It’s coming up to that time of the year when traditionally alcoholic beverages are consumed more. In the past, certain types of Christians have shunned alcohol for a variety of reasons, some personal, others due to the effects that its abuse were having on society at the time. Even today, some branches of Christianity will not allow alcoholic beverages to be taken onto their property, and it’s enshrined in their statutes, but they do not proscribe their members from drinking it off premises should they choose.
So let’s look at the issue of Christians and alcoholic drinks. We’ll explore various Bible verses and learn some Greek and Hebrew along the way. We’ll use Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience to be able to analyse the issues at play, and see how God says we can drink alcoholic drinks too, should we choose to.
Please don’t get me wrong as this blog post isn’t about forcing people to accept that they must consume alcohol. To force someone to do something against their conscience would be utterly wrong. However, there are some Christians who either believe that you cannot be a “true Christian” or a “real Christian” if you drink alcoholic beverages, or that Christians should not drink alcoholic drinks. They then go on to interpret Scripture in such a way that every mention of wine which shows negative consequences of its consumption must be alcoholic, whereas any mention of wine which is positive (eg in the Eucharist / Communion) must only be “sweet grape juice” – seriously! Such eisegetical twisting of Scripture to fit their own ends leads to bondage, both of themselves, but sadly others who hold them up to be “scholars” and their words are held in great esteem and not to be challenged (because they’re the “biblical scholar”). Worse still, they condemn others by attempting to force a guilt trip on them if they continue to drink alcoholic wine.
We’ll examine this using one of my favourite tools, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. To explain, think of a three-legged stool, with the seat as Scripture, and the three legs plugging into it as Tradition, Reason and Experience.
As a child I didn’t grow up regularly drinking alcohol. I might have a “snowball” on Christmas Eve as a treat, or the odd small glass of cider on a rare occasion with Sunday roast, but that was it. It was only when I got to my A Level results day that I went and bought my first pint of beer (well, a “Guinness and Black”). Some may laugh, but that was my upbringing, and was the way I was used to it. In hindsight, I think it was helpful to steer clear of what a number of my friends were engaging in – binge drinking and suchlike. Plus, I didn’t really like the taste back then (hence the “black” in the Guinness – sacrilege I know now :D).
Since then, I have been a social consumer of alcoholic drinks of a variety of sorts. Have I ever been drunk? Yes. I have had less than a handful of occasions when at parties I was drinking and didn’t keep a track. And I hate that feeling afterwards – a hangover is not pleasant, and I now know my limits and stick within them because I don’t want a hangover. Do I get “merry”? Yes. At appropriate times, I will consume a bit more in order to enter into a state of merriment, but there’s a difference between that and drunk. I am still aware of what I’m doing, just in a more relaxed, jolly mood. Is that wrong? Well, consider Psalms 104:15, the context of which is discussing the good things that God has made for humans to enjoy:
“… wine to gladden the human heart”
Now, the legalistic “Christians can’t drink alcohol” person would interpret that as being “sweet grape juice”. So, let’s look at the Hebrew for that passage…
Note that Hebrew reads from right to left, so the first word there is “yayin”, (H3196 in Strong’s notation)
Reference H3196 notes that the word “yayin” means “effervesce”, something that doesn’t happen with sweet grape juice and is a product of fermentation, which creates alcohol. So the passage here is describing God as having made alcoholic wine as something for humans to enjoy and it brings cheer.
But, “yayin” is also used in passages which describe being intoxicated by it (eg Isaiah 28:7):
“These also reel with wine
and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
they are confused with wine,
they stagger with strong drink;
they err in vision,
they stumble in giving judgment.”
In Hebrew this is
Note the appearances of “yayin” H3196.
So using experience, brought alongside Scripture, wine (yayin) can bring cheer and in excess lead to intoxication.
Sweet grape juice cannot lead to intoxication and does not effervese.
Grape skins have their own wild yeast on them. As soon as a grape is crushed, the sweet, sugary grape juice inside will touch the yeast. Yeast + sugar leads to the production of alcohol, no matter how much you try and stop it, unless you peel the grapes and then crush them.
No archaeological evidence suggests people peeled their grapes before they crushed them, they threw the clusters straight into the presses and the juice started fermentation straight away.
Seeing as the Creator wrote the laws of this particular chemical reaction, and everything made was “very good”, then it stands to reason that this particular reaction is something which we are to give thanks for as children of the Creator.
Consider the passage in Mark 2:22 (yes, it’s not OT Hebrew, it’s NT Greek)
“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
As someone married to an experienced winemaker (a wonderful blessing), I see firsthand the wine making process. Simplified, you mix up your fruit, add sugar and yeast and over a week or two, you see the effervescence as the bubbles of CO2, a waste product of fermentation, are released. You then put the new wine into a demijohn with an airlock (as demijohns are made of glass which doesn’t expand, and would explode if the CO2 pressure became too much). The airlock bubbles away for many more days until the fermentation process is over.
In olden days, wineskins would be used. Old wineskins would have lost their elasticity and be incapable of further stretching without bursting. New wineskins would have elasticity and therefore be able to take the gas produced by fermentation.
If we put sweet grape juice which has been pasteurised to kill any rogue yeast cells that would turn it into alcohol into a demijohn, we wouldn’t need an airlock, it would remain there unfermented.
So, Jesus in the passage is using a metaphor of alcoholic wine, without any condemnation of the process (after all, he as the Creator made it).
In Greek, the passage above reads
So the Greek word οἶνος is used for alcoholic wine.
In fact, it’s telling that Jesus’ first miracle, the water into wine in John 2:1-12, uses the Greek word οἶνος in every mention of “wine”. Jesus changed the water into alcoholic wine, not sweet grape juice as some would try and force us to believe. And the statement from the steward is very telling (v 9-10):
“When the steward tasted the water that had become wine [οἶνος], and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine [οἶνος] first, and then the inferior wine [οἶνος] after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine [οἶνος] until now.”
If οἶνος meant sweet grape juice why on earth would the steward discuss guests becoming drunk on it? I was brought up to be told that the people wouldn’t be drunk at these weddings, and yet here’s Scripture saying that the guests would get drunk (‘μεθύω‘ v10) on the good wine first, as their senses would be able to know if it was poor quality wine. But here’s Jesus, near the end of a wedding party (which lasted days!), making good quality alcoholic wine which would help them remain in a state of drunkenness. Tis a mystery, or maybe Jesus was someone who enjoyed his wine? Why else would he be called a “drunkard” by his opponents (Luke 7:33-34) if he didn’t drink alcoholic wine?
So. God created grapes and the fermentation process, it’s part of the “very good” creation he made. He helped people use it to create wine which brings cheer to our hearts if taken in moderation. He advises against becoming drunk on it, and we all know the repercussions that can come from drunken behaviour, not just on oneself, but on others around us, and also the issues that can come from chronic alcoholic abuse.
God has given us a wonderful regenerating organ, the liver. Sure consuming an alcoholic beverage can cause a bit of the liver to be damaged, which sounds bad at first, but God knows this and gives us an organ to handle it. It’s when it’s abused that it leads to chronic liver damage and organ failure.
There is much more which could go into the “Reason” section, but I’ll leave it at that.
The Eucharist / Communion has been celebrated by Christians for nearly 2000 years using alcoholic wine rather than the more recent “grape juice” or even worse, Ribena (which isn’t even a “fruit of the vine”). It was initiated by Jesus in what is known as the Last Supper, on the night before he was crucified. Matt 26:29, Mark 14:25 and Luke 22:18 all mention Jesus talking about him not drinking from the “fruit of the vine” until he returns. In the context of ancient vineyards and their production of alcoholic wine in preference to “sweet grape juice”, it would be a minority interpretation and eisegesis (reading into the text what we want, based on our own preconceived ideas) to say that Jesus not using οἶνος specifically means it cannot have been alcoholic wine. It was tradition that alcoholic wine was served at the Passover meal, and it is from ancient tradition we use alcoholic wine in the Eucharist / Communion.
Would God specifically say that we could drink wine? Is there something in the Bible which catagorically states, from God’s own words, that his followers can drink alcoholic wine. Not just that it’s a gift from God, but that it’s to be consumed by his followers? This is a key point in the argument that demolishes the idea that Christians cannot drink wine. Hold on tight…
The Hebrew holds the clue for this, so grab your Bible, a copy of Strong’s Concordance (Strong’s for the strong…) and let’s examine whether or not Christians are allowed to consume alcoholic beverages…
We’ve only seen a few, but there are many verses which discuss wine in Scripture and we won’t have time to search them all. You can find some referenced here if you wish to take this study further.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for alcoholic wine is “yayin” (Strong’s word reference H3196 ). It means to “effervesce”, something that doesn’t happen with sweet grape juice, but only as a result of fermentation (see above).
Noah’s drunken episode: Genesis 9:21 “He drank some of the wine [‘yayin’] and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent.”. In Hebrew it looks like this (taken from e-Sword software):
We could look at other Scriptures for references to ‘yayin’, but it’s clear upon further study that the word means a beverage made of fruits of the vine which can cause drunkenness and must therefore be alcoholic. One cannot get drunk on sweet grape juice – it’s chemically impossible.
The Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:2-4) forbade the drinking of alcoholic beverages:
“When either men or women make a special vow, the vow of a nazirite, to separate themselves to the Lord, they shall separate themselves from wine and strong drink; they shall drink no wine vinegar or other vinegar, and shall not drink any grape juice or eat grapes, fresh or dried. 4 All their days as nazirites they shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.
Or in Hebrew
[Note there’s a distinction between ‘yayin’ (H3196 – alcoholic wine), ‘shêkâr’ (H7941 – intoxicating liquor), which could suggest there was possibly some sort of distillation occurring to boost the alcoholic level of the wine, but that’s only a possibility.]
The Nazirite during their vow (which was not a lifetime vow as we shall see) could not drink alcoholic beverages. Why would God prohibit this during the vow if people were only drinking “sweet grape juice” any other time?
But, there’s more… After the Nazirite vow (when it’s completed – v13), God then gives a whole pile of ritual things that must be done to complete the vow, which in v20 culminates in the following statement from God…
“After that the nazirites may drink wine”
Or in Hebrew:
Notice that word at the end, H3196, ‘yayin’. God in Numbers 6:20 states that a person may drink ‘yayin’, which as we’ve seen above is the exact same word that is used to describe alcoholic beverages which may if taken in excess lead to becoming drunk.
Alcoholic Wine and other alcoholic beverages are gifts from loving God, which like any gift, can be used or abused.
Whether we choose to drink is a matter of our own conscience, we are free to consume alcoholic beverages, and don’t let any modern-day legalist try and bind you into their own personal ways of behaving around alcohol. Be free to enjoy responsibly.
We shouldn’t let our freedom to consume alcohol cause problems for those who already experience or have experienced drink related issues… Here is a good piece of advice that we’re given when drinking around people who have or have had drink issues, Romans 14:20-22
“Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.”
So, when out with friends, if there’s someone you know who has or has had a drink related problem, be aware that by consuming alcoholic beverages with them, don’t try and make them drink too, and if you can (and you can), order something non alcoholic and show them some solidarity, unless they’re absolutely adamant you do order something alcoholic and you are 100% sure they are able to cope with you drinking alcohol whilst they don’t)
If you choose to drink alcoholic beverages, drink responsibly, both for yourself and others. If you choose not to, then that’s great too. Neither should force the other to do something against their conscience and understanding of the issue. Anyone who says you cannot drink wine and be a Christian is acting against the revealed word of God.