Christian Living,  Ethics,  New Testament

Is it Wrong for the Christian to Drink Alcohol?

To drink or not to drink? Yes, today I tread into dangerous waters by discussing the Christian and whether its okay to drink alcohol. First, a disclaimer. I grew up in the Midwest where it was culturally taboo to drink, smoke, or chew; or hang with girls that do! (As the saying goes). When I moved to California, people tended to emphasize Christian “liberty” more, and thus tended to exercise their liberty to drink wine or beer. This difference in atmosphere prompted me to examine the issue of drinking and the Christian’s responsibility. I wanted to share some of that fruit with you.

drink of alcohol

There are some who approach the matter by saying, “Jesus approved of using wine so we can drink it” (cf. John 2:1-10); or they will say Paul encouraged Timothy to drink wine (1 Tim 5:23). Therefore, Christians are able to drink alcohol, simple as that!

However, it would be unwise to make this such a simple issue. The evidence indicates that the alcoholic mixture of wine in the NT era was much different than today’s drink mixture. In other words, we need to understand cultural consideration before proper application to our own lives.

Pertaining to the second consideration, we need to know a little about the process of drinking wine. First, the wine was stored in a large jug called amphorae. Then, when it was ready to be used, it would be poured into a kraters (a large bowl) where it was mixed with water. Then, it was poured from this large bowl into a cup (kylix) for drinking. Thus, the wine used in the NT era was watered down.

To what extent the wine was watered down? Various sources give different ratios. Here is a table from Robert Stein, “Wine-Drinking in the New Testament Times” which discusses the various mixtures.

RationSource
20 to 1 (water to wine)Homer (Odyssey IX 208f)
8 to 1Pliny (Natural History XIV vi 54)
3 to 1Hesiod
4 to 1Alexis
2 to 1 Diodes
3 to 1Ion
5 to 2Nichochares
2 to 1Anacreon

In Stein’s article he notes that sometimes the drink ratio was 1 to 1 (or lower), but that was referred to as “strong wine,” and apparently not the normal drink. Furthermore, wine not mixed with water was looked upon as a barbarian custom (even to non-Christians).

In the Talmud, which contains the traditions of the Jews from around the time of Jesus, the four cups of the Passover were to be mixed in a water to wine ratio of 3 to 1 (Pesahim, 108b). Hence, it is likely that when Jesus went to drink at the last Passover, His drink was a 3 to 1 water-wine mixture.

Although there is more that could be said about the historical evidence of wine being a watered down mixture, we need to talk about some biblical application.

First, the Bible teaches clearly that to drink oneself into drunkenness is sin  (1 Cor 6:10; Gal 5:21; Eph 5:18). But, we must ask why is it a sin to be drunk? It is not an arbitrary command (no biblical commands are). The reason it is wrong to be drunk is because reason and judgment (God’s created means to guide and protect) become clouded.

Being commanded to abstain from drunkenness is an admonishment to retain judgment and decisiveness of the mind. Because that is God’s means to protect and guide you.

Second, in light of the previous point, the issue is really about being sober and self-controlled. Meaning, we don’t want to do anything that would inhibit our reason or judgment. According to Stein’s calculations, the amount of alcohol in two martinis today would be equivalent to twenty-two glasses of mixed wine in the NT (“Wine-Drinking in the New Testament Times”). In other words, it is a lot easier to be influenced by the alcoholic drinks available today than in the NT era.

What does all this mean? Does this mean I’m telling you Christians should not drink wine? No. I’m not saying that. I have tasted wine on a few occasions, and I know many godly individuals who drink. To be honest, I just strongly dislike the taste (but, I also dislike the taste of soda and juice… or anything besides water really, so I don’t drink those either).

What I am saying is that the decision is not as easy as it would have been in the NT. In the NT it would have likely been more difficult to drink to get drunk. It would have taken a long time of prolonged drinking. Further, culturally it would have been viewed as very foolish to get drunk. Today, to drink oneself into drunkenness is an acceptable and approved practice.

As Christians, we are not to allow our reason and faculty to be impinged by any external substance. For Christians this principle applies beyond what you drink, to things like drug use. The most common use of marijuana, for example, is to dull the senses and escape the oppression of reality. In contrast to the wholesale pursuit of pleasure espoused by the world, believers should avoid the unnecessary influence of those kinds of drugs.

When we think about these issues we need to seriously consider the consequences of the choices we make. For the Christian, even the drinks he does or does not take should all be decided upon by the desire to glorify God (cf. 1 Cor 10:31). The wise Christian understands that not all drinks are the same. For example, some alcoholic drinks contain 4-5% alcohol, but there are also Vodka drinks which contain over 50% alcohol.

The issue is not simply whether a Christian can drink alcohol or not. There are times when Christians can have an alcoholic drink and enjoy part of God’s creation to his honor and glory. But, there are also times when that same drink would hamper a Christian’s reason or judgment, and that is, biblically speaking, sinful.

photo credit: jenny downing via photopin cc

This updated post originally appeared on July 30, 2014.

Edit: This post originally mentioned that water quality may have not always the best in ancient cultures. While this is undoubtedly true, there is significant doubt as to whether this was a factor in many people drinking wine in the NT era. I am unable to find any sources which would confirm this. Thanks to Christopher Preston for pointing that out, as I had implied it may have been a factor.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

5 Comments

  • Brian Haack

    So can I do it right before bed cause I won’t need my mind then? haha jk. Good arguments, and I think a major question this always made me ask is what is drunk? Or how much is drunk, a cop told me being buzzed is drunk, well that only took 1-2 beers. Alcohol is the most deceptive drink and so easily abused and American society has made it a thing where even my non-believing friends call it “sin juice” So, need to be careful not to stumble or discourage or glamorize it. good stuff sir.

  • Jason

    Peter, good point. — drunkenness and self-control are the main issues. I think in America this is more of an issue than other countries and unfortunately many of our brothers who we graduate with say everything you just said, while frowning. Even though they say it is okay to drink in speech, they still assert abstaining as the desired standard for holiness. Many of our brothers even exalt the weaker brother as the holy one on this issue. I’ve also heard, “well, we want to be above reproach.” But having a beer or not having a beer doesn’t make one man more above reproach than another — as if there are degrees of holiness or we can out holy God. :)

    I’d probably say if a brother wants to have a beer, make sure it is also to celebrate and not because you are depressed. Deut. 14:26 associates drinking with celebration. “You may spend 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.” I would SAY Amos 9:15ff paints a similar picture. The point being, if you are going to partake, don’t do it because you had a hard day or are depressed. There seems to be a corollary there

    One more thought, the real reason Americans tend to get this issue wrong relates to a wrong view of sin. Americans tend to think the sin is in the bottle and miss the fact that sin is in the heart. There is no sin in the bottle. The human heart overindulges in that which is good and gets drunk. The drunk is drunk due to the tool of the alcohol, but it is a heart issue. If I take the bottle away, the heart issue still stands :) Mark 7:20

    • Peter Goeman

      That’s a wise observation, Jason. Drinking to get over a hard day is not a wise practice. And of course I agree with the heart issue as well. One other thing I’m sure you’ve seen as well (being around LV) is the American mentality of party drinking. Meaning that the end goal in and of itself ends up being the drinking for enjoyment rather than drinking being a peripheral activity. Obviously that is problematic as well.

      • Jason

        With the buffet world here I’d say gluttony is huge too. I wish more evangelicals would apply their drinking arguments to food, sex, and money. If we live to honor and glorify Him, we will safely navigate all freedoms in life :)

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