It is common for fundamentalist groups, like Seventh Day Adventists, to teach that it is a sin to drink alcohol in any context. I remember when I was baptized SDA I had to sign an agreement that I would never drink it. This is pretty standard so if you were also baptized in the SDA church then it’s likely you signed off on a similar pledge as well.
Let’s take a look at the Bible and see what it condemns and what it does not condemn with regards to alcohol.
Is it a sin in and of itself to drink alcohol? I’ve checked each of these proof-texts below to ensure I’m not taking them out of context. Links are provided so that you can easily verify for yourself. This question answers itself pretty quickly take a look:
“Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.” Ecclesiastes 9:7
“He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the labor of man, So that he may bring forth food from the earth, And wine which makes man’s heart glad, So that he may make his face glisten with oil, And food which sustains man’s heart.” Psalms 104:14-15
“No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” 1 Timothy 5:23
You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. Deuteronomy 14:26
In the first two we can see that it is spoken of positively in such a manner that ones heart becomes glad or cheerful. In the last one we have a direction for Timothy to use it to help him with his stomach issues. I think that is enough to prove that simply allowing alcohol to touch your lips is not in and of itself a sin. If it were we would not see the Bible telling us to use it for recreational and medicinal purposes.
The last verse is helpful for proving that the alcohol being referenced isn’t grape juice. Notice he references both wine and “strong drink”. Don’t get me wrong, I love a mean glass of grape juice but I would never refer to it as a “strong drink”. Additionally, the process for keeping wine in an unfermented state didn’t exist until the 19th century, so I would argue that asserting grape juice here would be an anachronism.
Jesus Drank Wine
If Jesus drank wine that would be a good argument against it being a sin. This one is pretty easy too.
‘The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ ‘ Luke 7:34
‘The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” ‘ Matthew 11:19
Both passages reference the same comment but they also make the same point. Notice that Jesus was being accused of doing in excess what he freely admits to actually doing. He states he was eating and is accused of gluttony. He states he was drinking and is accused of drunkenness. All I am saying is that it would be twisting the text to say that Jesus is only admitting to drinking water. The plainest reading is that he was drinking alcohol and was accused of getting drunk on it.
Later in this post I am going to argue that drunkenness is in fact a sin, but let’s at least concede that the mere act of drinking quantities that don’t equal drunkenness is not a sin.
If drinking in any context is a sin then why did Jesus use wine in the last supper? The Church has also used wine exclusively for the first 1900 or so years every time she has had communion. Grape juice in communion is actually recent development, and one I don’t agree with.
Notice below that Paul was chastising the Corinthians for getting drunk on communion wine. While getting drunk on it is certainly wrong to do, this text does show that the wine they were using had alcohol in it.
“for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper,” 1 Corinthians 11:20-21
“And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying,”Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”” Matthew 26:27-29
Since we see wine used in communion that would be further evidence that simply drinking alcohol isn’t a sin. In my research I found that the belief that you can never drink at all comes to us from the american puritan tradition, specifically the temperance movement. In the 19th century the Church in America was responding to problems of drunkenness and went a bit too far.
The culmination of this was of course the prohibition which made drinking illegal for everyone. That didn’t work out too well and society in general has been moving the complete opposite direction since. Logically some would have tried to look for Biblical reasons to support the temperance movement, and some of the bad theology and historical anachronisms they employed persist to this day.
As an aside, some do argue that since leaven was forbidden during the passover that means wine was non-alcoholic. This is actually a creative argument but it is an anachronism nevertheless. Ancient Jews only recognized the leaven in the bread regarding passover, not in the wine. Below is a quote from my Jewish source on this fact:
“Of the hundreds of species of yeast, the Passover prohibition only applies to yeast which is a product of one of the following five grains: wheat, barley, oat, spelt, or rye. Yeast which is the product of grapes, or its sugars, is not considered chametz (leavened food).” – Rabbi Dovid Zaklikowski
The Sin of Drunkenness
While drinking in and of itself is not a sin, as is in fact encouraged in scripture, this isn’t true for drunkenness. It is actually a sin to be a drunkard, this is just as easily demonstrated as the arguments above.
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,” Ephesians 5:18
“Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy.” Romans 13:13
“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21
“For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.” 1 Peter 4:3
Putting it bluntly, drinking is not a sin but getting drunk is. Some try to argue that only alcoholism is a sin but getting drunk from time to time is not. This is an anachronistic argument because it’s not a distinction apparent in the text. Passages like the first one I posted above though (Eph 5:18 ) are clear that you shouldn’t get drunk at all. So let’s leave it at that.
How much drinking meets the Biblical definition of “drunk” though? Where is the line? It has to be somewhere. This asks a question that we all kind of know the answer to anyways. While you can never get a clinical answer out of the Bible on this one you can draw some helpful lines in the sand. First I will post the definition from the 1828 KJV dictionary and then a few passages to make my point.
1. Intoxication; inebriation; a state in which a person is overwhelmed or overpowered with spirituous liquors, so that his reason is disordered, and he reels or staggers in walking. Drunkenness renders some persons stupid, others gay, others sullen, others furious.
Let us walk honestly as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness.
2. Habitually ebriety or intoxication.
3. Disorder of the faculties resembling intoxication by liquors; inflammation; frenzy; rage.
I realize there are newer dictionaries out there. I happen to like this one because it is free and has more theologically relevant definitions than a modern dictionary does. What stands out to me is a loss of control of ones faculties. The line in the sand so to speak is the loss of your inhibitions. This actually mirrors the biblical narratives where drinking is condemned. Here are some examples that stand out nicely.
“Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.” Genesis 9:20-24
Noah is regarded as a man of righteousness in scripture (Gen 6:9), yet above we see an example of him failing in that regard. Even though his story was used as type and shadow of Christ saving the world from sin, he could only be a type and shadow. He wasn’t perfect, we needed someone who was.
For the purposes of my point in this blog post we can see that when you’re so drunk that you’re stripping naked… yeah that’s a line in the sand on what we would call drunk. Not saying it has to get to that point before we are going to call it “drunk” in a Biblical sense, but this is a pretty good indicator of the degree of inebriation the Bible writers consider drunkenness to include.
“So they made their father drink wine that night, and the firstborn went in and lay with her father; and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him that we may preserve our family through our father.” Genesis 19:32-33
In the story above Lot becomes so drunk that he loses all inhibitions and sleeps with his own daughters, which is committing the sin of incest.
Putting it all together I would argue that a good Biblical definition of drunkenness is a state in which you have voluntarily surrendered your inhibitions against sin over to either the devil or to your own depravity. I wouldn’t limit it to alcohol either, I would include any substance that elicits the same effect.
How much alcohol does it take before you lose your judgment and start to commit sins that you otherwise would not do? It’s going to be a little bit different for everyone, but I am assuming that you probably know where that line is for you. Don’t cross it, doing so is a sin. When you fail in this or anything also know that in the Bible it says that Jesus died for you and forgives you of your sins, so on account of your gratefulness try harder next time.
Does this mean you have to drink? of course not. Just as you can’t Biblically impose a law that forbids drinking you also can’t impose a law that forces it. Responsible drinking is one of those things that exists in Christian freedom. Getting drunk though is not.