The Highest Standard

For better than a hundred years, a large majority of Bible-believing Christians have opposed the use of alcoholic beverages. They have imposed on themselves and on the church an absolute rule against drinking. Such a rule is close to a Biblical precept.

31 Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright [or, "when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly"; NASB].

32 At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.

Proverbs 23:31-32

The beverage described here is grape juice which has undergone fermentation. The cloudy leas have settled out, leaving the wine red and sparkling. The sugar content has diminished so that the wine causes less response in the taste buds. Thus, it seems to go down "aright," or straightway, just like water. But since the alcoholic content has increased, the wine produces a stinging or burning sensation in the throat and esophagus. The writer goes on to explain why fermented wine is the choice of fools.

33 Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things.

34 Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast.

35 They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.

Proverbs 23:33-35

The drinker will suffer from giddiness, indicating that his nervous system is suffering from the deadening action of a poison (vv. 33-35). The gates of his mind will be opened to wicked thoughts (v. 33). And after falling into a stupor, he will awake with an unnatural craving for more drink (v. 35).

The Lord says, "Wine is a mocker" (Prov. 20:1). What then should the Lord's children think of wine? Should they see it as a heavenly nectar with power to release them from earthly care? Should they view it as a magic potion for conjuring sweet companionship? No, they should fear it and stay away from it.

The habit of Scripture is to reinforce precept with example. Alcoholic drink is first mentioned in the story of Noah (Gen. 9:20-27). When fermented wine took away his modesty, his son Ham mocked him, but his sons Shem and Japheth gave him decent covering. Noah later realized that the conduct of each son was a sign of basic character, which would devolve upon his offspring and shape their role in subsequent history (vv. 24-27). Likewise, Noah's part in the same incident had prophetic meaning. His drunkenness showed a serious weakness that would appear in all branches of his own offspring, comprising the whole of mankind since the Flood.

The power of wine to overcome a man's godliness and common sense is a recurrent theme of Scripture. After much drinking, Lot was easily lured into sexual immorality (Gen. 19:30-36). Two of Aaron's sons, serving as priests in the Lord's tabernacle, were instantly executed by the Lord when they offered strange fire on the altar (Lev. 10:1-7). Apparently they had been drinking, for the Lord afterward set down regulations forbidding any priest from entering the tabernacle under the influence of wine or strong drink (Lev. 10:8-11). Belshazzar, "whiles he tasted the wine," desecrated the sacred vessels plundered from the Temple in Jerusalem (Dan. 5:2).

The Bible lists drunkenness among the grievous sins that cannot be tolerated in an assembly of believers. A professing Christian guilty of drunkenness must be expelled from the church (1 Cor. 5:11). Paul says, "Be not deceived: . . . , nor drunkards, . . . , shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Yet although the Bible censures drunkenness and issues stern warnings against fermented wine, it refrains from forthrightly legislating total abstinence. Why? For three reasons.

  1. Readers in Bible times lived in countries where grapes were a principal source of food, and food was not always easy to come by. Many Israelites and Jews of antiquity were rural farmers, barely able to keep themselves at the level of subsistence. A merciful God, desiring His people to be adequately nourished, was not willing to deny them the use of any naturally abundant produce of their fields and hillsides. Therefore, he did not forbid grapes or grape juice or even fermented wine. He foresaw that in a time of scarcity, fermented wine might be about the only food available.
  2. After juice was pressed from the grape, the easiest way to keep it for a long period was in fermented form. Methods for preserving unfermented juice required some technical know-how and perhaps some additional cost. Therefore, to ease the burden on all His people, and to avoid putting the poor and unlearned at a disadvantage before the law, the Lord permitted the drinking of fermented wine.
  3. The Lord is always reticent to set down a law that will be generally ignored. Such a law, saving few from an evil practice but implicating many in disobedience, actually increases sin. Thus, because the Israelites would not heed a law against divorce, the Mosaic code permitted divorce under certain conditions (Matt. 19:7-8). Yet God so imprinted His hatred of divorce upon the Bible that any reader of tender conscience would not fail to see it. Similarly, in recognition of the hardness of the human heart, the Bible does not plainly prohibit the drinking of fermented wine. In ancient times, especially, such a ban would have gained little compliance. Yet the Lord has carefully salted His Word with many clues that His perfect will for the believer, especially for the believer in our day, is total abstinence.

What are these clues? In the Old Testament, total abstinence was required of anyone performing a sacred office or service. A king was admonished to forego intoxicating drink while he judged the people (Prov. 31:4-5). A priest had to be fully sober while he was ministering in the Temple (Lev. 10:8-11). Anyone who took a Nazirite vow, a vow to set himself apart for a period of special dedication and service to the Lord, was forbidden to eat or drink any product of the vine. He was specifically required to abstain from wine and strong drink (Num. 6:3).

The law of the Nazirite and the special regulations for priests and kings were evidently intended as a lesson for believers under the New Covenant. The offices of Nazirite, priest, and king are no longer reserved for a few. Rather, Christ has gathered all these offices to Himself, and as a member of Christ, each believer is simultaneously a Nazirite, priest, and king. Moreover, he performs each office at all times, during every moment of His Christian walk. He is always a humble servant displaying the contemptible marks of his calling, like a long-haired Nazirite. He is always a petitioner and intercessor before the throne, like a priest. And he is always a minister to those under his charge, like a king. After the example of his predecessors under the Old Covenant, he should refrain from alcoholic beverages, recognizing that they might in some way make his service ineffective or dishonorable. In performing his offices, there is never any pause. So, likewise, there is never any pause in his duty to shun alcoholic drink. He should practice total abstinence.

Fallacies in Moderationism

It is widely believed, even among Christians, that moderation in drinking is a sufficient precaution against the dangers in alcohol. But we must not believe the flattering lie of Satan that we are godlike in our ability to discern good and evil. In fact, our knowledge of the remote outcomes issuing from this or that choice is absurdly small. What we see of moral reality is a tiny sliver of space-time removed from infinity. Only God can see the whole picture, and only He can make the hard calculation of greatest good. Only He can decide whether moderation or total abstinence is the better standard for drinking. Since He has revealed through His Word that the better standard is abstinence, we must believe that He regards even small amounts of drinking as harmful, either in their immediate effects upon the body or in their more distant effects upon the drinker and other people.

Until recently, many Christians saw nothing wrong in smoking a few cigarettes every day, even though the church as a whole was moved by God to label all tobacco use as sin. This firm rejection of smoking has been vindicated by science. Research has shown that smoking even in moderation appreciably increases the risk of many kinds of health problems. It will probably be determined that the same is true of drinking in moderation. Already, it is known that alcohol in the bloodstream can damage chromosomes and brain cells.

Even if an occasional drinker escapes serious harm to his own body, he must reckon with the effects of his drinking upon other people. He cannot drink without encouraging others to drink also. Anything he does to make drinking easier or more attractive for others puts social pressure on them to drink. A man can introduce a friend to drinking by offering him a beer or glass of wine, by taking him to a place where everyone else is drinking, or just by foisting on him the idea that drinking is a good thing. He tells his friend, "A little bit won't hurt you. Its only effect is to help you relax, a real benefit in our stressful world." He need not say anything to start his family drinking. His wife will join him to share his heightened affability. His children will someday drink to reproduce his example. Yet the person he lures into drinking may not be able to handle it. He may begin with the intention of avoiding excess, but may soon find himself saddled with an irresistible craving for more alcohol.

A few scientific studies suggest that some people have a natural predisposition to alcoholism, as a result of quirks in their brain chemistry favoring dependence upon alcohol as the only means of sustaining a sense of well being. Such studies do not, however, support the idea that alcoholism is simply a disease. A man may be powerless to resist a disease, but though he has a predisposition to alcoholism, he need not become an alcoholic. He can resist it and escape it altogether by exercising his freedom of will. A predisposition to alcoholism, if it exists, is nothing but a weakness for the sin of drunkenness, like the weaknesses some people have for the sins of lust or anger. Everyone has points of special vulnerability to the darts of temptation.

Yet God has promised that whenever we meet temptation, He will provide a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). For anyone easily drawn into uncontrolled drinking, the way of escape is total abstinence. Because a little alcohol might be enough to get him started on the road to alcoholism, God in His Word advises him against drinking even in moderation.

Four considerations demonstrate that this same standard is appropriate for everyone, not just for potential alcoholics.

  1. There is no certain way of telling who is a potential alcoholic.
  2. God wishes the fellowship of believers to be a refuge from companions who drink and who encourage drinking. The brother prone to alcoholism finds it much easier to remain firm in total abstinence when this is the practice of all Christians. To spare this weaker brother from temptation, all Christians should refrain from drinking (1 Cor. 8:13).
  3. Anyone who drinks even a little alcohol immediately suffers a degree of intoxication, with some resulting impairment of the body. Reflex time increases, bodily control diminishes, etc. Another result is dulling of moral inhibition. Lust, gluttony, and temper all become harder to keep in check. Any aggravation may cause an explosion of rage.
  4. Drinking in moderation is unusual and difficult in our culture. Anyone who takes a drink generally finds himself surrounded by encouragement to drink more, even until he is drunken. Outside the church, drunkenness is a major problem wherever people share good times, such as on college campuses. Compounding the problem is a gradual trend toward larger servings at bars and restaurants.