To drink or not to drink?
To drink or not to drink: that is the question. Over the years, I have been asked many times to give my advice on the subject of alcohol. May a Christian drink “in moderation” or should we abstain completely? I was asked the question again a few days ago. I didn’t have time then to answer the question fully. So here’s my answer now.
It depends. It depends on many things. It depends on who you are. And what your circumstances are. And why you’re drinking. And with whom. And where. And when.
In other words, there’s no simple answer. But there are some Bible principles that should guide us.
1) Alcohol is a good gift from God
There are some Christians who have suggested that alcohol is in itself evil – that there is something devilish about it. But the Bible forbids any such thought. “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). Paul assures Timothy that everything God created is in itself good, and if properly used, can bring blessing to a Christian.
Of course, some believers are unhappy with my use of this verse. “Ah” they say, “But God never created alcohol. God created grapes (or apples or malt or whatever it may be) but we turn it into wine, or cider or beer”. Well, they’re wrong on many counts. Apart from anything else, we don’t need to do anything to fruit in order to persuade it to produce alcohol. A ripe grape is full of natural sugars and there are wild yeasts living on its skin. As soon as the skin of the grape is broken, fermentation will begin. The simplest way to produce wine is just to leave grape-juice to ferment naturally.
So who designed the chemistry of the grape? Who created fruit and yeast and gave them the potential to interact in that way? Who “created the heaven and earth and all that is in them?”
The answer is given in Psalm 104 (vss 14-15). “He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth fruit from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart” (Psalm 104:14-15). It was God who created grapes as well as wheat and olives for man to cultivate – and gave each of them their potential. He created wheat so that man could turn it into bread, he created olives so that man could squeeze out the oil, he created grapes so that man could enjoy wine.
Bread is a necessity – it sustains man’s heart. Wine isn’t. But it is still God’s good gift, designed by a generous Creator to “gladden the heart of man”. The writer of Ecclesiastes counsels us, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun…” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9). Wine is given to be one ingredient in the good life.
The Bible gives us many examples of wine being used rightly, as God intended. Melchizedek brought out bread and wine to strengthen and refresh Abraham after a gruelling battle (Genesis 14:18). Jesse sent bread and wine to his sons at the battle front in order to encourage them (1 Samuel 16:20). Nehemiah after reading the law to the people who had returned from exile told them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). The Lord Jesus himself provided wine for a wedding feast (John ch 2) and gave his disciples a cup of wine to drink at the Last Supper.
2) Alcohol should be used sparingly
Alcoholic drinks were not used routinely by God’s people in Bible times. They were kept for special occasions – special gatherings, special celebrations. You can see that in the verses I’ve already quoted. Nehemiah told the people to go and drink sweet wine because this was a special day – a day for rejoicing. Jesus provided wine because a wedding is a special celebration. The disciples drank wine at the Last Supper because this was the Passover, one of the great Feasts of Israel.
One New Testament scholar, after studying all the evidence for the way alcohol was used in New Testament times writes this:
“Wine was drunk only on festive occasions. First and foremost at family celebrations: when entertaining guests, celebrating a circumcision, engagement or marriage. It was also customary to serve wine in the house of the bereaved during the seven days of mourning. Secondly the annual festivals provided an occasion for the drinking of wine, especially the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, Tabenracles); the drinking of wine was prescribed as part of the ritual of Passover and Purim, and was customary at the meals for the ‘sanctification’ and the ‘dismissal’ of the Sabbath. Otherwise wine was generally used in everyday life only for medicinal purposes; it was regarded as an excellent medicine. In everyday life water was drunk…” (Joachim Jeremias: The Eucharistic Words of Jesus).
All through the Bible, God’s people were taught to use alcohol only when their work was done. Wine became a symbol of rest and rejoicing. Noah planted a vineyard and drank wine when he had come safely through the flood and the time for celebration arrived (Genesis 9:20). The Israelites drank no wine while they were travelling through the wilderness, but were promised that when their pilgrimage was over, then they could celebrate with wine (Deuteronomy 29:6 /11:14). The prophets promised that all the people of God would drink rich wine at a great banquet at the end of time, when their struggles were over: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). At the Last Supper, Jesus gave the cup of wine to his disciples but would not drink it himself. Nor would he drink wine when it was offered to him at the cross. His work was not yet completed (Luke 22:18, Mark 15:23). But he looked forward to drinking with the disciples in the kingdom of God when his work was finished at last.
The Bible-writers speak scornfully about those who drink when they should be working. “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them!” (Isaiah 5:11). Alcohol is supposed to refresh people after work, not make them incapable of it! Peter dismissed the suggestion that he and his fellow-disciples were drunk: “It’s only nine o’ clock in the morning!” (Acts 2:15). What sane man drinks in the morning when there’s a day’s work ahead?
Christians who take the Bible seriously will never get drunk. The command is plain: “Do not get drunk on wine” (Ephesians 5:18). Drunkards “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). But more than that, Biblically minded Christians will never let alcohol become a regular habit in their everyday lives. Keep it for special occasions, times when you and your family or friends have something special to celebrate.
We drink a cup of wine weekly at the Lord’s Supper, because that is our family celebration. We celebrate together the defeat of sin; the breaking of the curse; the inauguration of the new covenant. There may be other special occasions in the life of the family or of the church when it will be appropriate to serve alcohol. But they should be rare. Like anything else, do it too often and it stops being special! Every time we have a sip of wine at the Lord’s Supper, it should seem special. A Christian who drinks regularly at other times, will no longer feel the specialness of that celebration cup! He’ll rob himself of something very precious.
3) Some Christians should not drink at all
First, there are folk who have been addicted to alcohol. It is obvious that such folk should not drink at all. They know that one taste could reawaken the old craving. We have occasionally had such folk with us at the Lord’s table – and we have put aside the wine, and drunk an unfermented grape-juice with them. Better that we should all abstain than that we should put a stumbling block before a brother or sister.
Secondly, there are folk who know that they have addictive or obsessive tendencies. I’m not assuming that those tendencies are chemical or physiological. I simply don’t know whether some people have a physical, inherited tendency towards alcohol addiction or any other addiction. But I know that there are some people who tend by personality to become addicted to anything they find pleasurable. If they use a computer, they find it hard to leave it alone for five minutes. If they like cream buns they can’t just eat one. They have to keep eating until the plate is empty. If they listen to music, they can’t feel relaxed without it. Well, if that’s your temperament, then to start drinking is to invite temptation. “Make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14).
Thirdly, there are folk who are exposed to temptation because of their circumstances. This is the situation of many Christian young people today, at school or away at college. They move among people who drink heavily. Student culture is a drinking culture. Every social occasion is an opportunity for drinking and for getting drunk. What are Christian students to do in that situation?
They may just decide that they won’t socialise at all. That may be the safest option for some. But it could mean that they have little contact with their fellow-students outside lectures. They can’t join the rugby club because every away match finishes up with an evening in the bar. They can’t accept an invitation to a birthday party because the party will inevitably be lubricated with alcohol. When their tutor invites all the students in her class to join her for a meal on the curry mile, the Christian student will be the one who has to say no. It’s a brave option to choose and I commend the resolution of those who take it. But if you do choose that option, you will have to work extra hard at befriending your fellow-students in other ways. And it’s not the option that Jesus chose. Jesus was to be seen at social occasions where people were drinking – so much so that malicious people accused him of self-indulgence: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ ” (Luke 7:34).
You may choose a second option. You may say, “I’ll be there at the social events, but I’ll never get drunk. I know when to stop”. It sounds fine, but it’s much harder than it sounds. When you’re with a group of people drinking together, you may finish up drinking much more than you intended. It’s Jack’s turn to order a round of drinks – he’ll order one for you without even asking whether you want it or not. Or Jill will just top up your glass when she sees it’s half-empty. Once you’ve had one drink you’re under constant pressure to have “just one more”. It’s hard to keep saying, “No” as the evening goes on. You may not even know what you’re drinking. Who knows what’s in the glass that’s pushed into your hand? And of course, with every drink you take, you become less capable of judging how much it’s safe to drink, or even remembering how much you have drunk. There’s a great deal of difference between the sort of dinner party which Jesus attended, where everyone sat (or reclined) around a table and was waited on by servants, and the sort of stand-up social event that we’re used to today where you’re surrounded by a group of people drinking when and how they choose.
No real Christian, aware of God’s commands, will go out intending to get drunk. But many have gone out resolving to drink in moderation, and finished up drunk and ashamed.
So that leaves only one other option. Complete abstinence. And that’s what I would counsel any student in today’s world to choose. It is much easier to say “I don’t drink at all” and stick to it, than to say “I drink up to a limit” and stand by that. Choosing not to start is a lot easier than knowing when to stop. If you drink at all, you will be under pressure to drink too much. So flee from temptation. You cannot pray, “Lead us not into temptation” and then deliberately expose yourself to it.
Students are one example of folk who would be well advised to abstain completely because of their circumstances. There may be others. If you know that drinking will expose you to temptation, then don’t drink.
Fourthly, there are folk who are under particular stress. The bereaved, the lonely, the overworked, the depressed, the afflicted – alcohol is dangerous for all such folk. It offers a temporary escape from the pressures. And those who choose it will find that they want that escape more and more often. Soon they will find that they cannot get through a morning or get to sleep at night without the comfort of the bottle. It is never safe to drink alone. And especially it is unsafe for the unhappy. Such folk should never allow alcohol into their home.
Fifthly, there are folk who have special responsibilities. Alcohol is a drug. Even in small quantities it impairs judgement. That is why no aircraft pilot or train driver is allowed to drink. A pilot found on duty with even the smallest amount of alcohol in his system would be sacked immediately. The Bible warns that there are some people who need to be alert all the time. They are on duty constantly. They can never afford to have their judgement impaired by drink. “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (Proverbs 31:4-5). A king has to ready at any time to make crucial decisions, to dispense judgement, to remember and apply the law. Such a man cannot afford to drink. Remember Xerxes and the stupid decisions he took when he had been drinking? Remember Herod and his promises to Salome? Anyone whom others are depending on to make vital decisions at any time would be well-advised to say no to alcohol.
There may be others who should make the same choice because of their positions of responsibility. Church leaders – especially youth leaders – may choose that option. If we counsel students and other young people not to drink, we may well feel that it is best not to drink ourselves. Otherwise our counsel may sound hypocritical and arrogant (it’s OK for me – just not for you).
“Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Romans 14:20-21).
4) A vital part of our witness
We are living in a society which has forgotten how to use alcohol well. What was given as a blessing has become a curse. We are all aware of the havoc caused by misuse of God’s good gift. Family breakdown, casual violence, anti-social behaviour, poverty, cruelty to children, sexual looseness and its consequences: all are linked with the misuse of alcohol. And that’s not to mention hundreds of thousands of deaths each year through alcohol related illnesses. I doubt if there is one person in the church who is not in regular contact with someone whose life has been ruined by alcohol.
So our attitude to alcohol becomes a vital part of our witness to the people around us. In a society without self-control, we have to show that we are capable of self-control in this matter, as in everything else. Some of us will do that by not drinking at all. When people pressure us to drink, we’ll say cheerfully, “I don’t need to”. And we’ll talk about the contentment and joy that comes from the presence of Christ in the heart. Others of us will drink moderately, wisely, happily and the world will see that we have the self-control to stay sober while others are getting drunk. For all of us the rule is the same:
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). If we abstain, we must do it because we believe that will bring God glory. If we drink, we must be sure that that will bring God greater glory.