Scriptural context, in both the Old and New Testaments, as well as evidences from church history do not support the theory that the substance referred to as “wine” in Jesus’ day was devoid of alcohol.
I grew up in a non-drinking family that went to a non-drinking country church, and operated for years under the inherited assumption that alcohol consumption was inherently immoral and sinful. However, in the course of increased scholarship that came with a degree program in Pastoral Ministry and eventually becoming a pastor for a time, I gradually grew dissatisfied with and eventually rejected this idea, for reasons I will detail here. I’ll begin by saying that you can cherry pick and support most any position you want to take here, but that a fair hearing of the scriptural contexts and positions from church history make it very difficult to categorically state that alcohol consumption is incompatible with a life lived in faithfulness to the precepts of Christ.
It is not true that the substance referred to as “wine” in the text of the New Testament was simply grape juice. There is substantial evidence within its writings and in the scope of church history that refutes this premise.
There are three major camps of philosophy when it comes to alcohol consumption in the church:
- Prohibitionism: Alcohol should be illegal to use recreationally – that is to say, its consumption is inherently immoral, and laws should reflect such. Proponents, almost as a matter of course, believe that the “wine” of Jesus’ day was devoid of alcohol.
- Abstentionism: While the wine of Jesus’ day may have had some level of alcohol, the way in which alcohol is presently regarded in our culture dictates that it not be consumed. Some think that the supposed increase in alcohol level between then and now changes the metrics; some think that no matter the ABV level, alcohol in general has become secularized.
- Moderationism: “Wine” in Jesus’ day did indeed have alcohol, and there is nothing immoral about its consumption – so long as one does not violate scriptural prohibitions against drunkenness and violating communal harmony.
Having studied the scholarship on the Hebrew yayin and shekar and the Greek oikos, the cultural contexts, and so on and so forth, I am firmly of the opinion that if you read Scripture for what it’s worth, as opposed to torquing it to accommodate what you’ve thought all along, there is no way to defend the stance that alcohol is inherently immoral. The error of prohibitionism is, I’m sorry to say, the same as was committed by the Pharisees: Adding extra strictures and layers of morality on top of Scripture, you know, just to be on the safe side.
The stance of abstentionists is a bit easier to understand, but is fraught with its own problems. One of the assertions they advance is that, while alcohol was indeed present in the beverages consumed in Biblical times, current societal circumstances dictate that it not be consumed. If that’s the case, there would have to be a day, date and time when such consumption went from being acceptable to being unacceptable – when was this?
Some also assert that there is a “rift in fellowship” when people drink, knowing that there are believers among them who take offense at such. I’ll employ a reductio ad absurdum argument here: Why doesn’t this apply to anything else? There are “Christian people” among us who believe non-Christians should be expelled from government, that non-procreative intercourse is sinful, that God is compelled by His own decree to bless financial giving with even greater financial gain, that “everything happens for a reason,” that “God must have wanted” that four year old girl who got raped and butchered to skip rope for him in Heaven – am I compelled to agree with them, or at least prevented from refuting their positions, because they would be offended if I didn’t and did, respectively? Of course not.
So why must those with a stance against alcohol be accommodated in this manner? Let’s consider the Scriptural basis for the absentionist argument. It seems from cultural observation that much of it is grounded in Romans 14:19-21:
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”
Let’s exegete this a bit. The issue is not “offense,” in the sense of being agape at the act – the issue is in causing someone “to stumble.” In order for this argument to be applicable, the commission of the act in question must cause a blow, a weakening force, to the faith of another believer. This is not applicable to people well founded in the faith who take personal offense to the act – only to those for whom the act is a quantified detriment to the exercise of their faith.
Furthermore, the above passage benefits greatly from its context, and from earlier assertions in verses two and three:
“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.”
How do we pretend to get around a crystal clear demand that we not judge those who have no moral compunction regarding alcohol?
The arguments for both prohibitionism and abstentionism break down when taken to their logical conclusion. For instance, let’s analyze possible aspects that supposedly bring unacceptability:
- Is it the alcohol itself as an organic compound? One wouldn’t think so. I’ve never received anyone at the altar who wanted to confess that they’d swallowed their mouthwash that morning, even though Listerine has an alcohol by volume level approaching that of tequila. If we followed this logic, swishing gin and spitting out more than half of it is acceptable.
- Is it the point of purchase? This would probably be true if alcohol were only available at your local Liquor ‘N Porn, but that isn’t the case. The absence of grassroots movements to institute widespread boycotts of every major hybridized grocery and retail center, almost every convenience store, many upscale hotels, and sit down family restaurants would suggest this isn’t the issue.
- Is it the venue in which it is consumed? Many of faith do hold bars and pubs in contempt, but this apparently isn’t the bulk of the equation either, as those same people seem to disapprove of it being in anyone’s house, either.
- Is it the motive by which the alcoholic beverage was produced? If a substance has no nutritive value and alters our body chemistry in some way, does that make it unacceptable? I would imagine the coffee and tea drinkers among us would vehemently disagree. Before we dismiss this as a lengthy cognitive leap, think about the parallels between caffeine and alcohol:
- A chemical which affects one’s physiology,
- Which is widely available,
- Which is legal to possess,
- Which is suspended in a liquid medium,
- Is consumed, and produces psychophysiological effects.
- A chemical which affects one’s physiology,
- Why is only the depressive agent sinful? Because self-imposed standards of morality and definitions of “sin” make it so. This line of logic would also require that any wine produced with the original intent of it being used for communion would be acceptable, at least for communion, if not casually.
- Is it that these beverages supposedly have no nutritive benefit? I don’t think we can make this the determinant factor…at least not with a straight face. Not when the fingers we’re wagging are coated in Cheeto dust and powdered sugar.
- Is it that ethanol is a “poison”? If this is the factor, many of us would have to change our diet, since there are trace amounts of poison in almonds (cyanide), cherries (prussic acid), apples (cyanide), lima beans (linamarin), tomatoes (glycoalkaloids), rhubarb (oxalic acid), kidney beans (phytohaemagglutinin), peaches (cyanide), plums (cyanide), and potatoes (glycoalkaloids). Are there sinful poisons and poisons that are within God’s will? Are there venially sinful poisons and mortally sinful poisons?
For most any objective parameter one could use as an objection, the linear logic breaks down. But doesn’t the Bible say, “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1)? Absolutely. But let’s examine the larger Scriptural context when it comes to this subject:
- Let’s start with this proverb. The obvious key phrase here is “led astray.” This is the lynchpin for one being in error. The Hebrew word here is shagah, which means to stray from a path, to meander, or to be intoxicated or in drunkenness. A glass of wine causes neither meandering nor drunkenness, but is somehow still condemned in much of the Evangelical culture.
- Earlier in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy, drink capable of intoxication was approved for celebrating the provision of God (14:24-26).
- Jesus Christ produced, ensured the service of, and assuredly drank wine containing ethanol. After performing his first miracle by transforming water into wine (not musty grape juice), he told the servants at the wedding he was attending to take what he had produced to the master of the banquet. This man had obviously attended many other weddings (by virtue of comparing practices in John 2:10), and was an apparent connoisseur of good wine (knowing the difference between “choice” wine and “cheaper” wine). If Jesus had just produced 120 gallons of unfermented grape juice, the master of the banquet would have immediately protested and not allowed its inclusion in the festivities; instead, the banquet master went out of his way to praise the bridegroom for not pushing out inferior wine in hopes that the guests would be inebriated and not know the difference.
- In the midst of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Eleven are accused of being drunk in the wake of their speaking in foreign languages as they were empowered by the Spirit. Peter then stood in their defense. If the consumption of alcohol were objectively immoral, one would imagine that his response would be, “These people are not drunk, as you suppose. Drinking is sinful, and we would never do such a thing!” What was his actual response, though? “These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!” It’s not that what they tended to drink was incapable of intoxication – it was simply not an appropriate time of day to be drinking.
- Some argue that the Bible often speaks of “new wine,” which, in their explanations, was probably just unfermented grape juice. Even if so, this line of thinking is immediately destroyed by Jesus’ own words in Luke 5:39: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’” That’s the end of the chapter. If alcohol was inherently sinful, he assuredly should have followed up by saying, “But don’t you believe it, because drinking alcohol is a sin.” The fact that it’s cast as an observation about daily life speaks volumes.
- The restrictions for deacons found in 1 Timothy 3 tellingly speak to the volume of consumption, not the act itself – the words used are “drunkenness” and “much wine.” If it was commonly accepted as evil, the threshold for these very specific requirements would have been zero, and clearly enumerated as such. This same dynamic is present in the teachings of Titus 2 and 1 Peter 4.
- Alcohol is roundly decried in Scripture in its excess and misappropriation – same as food, money, and sex, each of which we have less of an issue with for some reason. Conversely, it is lauded in other places. Wine “cheers both gods and men” (Judges 9:13), “gladdens the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15), represents abundant blessing (Proverbs 3:10), and is delightful and praiseworthy (Song of Solomon 1). This idea of a slippery slope or alcohol being a liquid gateway unto debauchery is conspicuously absent.
Now, on to an analysis of attitudes toward alcohol from church history. The declaration of alcohol consumption as a moral turpitude is not a Christian tradition – it is a Protestant Evangelical tradition, and a relatively recent one. The inconvenient truth here for some is that many of our most vaunted forebears in the faith assumed and defended the appropriate and moderate use of alcohol:
- Clement of Alexandria said youths should avoid drinking lest their “breasts and organs of generation, inflamed with wine, expand and swell in a shameful way,” but approved of moderate use for adults .
- Cyprian railed against Gnostics who replaced the wine of the Eucharist with water .
- John Chrysostom said, “Let there be no drunkenness; for wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil. Wine makes not drunkenness; but intemperance produces it. Do not accuse that which is the workmanship of God, but accuse the madness of a fellow mortal .”
- Martin Luther said, “Again, wine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool of him; so we kill all the women and pour out all the wine .” (These words of Chrysostom and Luther – separated by over a millenium – were not uttered offhand in an unguarded moment; both were posited within sermons.)
- Calvin received part of his salary in casks of wine .
- Even the Puritans, cemented in cultural thought as killjoys in the use of the term ‘Puritanical,’ were moderationists .
- You have to jump ahead to Methodism to start getting widespread movement against alcohol, and even then it is principally against distilled spirits. Across the board prohibitionist thought didn’t get off the ground in a large way until the late 1800s. Thus, most of our trepidation here comes from the American Temperence Movement, not the words of Christ or the greater tradition of the church.
For these reasons, and any number of others, we need to draw the same distinctions between drinking and drunkenness that we do between marital and extramarital sex, between enjoying food and engaging in gluttony, between emotional openness and propriety in worship, and between the countless other things that are spectral as opposed to digital when it comes to their impact on morality. Societal abstention from alcohol consumption honors the desires of the founders of the American Temperence Movement, but not necessarily those of God.
 The Writings of Clement of Alexandria: Exhortation to the heathen
 Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix
 Homilies Concerning the Statues to the People of Antioch
 Page on Predigten
 Christian views on alcohol
 My Take: On Thanksgiving, Puritans gave thanks for sex and booze