Bottoms Up: The Lost Art of Moderation

This is my second post in this series which aims to provide a biblical perspective on alcohol; the first is available here. I am currently planning two more posts in this series, one addressing contextualization and another explaining why I am convinced that this issue is extremely important.

Starting with Scripture

As I was reading several weeks ago I came across the following passage in Scripture which surprised me for several reasons.

22You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 23And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, 25then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses 26and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.

28At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.

—Deuteronomy 14:22-29

A Surprising Recommendation

This text’s positive mention of wine is not surprising as there are countless texts where it is spoken of in a positive light, although the definition of “wine” has been debated ad nauseam. This text is surprising in that it, without and qualifications, commends “strong drink.” While the various sides of this debate can continue to argue about the alcohol content of wine the meaning of “strong drink” is impeccably clear. This would have been an alcoholic beverage made from wheat or barley in all likelihood it was similar to beer or other grain alcohol. Even more surprising than the commendation of strong drink is the way in which it is commended and to grasp this it is necessary to look at the passage as a whole.

Explanation

The passage begins by commanding a tithe of grain, wine, oil, and livestock (cf. Leviticus 27:30–32) that is to be taken to “the place that he will choose” i.e. the location of the tabernacle and eventually the temple (cf. Deuteronomy 12). Due to the vastness of the Promised Land and the difficulty of making this pilgrimage with one’s entire family in addition to a tenth of all one’s grain, wine, oil, and livestock it was allowed that one could convert the tithe into money and travel to the sanctuary.

Before continuing it is best to return to verse 23 and examine the intent of the tithe. This tithe is carried out so that “that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.” This act is not a means of acquiring personal righteousness rather the act of tithing is a means of instructing the covenant community of their standing before God and the reverence that is always due Him. Whether in times of abundance or drought the tithe stood as a reminder to Israel that their God was sovereign and all they possessed was the result of His grace.

Upon arrival at the sanctuary the money would then be used to purchase various goods. This practice was the history behind the moneychangers during Jesus’ day (cf. Matthew 21:12-13) the difference being that those during the time of Christ were taking advantage of those who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem rather than dealing with them fairly. Interestingly enough after their arrival at the temple they were not required to purchase the same goods which they had originally exchanged for money but they were allowed to purchase whatever they desired and their appetites craved. The inclusion here of the brief list “or sheep or wine or strong drink” is by no means exhaustive rather it includes a brief sampling of what they might desire to purchase; nevertheless two of the included options are alcoholic beverages.

They are to enjoy what they have purchased by feasting and rejoicing before, or in the presence of, the LORD. Those who would argue that the inclusion of “wine and strong drink” suggests that the goods were used as burnt offerings and drink offerings do a great disservice to the clear language of this text as well as its eschatological dimensions. The language of the text suggests God’s participation in a feast symbolizing covenant renewal; however, the feast also points forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb. This is not the language of burnt offerings but a meal of rejoicing at the covenant faithfulness and redeeming grace of Israel’s God. The Levites, who were charged with the care of the tabernacle (Numbers 1:50-53), did not have an inheritance of their own and depended upon the rest of the covenant community for provision (cf. Numbers 18:24) were to be included in the feast.

God’s care for Israel is demonstrated in this and even more in that every third year the tithe is to be converted into a local feast whereby the Levites, sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow may be provided for.

Implications for the Church

There are countless implications that can be drawn from this text concerning one’s attitude in giving and the purpose behind this act. This text also has implications for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as an eschatological and celebratory act. I would love to hear your thoughts on these topics in the comments section.

The purpose of this post is to focus on the implications that must be drawn for our understanding of the use of alcohol within the covenant community of the church. What we find here, and in many other texts that will be discussed over the course of this series, is that the perception that Scripture places an absolute prohibition on the consumption of alcoholic beverages is wholly false. Not only is that perception false but this text arguably places the consumption of alcoholic beverages at the center of Israel’s celebration of the provision and grace of Yahweh.

Am I going to attempt to argue from this that alcohol should be a centerpiece in the worship of the church? No, I am not. Neither should we come to the polar opposite conclusion that alcohol is always condemned by Scripture. The key to this issue, and many others, is moderation. There are times when it is condemned and times when it is commended and the church must be resolved to rest between these two points of tension. This is a difficult task. Both Scripture and church history reveal numerous occasions where the people of God are unable to hold various points of tension and end up in error. We must avoid this error. It is my prayer that, by the grace of God, we will stand between the deadly polls of legalism and liberalism as we live and proclaim the gospel.

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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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