can highly recommend God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says About Alcohol by Rev. Kenneth Gentry. It might interest you to know that Dr. Gentry is a teetotaller and doesn’t drink Alcohol himself.

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