Bottoms Up: Reflections on Alcohol and the Word of God

Messiah BoldWithin “American Christianity” there is a longstanding tradition of legalism when it comes to the consumption of alcohol; however, this tradition is not as old as you may think. It was not until Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch, a Methodist minister and the founder of Welch’s, developed a pasteurization process in 1869 that it became possible to produce and store unfermented grape juice for use in communion. Welch was a staunch prohibitionist and proceeded to persuade churches in New Jersey to abandon the use of fermented beverages and use his “unfermented wine” when celebrating the Lord’s Supper. His denomination then helped to spearhead the movement that led to the prohibition and now it is fairly normative that churches in America use Welch’s grape juice, or a generic equivalent, for communion.

When one views this phenomenon over the course of church history the current practice is an odd one indeed. From the church’s inception till the early twentieth century, that is twenty centuries for those of you who are mathematically impaired, the normative practice of the church has been to use fermented wine to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, not to mention its use in the home and for virtually every other celebration. Furthermore, if one views this phenomenon as it occurs within the global church the practice of most American churches stands out as an oddity as well with our little plastic cups and our unfermented wine. In fact if one were to explain this to Christians outside of America one would be surprised to discover how many would question whether or not our practice is biblical, after all Jesus used wine.

All of that is simply to give you a context in which to understand my reflections. How your church practices communion is neither here nor there; my main concern in this post is addressing the sinful and legalistic mindset that believes godliness necessitates abstinence. Such legalism is just as deadly and far more subtle than drunkenness; especially when it becomes a predominant expression of holiness within the church.

  • Scripture is undeniably opposed to the sin of drunkenness (Romans 13:13; I Corinthians 5:11; 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:18).
  • The priests were forbidden from drinking “wine and strong drink” when serving in the Tabernacle; however, when they were not serving they were commanded by God to drink “the best of the wine,” were to drink it as something “most holy,” and they were to drink it in a “most holy place” (Numbers 18:8-32).
  • Drink offerings were pleasing to the Lord (Exodus 29:38-41).
  • Jesus’ first miracle was to turn 120 to 180 gallons of water into wine at a wedding where the guests were already drunk (John 2:1-11). With this miracle Jesus would have been forbidden to minister by many American denominations; I find this very problematic.
  • Jesus compared the gospel to wine (Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:36-39).
  • Jesus drank wine and spent so much time eating and drinking with sinners that He was accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:18-19).
  • Elders and deacons are not to be drunkards (I Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
  • Paul, an apostle, instructed Timothy, an elder, to drink wine for his stomach (I Timothy 5:23).
  • When Paul addresses the Corinthian church concerning the Lord’s Supper he rebukes their drunkenness rather than their use of wine. Furthermore, his rebuke speaks primarily to their self-centered gluttony, i.e. he wrote to make sure that all in the church at Corinth were able to partake of the wine rather than a thirsty minority (I Corinthians 11:17-34).
  • The argument that wine during ancient times had a lower alcohol content than the alcoholic beverages of today is an inadequate justification for mandatory abstinence. Regardless of its alcohol content it is clear from Scripture that individuals were able to, and in many cases did, become drunk from drinking it in excess. It is also evident from Scripture that the OT priests, Jesus, the twelve apostles, and the vast majority of the early church were able to drink wine in moderation and avoid drunkenness. In the same way one can drink modern alcoholic beverages in excess and become drunk and one can drink modern alcoholic beverages in moderation and remain sober minded. The key in both situations is not the relative alcohol content of the beverage in question but its consumption in either moderation or excess.

As we approach this issue let us do so with both a wisdom that avoids the deadly dangers of legalism and liberalism. If you choose to discuss please do so with charity.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
—I Corinthians 10:31

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7 thoughts on “Bottoms Up: Reflections on Alcohol and the Word of God

  1. I think you provide a good balance in this post. There is CLEAR Scripture that prohibits and calls sinful drunkenness. While at the same time, there is no Scripture that says, “thou shalt not consume alcohol.” Our bodies are to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, thus GUIDED by the Holy Spirit, and drunkenness causes us to be guided by alcohol. I think it is too bad that the Church today has lost its focus on what is important here, and that we have found just another reason to judge one another rather than to encourage and admonish one another in the Lord. If we are truly allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and direct us, we will not succumb to drunkenness. It seems that it is THIS which Scripture makes clear. I hope that the Church re-evaluates what it makes central to its Theology – what LOOKS good (complete abstinence, and calling those who partake of some alcohol unbelieving), or what IS right, and pleasing in the sight of the Lord, and following the HOLY SPIRIT in all wisdom and truth.

  2. Your posts don’t get enough comments, it’s a shame because they’re really good.

    You left out the argument that people only drank wine back then because the water was so dirty and so if Jesus were here today he’d no longer drink wine. :-)

    A position like this probably won’t help you get a NAMB appointment, though. You might want to eventually delete this post if you’re still planning on pursuing that.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Between the comments here and on Facebook I have been surprised to find out how many people hold sympathetic positions.

    Allison,
    I agree. Our churches would be better off if more pastors were “pounding their pulpits” because their parishioners have abandoned the Holy Spirit.

    Tapp,
    Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Hey Keith,

    I think numerous people are sympathetic with your viewpoint here. However, I’m not completely sure I agree. I’ll share a section from a lesson I presented (and I guess I’m going to be one of those legalistic guys on alcohol) with some quotes I found in a book called “The Bible, The Saint, and the Liquor Industry” by Jim McGuiggan. The first statement is an often made point about how the Bible shows intoxicating wine drunk with God’s approval.
    ———-
    B. “Ancient people of the Bible days did not know how to keep juice from fermenting.”

    1. Some will grudgingly concede the prior point that in the Bible, “wine” is a generic term used to refer to juice from a grape whether fermented or not. So, if it is freshly squeezed it is non-fermented. But if it was squeezed a week ago, the ancients had no way of keeping it from fermenting and therefore it must be intoxicating and alcoholic. It is not surprising that people feel this way. After all, every generation believes knowledge and wisdom begins with them. But it simply is not true.

    2. A study of history has demonstrated that men of antiquity knew how to keep wine unfermented. Consider the following:

    a. “If you wish to have must (i.e., grape juice) all year put grape juice in an amphora and seal the cork with pitch: sink it in a fishpond. After 30 days take it out. It will be grape juice for a whole year.” (De Agri Cultura CXX, Marcus Porcius Cato the elder who lived from 234-149 B.C.; quoted from Sipping Saints by Rick Lanning and also The Bible, The Saint, and The Liquor Industry by Jim McGuiggan). Thus juice could be kept from fermenting if sealed and kept below a certain temperature which immobilizes the yeast from fermenting. Interestingly, the Bible speaks of storing wine in cellars which by their very nature would perform this cooling operation (I Chronicles 27:27).

    b. Pliny who lived from AD 61-113 said, “The most useful wine has all its force or strength broken by the filter.” And Plutarch who lived from AD 46-120 said, “Wine is rendered old or feeble in strength when it is frequently filtered. The strength or spirit being thus excluded, the wine neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind and the passions, and is much more pleasant to drink” (From the same sources as above). This filtering referred to a process by which the yeast would be removed and thus not allow fermentation. The Bible speaks of this very thing. In Isaiah 25:6, God claims He will host a feast in which He will provide “refined” wine. According to Strong’s Enhanced Lexicon, that translates the Hebrew word “zaqaq” which refers to purifying or straining. In other words, in Isaiah’s day, they knew they could filter wine.

    c. Have you ever heard someone who argues vehemently against consuming alcohol claim it is lawful to cook with alcohol? Of course you have. Why? Because the alcohol cooks out. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. When boiled, the alcohol in fermented wine will cook out just as it cooks out of the vanilla you add to your cake recipes. Virgil who lived from 70 to 19 BC wrote, “Meanwhile his spouse, … over the fire boils down the liquor of the lucious must, and skims with leaves the tide of the trembling cauldron” (quoted from The Bible, The Saint, and The Liquor Industry, p 45). After the wine was boiled down it became pasty and thick like honey. It was a concentrate and to be drunk it had to be mixed with water.

    3. The ancients were not as simple or ignorant as we may think. They knew full well how to keep juice unfermented. And if it fermented, they knew how to remove the alcohol and make it non-intoxicating. They did this by procedures even referred to in the Bible. Thus, we cannot assume that the word “wine” in the Bible refers to alcohol or intoxicating drink, no matter how old it is.

    ———

    You can find the whole lesson at the following link:

    http://franklinchurchofchrist.com/?p=972

    Also, regarding Allison’s point, I agree to some extent. That is the point of Ephesians 5:18. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” However, the very interesting thing is the term translated “get drunk” is, I’m told, in the inceptive form, which does not just merely talk about the end result but talks about the process from beginning to end. Paul says don’t start the process. Why? Because to the degree you go down this process you are giving control over to alcohol instead of to the Holy Spirit.

  5. Edwin,

    Thanks for the comment and the link, I appreciate your thoughts and research on this subject. I don’t think either of us will be convincing the other of the opposing viewpoint anytime soon. I know and respect numerous individuals who are sympathetic with both sides of this discussion.

    I do agree with your assessment of the ancients and I hope my post did not accuse them of being simpletons. I think one could even take the opposite road and argue that their ability to craft strongly fermented drinks actually surpassed their ability to create unfermented ones. Regardless my central concern is to present what has been the normative practice throughout both Scripture and church history. I hope to do a follow up post sometime in the near future.

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