Within “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