Can Christians Drink Wine? Should Christians Drink Wine? #109
Hello everybody and happy Thursday to you. Today brings us to a controversial topic among modern Christians that is not very controversial in terms of the Bible – at least from a grammatical place. You’ll notice that the question we are covering is phrased in two different ways: CAN Christians drink wine, and SHOULD Christians drink wine. There is a reason for this, because each of the questions has a slightly different answer from the Bible. Today’s Bible passages are Leviticus 20, Psalms 25, Ecclesiastes 3 and 1 Timothy 5. The reason the topic of wine is coming up today is from our focus passage in 1st Timothy 5, where Paul gives this word of advice to Timothy:
23 Don’t continue drinking only water, but use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.1 Timothy 5:23
This is an interesting passage, and it brings up a large amount of questions. First – is this a command to us, or to Timothy or BOTH? And that is an excellent question to consider from the Word of God. At the beginning of this chapter, Paul writes to Timothy, “Don’t rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters with all purity.” Is that a command to Timothy, or to Christians, or both? I think almost all Bible teachers would say both for 1 Timothy 5:1-2. We generally consider commands in the Word spoken authoritatively to individuals or churches (for instance, a command of Jesus to Peter, a letter from Paul to the Ephesians, a letter from Peter, etc) to apply to all of us. However, there are some cases where commands in the Scripture do not apply to ALL who read them. For instance, I don’t believe 1st Timothy 4:12 is very applicable to senior saints, “Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity. ” Likewise, 1 Peter 3:7 is a powerful and important passage, but it is not binding or applicable to my 8 year old daughter. “Husbands, in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker partner, showing them honor as coheirs of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.” Ultimately, I don’t believe that our focus passage is a COMMAND for ALL that they MUST drink wine. That’s our first issue to discuss. Our second is a little more complex.
What does the Greek word for wine (οἶνος oînos) actually mean? Does this word refer to intoxicating wine, or new/unfermented wine. There are three basic views on this subject. I’m not going to go very deep into them, but they are worth recounting at a basic level.
View #1 – Oinos is usually or often unfermented/sweet wine. In other words, the wine that Paul is telling Timothy to drink and the wine that Jesus made at the Wedding in Cana were what we would call grape juice – perhaps with a trace of alcohol, but not nearly enough to become intoxicated. This view has been held by many people throughout church history, and you can find some very long arguments on the internet that seem to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is the correct view, until you actually research some of the other views. I recall that Donald C. Stamps, the author of the study notes in one of my first ever study Bibles, bought for me by my wife when we were dating, was very much in favor of this view. I loved Mr. Stamps and his notes, and I recall that he argued vociferously and uncompromisingly that oinos always meant unfermented wine, and that Jesus would NEVER ever make wine that could make somebody intoxicated. This view is generally called the two-wine view, and it asserts that when the Bible says something positive about wine (such as this passage, The Last Supper, the wedding at Cana, etc) that unfermented grape juice is in view. But when the Bible says something negative about wine – fermented wine is being discussed.
View #2 Oinos can indeed contain alcohol, but not in the same proportion as current wines, and certainly nowhere near as much of an ABV as stronger drinks of modern times like vodka, whisky, scotch, etc. Currently our modern wine is usually around 12-14 percent ABV, but can be as low as around 5 percent, and get a little higher. Though there is no way to be certain, I’ve read some research that seems to indicate that first century and Old Testament wine would be of a lower ABV than modern wine. If this is the case – and it is hard to be definitive if it is – then Paul’s advice to Timothy would be about a very weak wine compared to what is called wine today. Charles Spurgeon – and many others – were strong proponents of this view:
YOU know the narrative. Jesus was at a wedding feast, and when the wine ran short, he provided for it right bountifully. I do not think that I should do any good if I were to enter upon the discussion as to what sort of wine our Lord Jesus made on this occasion. It was wine, and I am quite sure it was very good wine, for he would produce nothing but the best. Was it wine such as men understand by that word now? It was wine; but there are very few people in this country who ever see, much less drink, any of that beverage. That which goes under the name of wine is not true wine, but a fiery, brandied concoction of which I feel sure that Jesus would not have tasted a drop. The fire-waters and blazing spirits of modern wine manufacturers are very different articles from the juice of the grape, mildly exhilarating, which was the usual wine of more sober centuries. As to the wine such as is commonly used in the East, a person must drink inordinately before he would become intoxicated with it. It would be possible, for there were cases in which men were intoxicated with wine; but, as a rule, intoxication was a rare vice in the Saviour’s times and in the preceding ages. Had our great Exemplar lived under our present circumstances, surrounded by a sea of deadly drink, which is ruining tens of thousands, I know how he would have acted. I am sure he would not have contributed by word or deed to the rivers of poisonous beverages in which bodies and souls are now being destroyed wholesaleC. H. Spurgeon, “The Waterpots at Cana,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 26 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1880), 493.
View #3 is pretty simple. Oinos/wine in the New Testament is practically the same as wine today. Jesus made something similar to the kind of wine you can buy in the store today, and Paul told Timothy to drink something similar to the kind of wine that is sold today.
I believe view number #1 is held by many sober-minded and Godly people who have seen the ills and harms of alcohol, and they want to protect as many people as possible from it. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that view holds up to historical scrutiny very well, and it just falls apart under grammatical/contextual scrutiny. For one, Ephesians 5:18, “And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit.” The word there for wine is our word oinos, which is the same word for wine in 1 Timothy 3:8, where Paul writes, “Deacons, likewise, should be worthy of respect, not hypocritical, not drinking a lot of wine, not greedy for money.” Clearly both of these passages are discussing fermented wine – which can lead to drunkenness – and they are using the word oinos. Titus 2:3 also suggests that older women should not drink too much wine, using the same word. Thus I believe it is very difficult to make the case that oinos always refers to unfermented wine. Indeed, since the Greek New Testament frequently discusses ‘new’ wine, and clearly has a Greek phrase for the same, I believe it is far more likely that most, if not all, uses of the term oinos in the Bible refer to wine that could potentially intoxicate somebody.
In my mind, such grammatical and contextual reading makes option #1 highly unlikely. Which brings us to the second or third option. Is wine in the Bible much the same as modern wine, or does Bible wine have less alcohol than modern wine? I’ve researched this question a bit, and the answer is quite hard to come by. It does seem that there are several historical references to wine being diluted by water – either to purify the water, or make the wine last longer, or be less potent, or all three. Regardless, it is difficult to be definitive. My best guess, given the evidence, is that New Testament wine contained less alcohol than most modern wines. It does not appear that first century Jews, Romans or Greeks would have had access to distilled beverages, so it is highly unlikely that the writers of the Greek New Testament even knew of stronger and more intoxicating beverages than wine.
So – where does that leave us? Can Christians drink wine? I believe the answer is, quite simply: the Bible does not forbid it in most cases. In case you can’t tell from the inflection, the key part of that sentence is the last part – “in most cases.” The most important and critical thing to remember about drinking anything is the oft-repeated prohibition in both the Old and New Testaments about getting drunk:
And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit:Ephesians 5:8
For the drunkard and the glutton will become poor, and grogginess will clothe them in rags.Proverbs 23:21
“Be on your guard, so that your minds are not dulled from carousing, drunkenness, and worries of life, or that day will come on you unexpectedlyLuke 21:34
48 But if that wicked servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and starts to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 that servant’s master will come on a day he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know.Matt 24:48-50
Let us walk with decency, as in the daytime: not in carousing and drunkenness; not in sexual impurity and promiscuity; not in quarreling and jealousy.Romans 13:13
But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person.1 Corinthians 5:11
And, most soberingly:
19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.Galatians 5:19-21
9 Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or males who have sex with males, 10 no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.1 Corinthians 6:9-10
Understand – I did not quote every negative thing in the Bible about getting drunk. There is a lot in there. It is not funny or anything to toy around with from a Bible view. Christians may NOT drink wine to get drunk, and may not drink wine to drunkenness. How drunkenness is defined, we don’t know, but quite clearly a change in feeling, thinking and behavior is involved. I don’t think it is wise to endeavor to walk up to the line of sin, and get as close as possible without going over. One other caveat about drinking: Christians may not do it if it causes other people to stumble. This does not mean that it literally makes them fall over, but that it might be a temptation to them, or it might make them upset, or it might make them angry, or whatever. You might think, “well, that is their problem – I have liberty!” Spoken like a true westerner, I’d say. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. If my liberty hurts somebody else or makes them stumble – then I am disallowed from engaging in my liberty. Why not – to impinge on my freedom? Not at all, but rather to protect the conscience and walk of my brother or sister:
13 Therefore, let us no longer judge one another. Instead decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in the way of your brother or sister. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. Still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean. 15 For if your brother or sister is hurt by what you eat, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy, by what you eat, someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore, do not let your good be slandered, 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever serves Christ in this way is acceptable to God and receives human approval.19 So then, let us pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. 20 Do not tear down God’s work because of food. Everything is clean, but it is wrong to make someone fall by what he eats. 21 It is a good thing not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. 22 Whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever doubts stands condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith, and everything that is not from faith is sin.Romans 14:13-23
Romans 14 is one of the most practical, underrated and important biblical passages there is. If we all paid more attention to Romans 14, there would be so much more peace and unity in the world and especially in the church! I believe that most Christians have the liberty to drink wine, according to the Bible. They MUST not get drunk – whether in private, or in public. No exceptions. They also must not cause another to stumble because of what is eaten or drank. If eating meat causes a vegetarian to stumble, says Paul, then do NOT eat meat around them. (you can do so at home, or when they are not around.) If drinking wine causes somebody to stumble, then do not do it around them. (You can do so at home, or when they are not around.)
Now – to our final question: Should Christians drink wine? And here’s the thing: I don’t believe I am allowed to answer that question based on Romans 14:22, “Whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God.” And in fact, I hope just talking about this issue today doesn’t transgress that passage. The bottom line is this – whatever your view on wine – avoid getting drunk and avoid causing other people to stumble. Are you a teetotaler? Great! Don’t cause a Christian non-teetotaler to stumble, and don’t condemn him with your view. Are you a non-teetotaler? Great! Don’t cause a Christian teetotaler (or non-drinker) to stumble, or beat him over the head with your view – and don’t drink around him out of respect and love for him/her and their views! Peace and unity are far more important than our beverage of choice.