Christians and Alcohol

(Should a Christian drink alcohol?)

QUESTION: Is it right for a Christian [in our day] to drink alcohol socially?

ANSWER: Good question. And I suspect that no matter how I answer it there will be many who disagree. My position will be too strong for some, and too weak for others. Even so, it's an important issue, and I'll share my own convictions on it.

Years ago I counseled a young couple in preparation for their wedding. Both were Christians, and I urged them to make the day a clear testimony to their faith in Christ, and to their desire to build a Christian home. One issue that came up was the insistence of the young woman's unsaved parents that alcohol be served at the reception. I pleaded with them not to go along, to take a stand that would honour the Lord. But they bowed to the pressure.

A few weeks afterward, the bride's parents were both killed in an alcohol-related car accident. Would that have been prevented if the couple had made a different decision? Perhaps not, I don't know. But thinking back to the testimony of the bride and groom, might have made a strong impression on others, and affected their lives for the good.

I know there are Christians, or professing Christians, who see nothing wrong with taking a little wine with dinner, and so on. Personally, I've never done so, and I've always encouraged total abstinence, for a number of reasons. But before I discuss those reasons, I need to make another point.

In my view, concerning Christians and alcohol, it would be impossible to prove that the Bible absolutely forbids drinking any alcohol at all--though there are those who try. Many different Hebrew and Greek words are used in the Bible for beverages that were consumed. Whether they contained alcohol or not isn't always clear. But I've found that those intent on proving that total abstinence is a biblical mandate tend to force a meaning on those key words that's by no means definite.

In Deuteronomy chapter 14, the Law accommodated those coming to Jerusalem from a distance for feast days. Tithes and offerings were usually paid in such things as animals or grain. But if transporting these became too difficult, it was permissible to bring money, and buy what was needed on the spot (vs. 24-26). Vs. 26 is pertinent to our discussion. It says:

"You shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household."

The Hebrew word for wine there is yayin, meaning that which is bubbling or foaming. The Hebrew word translated "similar drink" by the NKJV is shekar, most often translated "strong drink" by the KJV. (The NIV for vs. 26 has "wine or other fermented drink.")

The difference between the two is that wine (yayin) was made from grapes, while the "shekar"–which seems to have been a kind of beer–was often made from grain. Note that these could be consumed before the Lord as part of an act of worship.

Both of these words are used elsewhere in contexts where it's clear they contained alcohol. For example, the first time the terms appear they are used of the shameful conduct of Noah. The Bible says "he drank of the wine [yayin] and was drunk [shakar, a form of the word shekar]" (Gen. 9:21).

And when Hannah came to the temple to pray that God would give her a son, she became so emotional and animated that Eli, the high priest, assumed she must be drunk (I Sam. 1:14). But here is Hannah's response:

"Hannah answered and said, 'No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine [yayin] nor intoxicating drink [shekar], but have poured out my soul before the LORD'" (vs. 15).

But even if we allow that it is difficult (or impossible) to prove that the Bible absolutely forbids the consumption of any form of alcoholic drink, drunkenness was definitely frowned upon, and beverages used were either non-alcoholic or greatly diluted to avoid intoxication.

"Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray [caused to go off course] by it is not wise" (Prov. 20:1). The Word of God counsels moderation and self-control, and abstinence from anything that would cause another person to stumble (I Cor. 8:8-13).

We are told that when alcohol is served it can liven up a party. That folks become more jolly, conversation flows more easily, and there's more fun and laughter. Perhaps so. See Uncle Fred prancing around the room with a lampshade for a hat, singing "Roll out the barrel," then tripping over his own feet and landing in Grandpa's lap. Loud guffaws and giddy giggles all 'round!

What brings laughter in inebriation may be considered silly nonsense and an embarrassment, in later times of sobriety. What is at work here is actually a loss of inhibitions. And not all inhibitions are pointless and purposeless! My wife and I have attended some great parties over the years, gatherings where alcohol wasn't served. We all had a great time, and could remember it the next morning--without a hangover!

In Leviticus chapter 10 we read of two sons of Aaron who made a foolish choice in attending to their duties in the tabernacle (vs. 1). They ignited the incense in the holy place with "profane fire" (likely fire not taken from the altar of sacrifice, but brought from elsewhere). Their actions cost them their lives (vs. 2). And immediately afterward a prohibition was passed against those involved in the tabernacle drinking alcohol, "that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, between unclean and clean" (vs. 8-10).

Sound judgment requires clear thinking--thinking that can become muddled with drink. Consider of what happens when a drinker gets behind the wheel of a car. Tests have shown that even consuming small amounts of alcohol can affect the driver's reaction time. A lot of accidents have been caused by those who say they haven't had "much" to drink, or who assumed they could "hold their liquor."

The differences between the ancient culture of Bible times and today are extreme. There were no highways full of speeding cars back then, for one thing! This is a significant point that must be taken into account. Things have definitely changed, and we need to adjust our standards accordingly.

The production of alcoholic beverages has become a multibillion dollar business now. And it's not a business I want to support by my purchase of their products! These companies spend incredible amounts of money on advertising. They show young, attractive, happy and sophisticated people imbibing. But the truth about the destructiveness of "booze" is often concealed.

Organizations such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) deal with the devastating problems caused by drinking. Lives are ruined, and homes are broken apart by the insatiable craving for it. Alcohol is often a factor in auto accidents and in various crimes. Go to a rescue mission, as I have done, and see many there with sad stories of how drink has brought them down.

The harm caused by alcohol affects far more than the drinker. It takes its toll in broken relationships, injury to others, property damage, and more--costs not only borne by the consumers but costing all of society untold misery and billions of dollars every year.

Proverbs provides a sickening and graphic picture of the pitiful condition of a drunk and his addiction (Prov. 23:29-35). My own mother experienced this first hand. She became a Christian when she was a teen-ager, but she lived in a home with six brothers. Five of them were heavy drinkers, one was definitely an alcoholic. Living in that environment made her a strong advocate for total abstinence, and I'm not sorry I've followed her example.

Some seem to be able to drink and it never gets out of control. But others are hooked after just one drink. And the problem is it's not easy to tell whether you're one of the former or the latter! Since I don't know about my own susceptibility, it's something I want to stay completely away from. Why court such a destructive danger unnecessarily?

I want to be a good testimony and a good example to others. With something as dangerous as alcohol, would my drinking--even if I didn't think it was harmful for me--cause some weaker person to think it was okay for them, and thereby be ensnared? I would feel terrible about that! I see no valid reason to take such a great risk (cf. I Cor. 8:11-13).

Old Testament priests involved in ministry were commanded not to drink (Lev. 10:8-11), as were the kings of Israel (Prov. 31:4-5). In addition, one taking a special vow of dedication to God (a Nazirite) was told to "separate himself from wine [yayin] and similar drink [shekar]" (Num. 6:3).

There's a New Testament parallel on this side of the cross. Compare this to Christians who are called to wholly dedicate themselves to the Lord (Rom. 12:1-2). We are declared to be both kings and priests, a kingdom of priests to God (I Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:5-6). Should the standard be any lower for us? I think not. Christians and alcohol don't mix well!