John Wesley spoke about the destructive potential of alcohol in the strongest possible terms:
We may not sell anything which tends to impair health. Such is, eminently, all that liquid fire, commonly called drams or spirituous liquors. …All who sell them in the common way [not for medicinal use], to any that will buy, are poisoners.… They murder His Majesty’s subjects by wholesale…. They drive them to hell like sheep. … The curse of God is in their gardens, their walks, their groves; a fire that burns to the nethermost hell! Blood, blood is there: The foundation, the floor, the walls, the roof are stained with blood! (emphasis added)
While most Wesleyans have advocated for total abstinence from alcohol, some insist that teetotalers overstep the Bible’s call for moderation. After all, Paul instructed Timothy, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities” (1 Tim. 5:23). In John 2:1-11, Jesus turned water into wine. Judges 9 makes reference to wine being an enjoyable drink. Isaiah 55 uses wine as a symbol of blessing. Leviticus 23 and Exodus 29 refer to offerings of the fruit of the vine being brought to God.
Some contend that “abusus usum non tollit (‘Abuse does not take away proper use’)” and teetotaling churches stifle Scriptural freedom by codifying their scrupulous position. But these objections presuppose that wine in the Bible is comparable to wine in 2018, and that freedom is characterized by license rather than responsibility.
Wine: Then and Now
It is a vast oversimplification—and basically incorrect—to insist that the wine of the Bible was merely grape juice. Biblical wine contained alcohol. It is vitally important, however, to understand the nature of this wine, since our culture is removed from Jewish culture by over 2,000 years. For example, consider how the word “slavery” has vastly different implications in 2018 than it did in 1200 BC or 70 AD.
We do not conclude that because Paul encouraged kinder relationships within the institution of slavery that we should have “slavery in moderation” in 2018.
Exodus 21:1-32 records laws about slaves rather than abolishing the institution; however, Hebrew slavery was akin to indentured servitude, and provided a home, care, food, and security for poor or bankrupt persons. Some slaves refused opportunities to be free (Exodus 21:5-6). In Roman times, nearly two-thirds of the population were slaves, including many doctors and lawyers—hardly comparable to the Antebellum Period. The church set its opposition against slavery a long time ago because of its increasingly barbarous nature.
We do not conclude that because Paul encouraged kinder relationships within the institution (Col. 3:22-4:1), we should have “slavery in moderation” in 2018; likewise, it is important to understand whether or not wine in 2018 is comparable to wine in the Bible, so the church can assume an appropriate stance. There are several factors to consider: alcohol content, distillation, mixing, supply, and necessity.
In the Bible. Wine was made in small family vineyards. The fruit of grapes was allowed to ferment in jars for several days, resulting in 2-6% ABV (alcohol by volume). The Greeks sometimes stored their grapes for longer, resulting in high-end wines with as high as 14-15% ABV, but this was uncommon. At this concentration, the bacteria that cause wine to ferment die, making it impossible to achieve higher alcohol content.
Today. Today’s average wine contains 12-21% ABV.
In the Bible. Distillation, which makes it possible to increase alcohol content beyond the limits of fermentation, was not in popular use until the seventeenth century.
Today. Today, distillation has the potential to significantly increase alcohol content. For example, brandy (“burned wine”) has between 35-60% ABV.
In the Bible. The common Greek and Hebrew words translated as “wine” are oinos and yayin. Both words typically refer to wine mixed with water. The common mixture was three to one—three parts water, one part fermented juice. Homer’s Odyssey refers to mixtures as high as 20 to one. The level of alcohol was diluted to less than 3% ABV, which would not be classified as an intoxicating drink by today’s standards. (For example, NyQuil Liquid contains 10% alcohol.) The only way to be inebriated by mixed wine was to consume volumes of it, usually accomplished at gluttonous feasts.
An ancient Athenian writer insists that wine is harmless “to those who mix and drink it moderately…. But if you over-step the bounds, it brings violence, mix it half and half and you get madness, unmixed bodily collapse.” Even wine mixed 50-50 with water was considered dangerous “strong drink” and unsuitable for a cultured person to consume. The “strong drink” referred to in the Bible is translated from the Hebrew word shekar, and is warned against even more earnestly than yayin and oinos.
Today. Wine is unmixed.
In the Bible. Wine was very limited in supply. Consider the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12). Bible weddings were multi-day, village-wide events; yet, at the most significant community event, the supply of wine ran out after just a few days.
Today. Today, there is a virtually unlimited supply of wine and other alcoholic drinks. In 2016, total alcoholic beverage sales in the United States amounted to 223.2 billion dollars.
In the Bible. Richard Land and Barret Duke, in their study of wine in the Bible, conclude:
In Paul’s day, it would have been very difficult for someone not to drink wine. The alcohol content made it one of the safest liquids to drink. This is no longer the case in much of the world, certainly not in the industrialized world. Beverages containing alcohol are no longer needed in most of the world for hydration purposes. Even less plausible are arguments from these passages in support of the recreational/social use of alcohol today.
They add, “Alcohol provided an ideal way to maintain the potability of beverages. Without it, people would have suffered even more from common parasites and other health threatening ailments resulting from ingesting contaminated water (see 1 Tim. 5:23).”
Today. Consumption is a lifestyle choice. Health benefits (e.g. the claim that red wine reduces cardiovascular disease) are unsubstantiated. A recent CNN headline reports, “No amount of alcohol is good for your overall health, global study says.” According to senior study author Emmanuela Gakidou, “The most surprising finding was that even small amounts of alcohol use contribute to health loss globally. We’re used to hearing that a drink or two a day is fine. But the evidence is the evidence.”
In summary: In the Bible, wine was an undistilled drink with low alcohol content (2-6%), usually mixed with three-parts water, and very local and limited in supply. Today, wine is an unmixed, distilled drink with very high alcohol content (12-60%), and virtually unlimited in supply.
“In Paul’s day, it would have been very difficult for someone not to drink wine. … Alcohol provided an ideal way to maintain the potability of beverages.” (Richard Land and Barret Duke)
While the wine of the Bible seems innocuous compared to the wine of today, excessive consumption had potential for tremendous harm. Solomon likens it to a venomous snake. “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has conflicts? Who has complaints? Who has wounds for no reason? Who has red eyes? Those who linger over wine, those who go looking for mixed wine. Don’t gaze at wine because it is red, when it gleams in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a snake and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things, and you will say absurd things. You’ll be like someone sleeping out at sea or lying down on the top of a ship’s mast. ‘They struck me, but I feel no pain! They beat me, but I didn’t know it! When will I wake up? I’ll look for another drink’” (Prov. 23:29-35, HCSB). “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise” (Prov. 20:1).
Biblical Precedence for Total Abstinence
In addition to sober warning about the danger of alcohol, God required certain people to abstain altogether.
PRIESTS — PEOPLE IN MINISTRY
The Levites were commanded, “Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations” (Lev. 10:9). John MacArthur summarizes, “Don’t drink anything that is alcoholic when you come here or you may die, because this is a holy place. You have a very important responsibility to teach the people of Israel all the divine truth revealed to you. You need to be clear-minded, clear-headed, and set the highest example of holiness.” It is no wonder 1 Timothy 3:2-3 says that “A bishop then must be blameless… Not given to wine…” and in verse 8 that “likewise must the deacons be grave… not given to much wine.” Ministers of the new covenant should view alcohol with appropriate gravity. Since every believer is a minister of reconciliation, and the church is a nation of priests (1 Pet. 2:9; Ex. 19:6), we should all reflect on our responsibility to set the highest example of holiness.
Total abstinence uniquely marked those who were called to the highest level of devotion in the Old Testament.
NAZARITES — PEOPLE SPECIALLY SET APART
Numbers 6:3 describes the vow of a Nazarite: “He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried.” God raised up Nazarites (Amos 2:11) and delighted in them. “Nazarite” comes from the Hebrew word nazir meaning to consecrate, separate, or abstain. God’s New Testament people, who are called to consecrate their bodies, separate from all sin, and abstain from the flesh, “bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1), should consider that total abstinence uniquely marked those who were called to the highest level of devotion in the Old Testament.
RECHABITES — PEOPLE PRAISED FOR THEIR COMMITMENT
The descendants of Rechab followed the command of Jonadab, Rechab’s son, by abstaining from alcohol (Jer. 35:1-19). While the Rechabites’ commitment to their ancestors is primarily in view, the nature of the commitment is not inconsequential.
KINGS — PEOPLE IN LEADERSHIP
“Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink” (Isaiah 5:22). Proverbs 31:4-7 says,
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink: Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted. Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.
With the consumption of alcoholic beverages, there is always the risk of dissipation. Ephesians 5:18 commands, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” Spirit-filled living is Spirit-controlled living; we are to be self-controlled, not spirits-controlled. Alcohol dulls the senses and encourages the throwing off of restraint. Galatians 5:20 decries drunkenness as one of the works of the flesh and says that “they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Romans 13:13 adds, “Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.”
Perhaps you can handle that first drink; what about your neighbor?
A Responsible Application of Biblical Principles
Several Biblical principles support the traditional Wesleyan stand for total abstinence. We are commanded, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13) and, on the basis of these principles, we can safely say that temperance best “becometh holiness” and benefits our fellow man.
Total abstinence is the only sure way to avoid being a stumbling-block. The volatile nature of alcohol should provoke special caution. Perhaps you can handle that first drink; what about your neighbor? Even in the privacy of one’s home, parents who consume alcoholic beverages are much more likely to raise children who drink.
Total abstinence is the best witness to our neighbors. The way in which alcohol has ravished our culture is a compelling reason to abstain from the pleasure that moderate drinking affords. Land and Duke note, “Many lost people have certain expectations of Christians, and one is that they do not drink. Many of the lost recognize this as a distinguishing feature between Christians who are serious about their faith and those outside of the faith.” Moreover,
Alcohol abuse is taking a staggering toll on millions of people and their families. It is inconceivable that one’s concept of Christian freedom could include the freedom to engage in any behavior that has become so devastating to millions of those in and outside of the church. In fact, many people will be deeply offended if their pastor or other leader in their church appeared to be so unconcerned about the devastating consequences of alcohol abuse by drinking alcohol. Many of these people will have been deeply affected by the tragedy of alcohol abuse by a family member or close friend. A Christian leader’s potential ministry to these people may be permanently damaged simply because that leader chose to exercise his liberty more than his responsibility.
Total abstinence honors and strengthens the body, the temple of the Holy Spirit. The CDC warns,
Alcohol affects every organ in the body. It is a central nervous system depressant that is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver by enzymes. However, the liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time, leaving the excess alcohol to circulate throughout the body.
No amount of alcohol is good for your health.
Excessive drinking is largely responsible for cirrhosis of the liver and various cancers. In 2016, alcohol was associated with 2.8 million deaths worldwide (nearly one in 10). The interpretation of the research reported by CNN, the 2016 Global Burden of Disease Study, states that “alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss. We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimizes health loss is zero” (emphasis added).
Total abstinence is a matter of personal carefulness. Alcohol is highly addictive, confirmed by the fact that 23% of drinkers consume 76% of alcohol. The saying is true, “Every drunk started with a single drink.” No one intended to become dependent on alcohol when they took their first drink. Wine may afford some pleasure, but for the godly, whose supreme pleasure is God and the prospect of enjoying Him fully forever, the unnecessary risk should be avoided.
- Pappas, Stephanie. “Is Wine Really Good For You?”
- Puckette, Madeline. “Alcohol Content in Wine.” Wine Folly.
- Stone, Jason. “What is the process of distilling wine?”. The Whiskey Still Company.
- “The History of Distilling.” VinePair.
- “Total alcoholic beverage sales in the United States from 2006 to 2016 (in million U.S. dollars).” Statista.