Alcohol and Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 September

On an internet debate club discussion group, I got into it with some fella who was insistent Jesus didn’t drink wine. He’d read my piece, “Jesus provides six kegs for a drunken party,” and was outraged, outraged, that I dare suggest Jesus drank wine. ’Cause no he didn’t.

It was a clear case of the guy projecting his beliefs about alcohol upon Jesus. And he’s got lots of support for his beliefs. Ever since the United States’s temperance movement began in the early 1800s—the movement which got us to ban alcohol in our Constitution (seriously!), Christians in that movement have invented and spread serious distortions of the bible’s historical background so that the folks in the bible didn’t really drink wine: Either they drank unfermented grape juice, or they watered down the wine so greatly, the alcohol content by volume was similar to that of non-alcoholic beer.

These false stories have been published for so long, anti-alcohol Christians simply accept ’em as truth. They’ve heard them all their lives, y’know. “In Edgar’s Commentary on John, published in 1855, it says right there Jesus only turned the water into grape juice. The best grape juice.” And because this book’s been around for 160-plus years, it must be true. Because it’s old.

Scientists regularly prove old does not mean correct. The ancients were guessing, but people guess wrong for all sorts of reasons, so there’s no substitute for empirical double-blind scientific studies. But people are so fond of folk wisdom and our favorite traditions, we regularly reject science in favor of those traditions. We might change our minds when desperate… but we don’t always.

And when it comes to the historical record, Jesus totally drank wine. Not non-alcoholic wine, not grape juice; wine. They didn’t water it down; that was pagan Greek religious custom, not Hebrew. We know this from then-contemporary records and archaeology. We know this ’cause the bible’s statements about wine and drunkenness make no sense if people were overindulging on grape juice!

The misinformation comes from American hangups about wine, alcohol, and alcoholism. And while alcoholism and drunkenness is a valid concern, and needs to be addressed in our churches—especially to those Christians who are overindulging, or who wanna go into Christian leadership—the issue isn’t served by lying, or misrepresenting what the scriptures really say about alcohol. We need to get over our hangups long enough to understand the truth, and speak soberly about it. Pun intended, but still.

The extreme solutions to alcoholism.

Alcoholism is rampant. Always has been. Not just in the United States. Other countries claim it’s just an American obsession, but they’re in denial about their own nations’ alcohol problems. I have a British acquaintance who loves to joke about how Americans are scandalized whenever he suggests going to the pub after church. Of course he gets scandalized when I suggest he has a drinking problem. (He totally does. I’ve never seen him sober.)

From time immemorial, men and women would get off work, go to the saloon, blow their day’s salary on drink, then go home and drunkenly terrorize their now-impoverished families. ’Twas ever thus. And for centuries there wasn’t anything you could do about it. Wasn’t against the law to beat your spouse or children, unless you beat ’em to death. There were no shelters for battered women, no Child Protective Services, no Family Court, no foster care, nothing. No rehabilitation centers, no drug treatment programs, no Alcoholics Anonymous nor Celebrate Recovery. It was a pervasive problem with no solution.

Well, some Christians pitched a solution: Ban alcohol, and force the alcoholics to dry out.

This was “the temperance movement,” but they really didn’t preach temperance. They didn’t encourage moderate drinking. They found they couldn’t get alcoholics to moderate themselves. So they preached abstinence, and tried to be rid of alcohol altogether. They wanted to ban beer and wine and liquor, saloons and bars and pubs, and even get alcohol out of the churches: Instead of communion wine, they’d use non-alcoholic grape juice. The thinking was they’d give the alcoholics nowhere to turn… except back to their neglected families.

Sometimes they were successful in shutting down the town’s bars—on Sunday at least. Sometimes they could pass local laws passed which banned alcohol outright. Some counties in the United States are still “dry”: You can’t buy beer or liquor there at all.

In 1919 the movement’s supporters in Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, commonly called the Volstead Act, which banned the manufacture of alcohol for sale in the U.S., and its transport. And just in case anyone claimed such a law was unconstitutional, Congress passed the 18th Amendment. The only alcohol you could have was homemade, but you couldn’t sell it. Yep, the U.S. actually tried to ban alcohol. We call this time period “Prohibition.”

Of course, it didn’t last.

Because alcohol isn’t at all hard to manufacture. Beer companies stopped making beer and went into the brewer’s yeast business—selling you the stuff you needed to make your own beer. Social drinkers resented being told they couldn’t drink, and went underground. Liquor distributors went underground too, and made far more money than they had before. Smugglers brought in alcohol from Canada and Mexico. Alcoholics didn’t stop drinking; they simply paid more for alcohol and squandered their families’ money faster. Or they bought unregulated makeshift alcohol which poisoned them.

After 13 years of this non-working social experiment, the 18th Amendment was overturned by the 21st. Alcohol, with the exception of individual county and city laws, was legal again. But the temperance movement didn’t quit: Their churches simply banned alcohol among its members. Alcohol remained socially unacceptable among them: “Good Christians don’t drink.” In many churches that’s still the attitude.

But less and less so in the past 40 years. Times change, people start to question their traditions, and many Christians ask the reasonable question, “Why can’t good Christians drink?” If they can moderate their drinking, why should alcohol be forbidden them? Isn’t that legalism?

Well of course it is. So how should we Christians think about alcohol?

Alcohol in the scriptures.

You’re gonna find alcohol throughout human history. It’s one of the first things we humans invented; it was probably stumbled upon at the very same time humans discovered yeast makes bread delicious. Alcohol is relatively easy to make, fun to drink, and far safer to drink than untreated, dysentery- or cholera-filled water.

Hence we find it throughout the bible. The earliest reference is in the Noah story: Noah planted a vineyard, made wine, and got fershnikit on it. Ge 9.20-21 Various scandalized commentators try to reinterpret this story to say Noah accidentally made wine, accidentally got drunk on it. Well if that were so, Genesis would’ve said, but it doesn’t.

Wine became part of religious ceremonies. Just like bread, water, meat, and everything else we humans enjoy; people figured the gods would appreciate that stuff too, and so it became part of the rituals. And God did accept drink offerings. Usually a quarter-hin of wine; about a quart or liter. The Hebrews were also required to tithe their wine, meaning every third year it went into the food bank for the priests and the needy… and the other two years you were expected to celebrate before God by drinking that entire tithe. Or even trading it for harder stuff. Dt 14.22-29

Passover rituals also included several cups of wine—one of which Jesus turned into a remembrance of himself, by instituting holy communion. Lk 22.20

Yes, grapes and wine were forbidden to Nazirites, who’d taken special vows to never touch the stuff. Nu 6.4 But other than for them, the scriptures don’t forbid wine to anyone. Seems to be nothing wrong with it. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, Jesus provided six barrels of wine for a wedding. Jn 2.1-11 His own social drinking was actually used by his naysayers to accuse him of unrighteousness. Lk 7.34

The trouble only came when people overindulged. As Solomon put it,

Proverbs 20.1 NLT
Wine produces mockers; alcohol leads to brawls.
Those led astray by drink cannot be wise.

Paul forbade those who overindulged from being in church leadership. Tt 1.7 He advised, “Don’t get drunk on wine; that’ll ruin your life.” Ep 5.18 But lest you think Paul therefore banned alcohol outright, he did advise the apostle Timothy to drink wine instead of water. 1Ti 5.23 Likely because the drinking water wasn’t safe, and kept making Timothy sick.

So do the scriptures prohibit alcohol? Clearly not. Only from those under special vows. It only prohibits overindulgence.

But various Christians interpret overindulgence differently. Some claim this means never get drunk, nor even tipsy. Others claim this means one can get drunk every once in a while, but it should never become a regular practice. I think either interpretation has to do with Christians either indulging their hangups, or indulging their drinking.

I think we’re all agreed, though: Alcoholics shouldn’t drink at all. I do know some alcoholics who claim they can drink moderately; I think they’re playing with fire.

Full disclosure: I have a lot of alcoholics in my family, including my father, uncle, aunt, and late grandmother who kinda drank herself to death. I don’t drink at all lest I become another one. My only exception is communion wine. Since my church serves grape juice, this is largely a non-issue; it only comes up when I visit other churches.

What about churches who prohibit alcohol?

I’ve caught a lot of grief for saying this, but I say it anyway: If your church prohibits alcohol, it’s sin for you.

You might personally disagree with your church and its reasons. Fine. But if you decide, “Since I disagree, I’m gonna do as I like regardless of their convictions”—nope, we Christians don’t get that option. If we join a church we agree to abide by the church’s rules; if we officially join a church we promise to abide by their rules. Breaking those rules, no matter which loophole you think applies to your situation, means breaking your word. Means sin.

Maybe your church prohibits alcohol for the wrong reasons, like legalism. For some, it’s because alcohol misuse is a real problem, as churches which permit alcohol will tell you. A former church of mine decided to change its rules to permit alcohol—and for the first few years after that, its members didn’t know where their limits were, and kept getting drunk at dinners and parties. They wound up with the reputation as “that church full of drunks,” and still have to live it down. In other churches who drink, they have their members whom they know will become a problem at parties. If your church has enough of such people, it may not be worth it to permit alcohol at all.

So that’s the usual thinking of such churches:

Romans 14.21 KWL
Good for you when you’re not eating meat nor drinking wine,
nor anything in which your fellow Christian stumbles.

Our freedom in Christ has to come second to weaker Christians’ weaknesses.

Of course when I say this, certain people object: Paul never banned alcohol outright, and they feel churches have no business going above and beyond Paul, and adding rules to the scriptures.

But that’s not realistic. Churches add our own rules all the time. As we should. Each church has its own procedure for running things and selecting leaders; its own customs about who can talk during a worship service; its own rules for whether you can bring food or drinks into the auditorium. In order to become a member, usually churches ask us to promise to uphold these rules. If we promise to, yet ignore these rules when we don’t like ’em, that’s sin. Period.

Selfish, sinful human nature wants to be an exception to the rules. People wanna drink, don’t understand why somebody else’s problem should get in the way of their fun, and insist it’s not a sin to them, Ro 14.22 so they should be able to drink in private at least.

I’ll play ball: Let’s say you do drink privately. So what happens once someone else in your church discovers you’re drinking privately? Freedom in Christ or not, what’s that look like to them? A secret vice. A drinking problem.

Look, if you wanna drink, be honest about it. Publicly state your convictions to your church leadership. Try to talk ’em into lifting the ban. Sometimes they will! But often it’s a long-held conviction for them, and they won’t. If it’s really that important to you—if it’s a make-or-break thing, because you really do want the right to hold weekend keggers—I simply gotta ask whether you’re being a dick about it. If you’re being a dick, the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with it. Dickishness isn’t good fruit.

But let’s say it’s an honest conviction, you’ve been honest with your church leadership, you can’t see eye to eye, and it is a big deal (i.e. you sell wine, or own a bar, or are trying to get your drinking relatives and friends to come to church with you). Okay, you may need to go to another church. But don’t hide your convictions, don’t hide your behavior—don’t hide. Hiding means you’re living in the dark, and God doesn’t do darkness. No matter how right you think you are.

As for those who are part of a church where alcohol’s allowed: Don’t abuse your freedom! People aren’t always as capable at handling alcohol as they imagine. It should never become an obsession, a coping mechanism, or a crutch. Jesus is the only obsession, coping mechanism, or crutch we should ever have. That’s why Paul taught to not get drunk on wine, but to be filled with the Spirit, and find our celebration in him. Ep 5.18-19 If you can’t celebrate without alcohol, you have a drinking problem. Not may have a problem; do. Don’t fool yourself, and don’t be naïve. Keep alcohol in its proper place. Keep Christ first.