Part 3: Historical view of alcohol by Christians
Christians for nearly 1800 years drank alcohol as part of normal life and nearly always used wine as communion. It was not until a few protestant churches in the U.S. began moving to a position of moderation in the 1800s and some, bearing out of that movement, moved to abstinence altogether. This idea of drinking being sinful is a new idea that flourished in recent times.
Early Apostolic Church Fathers
According to the early apostolic Church fathers…
- Should one abstain from wine? According John’s disciple Ignatius…no:
“Do not altogether abstain from wine and flesh, for these things are not to be viewed with abhorrence, since [the Scripture] saith, “Ye shall eat the good things of the earth.” And again, “Ye shall eat flesh even as herbs.” And again, “Wine maketh glad the heart of man, and oil exhilarates, and bread strengthens him.” But all are to be used with moderation, as being the gifts of God.” Ignatius (Disciple of John), The Epistle Of Ignatius To Hero, A Deacon Of Antioch
- Was wine non-alcoholic? They confirm that it was alcoholic, as people could get drunk on it:
“Again, when the Holy Ghost had descended upon the disciples, that they all might prophesy and speak with tongues, and some mocked them, as if drunken with new wine, Peter said that they were not drunken, for it was the third hour of the day;” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 12.
- Did they think Jesus drank wine? Yes:
‘”Is not He thy father who hath obtained thee [by generation], and formed thee, and created thee?” At what time, then, did He pour out upon the human race the life-giving seed — that is, the Spirit of the remission of sins, through means of whom we are quickened? Was it not then, when He was eating with men, and drinking wine upon the earth? For it is said, “The Son of man came eating and drinking;”’ Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 31.
Church fathers after this point also affirmed drinking as acceptable. In some cases they did not want children or youth to drink for reasons such as lust due to drinking too much (Clement of Alexandria). But again this would be drunkenness (which is but one form of gluttony), not casual drinking. Clement did admire those who did not drink.
But John Chrysostom, about the time of Augustine and Jerome, argued that certain Bible passages should be used to refute those who say there should be no wine at all! A host of other Christians rightly defended drinking right up to the Reformation. Benedictine monks were permitted to have about 1 gallon (4 liters) of beer per day as their allotment.
Through the Reformation, it was obvious that drinking was permitted and encouraged. During the reformation for example:
“As the Protestant Reformation began, the Reformers from Luther and Calvin to Zwingli and Knox strongly supported the enjoyment of wine as a biblical blessing, and indeed Calvin’s annual salary in Geneva included seven barrels of wine. The Lutheran Formula of Concord (1576) and the Reformed Christian confessions of faith also make explicit mention of and assume the use of wine, as does the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith and the Methodist Articles of Religion (1784). In the Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632), even the radical Anabaptists, who sought to expunge every trace of Catholicism and to rely only on the Bible, also assumed wine was to be used, and despite their reputation as killjoys, the English Puritans were temperate partakers of “God’s good gifts,” including wine and ale.”
Notice how John Calvin as part of his annual salary was given 7 barrels of wine, which comes out to 2 and ¼ liters of wine per day!
Even great commentators and preachers of the past repeatedly and openly preached of alcohol being good such as John Wesley, George Whitfield, Adam Clarke, John Gill, and John Bunyan. These are but a few and their writings clearly reflect a positive attitude of drinking.
On the other sides of the fences, the Oriental churches, the Roman church, and Orthodox churches are well-known for alcoholic beverages.
Modern Moderation and Abstinence Movement (i.e. American Temperance Movement)
It was rare to find early colonial Americans not drinking – even George Washington is known for drinking and his favorite was a porter, which is a dark beer that contains some molasses. Puritans expected people to drink. Few realize today that it was a Baptist minister who developed the formula for bourbon. Even Southern Baptists openly drank until 1896 when they made a declaration of forced abstinence.
The moderation and abstinence movements began with some vague roots to John Wesley who suggested limiting extremely high alcoholic beverages that were distilled (whiskey, vodka, etc.) to medicinal purposes. Though his comments were largely neglected, it was not until Benjamin Rush who in early 1800s argued against these same high alcohol beverages that were distilled could be addicting and the only cure was abstinence (Rush was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, though he staunchly opposed George Washington and wanted him removed from commanding U.S. forces).
During the 1800s in the U.S., there was a shift and this idea grew and spread to the idea that all alcoholic beverages should be abstained. This idea, lead by liberals no less, is not founded in the Bible but fallible minds of men and consequently by 1919, the U.S. began prohibition, which was later repealed in 1933 (although prohibition deceived many church people into buying in to that philosophy, some denominations strictly opposed it publically (others privately) in open civil disobedience (e.g., Lutherans, etc.).
Most other nations do not have these issues, at least not to this degree—unless they were influenced by American churches imposing their view of alcohol on them. And as a result, wine and alcohol are often used – Christian or not. (I’ve been to other places in North America, Europe, South America, and Australia and Christians realize what the Bible says and drink wine at their meals and partake in moderate amounts of alcohol. Even a number of denominations in U.S. still use communion wine and partake in moderate amounts of alcohol as well (e.g., Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.).
Special Note: In the 1800s, we saw the church begin to severely compromise on Genesis rejecting the plain words of Scripture to buy into long ages with gap theory, day age, and theistic evolution. We also saw movements that started rejecting other parts of Scripture such as Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness that reinterpreted the Gospels, etc. Then we saw Ellen White reinterpret the passages on hell to get Annihilationism (Jehovah’s Witnesses borrowed this idea from them), etc. So we need to be careful about some of the theologies that came out of the 1800s where the Bible was being significantly reinterpreted and downgraded as the authority. Even Charles Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers” who made it clear that wine in the Bible was alcoholic moved to a position of abstaining due to peer pressure (and he also bought into secular humanism’s long ages over the Bible’s teaching on the age of the earth too). The issue of alcohol is no different. We need to get back to the Bible to develop scriptural understanding, not theologies that are dependent on man (forms of humanism) and try to mix them with our Christianity.
Doesn’t the Bible say not to get drunk—even once…or it is sin?
Drunkenness is indeed a sin (e.g., Romans 13:13, Galatians 5:21). This would clearly be those who indulge way too far in their drinking time and time again (e.g., dissipation). They are often labeled drunkards (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:10, Deuteronomy 21:20). They have clearly lost control and “teeter and totter” when they walk (e.g., Isaiah 24:20).
But is the off occasion when someone drinks too much a sin or someone who was deceived into getting drunk a sin—like the instance of Noah in Genesis 9; or in the fictional series Anne of Green Gables where young Anne accidentally served her friend Diana wine instead of cordial and put her in a clear state of being drunk? These need to be evaluated biblically, because let’s face it; this is right at that borderline isn’t it? And let’s not rely on human wisdom to give us the answer, but seek the wisdom of God on this delicate topic.
Let’s evaluate the first instance. The first example of this in Scripture is with Noah. Genesis 9 says:
Genesis 9:20-27: 20 And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. 25 Then he said: “Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brethren.” 26 And he said: “Blessed be the LORD, The God of Shem, And may Canaan be his servant. 27 May God enlarge Japheth, And may he dwell in the tents of Shem; And may Canaan be his servant.”
Righteous Noah (Genesis 6:9) was clearly drunk on wine in this instance. In the privacy of his tent, he became uncovered and Ham looked upon his naked body and bragged about it to his brothers who had to go in and cover him (interestingly, Noah’s wife was not there to cover him, perhaps she died and this was part of the reason for his drunk state?). In today’s vernacular, that would be like seeing your parent naked, taking a video of it, and posting it on the internet!
After Noah awoke and found out what happened, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan as a result of Ham’s actions. Noah surely knew better than to curse Ham, that God had blessed in Genesis 9:1, so he cursed the one who was like Ham but likely much worse. Consider how sin expands in the next generation when it is not dealt with in the previous generation and God will visit this judgment on the next generation (Exodus 34:7). And the Canaanites went down in history among the worse of sinners, being judged severely by Shem’s descendants, specifically Abraham and Lot as well as God who was openly involved:
- as Sodom and Gomorrah and the five cities of the plain.
- as the judgment by the Israelites for their sins listed in Leviticus 18 as they entered the Promised Land.
- as Edom (descendants of Esau) judged the Horites who were Canaanites, specifically out of the Hivites (Deuteronomy 2:4, 5, 12, 22).
- as Moab (descendants of Lot) judged those Canaanites at Ar (Deuteronomy 2:9, 29) which was the boundary between the Promised Land and that which has already been given to Moab.
But note that the Bible doesn’t say Noah was sinning here. If so, this curse by Noah would have been done in unrighteousness, which again, is not stated. We need to be careful about saying Noah was sinning here as a one-off drunk state, as the Bible doesn’t say that in this instance.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not advocating that people go get drunk. But we need to be careful about stating something is a sin without Scriptural warrant.
The second example is that of someone who was forced or deceived into getting drunk. With this, consider the case with Lot.
Righteous Lot (2 Peter 2:7) was saved from the judgment on Sodom, by the hand of God by means of sending angels to rescues him and his family. Though in this, he lost relatives, including his wife, and was left with his two daughters. No doubt he was devastated. The account goes:
Genesis 19:30-38: 30 Then Lot went up out of Zoar and dwelt in the mountains, and his two daughters were with him; for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar. And he and his two daughters dwelt in a cave. 31 Now the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to come in to us as is the custom of all the earth. 32 “Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve the lineage of our father.” 33 So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 34 It happened on the next day that the firstborn said to the younger, “Indeed I lay with my father last night; let us make him drink wine tonight also, and you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve the lineage of our father.” 35 Then they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 36 Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father. 37 The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab; he is the father of the Moabites to this day. 38 And the younger, she also bore a son and called his name Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the people of Ammon to this day.
These conniving daughters made Lot drunk (who was obviously depressed and vulnerable having lost just about everything and his wife), apparently so much so that he didn’t know what was going on! They had sexual relations with their father, in one sense, for a noble action of “preserving the family line”, but in another sense, without consultation of their father or trusting in the hand of God to provide. It is true that if the daughters married other men, Lot’s family line would end—unless he remarried as well and bore a son. Tamar did something similar with her father-in-law Judah as well (Genesis 38). Consider that even the lineage of Christ comes through Ruth, who was of Moab, which are the descendants of Lot with his eldest daughter.
Furthermore, it was not until the time of Moses (later on) that it was forbidden to have sexual relations with close relatives (Leviticus 18). Abraham married his half-sister (Genesis 20:12) and Adam and Eve’s children married each other. If anything, there is the sin of lying deception by the daughters and the issue of family marriage.
We could discuss various aspects of this situation for quite some time, but the issue here is: was Lot sinning for being deceptively put into a drunken state by his sly daughters? In modern terms, imagine if someone spiked some punch and people unknowingly got drunk on it: would they be the sinners? Again we need to be careful attributing sin to someone like Lot, when the Bible doesn’t give us that directive here.
What about other one-off events where a person is drunk, after all, the Bible clearly forbade such a one-off event in Ephesians 5:18 (“do not be drunk on wine”)?
Ephesians 5:18 is the one major verse that people use to say a one-off event where someone gets drunk is a sin. In fact in a cordial conversation, one person quoted this verse to me as “Do not be drunk on wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit”. And that sounds great, doesn’t it. In fact, it sounds as though this settles the issue and righteous Noah and Lot were indeed sinning. But let’s read it:
Ephesians 5:14-20: 14 Therefore He says: “Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light.” 15 See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, 16 redeeming the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The first thing you should notice is that the verse is not “Do not be drunk on wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit”—the person left out a key phrase. It is: “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit”. There is a clarifying remark about being drunk with wine (“in which is dissipation”).
So what is dissipation? Regarding alcohol, it is: “dissolute way of living, especially excessive drinking of liquor” (Dictionary.com). This passage is not speaking of a one-off event where someone happened to have drank too much, but instead talking about the state of “being drunk” as a lifestyle or way of living. Clearly, this is talking of drunkenness, not a one-off [accidental] event. So this passage was ripped out of context in the conversation.
In fact, this passage goes perfectly with the surrounding context. Paul is writing to the Ephesians about how to live in these evil times (vs. 16) and to walk circumspectly (vs. 15) giving thanks always (vs. 20). This is not referring to a one-off event, but clearly as a habitual lifestyle. It is pointing out the fallacy of a state of getting drunk repeatedly (dissipation), which is indeed drunkenness.
We may too quickly assume that verse 18 rules out the one off mistaken situation where one overdrank as a sinful nature as it is contrasted with being filled with the Holy Spirit. However, such a remedial reading should never be done. Are we to think that we should only be filled with Holy Spirit as a one-off event? By no means! This is speaking of an ongoing lifestyle.
Consider the wedding at Cana:
John 2:1-10: 1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. 3 And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.” 4 Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” 6 Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And He said to them, “Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.” And they took it. 9 When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. 10 And he said to him, “Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!”
This was no small amount according to the Scripture, but clearly sufficient amounts being a minimum of 120 gallons of wine to a maximum of 180 gallons of wine – this is about 2520-3960 glasses of wine (based on the standard 6 oz. per glass). This was ready to be served, after the other wine ran out! As you may recall, when Christ turned water into wine the people were already well drunk (vs.10). Can we accuse Christ of wrongdoing here? May it never be!
In a parallel respect, if drinking too much on an off occasion is sin, then so is eating too much (gluttony, Proverbs 23:20-21, Luke 7:33-35) on the off occasion at a meal. I recall sitting with a humble and godly man at a buffet, and yet I listened to him criticize Christians who think it was okay to drink, while he was on his fourth plate of food and gorged himself like few I’ve ever seen. One needs to consider the hypocrisy.
A word of caution
Now, this is not a license to go get drunk—not by any means. The sin is in the intent. If one has the motive to go out and get drunk, I would suggest they have already sinned in their heart (e.g., 1 John 2:17, John 3:19, Matthew 5:28).
If one drinks a little and on an off occasion someone spikes them with something harder, a wedding, or they have just enough to put them over the edge, we still need to be cautious about calling that a sin. If over drinking becomes a habit or repetitive, then of course, it is drunkenness or dissipation and sinful and those need to be confronted and corrected gently.
But an even bigger caution is this: for if we call something sin that is not; are we not sinning? For we would be sinning by saying God says something is wrong that He didn’t say. We would be guilty of adding to the Word of God (Proverbs 30:6). So we need to be extra careful about stating something is a sin that the Scripture does not say is a sin.
If someone wishes to abstain, then so be it. If someone wants to drink, then so be it. The relatively new idea of abstinence should not be forced on anyone but remain a personal decision unto the Lord. But considering the Bible permits drinking and Christians have recognized this for many years, one should not force abstinence on Christians, and it may turn out to be a hindrance to one’s witness of unbelievers as well.
One should exercise caution about claiming that alcohol is sinful otherwise fruit (which does have minute amounts of alcohol inherently in them) must be avoided at all costs. So the issue really comes down to how much alcohol is permissible and how much is not. The answer lies in moderation.
Though some opt not to drink, and for right reasons and such is a commendable position, e.g., there are some who cannot control themselves (i.e., get violent or can’t recognize their limits and habitually over drink, etc.), so they refrain from drinking altogether. Others do not like the taste (though I doubt they have tasted many drinks to see); in rare cases, some are allergic; and so on. However, such personal positions do not yield that drinking is a sin.
The Bible often mentions alcoholic wine and other fermented drinks (Proverbs 20:1, Leviticus 10:9, Numbers 6:3, Deuteronomy 29:6, Luke 1:15, etc.) and nowhere in Scripture is drinking alcohol said to be sinful. Many times it was even encouraged. So taking a position that it is sinful is not wise, biblically. It leads toward Jesus Christ being a sinner. If Christ was a sinner, then Christ cannot be God, as God cannot sin and everyone would still be dead in his or her sins.
By no means is this response meant to advocate drinking, especially if one doesn’t want to. But it serves to educate what the Bible teaches on the subject and also serves to show that forcing an abstinent view on others is incorrect (Romans 14:16).
Cite this article: D. Abrahams, Alcohol…and the Bible?, Part III, Biblical Authority Ministries, January 28, 2016, https://biblicalauthorityministries.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/alcohol-and-the-bible-part-iii/.
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_and_alcohol References to original sources appear in the Wiki article which are usually more reliable than Wikipedia itself.
 Hailey, David J. “Beverage Alcohol and the Christian Faith,” Search (Winter 1992).
 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, 1877, p. 437