Any discussion of alcohol among those submitted to Scripture must begin with an acknowledgement of the sin of drunkenness. In Romans, Paul urges his readers to “walk with decency, as in the daylight,” which he contrasts with “carousing and drunkenness” (Rom 13:13). In Galatians, drunkenness included in Paul’s list of works of the flesh alongside “sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy . . . [and] carousing” (Gal 5:20–21a). These are the works of those, who according to Paul “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21b). Further, Peter assumes such behavior to be beneath believers, listing drunkenness as one of the behaviors of those apart from God. “They are surprised,” he writes,” that you don’t plunge with them into the same flood of wild living” (1 Pet 4:4).
In light of such passages, any attempt to discern a biblical position on the use of alcohol must begin with a common understanding concerning drunkenness. Only then can the discussion move forward concerning the use of alcohol. Whereas some advocate that believers abstain completely, others argue that the use of alcohol is permissible in moderation. Sadly, the conversation on this topic rarely resembles a fraternal discussion and often devolves into ad hominem attacks, overstatement, and misunderstandings.
Many preachers of abstinence are incorrect in their assertions that οἶνος (oinos) in the New Testament always refers to unfermented grape juice rather than wine (the more common translation, by far). In John’s account of Jesus’s turning the water into wine (John 2:1–11), one notes that the chief servant stood in astonishment that, unlike most parties where more-intoxicating wine is served initially and replaced with wine of lesser value, the wine which Jesus had created was contrasted with this and was considered “fine wine.” Further, in the account of the Day of Pentecost, Luke writes that the scoffers who heard the disciples accused them of having been “full of new wine” (Acts 2:13). It hardly seems likely that they would have accused the disciples of being intoxicated if new wine in the New Testament period referred to unfermented grape juice.
Also, one must note that the prophets and apostles imbibed without reluctance with the condition that drunkenness was avoided. However, it is incorrect to argue that Scripture does not include any restrictions concerning alcohol. Those who were wholly separated for God and performed a Nazarite vow were prohibited from any use of wine whatsoever (Num 6:3; Judg 13:4–7, 13–14). Further, Paul instructs the Ephesians to “be filled by the Spirit,” in contrast to getting “drunk with wine” (Eph 5:18). While noting that the restriction is against drunkenness, the discerning readers should note Paul’s juxtaposition of becoming intoxicated with wine and being filled by the Spirit. Is it possible to pursue both? Or does the active pursuit of the one negate any pursuit of the other?
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul writes that an overseer (or elder/pastor) must be “above reproach” and “not addicted to wine.” Deacons, likewise, must be “not drinking a lot of wine.” Once again, often these passages are interpreted according to the presuppositions of the reader. Those advocating for abstinence interpret each as restricting alcoholic consumption entirely and those advocating for the use of alcohol in moderation focus on “not addicted” and “not . . . a lot.” Moreover, in the very same letter, Paul instructs young Timothy to “use a little wine because of [his] stomach and [his] frequent illnesses” (1 Tim 5:23). However, one observes, this is clearly a medicinal use of wine and not merely a recommendation for Timothy to come home at the end of the day, pop-a-top, and put his feet up.
How, then, does one move forward in discerning God’s will for his life concerning alcohol? Further, how should churches handle the use of alcohol among their members and leaders?
Among church members, there should be freedom of conscience (Rom 14:1–23). In light of the biblical text, drunkenness should be condemned and declared a sin. Those who fall under habitual drunkenness should be disciplined in accordance with Matthew 18. The responsible use of alcohol in moderation, however, should be allowed among church members.
Among church leaders, however, one should note that Paul was not hesitant to establish a higher standard of living for those in positions of authority over the congregation. In his teaching that overseers should be above reproach, Paul provides a helpful aid in understanding his other admonitions. The descriptor “above reproach” literally means that accusations against an overseer should have nothing to stick to. Anyone attempting to take hold of him in order to make an accusation should find no handle to take hold of. One is reminded of Paul’s instruction elsewhere to “Stay away from every kind of evil,” or, as the KJV reads, “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess 5:22).
The easiest path for a church leader to be above reproach in terms of alcohol is simply to abstain entirely. (NOTE: This was the point of Sean’s post earlier this week reflecting on the Kavanaugh hearing.) If an elder or pastor (or deacon) chooses not to use alcohol in any sense, any accusation of drunkenness or sin has no evidence or support. This position is strengthened as one considers the words of Paul to the church in Corinth: “Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is helpful” (1 Cor 6:11).
The question church leaders must ask of themselves is that of value: do the benefits of the use of alcohol outweigh the potential negatives of doing so? In light of this question, many will discern that, while Scripture is devoid of any definite mandate of abstinence from alcohol, wisdom dictates that one commit himself to abstinence nonetheless. In doing so, one may avoid the pitfalls of misinterpreting Scripture while also pursuing God’s wisdom for Christian living.
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
Runner. Cyclist. 2nd Dan.
Roast Master at caffeinatedtheology.com.