St. Paddy’s Day Fallout: Answering Objections To What The Bible Says About Social Drinking

It is inevitable that objections come whenever biblical truth is proclaimed.  There are several reasons for this.  Some might sincerely object out of ignorance to what the entirety of the Scriptures teach on a subject, while others might reflexively object due to having heard truths never before heard and thus needing time to process them.  However, there are also those who object due to stubbornness, selfishness, jealousy, pride, and a host of other sinful reasons (Acts 7:51; 13:45; Rom. 2:5; 2 Tim. 3:1-9; 4:3-4).  In my life, I have repeatedly struggled to accept and obey the precepts of God’s Word, and have found myself objecting to Scripture for each of these reasons.  I’m sure all of you can say the same.

Regardless of the intent behind the objections, faithful proclaimers of the truth must “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2), “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).  Accordingly, I have prepared a list (which I’m sure is far from exhaustive) of common objections some within and outside of the church have to what the Scriptures say about alcoholic beverages as shown in a post I wrote yesterday:

Didn’t Christ turn water into wine at Cana?  Don’t his actions thereby permit us to socially drink alcohol in moderation as long as we don’t get drunk?

This episode in Christ’s life, in which He performed his first miracle by turning water into wine, is recorded in John 2:1-11.  The overlying question surrounding this event for proponents of social drinking is whether our Lord really made an alcoholic beverage for those at the wedding to socially drink.  However, what is even more important to consider is whether our Lord really made an alcoholic beverage capable of intoxicating those at the marriage feast.  Friends, I know he did not make an alcoholic beverage that day!

The Bible says he made “wine”; therefore, some claim it had to be fermented, alcoholic wine that he made.  Such is simply not true.  Today, we see the word “wine” and assume it must mean fermented, intoxicating wine…because that is what it means in our society.  (We make the same assumption when we assume the biblical word “baptism” would include sprinkling and pouring, or the biblical word “sober” would include having a blood alcohol content which meets the government’s approval for operating a vehicle.)  However, the three words most frequently translated wine in the Hebrew and Greek languages could mean anything from the grape itself, to the juice of the grape, to fermented, intoxicating wine.

In the Hebrew, three words are typically translated as “wine” in English.  (There are more, but for the sake of space I will focus on three.)

  • Yayin is one such word, which Vine defines as “the usual Hebrew word for fermented grape…usually rendered wine…clearly represents an intoxicating beverage…In Gen. 9:24 yayin means drunkenness…”  However, the Bible also generically uses the word in obvious references to the unfermented, non-intoxicating stage of wine, such as “all kinds of wine” (Neh. 5:18), wine gathered along with summer fruit which would imply that it was still in the cluster of grapes (Jer. 40:10), and “the grapevine” (Num. 6:4).
  • Sēkār is another word often used, which the Hebrew lexicon at http://www.blb.org defines as “strong drink, intoxicating liquor, whether wine…or intoxicating drink like wine, made from barley…or distilled from honey or dates.”  However, this word also does not exclusively refer to intoxicating alcohol.  According to the biblical scholars Moses Stuart and Frederick R. Lees, sēkār could be applied to the definition of sweet drinks from juices other than grapes, either fermented or unfermented.  Stuart found it unfortunate that sēkār was always translated as “strong drink,” because it suggests to the modern reader the idea of distilled liquor, which was not known in biblical times.
  • Finally, tîrôš is commonly used, which Strong defines as “must or fresh grape juice (as just squeezed out); by implication (rarely) fermented wine: – (new, sweet) wine.”  Keeping in mind Strong’s acknowledgement that tîrôš on a rare occasion would allude to fermented wine, it is also clear most of the time it refers to the natural state of wine on the vine, freshly-squeezed, unfermented grape juice.

In the Greek of the New Testament, two words are typically translated “wine.”  (There are more, but for the sake of space I will focus on two.)  Vine describes oinos as “the general word for ‘wine,’” and gleukos as denoting “sweet, ‘new wine.’”  Strong exhibits oinos as “wine (literally or figuratively),” and gleukos as “sweet wine, i.e. (properly) must (fresh juice), but used of the more saccharine (and therefore highly inebriating) fermented wine: – new wine.”  Thayer defines oinos as “wine” and gleukos as “the sweet juice pressed from the grape, sweet wine.”  Keep in mind that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Jesus’ day) uses oinos repeatedly when translating the Hebrew words yayin, sēkār, and tîrôš, and gleukos when translating the Hebrew word tîrôš.

So we see that the Hebrew and Greek words which translate into “wine” in the Bible could mean either alcoholic wine or unfermented grape juice.  As is the case with determining the correct meaning of any word with several definitions, one must consider the context in which the word is found.  Such is the case here.

As another example, consider the words of Isaiah:

“And joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field, and in the vineyards no songs are sung, no cheers are raised; no treader treads out wine in the presses; I have put an end to the shouting” (Is. 16:10, emphasis mine).

According to http://www.blb.org, “wine” in this passage is yayin, but which definition of yayin would correctly apply to this verse?  Would it be the clearly alcoholic yayin which inebriated Noah in Genesis 9, or the “the grapevine” of Numbers 6?  From examining the context around the word, it is clear from references to the treader treading out the wine, “the fruitful field” and “the vineyards” that the “wine” in this passage is unfermented, non-alcoholic grape juice.

Context would also be the key in determining that wine defined as the freshly squeezed fruit of the vine would not be condemned for consumption in either Testament (with the exception of the prohibition given to the Nazarites in Num. 6.)  The Bible does not contradict itself.  So passages commanding the consumption of the non-alcoholic fruit of the vine (technically “wine”) in communion (Matt. 26:27-29; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23-29) would not contradict the condemnation of the alcoholic wine clearly alluded to in other passages of Scripture (Eph. 5:18; 1 Thess. 5:6-8).

With this in mind, let’s consider whether Christ made intoxicating wine at Cana.  We know that he was born and lived under Old Testament law (Gal. 4:4).  We also know that he was very familiar with the Old Testament and quoted frequently from it (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10); as a result, he would have been familiar with the passages dealing with the condemnation of alcoholic wine which I’ve cited yesterday (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35; Hab. 2:5, 15-16).  So Jesus knew that it was a sin for a Jew to partake of and give intoxicating drinks to a neighbor.  Knowing this, did Christ our Savior make the people at Cana avoid wisdom and embrace mockery and brawling by giving them intoxicating wine (Prov. 20:1)?  Did he, by giving them intoxicating wine, cause the people he came to save to violate God’s command to not even look on wine when it is in the cup and thus be bitten like they would by a poisonous serpent (Prov. 23:31-32)?  Did he violate Habbakuk’s law and cause others to do the same by giving his neighbors intoxicating wine (Hab. 2:5, 15-16)?

The obvious answer to these questions is NO!!  Paul, Peter, and the writer of Hebrews would agree (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; Heb. 4:15).  Therefore, it is clear that Jesus Christ did not make intoxicating wine nor did he approve of drinking alcoholic beverages in moderation at the wedding in Cana.  Instead, it is clear that Christ miraculously made oinos in Greek (the general word for wine), with the context of the entirety of the Scriptures clarifying that the type of wine was tîrôš in Hebrew (fresh grape juice)

Before moving on to the next objection, let’s also specifically note two verses out of the John gospel in particular:

“When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine.  But you have kept the good wine until now’” (John 2:9-10).

Let us first note the Greek for “drunk freely” (methuo, according to Thayer).  Methuo, according to Strong, does have as a definition, “to drink to intoxication,” but it also has as another definition, “drink well.”   Other translators, such as Henry Liddell and Robert Scott in their A Greek-English Lexicon and Samuel Bloomfield in his Greek New Testament with English Notes, agree and state that it could refer to the quantity of drinking without necessarily indicating as to whether or not the drink is intoxicating.  Therefore one should not be quick to look at “drunk freely” and assume that it is only talking about getting intoxicated.

Notice also that the master of the feast said that Christ’s wine was “the good wine,” or “beautiful” wine in the original Greek (kalos, according to Thayer).  This is important to remember because some say “good wine” indicates alcoholic content instead of taste or appearance.  Not only does the Greek definition of “good” contradict this, but notice also that the master of the feast “tasted” the water which had become wine.  If the master truly was, as some affirm, simply saying, “Christ’s wine is the best wine for getting wasted,” then how could he have known that after a single taste of the wine?

Did Paul give Timothy permission to be a social drinker?

The passage under consideration is Paul’s command to Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23).  Paul used oinos for “wine” in this passage, and we’ve already seen how oinos is a general term for wine, leaving it open for the context to determine whether the wine was alcoholic or not.  Still, proponents of social drinking use this verse to say something it does not say when they provide it as a “proof text” for their sinful habit.

  • First of all, it is a proven medical fact that non-alcoholic wine, or grape juice, is very sufficient to help cure physical ailments.  Therefore, it could have easily been the fruit of the vine which Paul had in mind when he wrote this verse.
  • Secondly, especially considering that he taught the same thing everywhere (1 Cor. 4:17), it is not reasonable to assume that Paul would tell the Thessalonians to nēphō (abstain from wine, be temperate, be free from the influence of intoxicants) and the Ephesians to not methuskō (grow drunk, be involved in the process of becoming drunk), and then tell Timothy to do what proponents of social drinking claim he is telling the young evangelist to do in this passage, which is basically to socially drink.
  • Thirdly, notice that Paul acknowledged that Timothy had been drinking water exclusively, and had yet felt the need to give him an apostolic command to drink a little wine.  We therefore have it implied that Timothy had already been doing exactly what Ephesians 5:18 and 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 commanded him to do, i.e., abstain from wine!

However, I also realize that a lot of medicines have extremely small quantities of alcohol in them, and I concede that oinos leaves it open for either non-alcoholic wine or alcoholic wine to be what Paul had in mind.  Nevertheless, several details found in the passage prohibit any honest, open-hearted person from concluding that Paul was giving Timothy permission to socially drink.

  • For example, notice that Paul specifically said to “use a little wine.”  A little, not a lot.  For those who cite this verse as proof they can have a six-pack of Bud Light or a martini at Applebee’s, where is the comparison?  There is a huge difference between modern social drinking and what Paul prescribed for Timothy here.
  • Also, note that he specified the particular purpose behind his command for Timothy to ingest a little wine, namely, “…for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”  He told him to use a little wine for medicinal purposes.  It was NOT to relax, or to get away from it all, or to be sociable, or to enjoy the party.  It was for a medical problem.  Therefore, assuming that alcoholic wine was what Paul had in mind for this verse, 1 Timpthy 5:23 can be taken into account in light of 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 and Ephesians 5:18 to mean that God condemns the social consumption of alcoholic beverages but not the consumption of small amounts of alcohol for medicinal purposes.

Did Paul forbid elders to drink but give deacons permission to drink?

The passages under consideration consist of one of the qualifications for elders and one of the qualifications for deacons:

“A bishop then must be…temperate…not given to much wine…”  (1 Tim. 3:2-3)

 

“For a bishop must be…not given to wine…”  (Tit. 1:7)

“Likewise deacons must be…not given to much wine…”  (1 Tim. 3:8)

The thought many social drinkers have is that elders are prohibited from drinking alcoholic beverages, while deacons (and thus, they assume without scriptural proof, all other Christians) can consume small amounts.  This is not a valid claim for several reasons:

  • First, God does not show partiality (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 2:11; Col. 3:25).  We have already seen the commands of Ephesians 5:18 and 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 which command all Christians to abstain from alcoholic beverages.  God would be showing partiality to have Paul make those universal commands, but then allow a small group of Christians (deacons) exemption.
  • Furthermore, 1 Tim. 3:11 says that wives (contextually, either the deacons’ wives, the elders’ wives, and/or all wives) are to be “temperate” (nēphalios, a derivative of nēphō, meaning to “abstain from wine.”)  It would be the height of partiality for God to deny the wives of deacons to have a cocktail at dinner while allowing their husbands to have one right in front of them.
  • Also, exactly who determines what a small amount of wine consists of as opposed to “much wine”?  Medical science would say that the person doing the drinking certainly isn’t qualified to make such a judgment, because their judgment has already been impaired by the alcohol they have taken into themselves.
  • Furthermore, if the command to not be addicted to “much” wine opens the door for small amounts to be consumed, then what happens when this same logic is applied to other commands in the Bible?  For example, God inspired Solomon to write, “Do not be excessively wicked…” (Eccl. 7:17).  If “not given to much wine” opens the door for social drinking, then consistently “Do not be excessively wicked…” opens the door for a little wickedness, just not a lot.  Yet the wages of sin, regardless of quantity, is death without repentance (Rom. 6:23; Luke 13:3).

In actuality, this is one of those cases where the English translations are not the best ones possible.  All English translations make it sound like the word “much” is adjectivally applied to “wine.”  However, let’s examine the original Greek.

  • According to http://www.blb.org, “not given to much wine” is “me prosecho polus oinos.”
  • Strong translates me as “not.”
  • Strong also translates prosecho as “(figuratively) to hold the mind…towards, i.e., pay attention to, be cautious about, apply oneself to, adhere to: – (give) attend…beware, be given to, give (take) heed (to unto); have regard.”
  • Polus is translated by Strong to mean, “(singular) much (in any respect) or (plural) many…”, while oinos of course is the general word for wine.

The key is found in the word polus, or “much.”  Most English translations, as said before, make out “much” to be the adjective to wine, but Strong defines it as adverbial in nature.  Thus, instead of being adjectivally joined to oinos, polus is actually adverbially linked to prosecho.

This changes the entire meaning of the phrase!  Instead of meaning, “Deacons must…not pay attention to a lot of wine…” and thus opening the door for proponents of social drinking to grasp onto this as a proof text, the literal Greek Paul was inspired by God to write says, “Deacons must…not pay attention much in respect to wine.”  It seems that “much” is not describing the quantity of wine, but rather the quantity of attention the deacons were to show towards it.  Therefore, 1 Tim. 3:8 does not authorize social drinking like some believe, but instead should be added to a long list of warnings in the Bible against the use of intoxicating beverages.

Didn’t God authorize social drinking in Deuteronomy 14 and Proverbs 31?

In light of the previously cited Old Testament prohibitions against alcoholic consumption (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35; Hab. 2:5, 15-16) and more that could be cited (e.g., Gen. 9:20-24; 19:30-36; Is. 5:11-12; 28:7-8; 56:9-12; Hos. 4:11), it amazes me how pride, selfishness, and stubbornness can cause some to continue to grasp at straws in their search for scriptural authorization for their sin.  Their attempts are made even more irrelevant when one remembers that what God may or may not have allowed in the Old Testament does not apply to those of us who live under the New Covenant and its laws concerning alcoholic consumption.  Nevertheless, these efforts are still being made, and their inquiries must be answered.

Let’s examine the first passage under consideration:

“And 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, then 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 and 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” (Deut. 14:24-26, emphasis mine)

The thought is that since God told the Israelites to spend their money on whatever they wish, and specifically listed wine or strong drink, then he must have been giving them permission to be social drinkers!  Such a thought is ludicrous when one considers the other passages in the Old Testament that specifically condemn the consumption of alcoholic wine and remembers that God does not contradict himself.  Some will still stubbornly point out that God, in telling Israel to spend the money on whatever their appetite craves, specifically used yayin (“wine”) and sēkār (“strong drink.”)  However, as pointed out earlier when talking about the definitions of these Hebrew words, yayin is used in the Bible in both an alcoholic and non-alcoholic sense depending on the context, and scholars have acknowledged that sēkār can refer to the sweet, either fermented or unfermented juice of many fruits other than grapes (some of which could have a particularly strong taste, thus earning the term “strong drink.”)  Therefore, if one is to take the Bible in its entirety, it is clear that God is not commanding Israel to buy “alcoholic wine (yayin) and alcoholic wine (sēkār),” but rather “fruit of the vine (yayin) and “sweet fruit drinks (sēkār).”

Let’s now examine the second passage under consideration.

“Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more” (Prov. 31:6-7).

These are the words of the mother of King Lemuel (Prov. 31:1), a king named nowhere else in Scripture and whom some believe to be another name for Solomon.  As with the Deuteronomy passage, one must examine both the Hebrew definitions of the terms as well as the biblical context.  According to http://www.blb.org,  sēkār (“strong drink”) and yayin (“wine”) are used, and again one must examine the context to determine whether the alcoholic or non-alcoholic definitions of these words apply to this passage.

Clearly, the context surrounding the words in verses 6-7 are promoting the definition of intoxicating beverages, but one must not stop there if one wants to truly know if divine support for social drinking is found here.  To start off, one need go no further than the previous two verses, “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine (yayin), or for rulers to take strong drink (sēkār), lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (Prov. 31:4-5).

It is interesting how the proponents of social drinking grab onto verses 6-7 while conveniently ignoring the message of verses 4-5!  Keeping in mind that God found the words of King Lemuel’s mother worthy enough to inspire him to include them in scriptural canon for the spiritual benefit of the man of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17), why would God and this obviously wise woman warn about the dangers of alcoholic consumption for royalty in one sentence and then in the very next promote alcoholic consumption (and its dangerous results) for the dying and impoverished?

While it is true that the inebriation resulting from getting drunk would definitely cause anyone, regardless of their physical or financial state, to forget their troubles (Prov. 23:35), there are other things to consider.

  • First of all, ethyl alcohol (the kind of alcohol in intoxicating drinks) is a medically-proven toxic poison which, according to DiPalma’s research, “is the greatest single irritant we can ingest.”  (While it is true that DiPalma cited a medical source who acknowledged that extremely small amounts of alcohol in medicines is not harmful to the body, that would not apply to the implied amount of alcohol suggested to be given to the dying and poor in this passage.)  Why would God basically be telling us to poison the dying and the poor, and in the same book where he provided instruction designed to prevent early deaths and care for the poor (Prov. 2:18-19; 5:23; 14:21; 17:5)?  Not only would this be a contradiction, but in a way it would be a divinely-supported method of euthanasia!
  • Secondly, God would be contradicting himself in another way if he would tell the Jews to give intoxicating beverages to others when he expressly condemned both the giving of it to others and even the tasting of it and looking at it in the cup (Hab. 2:5, 15-16; Prov. 23:29-31).  “But,” some might say, “in Prov. 31:6 it is for a medical condition, like it was for Timothy in 1 Tim. 5:23.”  The fallacy in this argument is found when one remembers that Prov. 31:6 talks both about the dying and the poor, the latter not necessarily having a medical problem.  Furthermore, remember that Paul told Timothy to have a small amount of wine for his medical problem, whereas Prov. 31:6 clearly is talking about an amount large enough to cause one to reach enough of a state of inebriation to “drink their worries down the drain.”  Therefore, God would be promoting not drinking, but also the state which even professed Christian proponents of social drinking acknowledge is sin, drunkenness (Gal. 5:21)!  And why would God promote “drinking our worries away” when he knows that they’ll still be there when we sober up, only then there will probably be more of them due to what we did while drunk and how we feel with the hangover!
  • Thirdly, remember that God has shown that alcoholism can lead to poverty and an early death.  While warning against following the pathways of the wicked, Solomon said that “they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence” (Prov. 4:17), and later called “strong drink a brawler” (Prov. 20:1).  How many early deaths have come about due to alcohol?  How many have been killed in bar fights, by drunk drivers, by drunken spouses and parents?  And how many have lost their jobs and their financial security because of drinking?  Solomon wrote, “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger” (Prov. 19:15), and warns that the one who lies in bed all the time will end up impoverished (Prov. 6:9-11).  Employers, who among your employees is most likely to end up with a pink slip?  Let’s face it, it’s probably the one who can’t keep up with his duties because he’s drunk or hungover all the time and keeps calling in sick from his bed where he’s nursing a hangover!

So what is the true meaning of the passage?  Considering the entire Bible’s divine condemnation of the consumption of alcoholic beverages (with the exception of small amounts for medical purposes only), and especially keeping in mind the immediate context in which the divinely-inspired author condemned alcoholic consumption, it is clear that Prov. 31:6-7 is not a permit to socially drink, nor is it even a permit for the dying and the poor to drink.

Rather, it is King Lemuel’s mother’s way of emphasizing the warning she had just given to her son in the previous verses.  In other words, she is basically saying in Prov. 31:4-7, “When you become king someday, son, remember that kings shouldn’t drink.  If you do, bad things will happen.  You’ll end up being so drunk that you’ll forget important policies that you’ve made as king and treat your subjects in an unjust way.  Look at those out on the street who are dying and poor.  With many of them, their alcoholism got them there and is keeping them there by helping them forget their troubles and thus take away their motivation to fix themselves.  Don’t be like them.”

Conclusion

Much more could be said about what the Scriptures say about alcoholic beverages, but I hope what is written here can help strengthen the faith of the reader and help them in their personal walk with God when it comes to this area of their lives.  Christians are called to be lovingly obedient to their God (John 14:15) and an excellent example to their fellow man (Matt. 5:16; 18:6-7; Rom. 14:21; 1 Cor. 10:32; 1 Pet. 2:12).

It is simply impossible for them to do those things with a beer or wineglass in their hand.

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