Saturday, December 25, 2010

Did Christians in the New Testament Drink Wine?

One of the topics at the Preachers Study this year, at the 21st Street Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, was the passage in Romans 14:21 "It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to stumble."  I wasn't able to attend the study this year, so I don't know what was said, but I wondered did the Christians in the New Testament drink wine?  I don't drink, and I teach my children not to drink.  I was taught that drinking one drop of alcohol makes you one drop drunk, but is that a biblical teaching?  There is too much emotion in this issue to expect an honest study of the bible.  So, lets study a different topic: Did Christians in the New Testament Drink Wine?

In Romans 14:21 Paul is discussing christian liberties.  There is nothing wrong with eating meat, even eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol, but some Christians thought it was wrong and when they saw a brother eating meat that had been sacrificed to an idol they did it too and their conscience was hurt.  Nobody would deny after reading that passage that Christians in the New Testament ate meat, even meat sacrificed to idols and that Paul felt it was OK to do so.  What about wine?  I admit that I have never heard anyone teach about the wine.  We tend to ignore it is there and only talk about the meat.  I have to admit that Paul says it is OK to drink wine too.  Could he be talking about grape juice and not wine with alcohol in it?  I have never heard of anyone saying it is wrong to drink grape juice, so why would Paul say that might cause someone to stumble?  That argument seems rather desperate.

Romans 14:21 and 1Tim 5:23 seem to go together "Stop drinking only water and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses."  I've read that people used to mix wine with their water to make it safer to drink.  It seems that Timothy was doing that because some people thought drinking wine was wrong and because of that he was frequently ill.  I think this passage backs up the idea that the wine Paul was talking about in Rom 14:21 was wine with alcohol in it.

When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about the problems with their communion service he said " remains hungry, and another gets drunk.  Don't you have homes to eat and drink in" (1Cor 11:21,22)?  It seems that they were bringing their own meal to the communion, but not sharing with the other people there.  One of the results was that some people were drinking too much wine and getting drunk.  Paul tells them to do their eating and drinking at home.  Again he does not tell them to stop drinking wine.

In Eph 5:18 Paul wrote "Do not get drunk on wine...."  Note he didn't say "do not drink wine."  The issue back then was not drinking wine, it was drinking it to excess and becoming drunk.  Note that one of the qualifications of an elder in 1 Tim 3:3 and Titus 1:7 is "not given to drunkenness."  Again, Paul didn't say that elders could not drink wine, he wrote that they could not be men who drank to get drunk.

Other witnesses are the writings of the early Christians.  I don't have much material by them, but I will include what I do have. "In like manner, when thou openest a jar of wine or of oil, take the first fruit and give to the prophets..." (Didache 13.7).  Justin wrote about the communion: "Next there is brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of water mixed with wine" (Ferguson, p.94).  Cyprian wrote of the communion: "...the blood of Christ is certainly not water, but wine...the cup the wine by which the blood of Christ is shown forth" (Ferguson, p.108).  Cyril of Jerusalem recorded "The bread and the wine of the Eucharist.." (Ferguson, p.108).  Ambrose, said this about the communion "Before the words of Christ the cup is full of wine and water..." (Ferguson, p.109).  Hippolytus, writing about the love feast wrote "But if he can not entertain them at his house...let him give them food and wine and send them away" (Ferguson, p.131).

Many of the above references, by the early Christians, refer to the fruit of the vine in the communion.  I have tried to research what the phase "fruit of the vine" refers to and I have only found one book that discusses it:  Davis (p.868 under the heading "wine") wrote "Fruit of the vine, the designation used by Jesus at the institution of the Lord's Supper (Mat. xxvi. 29), is the expression employed by the Jews from time immemorial for the wine partaken of on sacred occasions...."  Based on this and what the early Christian wrote, wine was used in the communion cup.

If Christians in the New Testament and the first couple of centuries of the church used wine in their daily lives and even in the communion cup, why do we now think it is a sin to drink even a sip of wine and insist on only grape juice in the communion cup?  Our current view of wine and alcohol is a result of the Temperance Movement in the 19th century.  Here is a passage that was written during that period: "All the great religious denomination among us have given emphatic utterance to their sentiments, not only endorsing fully the principle of total abstinence, but...recommend the use of unfermented wine on sacramental occasions..." (McClintock and Strong, p. 249).

The use of  "unfermented wine" in the communion cup posed a problem during the Temperance Movement: Was it scriptural to substitute juice for wine?  McClintock and Strong were very sure that Jesus used wine in the communion, but they felt that it was a liberty, just like what kind of bread to use for the loaf (p. 1016).  Therefore, "if, as it is confidently claimed by many, unfermented grape-juice can be procured at a moderate cost and without great inconvenience, and can be preserved with ordinary care...there is no reason why ceremonious scruples should be allowed to stand in the way of its employment" (McClintock and Strong, p.1016).

One of the problems McClintock and Strong saw in using grape juice in the communion was finding it out of season.  This gave the start to the Welch's grape juice company. On their website they write "The story of Welch's began in 1869 in Vineland, New Jersey - when physician and dentist Thomas Bramull Welch and his son Charles processed the first bottles of 'unfermented wine' to use during their church's communion service" (

 It is amazing to me to find that the use of grape juice in the communion is an innovation as old as the use of individual communion cups.  If wine is suitable for use in the communion why would it not be suitable for use in the home?

I don't drink alcohol and I will teach my children not to drink alcohol, but I can't say that the bible teaches that.  I have to admit that the Christians in the New Testament church drank wine and that Paul did not tell them that it was wrong.  He taught that it was a liberty.  We should do that same.

For more on this topic see my post "Is It A Sin For Christians To Drink Wine?"


Davis JD.  Davis Dictionary of the Bible, fourth revised edition.  Baker Book House, 1983.

Ferguson E.  Early Christians Speak.  Biblical Research Press, 1981.

McClintock J, Strong J. 1881.  Cyclopedia of Biblical, and Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. X, Baker Book House.

1 comment:

  1. I just stumbled onto your blog while lookinng for some bible quotations. Hi!

    Perhaps the easiest example: The Wedding Feat at Canaan.

    If it was truly a sin to drink wine, do you think Jesus would have turned water into wine?