Some time ago a young single friend confided in me that she was looking for a godly man to marry. She wanted a husband who shared her Christian values, so she joined an online dating service and completed a profile with the attributes of the man of her dreams.
As I looked over her answers to the profile questions, I thought that she might have some misconceptions about what constituted a "godly" man. So I posed a hypothetical question to her: If Jesus were walking the earth today and he joined the same online dating service, would you want his profile to match yours? Of course, she said. So I went on to point out that the online profile she completed would exclude Jesus as a match. In particular, her answer to the question about how often her perfect match drank wine—"never"—presented an obstacle. She selected this response because she believed a godly man would not ever drink alcohol.
Jesus drank. In fact, he drank wine—the fermented kind, not grape juice, as some will claim—and apparently he drank a fair amount of it. More on that shortly, but first, let me point out that my friend is not alone in her thinking.
For example, Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist mega-church in Southern California (led by Pastor Rick Warren, author of the popular book The Purpose-Driven Life) would apparently exclude Jesus as a staff member: The church’s "Maturity-Leadership Requirements" ask that each staff member "commit willingly to refrain from . . . consuming alcohol."
Similarly, it seems that Mormons would not allow Jesus to enter their temples because perpetual abstinence from alcohol is required for entry. For that matter, some Christian denominations might even refuse Jesus membership in their churches.
So it seems that many believe that a godly man should never drink. Is this scriptural?
Did Jesus Drink?
Jesus apparently drank enough wine that he was accused of drinking to excess. In his own words he proclaimed, "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard’" (Luke 7:34). So Jesus was accused of being a drunk.
The Greek word translated as "drunkard" in the above passage is oinopotes, which means a winebibber, one who drinks much wine. In fact, the first part of the word comes from the Greek word for wine, oinos, which occurs several times in the New Testament.
Some claim that Jesus drank grape juice or must (unfermented wine). But then why accuse him of being a drunkard? Other scriptural passages where oinos is found clearly indicate that, indeed, fermented wine, not grape juice, is being discussed.
For example, consider "Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved" (Matt. 9:17; see also Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37-38). The old skins burst because the wine contains yeast—the catalyst of fermentation—which causes expansion.
Similarly, "no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good’" (Luke 5:39). Even in New Testament times it was known that wine gets better with age; grape juice does not.
Old Testament passages also discuss wine. Unless otherwise noted, these passages translate the word "wine" from the Hebrew word yayin, meaning fermented wine. The following passages show that, indeed, fermented wine is what is intended to be understood by this word:
- Behold, my heart is like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins, it is ready to burst (Job 32:19).
- Wine and new wine take away the understanding (Hos. 4:11). Could grape juice do such a thing? Note that "new wine" is translated from the Hebrew word tiyrowsh which can also refer to unfermented wine (e.g., Num. 18:12; Deut. 14:23), but clearly it is not intended to be understood that way here.
- Awake, you drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth (Joel 1:5). Would drunkards care if grape juice was cut off from their mouths? "Sweet wine" is translated from the Hebrew word aciyc which can also refer to unfermented wine, but that is not intended here either.
Is Drinking a Sin?
Drinking wine—or other alcoholic beverages for that matter—is not, in itself, sinful. Let’s look at a few scripture passages that support this claim. First, consider what happened at the wedding at Cana when the wine ran out:
Jesus said to [the servants], "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast." So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now." (John 2:7-10)
Apparently Jesus was a pretty good vintner! The wine steward’s comments seem to indicate that it was the usual practice to serve good wine until the guests drank enough that they either weren’t picky about the quality of the wine they were drinking, or they simply could no longer tell the difference between good wine and not-so-good wine. Whichever the case, this story clearly indicates that Jesus approved of drinking wine.
So did Paul. We know this from his instructions 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). Interestingly, present-day research indicates that drinking wine has health benefits.
But the approval of drinking wine goes back further than New Testament times. Several passages from the Old Testament indicate that drinking has been acceptable for a long time:
- Give strong drink to him 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).
- Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High (Gen. 14:18).
- [Jacob] brought [Isaac] wine, and he drank (Gen. 27:25).
- [S]pend the money for whatever you desire, oxen, or sheep, or wine or strong drink . . . (Deut. 14:26).
- Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man . . . (Ps. 104:14-15).
- Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do (Eccles. 9:7).1
- On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined (Is. 25:6). Note that the Hebrew word translated as "wine on the lees" here is shemer, indicating fermentation.
Israel’s burnt offering requirements—required by God—included the use of wine, the leftover of which could be drunk by Aaron and his sons: "[A]nd with the first lamb a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a libation" (Ex. 29:40; see also Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:5, 7, 10; 28:7, 14). Note that Numbers 28:7 uses the Hebrew word shekar, meaning "strong wine" (or other strong alcoholic drink).
What about Intoxication?
Clearly, God has always allowed his followers to drink. With that in mind, we can understand easily why the Catholic Church does not consider drinking, in itself, to be sinful. That said, the Church does caution against excessive drinking. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
"The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air" (CCC 2290, emphasis in original).
This teaching, too, is supported by Scripture. For example, Paul often warned against drunkenness:
- Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness . . . (Rom. 13:13).
- I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one (1 Cor. 5:11).
- Neither . . . thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
- . . . envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21).
- And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).
- A bishop must be . . . no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money (1 Tim. 3:2-3).
- For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard . . . (Titus 1:7).
Peter taught similarly: "Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry" (1 Pet. 4:3). The Greek word translated in this passage as drunkenness is oinophlugia, also derived from oinos.
Again, such teaching was not new to Christianity—the Old Testament taught likewise:
- Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise (Prov. 20:1).
- Be not among winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat (Prov. 23:20). Another Hebrew word, caba, translated as "drunkard" or "winebibber," is used in this passage.
- Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening till wine inflames them! (Is. 5:11). "Strong drink" is translated from the Hebrew word shekar—this applies also to Is. 5:22.
- Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink (Is 5:22).
See also the story related in Proverbs 23, verses 29-35.
Should We Abstain?
So far we have seen from Scripture that drinking, in itself, is not sinful but excessive drinking is clearly warned against. But Scripture passages also indicate that there are circumstances in which one should not drink at all.
For example, when it would lead someone else into sin: "Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble" (Rom. 14:20-21). This seems clear enough—when you’re with an alcoholic it is good to be careful not to tempt him to drink. But this doesn’t mean you should never drink.
In the Old Testament, God forbids Aaron and his sons from drinking on occasion:
"Drink no wine nor strong drink, you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations." (Lev. 10:9)
We also find in the Old Testament a special sort of consecration to God through vows which included not drinking: "When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink . . ." (Num. 6:2-3; cf. Judg. 13:7). It is possible that John the Baptist took such vows—see Luke 7:33.
We can see, then, that if we take Scripture as our guide, then drinking, in itself, is not a sin, but we should not drink excessively. Cheers!