Sunday, January 23, 2011

Is It A Sin For Christians To Drink Wine?

At the 2010 Preachers' Study in Oklahoma City brother Ron Courter spoke on whether drinking wine in Romans 14:21 is a liberty.  I wasn't able to attend that talk, but I have read the notes from his talk at the 1990 study were he discussed "Drunkenness (A Bible definition)", and I will use that to base my comments on. I don't drink, and I have taught my children not to drink.  Drinking alcohol can be a destructive practice and there is a huge difference between the wine in the bible and the distilled alcohol people drink today.  I don't understand why people desire to do it, but I can't say that the bible teaches it to be a sin.

Ron couldn't quote a verse teaching that it is a sin to drink alcohol, because there isn't one, so he had to tie drinking to drunkeness. Here is what he says: "The Bible stringently condemns the sin of drunkenness, but this view has no clear definition of drunkenness.  You must indulge in the very thing, the very action that causes the sin.  This certainly seems a problem for those defining drunkenness, as excessive drinking."  Since he can't define at what point a person becomes drunk, he can't define what drunkenness is.  Ron feels that drunkenness is a process not a state.  Once you start drinking you are one drink drunk.  If a whole lot is bad, a little bit must be bad too.  So, just drinking alcohol makes you a drunk.

In his title Ron said he was going to give a biblical definition of what drunkenness is, but he didn't do it.  He gave his own definition: "The writer thinks the term drunkenness refers to the state of impairment due to the ingestion of alcohol and the term drunkenness takes in the whole process."  Several passages in the bible do describe what a drunken person is like. Let me give the biblical description: "They reeled and staggered like drunken men..." (Psa 107:27), and detailed description in Prov 23: 29-35 "...Who has needless bruises?  Who has bloodshot eyes?  Those who linger over wine...Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things.  You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging.  'They hit me,' you will say, 'but I'm not hurt!  They beat me, but I don't feel it! When can I find another drink?" Some other descriptions are at Isa 19:14, 28:8, 29:9 and Jer 25z;16.  The biblical definition is quite different from Ron's.

Ron observes, correctly, that alcohol begins to effect a person very quickly, but he seems to believe that because it works quickly a person is then drunk.  What he is ignoring is that a drug has a range where it's effects are desirable and once you exceed that range you begin to experience the undesirable effects.  Many people drink alcohol of its relaxing effects.  It makes them calm and happy.  God made the"wine that gladdens the heart of man..." (Psa 104:15).  Once they exceed this range they begin to experience the undesirable effects: "you will see strange sights" and "reeled and staggered like drunken men."  There is nothing unusual about this range of effects. Acetaminophen is a useful pain reliever, but too much can damage your liver. Insulin can save your life if you are a diabetic, but too much can kill you.  Nobody thinks that because you can take too much of these drugs that you should not use even a little bit.  You have to use them in the range that is safe.  It is the same with alcohol, you drink an amount that is safe and don't try to find your limit. "As drugs go, alcohol is a relatively weak one.  It takes grams of pure alcohol, not milligrams, to have noticeable effects, and this allows us to enjoy moderate amounts of wine and beer with harming ourselves" (McGee, p719)

There are a number of verses in the New Testament that refer to Jesus and Christians drinking wine.  Ron deals with them in the traditional fashion: "wine" is really grape juice, and "drunk" means you drank too much grape juice.  Before we deal with them I want to discuss the time period we are dealing with.  There was no refrigeration in the New Testament time.  Perishable foods, like grape juice, had to be treated in some way if they were going to be stored for any length of time.  The most common way to prepare grape juice for storage was to allow it to ferment.  We know that people at that time made wine in vast quantities, and there are references to making it throughout the bible.  Another way they could have preserved grape juice was to boil it down into a syrup.  There is no reference to this practice in the bible and I don't know that it was commonly done.  The grape harvest in Judea was in September, at that time fresh grape juice would have been easy to get, but what about the rest of the year, like at the passover in the spring?  Is it possible that every reference we read to wine was boiled down grape juice?  It is possible, but I don't think it is very likely.  For the common person, I image it was hard to get and very expensive.

In John 2:1-11 Jesus changed water to wine.  Ron says that "the word 'wine' does not always suggest a fermented drink," and he refers to Mat 9:17 where Jesus spoke of putting new wine in old wine skins.  Is the "new wine" that is put in the new wine skins unfermented juice? The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has this to say about wine making under "wine press": "In the warm climate of Palestine fermention began almost immediately after the grapes were pressed.  The first stage of fermentation took place in the wine vat...The wine was strained through a sieve or piece of cloth before it was put in to clay jars...or animal skins...for storage for further fermentation" (Bromiley, vol. 4, p1072). So, the juice was fermenting before it was placed in the wine skins and continued to ferment in them.

The word for wine is oinos, and it means "the fermented juice of grapes or another plant product" (Bromiley,vol. 4, p1068), and "wine, normally the fermented juice of the grape..." (Arndt and Gingrich). Also, the master of the banquet, in verse 10, refers to it as the type of wine that people can get drunk on. "It is real wine that is meant by oinos here.  Unlike the Baptist Jesus mingled in the social life of the time, was even abused for it (Matt. 11:19 = Luke 7:34).  But this fact does not mean that Jesus would approve the modern liquor trade with its damnable influences" ( Robertson). Ron says that the word "drunk" here just means "full."  I also used to say this, but I looked it up for myself too.  The word is methuow, and it means "be drunk" (Arndt, and Gingrich), and the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament gives the same definition, and makes no mention of the idea of being "full" in their discussion.  So,  for his first miracle Jesus made wine with alcohol in it.

Jesus did not live the way John the Baptist did, "for John came neither eating nor drinking" (Mat 11:18).  Jesus "came eating and drinking" (Mat 11:19), he attended banquets and wedding, and he seems to have drank wine, since people accused him of being a drunk.  Jesus justified his non acetic life by telling them that when the bridegroom is present it is a time for celebration, not fasting (Mark 2:19).  Let's not pass to quickly from this interesting statement.  They seem to use "drink" in a similar manner to our word.  I said in the first paragraph that I don't drink and by that I mean I don't drink alcohol.  Jesus said John didn't drink, but he did.  This is quite an extraordinary statement.

In 1 Corinthians 11:21-22 Paul says that some of the Christians were getting drunk at the communion service.  Paul tells them to do their drinking at home.  If you looked at my bible you would see that I crossed out "drunk" and wrote in "sated."  As with John 2:10 I was taught the Corinthians had just drunk too much grape juice, and that is what I taught when I was teaching on this passage.  Regardless of my feeling about drinking alcohol, the Corinthians were getting drunk on wine, and Paul tells them to do their drinking at home.  That is what it means, and that is what we must teach.

Romans 14:21 was the passage that Ron taught on at the 2010 Preacher's Study in Oklahoma City.  "It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall." Ron said this about the passage in 1990: "Paul teaches do not drink wine if it offends your brother.  How do we know this is intoxicating wine?...Paul could have said, 'Do not drink non-intoxicating wine in the market places if it offends thy brother.'"  I already discussed whether wine can be unfermented in the discussion on John 2, but here is a quote from McClintock and Strong's Cyclopedia, under the heading "Wine": "The latest and most complete treatise on this question is that of Wilson, The Wines of the Bible (Lond. 1877), which, after minutely examining all the classical and scriptural references, arrives at the conclusion that 'so far as the wines of the ancients are concerned, unfermented wine is a myth.'"

In 1Tim 3:3 and Titus 1:7 we are told that in selecting men to be elders we are not to choose men "given to drunkenness."  The word used here is paroinon, and means "drunken, addicted to wine" (Arndt and Gingrich), and "...given to wine, prone to intemperance" (Moulton).  Paul goes on in Titus 2:3 to teach that the older women must not be "addicted to much wine." Ron talks a while about how people make too much of the word "much" and then says this: "It is difficult to understand how the word 'much' in this setting means to drink less than excess, but more than none when the actual word drink is not even mentioned.  We need to look more at the simple literal meaning of the terms, rather then seek the absolute meaning we would prefer."  I agree, we should teach it means not what we want it to mean: men who drink too much wine should not be chosen as elders.

Would it help Ron's argument if  "wine" could mean fermented or unfermented grape juice, and if "drunk" means very full.  Probably not.  If it could mean either one then it doesn't matter which one you drink because to the bible they would be the same thing, and you could get "very full" on either one. Drinking from the communion cup would make you "one drink drunk" because grape juice is the same as wine and one sip is one sip to being very full or drunk.  Church dinners would need to be stopped, because they would be the drunken feast we read about in 1Cor 11:21-22.  Arguments like these just make us look silly and petty.

If Paul was only talking about grape juice could he have referred only to that?  Yes, the word for unfermented grape juice is "trux" (Arndt and Gingrich, p564) and he never used it.  Could God have told us to not drink any wine?  Yes, he told Nazirites to abstain from all alcohol in Num 6:3-4, he forbid priests to drink wine before officiating in the sanctuary in Lev 10:9, but he didn't do it in the New Testament.  Alone, none of the above passages might be persuasive, but taken together they show that wine is a liberty for a Christian, but we are to exercise self control over it and all areas of our lives.

At the 2010 New Year's meeting in Oklahoma City one of the young men was teaching about the qualifications of elders and when he got to 1Tim 3:3 he said "not a wine drinker."  I was shocked.  He felt that drinking wine is a sin, so he changed what the bible says about it.  If teaching that drinking wine is a sin forces us to change God's word then we are teaching error.  I used to teach that it was a sin to drink wine, but I can't do it anymore "...because you know we who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1).  That verse frightens me, and it makes me very careful to only teach what the bible says.  The truth is just truth, we can't have options about truth.


Arndt WF, Gingrich FW (1957).  Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press.
Bromiley GW (1988).  International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans.
Kittel G (1967).  Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Eerdmans.
McClintock J, Strong J (1881).  Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Baker.
McGee H. (2004). On Food and Cooking The Science and Lore of The Kitchen, Scribner.
Moulton HK (1977).  Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, Zondervan.
Robertson AT (1932).  Word Pictures in the New Testament, Baker.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I came across your page while doing some research for a bible study on this topic. Thanks for the post. I'd like to share the outcome of an in depth look at biblical definitions and the scripture with you and/or your readers. May God bless you. Bible Study on Wine and Grape Juice