It would be a gross understatement to say that the Church of Jesus Christ
is seriously divided over the use of alcoholic beverages. This is certainly
not new or even recent. This issue stirs deep-seated feelings and gen-
erates more heated debate than helpful light. This is understandable due
to the deep ravages brought to families and friends through the abuse of alcohol. One does not have to travel far even within our families to see the casualties. Nevertheless, our views on this issue must be informed, shaped by and submissive to the authority of the word of God. Even our consciences are not are not reliable standards unless they have been reeducated by Scripture. If the conscience is making judgments based upon one’s feelings, culture, tradition, experience, environment or background or any so-called expert, then the conscience is ill informed and unreliable. We are committed to sola scriptura.
Historically, there have been three classic positions on the use of alcohol. All three positions firmly agree on one point: drunkenness is a serious sin against the express command of Scripture (Ephesians 5:18). The three positions are prohibitionist, abstentionist and moderationist.
The prohibitionist position maintains that alcoholic beverages are to be universally avoided as unfit for human consumption and specifically forbidden by Scripture. Some prohibitionists regard alcoholic beverages themselves to be inherently evil. In this view the question is a “legal” matter and is forbidden by the law of God.
The abstentionist view maintains that although alcoholic beverages are not expressly forbidden in Scripture as a matter of universal practice, alcohol consumption in our society is nevertheless imprudent and should not be condoned. This is due to the moral-social context in which we live and the easy availability of highly distilled beverages. In this view abstinence is not a matter of “law” but of love. Thus it is to be voluntarily given up as a matter of prudence. This view is also known as teetotalerism or the wisdom view.
The moderationist view maintains that Scripture not only permits the moderate use of alcoholic beverages but commends it as well. This has for the most part been the position of the Protestant reformers. The position defended in this article will be the moderationist position.
First, one can look at all the Hebrew terms in the Old Testament and Greek terms in the New Testament and reach only one legitimate conclusion that has integrity. The wine of both testaments is fermented i.e. has alcoholic content. In every case the same wine that is prohibited in its abuse which leads to drunkenness is identical to the wine that is regarded as a gift and blessing of God if used properly i.e. in moderation.
At this point I will offer a critique of both the prohibitionist and abstentionist positions. Then I will sitenstrate that the moderationist position is most consistent with the Biblical view of alcoholic beverages.
The prohibitionist’s position is predicated on the presupposition that the abuse of God’s good gifts requires the prohibition of the use of God’s good gifts. The reasoning of many prohibitionists is as follows: Scripture condemns drunkenness and drinking alcoholic beverages can lead to drunkenness, therefore Scripture condemns the drinking of alcoholic beverages. However, following the same line of reasoning, Christians would also be forced to conclude that since Scripture condemns gluttony and eating can lead to gluttony, Scripture therefore condemns the eating of food. Or the following: Scripture condemns murder, owning a gun can lead to murder, therefore, Scripture condemns the owning of all guns. Also, Scripture condemns the abuse of authority, parents have abused their authority, so Scripture condemns all parental authority.
What does Scripture say? It is not the lawful use of fermented wine that is condemned in Scripture, but its unlawful use. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles a man, but rather that which proceeds from and evil heart that defiles him (see Mark 7:15-23). Therefore, wine that enters the mouth is not evil, but rather the sinful abuse of it which proceeds from an evil heart. No material thing is evil in and of itself, but rather the abuse of it that is evil (see Romans 14:14). Don’t submit your conscience to man-made decrees that forbid touching, tasting or handling in order to keep the flesh in check, for they are all futile (see Colossians 2:20-23). Don’t give heed to doctrines of sitens which teach that it is unlawful to marry or to eat certain foods which God has created, for everything God has created is good and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer (see 1 Timothy 4:1-5). Therefore, since alcoholic beverages have been given by God to man (Psalm 104:14-15), they may be lawfully enjoyed by God’s people if they are used in moderation and received with thanksgiving. Thus, to teach that it is sinful to use alcoholic beverages is to each what Paul classifies as “doctrines of sitens,” for it teaches that evil resides in what God has created, rather than in the evil hearts of men. Therefore, I submit to you that Scripture does not provide warrant for the prohibitionist position, but on the contrary does provide commendation for the moderate use of alcoholic beverages.
The abstentionist position is predicated upon the presupposition that the fear of man or the “tyranny of the weaker brother” determines our abstention from alcohol. They argue that it is wise for reasons of expediency. They believe it is a poor witness to unbelievers, to weaker brothers and our children, so as a matter of love (not legalistic requirement) all Christians should totally abstain. It is true that we should always seek to be a good witness before believers and unbelievers alike, but even that which constitutes a Christian witness must be judged by Scripture and not by our culture. If unbelievers judge that it is a poor witness for Christians to be so “intolerant” in their views of sexual promiscuity, should we change so as to have a better witness? Or if Christians are accused of being narrow minded because of their pro-life views, should we be more concerned about what God says or what man says? If Scripture does not condemn a practice as a poor witness (but on the contrary approves of the practice), then neither should we disapprove of it. Does a Christian necessarily project a biblical Christian witness to the world by practicing total abstinence when there is no biblical warrant for doing so? No!
The Lord and His disciples continued to use alcoholic beverages despite the fact that sinful men abused them to their own destruction at the time in which Jesus lived just as they do today (1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:10). In fact, Jesus Himself was falsely accused of abusing wine (Luke 7:31-35) and yet He didn’t discontinue the practice of drinking wine (what the Lord drank was wine for what John the Baptist did not drink was wine, cf. Luke 7:33). He even created wine for consumption in a social context (John 2:1-12). Certainly no Christian would think of accusing the infinitely wise Son of God of being unwise in that situation. However, if one believes Jesus should have abstained from all wine because He was falsely accused of being a winebibber, then likewise He should have abstained from all bread because He was also falsely accused of being a glutton. The argument that we must permanently refrain from all alcoholic beverages in order to be a good witness is unbiblical. It is not the lawful use of wine that is a bad testimony, but the unlawful use of it. Children will not be any more likely to abuse wine when it is lawfully used within a Christian family than they would be to abuse a car when it is lawfully used within a Christian family. You should not refrain from the lawful use of any of God’s good gifts simply because there is the possibility of abuse, rather you should carefully instruct your children in the legitimate use.
Finally, the argument that we must permanently abstain from all alcoholic beverages in order to maintain a good testimony before men will open the door to hundreds of legalistic standards imposed upon the Christian simply because of the possibility that someone might be offended. In the name of not offending people, you would have to give up pork, red meat, guns, beards, jewelry, etc. ad infinitum. This is a principle that cannot be carried out consistently, nor should it be, because it is unbiblical.
In conclusion, the moderationist position which we hold is best summed up by John Calvin in a sermon on Deuteronomy 14:26, which is arguably the classic Old Testament text with regard to drinking alcoholic beverages. The command reads, “Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.” Calvin’s exposition of this verse is interesting. He accentuates not only the glory of God but eating and drinking in the presence of the God of glory. When we drink wine or strong drink, we drink in the audience of the heavenly Vintner who expects us to enjoy His gifts. John Calvin also expressed his heartfelt gratitude for wine. He wrote in his The Institutes of Christian Religion that, “It is permissible to use wine not only for necessity, but also to make us merry.” Calvin praised the transubstantiation of the water into wine at Cana of Galilee as “most excellent wine”. He laid down two conditions for wine drinking: first, it must be moderate, “lest men forget themselves, drown their senses, and destroy their strength”. Calvin also argued that in “making merry,” those who enjoy wine “feel a livelier gratitude to God”.
I hope these thoughts will be helpful to you as you consider this issue.