By Dr. Mark Creech
In an article titled, Christians and Alcohol, posted on January 9 in the Christian Post, Shane Vander Hart made the case for what he believes is the biblical teaching concerning alcohol use and abuse. Vander Hart’s personal story of alcohol abuse during his days in college and his decision to quit after becoming a follower of Christ; was, in this author’s estimation, where he should have stopped. The rest of his article, unfortunately, made the so-called case for imbibing responsibly.
Vander Hart was right, however, about one point: “This issue will forever be debated by Christians.” It’s a hot issue. It may come as a surprise to many, but as a Christian activist, whether I am addressing the issue of abortion, gay marriage, pornography, capital punishment, guns, taxes or healthcare, no subject produces as much emotion from readers as this one.
Moreover, the subject is very complicated and difficult. To discover what the Scripture actually says on the matter cannot be ascertained in a cursory approach. One has to dig, really dig. Let me also add that alcohol policy, which is a signature issue for the two organizations I represent, the Christian Action League of North Carolina and the American Council on Alcohol Problems, involves some of the most complex legislation and public-policy codified.
But the question of alcohol consumption, especially for Christians, is a critical one and all-too-often underestimated in its import. Unlike any other social issue our nation has faced, we’ve had two constitutional amendments on alcohol and its marketing. Furthermore, the states have developed thousands upon thousands of laws to address its problematic nature. These facts alone should refute the claim that it isn’t a big deal.
With these thoughts in mind, as well as with the deepest respect for those who may disagree, I want to take up each point made by Vander Hart for moderation and respond with a view for abstinence.
1. Underage drinking is illegal and therefore sinful. It is indeed required that Christians obey the law of the land, therefore, underage drinking is wrong. But to claim that something is wrong simply because it’s illegal doesn’t make for a strong moral argument. Its legality alone doesn’t make it right, nor does it make it acceptable.
In scientific fact, alcohol is a mind-altering drug. Christians who abandon the position of abstinence from alcohol set themselves up for a quandary when it comes to using other mind-altering drugs recreationally. If it is acceptable for a Christian to legally drink, perhaps it is now tolerable to also smoke marijuana where its legal, in places like Washington state and Colorado. After all, if a Christian can moderately take one mind-altering drug (alcohol), then why not another – especially when it’s legal? Will some Christians now argue I don’t smoke more than one or two joints at a setting?
The safest and wisest position is to abstain from alcohol, marijuana, and any mind-altering drug used recreationally.
2. The Bible prohibits drunkenness and condemns poor behavior as a result of too much to drink. On this point every Christian should be agreed. However, many Christians believe the Bible also prohibits drinking. While the ancient writers did not have a word for alcohol, the Scriptures depict alcoholic wine by its effects. Therefore, in Proverbs 23:29-35 it describes the effects of alcoholic wine, then commands that we not even look upon it, much less to drink it moderately. Proverbs 20:1 refers to alcoholic wine as a “mocker.” Condemnation of drunkenness is a given, but in Proverbs 20:1 Solomon points the finger at the commodity as the source of one’s folly. Thessalonians 5:6-8 contrasts sobriety with drunkenness and directly commands that we be sober. Interestingly, the Greek word for “sober” literally means “wineless.” Thus, Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, rightly argues, “Moderate drinking is moderate intoxication.”
It must be understood that in Scripture, “wine” is not synonymous with “alcohol.” The biblical words for wine were used generically and referred to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. A similar use of such generic wording in the English language is liquor, cider, punch, and drink. For example, the Bible calls “wine” that which is grape juice (Proverbs 3:10; Isaiah 16:10; Joel 2:24), vinegar (Mark 15:36), and even grapes on the vine (Isaiah 65:8). And of course, it also refers to an alcoholic wine. Jesus referred to both kinds of wine in Matthew 9:17 and called both “oinos” (wine). The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible c. 200 BC) also uses words for wine interchangeably. This also addresses the reason wine is condemned (alcoholic) in some places of the Bible and lauded (non-alcoholic) in others.
Over and again, non-alcoholic wine was called by the name “wine” and was common throughout the year. Contrary to the assertions that unfermented wine could not have been readily available before the days of refrigeration or pasteurization, the truth is the ancients practiced a half dozen or more ways to preserve grape juice and other kinds of fruit juices as either alcoholic or non-alcoholic. They were considerably more resourceful than we often give them credit.
The determination of whether the Bible is speaking about fermented wine or unfermented is the context.
3. Much of the taboo regarding Christians drinking in moderation seems to be more cultural than biblical. Since Vander Hart’s contentions for moderation of alcohol have become the prevailing assessment of today, we should say that the circumstances are really the other way around – the rejection of abstinence and acceptance of moderation is more cultural – more the result of the influences of a drug-saturated society than what the Bible actually teaches.
Vander Hart quotes Psalm 104:14-15, which says wine “gladdens the heart of man.”
Does he mean to suggest by quoting this text that in order to gladden a man’s heart the wine must be fermented and that unfermented wine could never do this? Of course, it can. They had no cane sugar in Bible times. Their only sources of sweetness came from fruit and honey. Alcoholic fermentation took the sweetness away, and many preferred and highly esteemed that sweetness. After a year’s labor in the vineyard, that new, unfermented, sweet wine brought great gladness and joy.
Are we to erroneously argue the Scriptures endorse the use of a drug to precipitate happiness? God forbid. I’ve often had a drug-free gladness of heart. In fact, a vibrant Christian experience would testify that no “spirits” are needed for a cheerful disposition, only God’s Spirit.
Like so many others, Vander Hart also uses Deuteronomy 14:26 to make the case for drinking in moderation. Yet, the text only mentions drinking in passing. Just like wine, “shekar,” which is often translated “strong drink,” could be preserved as an alcoholic or a non-alcoholic beverage. Shekar refers to juice from fruit other than grapes. Several authorities confirm this view. The New King James Version (NKJV) translates the text as “wine and similar drink.” Wycliffe translated shekar as “cider,” which can refer to either hard or soft. Even among those who argue that shekar does refer to an alcoholic drink, they often dispute whether it is a fruit drink or beer, which essentially lends credence to the assertion that the word can have multiple meanings. Thus, it is most improper to take an obscure text as this one and use it to make a doctrine for the use of a hard drug (alcohol), while ignoring the numerous clear passages condemning the use of intoxicating beverages.
Vander Hart also claims Jesus turned water into alcoholic wine. Despite this assumption by many, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Jesus made or drank alcoholic wine. Those who follow this line of reasoning are simply offering their own interpretations – imposing their own assumptions rather than coming to such conclusions from the texts. See my article: Drinking and Jesus Turning Water Into Wine.
4. We have liberty in Christ. Indeed we do have liberty in Christ. Nevertheless, the irony of arguing for liberty to drink responsibly over the biblical requirement to use our liberty responsibly seems only another symptom of negative cultural influences on the church. Romans 14: 20-21, teaches we are not to use our liberty if it might cause another to stumble. John Wesley, the great Methodist preacher and reformer, said, “You see the wine when it sparkles in the cup, and are going to drink it. I say, there is poison in it, and therefore, beg you to throw it away. If you add, ‘It is not poison to me, though it may be to others,’ then I say, ‘throw it away for thy brother’s sake, lest thou embolden him to drink also. Why should thy strength occasion thy weak brother to perish for whom Christ died?’”
5. We have responsibility in Christ. To be fair, Vander Hart does argue for the responsible use of our liberty in Christ, but then diminishes that responsibility by arguing it’s acceptable to drink as long as it’s not in front of those who are weak, such as alcoholics, former alcoholics, or someone from a family of alcoholics, or people who believe that drinking is wrong. It puzzles me, however, how Vander Hart could always know who these people are. What about the people he bought the alcohol from – does he know their situation? What about the garbage man who sees the empty beer cans or the liquor bottles in his trash? What about his own children or other family members? Can he be absolutely certain they don’t have a genetic predisposition to an alcohol addiction? What if he imbibes privately at home and an emergency arises among someone he loves, a friend or a fellow church member? Can he be unquestionably sure his judgment and reflexes wouldn’t be the slightest impaired for such an hour of need?
Our witness for Christ is imperative. We must earnestly seek, even sacrifice, to keep it clean and unencumbered from anything that might tarnish or lessen its strength. Moderate drinking, even privately, is fraught with numerous risks that are unnecessary.
6. In all things moderation. There is one very telling statement in Vander Hart’s defense of moderate drinking. He writes, “Motive check – why do I want to drink? Is it because it tastes good, or do I have another motive?” He continues, “Am I drinking for comfort or because I’m in a bad mood? Am I drinking due to stress? Who should I be going to when I’m in pain, sad, stressed, etc? Beer or God. Bad motive, pray don’t drink then. This could be said with anything.”
I suppose it could be said that the wrong motives can drive one to partake of any food or substance improperly, producing an addiction or some other harmful result. But few outcomes come close to even touching the hem of the garment of negative consequences produced by alcohol.
It may be true, as Vander Hart asserts, gluttony is often overlooked by some church ministries. Still, in the Bible gluttony seems to be associated with something more serious than just being overweight – a problem quite prevalent in every church. Interestingly, gluttony is often associated in Scripture with drunkenness, laziness, and living a useless life. Though it is wrong to eat in an unhealthy manner, overeating doesn’t produce an altered state of mind that will put others around me at risk.
Xenophon (c. 400 BC) said, “Temperance may be defined as: Moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful.” Proverbs 25:16, 27 warn against eating too much honey. In other words, we should be moderate with honey, but abstinent with harmful recreational drugs.
Vander Hart’s question as to motives for drinking, however, really goes to the heart of the matter but not as he suggests. Why do people drink? The majority who drink admit that it relaxes them. It comforts them. It gives them confidence. It gives them a buzz. It makes their troubles go away, at least temporarily. For those who say they drink simply for the taste, there are non-alcoholic beverages that could provide a similar response for the palate; although most have never been popular. Still, the fact is most people drink for the drug effect – simple as that.
Vander Hart says he had an evolution on the issue of alcohol – ranging from complete abstinence, “cold turkey,” to moderation. My experience was marked by change too, but in the opposite direction. After accepting Christ, I always believed in refraining from drink. But my position moved from abstinence for testimony sake, to abstinence because I believed the nature of the wine described in the Bible was unlike any of the alcoholic beverages of today, to the conviction alcohol itself is inherently problematic and evil. My current position in favor of abstinence now encompasses some of all three.
Nevertheless, I recognize many devout Christians don’t share my convictions, while many others do. This article is not meant as an attack on Shane Vander Hart’s person or his commitment to Christ. Even the great Christian leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther drank alcohol and encouraged it. But Luther was also anti-Semitic and just as Luther was wrong on anti-Semitism; I believe he was wrong on alcohol. He had his blind spots. And just as I believe I am entirely right about alcohol and Vander Hart and other brethren like him are wrong, I can only surmise as to what my own blind spots are on other matters pertaining to the Christian life. None of us in our walk with Christ is without error.
The point of this article, however, is to present the other view on alcohol – the one calling for a higher standard – the one where the Christian can never be alcohol’s victim or fall prey to regret for its use – the one that humbly sets the best example in a world of substance addictions and other related perils – the one that calls for total abstinence of its recreational use. Too much is at stake to for any other position.
The author gratefully acknowledges the work of David R. Brumbelow and his excellent book, “Ancient Wine and the Bible” in the writing of this article.