The debate about whether Christians should or shouldn’t drink alcohol is largely an American Protestant one. With rare exceptions, it’s found in other countries among those denominations or movements Americans started. Why is it an American thing? Because of how we decided to deal with the problem of alcoholism.
Alcoholism is rampant. Always has been. Not just in the United States; other countries claim it’s just an American obsession, but they’re in denial about their own nation’s alcohol problems. Alcohol is the most socially acceptable drug there is. It’s the easiest to manufacture and get access to. It’s therefore the easiest to abuse.
In America in the early 1900s, men and women would get off work, go to the saloon, blow their day’s salary on liquor, then go home and drunkenly terrorize their now-impoverished families. At the time, there wasn’t much you could do about it. It wasn’t against the law to beat your spouse or children, unless you beat them to death. There were no shelters for them, no Child Protective Services, no foster care, nothing. There were no rehabilitation centers, no treatment programs, no Alcoholics Anonymous nor Celebrate Recovery for the alcoholics. It was a problem with no solution.
Well, the temperance movement pitched a solution. That group consisted of concerned citizens, largely Christians, who began by encouraging moderate drinking, but found they couldn’t get alcoholics to moderate themselves. So they tried to get rid of alcohol altogether. They wanted to ban beer and wine and liquor, saloons and bars and pubs, and even get alcohol out of the churches—instead of communion wine, they’d switch to non-alcoholic grape juice. The thinking was they‘d give the alcoholics nowhere to turn… except back to their neglected families.
Sometimes they were successful in shutting down the town’s bars, on Sunday at least. Sometimes they could get local laws passed that banned alcohol outright. Some counties are still “dry”—you can’t buy liquor there at all.
In 1919 the movement’s supporters in Congress actually passed the Volstead Act, banning the manufacture and transport of alcohol for sale in the United States. And, just in case anyone claimed such a law was unconstitutional, they passed the 18th Amendment. The only alcohol you could have was homemade—but you couldn’t sell it. That’s right, the U.S. actually banned alcohol. We call this time period “Prohibition.”
Of course, it didn’t last. Like I said, alcohol is the most socially acceptable drug there is. Social drinkers resented being told they couldn’t drink, and went underground. Liquor distributors went underground too, and made far more money than they had before. Alcoholics didn’t stop drinking; they just squandered their families’ money faster.
After 13 years of this social experiment that wasn’t working, the government threw in the towel. The 18th Amendment was overturned by the 21st. Alcohol was legal again. But the temperance movement didn’t give up as well: The churches in the movement simply banned it among its members. Alcohol, among those Christians, stayed socially unacceptable: “Good Christians don’t drink.” And in many churches that’s still the attitude.
But times change, people start to question their traditions, and many Christians nowadays ask the reasonable question, “Why can’t good Christians drink?” If alcoholism is not an issue—after all, not everyone is an alcoholic or problem drinker—then why should alcohol be banned outright from Christians? Isn’t that legalism?
Of course it is. So how should a Christian think about alcohol?
Alcohol in the scriptures.
You’re going to find alcoholic beverages throughout human history. It’s one of the first things we humans invented. We discovered alcohol was relatively easy to make, fun to drink, and far less likely to give you dysentery or cholera than untreated water.
Hence you’re gonna find it throughout the bible. The earliest reference to it in the scriptures is in the Noah story: He planted a vineyard, made wine, and got drunk on it. (Ge 9.20-21) Various scandalized commentators try to reinterpret this story to say Noah accidentally made wine and accidentally got drunk on it, but if that were so, Genesis would have said so. It doesn’t.
Wine was made part of religious ceremonies. God accepted drink offerings—usually a fourth of a hin of wine, which is about a liter. The Hebrews were also expected to tithe their wine—meaning every third year it went into the food bank for the needy and for the priests to drink, and the other two years you were expected to celebrate God by drinking that entire tithe—if you made gallons of it, that meant a lot of drinking!—or even trading it for harder stuff. (Dt 14.22-29) The Passover customs included several cups of wine, one of which Jesus made into a remembrance of himself by instituting holy communion. (Lk 22.20)
Other than grape products being forbidden to Nazirites, who had taken special vows, (Nu 6.4) there seems to be nothing wrong, in the scriptures, with wine per se. People celebrated with it, and were expected to. Jesus even miraculously provided the wine for a wedding, (Jn 2.1-11) and his own social drinking was used to accuse him of unrighteousness. (Lk 7.34)
The trouble only came when people overindulged. As Solomon put it, “Wine produces mockers; alcohol leads to brawls. Those led astray by drink cannot be wise.” (Pr 20.1 NLT) Paul forbade those who overindulged from being church leaders, (Tt 1.7) and advised, “Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.” (Ep 5.18 NLT) But lest you think Paul banned alcohol outright, he did advise Timothy to drink wine instead of (or mixed with) water—again, because the drinking water wasn’t safe. (1Ti 5.23)
So do the scriptures prohibit alcohol? Clearly not. Only from those under special vows. It only prohibits overindulgence. And various Christians interpret overindulgence differently: Some claim this means never get drunk, or even tipsy. Others claim this means one can get drunk every once in a while, but it must never become a regular practice.
And I think we’re all agreed alcoholics shouldn’t drink at all—though I know some alcoholics who think they can drink moderately, and I think they’re playing with fire. (Full disclosure: I have a lot of alcoholics in my family, including my father and late grandmother, and I don’t drink at all lest I become another one. My only exception is communion wine, which is largely a non-issue—my church serves grape juice.)
What about churches that prohibit alcohol?
I’ve caught a lot of grief for saying this, but I still say it: If your church prohibits alcohol, then for you, it’s sin.
Your church may or may not have good reasons for banning alcohol. Like I said, for some of them it’s legalism. For others, it’s because alcoholism is indeed rampant, and they’ve found that when they permit alcohol, the alcoholics among them figure, “Well, if drinking is okay, then maybe I can drink”—and they do. So for the sake of weaker Christians, it’s better to prohibit it entirely. “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble.” (Ro 14.21 NLT) Our freedom in Christ comes secondary to fellow Christians’ weaknesses.
Of course, when I say this, people object. The usual objection is that churches have no business adding rules to the scriptures. If Paul didn’t ban alcohol, they don’t see how a church has any business going above and beyond what Paul taught.
But that’s not realistic. Churches add their own rules all the time. As they should. Each has its own procedure for running the church, for hiring pastors, and for selecting leaders. Each has its own customs about who can talk during a worship service. Each decides whether you can bring food or drinks into the worship center. And in order to be a member, usually they ask you to promise to uphold the church’s rules. If you promise to, yet don’t, that’s sin. Period.
It is human nature—sinful human nature, anyway—to want to be the exception to the rule. People want to drink, and don’t understand why someone else’s problem should become their problem. They point out that since it’s not a sin to them, it’s not a sin. (Ro 14.22) They should be able to drink privately, at least.
Okay. Let’s say you do drink privately. What happens when someone else in your church finds out you’re drinking privately? What does that look like to them? Freedom in Christ, or a secret vice?
Look, if you want to drink, be honest about it. Point out how it’s not prohibited by the scriptures. Try to talk your church leadership into lifting the ban. Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t. And if it really is an issue that’s that important to you—it could be that you make or sell wine for a living, or it could just be that you really like beer—perhaps you ought to go to a different church. But if your church feels one way about alcohol, and you feel another, you need to deal with the issue. Not hide your habits. The fact that you have to hide means you’re in the wrong—no matter how much you think they’re in the wrong.
Either way, be careful.
Still, even if you attend a church where alcohol is not an issue, be careful. It is a drug, after all, and a lot of people can’t handle this particular drug. You yourself might not be as capable at handling it as you think you are.
Alcohol should never become an obsession, a coping mechanism, or a crutch. Jesus is the only obsession, coping mechanism, or crutch we should ever have. That’s why Paul taught to not get drunk on wine, but to be filled with the Spirit, and find our celebration in him. (Ep 5.18-19) If you can’t celebrate without alcohol, you might have a problem. Don’t fool yourself, and don’t be naïve. Keep alcohol in its proper place. Keep Christ first.