Since the temperance movement of the 19th century, many Christians have insisted that the Bible teaches total abstinence from alcoholic beverages. Some of those arguments are rather creative, all in an effort to keep the saints sober. Others argue for abstinence based on New Testament guidelines for holy living, believing that even though people drank alcohol in Bible times, no Christian today should drink. Regular Baptists have always embraced total abstinence, but offer different reasons for doing so. Jeff Straub advocates voluntary abstinence as an application of spiritual wisdom.
The subject of Christians and alcohol is a conversation that continues to draw heated debate. This problem is not new, nor is it one likely to be settled by one article. A casual search of the Internet reveals numerous discussions among Christians on the virtues and vices of alcohol. Many today permit drinking, and some even argue that prohibiting it is sinful. Seattle emerging church pastor Mark Driscoll, for instance, suggests that it is a sin to prohibit drinking. God made alcohol, he says in his book The Radical Reformission, and as long as one does not drink to excess, one is free to enjoy God's good gifts.
Does the Bible permit drinking in moderation?
I grew up in the home of an alcoholic. I worked as an emergency medical technician and dealt with the effects of drunkenness in shattered lives. I also pastored churches where some in the congregation abused alcohol and where others argued for liberty to drink. A question frequently uttered in one form or another goes something like this — "What's wrong with drinking in moderation since Jesus apparently did?"
My argument is this: The Bible neither prohibits nor permits drinking in moderation. It simply does not address the question as it is framed today. The question of the moderate use of alcohol is not a question any Old or New Testament person would have considered. For ancient Christians, virtually everyone consumed alcohol; it was nearly impossible to avoid. The emphasis of the Bible, therefore, was on warning the saints to exercise caution lest they fall prey to the pernicious effects of the overconsumption of alcohol.
Did people drink in Bible times?
First-century Israelites, including Christians, consumed alcohol in their beverages. It was a regular part of their daily lives, and no one, it seems, gave it a second thought.
In Jesus' day, there were limited hydration choices: water, animal milk, and the fruit of the vine. The water was often unsanitary, the milk hard to keep fresh, and the fruit of the vine impossible to preserve without the natural process of fermentation taking place. Fermentation changes the natural sugars (glucose and fructose) into ethanol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is released; the alcohol remains. This happens quickly in the absence of refrigeration, and the process starts immediately after the juice is extracted. Nonalcoholic grape juice is the legacy of Thomas Bramwell Welch (1825–1903), a dentist, who applied Louis Pasteur's pasteurization process to produce a grape juice suitable for communion. Welch considered it inconsistent for his Methodist church to support temperance while using alcoholic wine at the ordinance. His 1869 invention has become an international business — Welch's Grape Juice — as an alternative to wine for the Lord's Table.
In Biblical times, no such option existed. The process of fermentation was impossible to prevent. Moreover, it was discovered that the wine actually had helpful qualities. Alcohol apparently had some limited medicinal value in an age where antibiotics had not been discovered. It also would have killed bacteria in the water, though it is doubtful anyone would have known this for certain. In Biblical times, alcohol was often mixed with water, diluting the wine and making the water safer to drink.
Commentators suggest that Timothy was an abstainer, hence Paul's instruction to drink wine for the sake of his stomach. No reason is given why Timothy abstained, but wine was a common remedy for stomach problems in Biblical times. For evidence of this and more on this text, see Philip Towner, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Eerdmans 2006, 375). No one should argue that Paul would give the same instruction on the use of wine had he lived today. He lived in an era when microbes and antibiotics were simply unknown.
By itself, wine in Biblical times was dangerous — thus the numerous Biblical warnings against drunkenness. From the time of Noah, the first known vintner, the Bible cautioned of alcohol's power to loosen one's self-control and cause the person to do sinful things. Two of the earliest references to wine in the Old Testament (Noah, Genesis 9, and Lot and his daughters, Genesis 19) bear witness to this effect. It was this danger that made the warning passages in the Scriptures necessary. Why warn against drunkenness in the Testaments if the saints were expected simply to abstain? The answer is simple. Everyone consumed the fermented fruit of the vine — it could not be avoided. (According to Judges 13:7, Samson was consecrated to be a Nazirite from his mother's womb, and she could not drink wine. Nazirites were permitted to drink wine only after completing their Nazirite vows and returning to normal life, see Numbers 6:13–21.)
What is the connection between ancient times and today?
The real issue now is, Is there any real correlation between the use of alcohol in the culture of the Scripture and the use of alcohol in our day? May a Christian drink in moderation today if the Bible does not directly address this issue? This is a complex question of contemporary Christian behavior in that it is not very similar to the situation in Bible times.
Alcohol consumption today is a social activity, regularly associated with raucous living. This hardly fits the Biblical world where alcohol consumption was unavoidable. In the first century, alcohol was a safe option for hydration, provided it was used carefully. In our current American culture, we have many alternatives, from bottled water to bottled beverages in numerous flavors. Drinking alcohol simply isn't necessary for hydration and is entirely avoidable. Instead, contemporary arguments for drinking revolve around Christian liberty. Christians have liberty to drink, they say, because the Bible does not forbid it.
How would I respond to this? I would counter in the same way I would answer a person attempting to make a Biblical argument for polygamy or slavery. The Bible never expressly forbids either practice, though clearly Christians are right today to reject them both. In answer to the question "May Christians drink?" I would answer, "Why should they?" What benefit does alcohol offer today? Why does anyone need to consume alcohol? Frankly, there are good Biblical reasons for abstaining from alcohol today.
Many Christians wish to drink and will defend their right to drink. To be sure, everyone has the right before God to judge what the Scriptures say about a given practice, and often Christians will disagree. We all have our opinions, whether carefully reasoned or not. So let me set forth my reasons for choosing abstinence.
Why I choose abstinence — my experience
First, I was raised in a home where alcohol was freely used — at times in moderation, but most of the time in excess. Often there was a blurring of where exactly moderation ended and excess started. How many drinks could one take before it became excessive? I determined before I entered my Christian college that I would not drink. Drinking had a disruptive effect on my family — divorce, abuse, and conflict. I resolved not to drink before I started regularly attending church and before I entered the ministry.
Second, since high school I have attended a series of teetotaling churches. This was not a personal choice on my part, looking for churches that held to my narrow view of alcohol. It was the main view of Baptist (Southern) evangelicalism in the 1970s. For what it's worth, much of the new evangelicalism in its early days apparently held to this view. H. J. Ockenga, for instance, preached against drinking. Many Baptist churches have adopted the standard church covenant in which members pledge to refrain from the sale and use of alcoholic beverages. That covenant was written by J. Newton Brown around the time that the New Hampshire Confession (1833) was written. Teetotalism wasn't a fundamentalist issue. It was a larger evangelical Christian issue, though I know that some Presbyterians have differed here. The history of the temperance movement would take another long article to explore. The truth is, many Christians have chosen not to drink.
Third, I worked for several years as an emergency medical technician and regularly saw the devastating effects of alcohol in people's lives: personal injuries sustained while under the influence, battered wives and bruised children, burned-out homes where an intoxicated person died after accidentally starting a fire. I worked on an Indian reservation for four years and dealt regularly with a culture in the grip of alcohol addiction. It is a pernicious evil and one that is easily and often abused.
Fourth, I pastored in a culture and a country where alcohol was a regular part of life, even among professing believers. Though our church in Canada used the standard church covenant (one of my predecessors introduced it), many churches either dropped or emended that part of the old covenant. As a covenanted church, we asked for voluntary compliance in alcohol abstinence. We never made the case that it is absolutely and completely unbiblical for all people everywhere in every case to use alcohol in any form. We simply agreed as a church that we would not use alcoholic beverages as a beverage. People left our church so they could drink. They did not leave because I mishandled the Word or because they were not getting fed or because I was haranguing alcohol. I seldom mentioned it. They left because they did not like the covenant. To me, this was very sad. To make a church choice solely (or so it seemed) on the basis of alcohol consumption seemed immature.
Why I choose abstinence — Biblical principles
Having set forth my experiences, let me offer other rationale for voluntary abstinence. There are good reasons not to drink, and I have chosen a life of abstinence. To be clear, abuse is not the consequence of all who drink alcohol; I am not implying that. But it often happens — sadly, too often. I have a pastor friend whose brother, a Christian and former member of his church, destroyed his family with alcohol. He either would not or could not give up this practice. So why then do I practice total abstinence? Why would I choose this even if a doctor prescribed use of an alcoholic beverage for health reasons?
First, I believe that my testimony is better served in our world by abstaining. My extended family drinks and often to excess, and while Christians would encourage my liberty to consume the occasional drink, I have found that abstinence gives me a better witness to my unbelieving family. My family members all knew the role that alcohol in its various forms played in our home, and as I am trying to make my Christianity clear, I simply abstain. By the way, my family has never challenged my decision or encouraged me to drink. They respect my decision. Moreover, I have had a long-standing policy — drink alcohol in my presence if you'd like; just don't ask me to pay for it. I never pay for someone else to drink . . . including my mother when she was alive and I took her out to a restaurant. She drank, but she always paid for her drinks and never complained. Being a Christian and choosing not to drink has earned me the respect of my unsaved family members.
Second, 1 Corinthians 8 offers a good principle for abstaining. If I understand Paul's argument, he might have had liberty to eat meat, but chose rather to avoid certain meat for the sake of his larger testimony. In the three churches I pastored, some members had major issues with alcohol, several before conversion and others after it. I tried to create a place for them where they were free from the influences of alcohol. I have always been troubled by believers who seem to think their right to drink supersedes consideration of others. "It's my right, and no one can tell me otherwise!" This seems self-centered and sinful. Many other Christians who drink do so to flaunt their liberty. I think this is sad. My liberty should never be the cause for another to stumble, nor should it be an opportunity for self-aggrandizement.
Third, I have never read a convincing argument that drinking will add anything positive or virtuous to my life. Texts like 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Philippians 4:8 and 9 indicate that God should be glorified by what I do, and I have never been convinced that alcohol has any such positive effect, despite appeals to certain Old Testament texts that are often used out of context (especially their cultural context) and sometimes abused. I also think that 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23 speak to this issue — things may be "lawful" but still wrong for the believer to practice. So I choose to abstain.
My abstinence is not a point of fellowship or controversy. I don't make alcohol an issue in the presence of other Christians, including some who choose to drink. I simply avoid alcohol. I also encouraged my church to abstain for these reasons, and discussed the issue in occasional sermons. We used the standard church covenant that pledged abstinence. I never felt the need to change it because it was a voluntary document to which all who chose to join voluntarily subscribed. Other churches adopted no such document, and believers were free to join those churches. Our church practiced abstinence as a matter of corporate testimony, and, in this, we had freedom to do so.
In short, alcohol consumption is a wisdom issue. The issue for me has never been "may I drink?" but rather "should I drink?" These are two very different questions. I have chosen to build my practice on the latter and have taught others to do the same. Some, no doubt, will charge me with legalism for saying too much, while others will charge me as a libertine for not speaking out strongly enough. All that really matters is the favor of the Lord. I have chosen my practice out of allegiance to Him Who died for me. If I have liberty to drink, it is a liberty I gladly yield. The potential danger for consuming alcohol is to consume too much. With abstinence, there is no such danger. I know of no command in the Bible to consume alcohol. But many commands suggest caution, and others suggest looking out for others. "Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble" (1 Corinthians 8:13).
Why I choose abstinence — practical reasons
Let me conclude this conversation on drinking by considering what the world has to say about the use of alcohol.
There is no precise definition of "drinking in moderation." Factors such as age, weight, race, gender, rate of consumption, and medical condition all must be considered. The world generally calls moderate drinking no more than one drink per day for women and two for men, but the size of the drink depends on what kind of alcohol is being consumed. I recently had dinner at a restaurant with friends. The table next to us had wine, and I noticed that each person had at least two glasses. This is not considered moderation, at least for the women involved. But remember, other factors may affect what moderation is.
Application for the Christian: There is no safe way to determine when a person's moderation becomes excess. Even if I drink only 10 ounces of wine (two drinks, considered moderation for men), other factors may make that amount too much.
It is not safe to drink and drive — after any amount of alcohol. Alcohol slows reaction time and impairs judgment and coordination. The blood alcohol level considered impaired across the United States is .08 percent or higher. There is no way to measure intoxication short of a Breathalyzer. How would anyone know he or she is impaired? Only when it is too late.
Application for the Christian: Why would I do anything that would potentially result in tragedy, ruining my life and the lives of others?
Alcohol affects every organ in the body. When someone drinks alcohol, it quickly absorbs from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. Enzymes in the liver metabolize the alcohol, but only in small amounts at a time. This leaves the rest of the alcohol to circulate through the entire body. Thus, the amount of alcohol influences the intensity of its effect on the body.
Application for the Christian: Alcohol in any amount may be harmful and will affect my body.
Some people should never drink: children and adolescents; individuals who cannot limit their drinking to low levels; women who are pregnant or may become pregnant; individuals who plan to drive, operate machinery, or take part in other activities that require attention, skill, or coordination; individuals taking prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol; individuals with certain medical conditions.
Application for the Christian: If I fit into any of these categories, I may not drink, nor should I.
Two final thoughts seem appropriate.
First, the problem of excessive alcohol consumption on the college campus is growing. Binge drinking is at record levels. Granting that Christians who support the limited use of alcohol would never sanction such behavior, I fail to see how a "drinking in moderation" position can possibly be applied, since no one really knows what "moderation" is for a particular person and the dangers of alcohol addiction are great. Why run the risk? Why participate in the kind of behavior so hard to control?
Second, the alcohol industry is dedicated not to moderation, but to consumption. Beverage companies make money when people drink, not when they abstain. Why would I want to support such an unbiblical business when even the world thinks that moderation is practically unattainable? So I end this discussion with this conclusion: I choose not to drink. For me it is a wisdom issue. I see no good reason to drink and lots of reasons why drinking is a poor choice for Christians.
I have adult children who have to decide this issue for themselves. Lots of professing Christians tout liberty and choose to drink. Recently a friend of my daughter discovered she was pregnant. She had previously opted for a "moderate" drinking position. But she will not drink while she is pregnant because of its potential to harm the baby. I found the apparent contradiction interesting. It is okay to drink but not when you are pregnant? It's okay to poison yourself a little because you can handle it, but you don't want to poison your baby? If we choose to avoid it today for the sake of our unborn, why is choosing to forsake for the benefit of our testimony considered legalistic?
Finally, who would be offended that I do not drink? Some argue that in many places you would offend your host if you do not drink. Well, I don't drink coffee either. I have managed for 30 years to say "no, thank you" when offered a cup, and I don't think anyone has ever been offended! Why should they? I don't drink coffee, and I don't drink alcohol — for different reasons to be sure — but why should I be forced to drink either? The worry of offending someone who offers me alcohol cannot be a real consideration for whether I drink. There may be many cultural practices that I must decline to preserve my testimony.
I chose a path of safety. I chose not to drink. I do not need to do so for hydration (as was the case in the first century); it serves no meaningful purpose in my life today; and I believe that consuming alcohol would hinder my testimony.
[From the Baptist Bulletin, July 9, 2010; on-line edition. Jeff Straub, PhD, is a professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, MN. Used with permission of the author. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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