Bible Answer

May a Christian drink alcohol?

Is it permissible for a Christian to drink alcohol? My pastor does not allow church members or leaders to drink.

There is no prohibition in scripture against Christians drinking alcohol. On the contrary, numerous references in the New Testament reflect that drinking wine was a part of everyday life for Jesus and the disciples (as it was for all men). As most Bible students know, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2). 

Furthermore, Paul recommends that Timothy drink wine occasionally for his health (1Tim 5:23), and Jesus Himself drank wine frequently as a required part of many Jewish festivals including the Passover meal of the Last Supper. If our Lord enjoyed wine Himself, then certainly it was not a sin.

Is the "Wine" in the Bible Just Grape Juice?

Some Bible teachers (who personally oppose drinking alcohol and desire all Christians to adopt the same conviction) have argued that the wine mentioned in the Bible was not fermented drink but merely unfermented grape juice. Such an assertion is nonsense and is contradicted both by the text of Scripture and by historical records of the time.

First, throughout the Old and New Testament, biblical references to wine are always references to the fermented drink, not to unfermented juice. In both Hebrew and Greek, the Bible uses different words for grape juice than for wine. In fact, in Numbers we find both words used together in the same verse:

Num. 6:3  he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink, nor shall he drink any grape juice nor eat fresh or dried grapes. 

In this verse, Moses used one Hebrew word for "wine" (yayin) in the first half of the verse and a different Hebrew word for "grape juice" (enav) in the second half of the verse. The words "wine" and "grape juice" are different Hebrew words with different meanings. One refers to an alcoholic drink (yayin), while the other refers to a nonalcoholic drink (enav).

Similarly, in the New Testament, the Greek word for "wine" (oinos) always refers to a fermented drink. For example, in Ephesians 5:18 Paul tells the church:

Eph. 5:18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,

The Greek word translated "wine" is oinos, which is the Greek word for an alcoholic drink. We know Paul is speaking of fermented drink, because he says we should not become "drunk" on it. Later, Paul uses this very same Greek word when writing to Timothy:

1Tim. 5:23  No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.

Once again, the Greek word for wine is oinos, so Paul was telling Timothy to drink a little alcoholic wine to help his stomach. 

We find further proof that the word wine refers to an alcoholic beverage in the story of the wedding in Cana, where the headwaiter compliments the bridegroom on serving high-quality wine near the end of the celebration:

John 2:9 When the headwaiter tasted the water  which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter  called the bridegroom, 
John 2:10  and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people  have  drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” 

The tradition at parties was to serve the best wine first, when the drinkers are still thinking clearly and can discern the difference in quality. Once the attendees have had a few drinks, the host brings out the poorer quality (i.e., less expensive) wine, because few will notice or remember the difference after the effects of the alcohol dull their judgment.

In John 2, the headwaiter at the wedding was pleasantly surprised to discover that the new wine was the better wine (because it was the product of Jesus' miracle). By the circumstances and the nature of his remark, we must conclude that the "wine" in this story was the alcoholic drink, not merely unfermented grape juice. No guest would have reason to notice differences in the quality of unfermented grape juice (all grape juice is the same), nor would a host have any reason to hold back "better" grape juice for later in the evening. Only alcoholic wine varies in quality in the way the story suggests. Undoubtedly, the headwaiter was impressed by Jesus' wine-making skills, not His juice-making skills.

Therefore, we can see that the Bible makes a clear distinction between fermented drink and unfermented drink, so we only need to look at specific Hebrew or Greek words used in Scripture to know which drink is in view in the text. In all these examples (and many more), we see the Bible referring to the fermented drink. Therefore, any attempt to claim that the Bible speaks only of unfermented grape juice is either ignorance or dishonest scholarship. 

Historically speaking, we know that all drink of the vine was fermented because in ancient times it was virtually impossible to store unfermented grape juice. Without refrigeration or preservatives, grape juice quickly sours and becomes rancid. So in Jesus' day, the safe way to store grape juice was to ferment it, because the alcohol in the wine prevented the juice from spoiling. This is why Jews often cut their wine with water to diminish the alcoholic effect, allowing them to drink more but without becoming drunk. 

Widespread storage of unfermented grape juice did not become a reality until Thomas Welch invented the pasteurizing of grape juice in 1869. Ironically, Welch was a Methodist minister opposed to Christians drinking alcohol, which motivated his research into ways of preserving unfermented grape juice. He was searching for a way to store nonalcoholic grape juice for use in the communion celebration since until his invention, most churches had little choice but to use alcoholic wine in the Lord's Supper observance.

So any claims that Jesus and the disciples drank only unfermented grape juice instead of alcohol are false and wishful thinking by those opposed to alcohol. We know Jesus drank wine (as did His disciples) by the clear teaching of scripture. Therefore, when someone teaches that drinking alcohol is sinful (apart from drunkenness), they are misinterpreting scripture, misrepresenting Jesus' actions, and trampling the liberty of other Christians.

Respecting Christian Liberty

When we consult the Bible on the topic of liberty, we find strong warnings against a Christian denying another his or her liberty in Christ. Romans 14 is a key chapter of scripture to guide us in this matter. Verses 1-9 teach the importance of allowing our brothers and sisters to hold different convictions about amoral matters. The word amoral refers to things that are neutral with respect to morality. Amoral matters are neither moral nor immoral by themselves; they have no inherent morality, and therefore they can be used for good or for evil purposes. Regarding amoral matters, we cannot establish absolute rules for Christian living that apply universally to all situations.

A simple example will help illustrate this point. Watching television is neither a moral nor an immoral activity by itself. It is amoral. Nevertheless, watching television can become a moral or an immoral choice depending on what we choose to watch. If we choose to watch a religious broadcast or a nature show, then our choice is morally appropriate. On the other hand, if we choose to watch pornography, our actions become immoral according to scripture. So, watching television is amoral in and of itself, but it can be used in moral or immoral ways.

Likewise, alcoholic beverages are amoral. They are neither moral nor immoral according to scripture because we can find examples in the Bible of alcohol being used morally (e.g., in Jewish festivals or at the Last Supper) and immorally (e.g., in Genesis 9 when Noah becomes drunk in front of his sons). Like television, alcohol has no inherent morality, but it can be used in moral or immoral ways.

All Christians enjoy liberty in Christ in all amoral matters, yet we are still accountable for the choices we make. We are free to determine for ourselves what the Holy Spirit wishes us to do in these areas of our lives, but we must guard against allowing our choices to become immoral in the way we exercise our liberty. Many Christians choose to enjoy alcoholic beverages in moderation, and they may do so with a clear conscience knowing the Holy Spirit and scripture have given us the liberty to partake of such things.

Nevertheless, knowing we have the liberty to drink alcohol is not the end of the story. Romans 14 also stresses that significant responsibility accompanies our liberty. Believers should not impose their personal convictions on others as matters of law (i.e., legalism), but neither should Christians flaunt their liberty before others who do not share the same convictions. When we try to force our liberty upon others, we risk causing them to stumble in their walk, meaning we influence them to go against their convictions, which is sin (James 4:17).

In Romans 14:21-22 Paul teaches that we should not use amoral issues (e.g., eating meat or drinking wine, etc.) to drive a wedge between members of the body of Christ. We shouldn’t allow our liberty to be the cause for our brother to stumble.

This principle of scripture works both ways. If we persuade others to drink against their convictions, then we cause them to stumble; and if they try to guilt us for enjoying alcohol, then they cause us to stumble by casting doubt upon our freedoms. Both attempts to persuade the other are misguided, according to Romans 14, because no Christian should force his or her convictions in amoral matters upon another. To each his own, according to his own conscience, as Romans 14 teaches.

Scriptural Limitations on the Use of Alcohol

There are a few specific prohibitions in scripture regarding alcohol. First, drinking to the point of drunkenness is never appropriate for a Christian under any circumstances (Eph 5:18).

Secondly, leaders within the church may be held to stricter standards with respect to the appropriate use of alcohol (though scripture does not prohibit a pastor or other church leader from drinking). Church leaders must be especially mindful of how they conduct themselves in amoral matters, because they are always on display within the body as examples of good conduct. Especially when it comes to food and drink, church leaders should be quick to set aside personal liberty whenever necessary for the sake of the Gospel.

Many churches and ministry organizations require their leadership to abstain from drinking alcohol in public situations (or in some cases, entirely), because these organizations want to avoid the perception of immorality or to be sensitive to other cultures, where consumption of alcohol by Christians is considered taboo. These self-imposed prohibitions are entirely appropriate, and anyone who is called to serve in these organizations should be prepared to respect these restrictions as a matter of submission to authority.

So, if your church prohibits its leaders (or even its congregation) from drinking alcohol, then submit to the church's authority on this matter, at least as long as you are called to serve or congregate in that church. Remember, adopting a stricter standard is always an option for the individual Christian living under liberty, so long as our personal choices do not become a legalistic standard we impose on others. 

On the other hand, if you are not willing to forgo liberty, then you should consider finding a new church home more compatible with your personal convictions. There is nothing wrong with one congregation adopting a strict prohibition against alcohol while another has no such prohibitions, so long as both congregations teach that drinking alcohol is not a sin. While we have liberty to tighten our personal or corporate convictions concerning drinking alcohol, we do not have the liberty to distort or misrepresent the Bible's teaching on the topic. 

Thirdly, we must be prepared to restrict our personal liberty anytime it comes into conflict with the purposes of the Gospel. As Paul says in 1Corinthians:

1Cor. 9:19  For though I am  free from all men, I have made myself  a slave to all, so that I may  win more. 
1Cor. 9:20  To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under  the Law, as under  the Law though  not being myself under  the Law, so that I might win those who are under  the Law; 
1Cor. 9:21  to those who are  without law,  as without law, though not being without the law of God but  under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 
1Cor. 9:22  To the  weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become  all things to all men,  so that I may by all means save some. 
1Cor. 9:23  I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. 

Some weaker Christians might observe us enjoying the freedom we have in Christ to drink, misunderstand what they see, and by our example stumble into sin. For the sake of our weaker brothers and sisters in Christ, we must judge each circumstance carefully, placing our desires secondary to the needs of the Gospel. For example, in a gathering of close friends, we might choose to enjoy a glass of wine confident we won't offend anyone's conscience, while in a larger gathering of church members, we would decide it's wiser to abstain from alcohol out of an abundance of caution.

All Christians are expected to use good judgment in light of their circumstances, always following the leading of the Holy Spirit. If you have a personal conviction not to drink alcohol at all, then follow your convictions, but don't expect all Christians to follow suit. Each Christian makes the right choice when they follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in accordance with scripture.

Warning for Parents

Finally, we would like to offer some parenting advice: teach your believing children about the liberty we have in Christ. Teach them to study the Bible and follow what it teaches. Teach them to follow their own convictions by listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to be responsible in all they choose to do, including in their choice to drink alcohol. Teach them about the dangers of abusing alcohol, and teach them to be mindful at all times of their witness for Christ.

On the other hand, don't teach your children that the Bible prohibits drinking alcohol, because this is not true. Despite our good intentions, teaching scripture wrongly will only cause trouble for our children in the long run. Sooner or later the enemy will seize upon our teaching errors and use them in an effort to draw our children away from God’s word.

One day your children will read in the Gospels that Jesus said He looks forward to enjoying wine with us again in the kingdom (Matt 26:29), and when they see this, they will ask why their parents taught that wine was evil? At that moment, they may have reason to question everything we have taught, which would be unfortunate. Therefore, we need to provide our children with an accurate biblical view of alcohol while guiding them in making sound decisions. We want our children to trust us, but most of all, we want them to trust God’s word.