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To drink or not to drink: the Christian’s dilemma

December 2020 | by Stephen Rees

Christmas is coming. This Christmas will certainly be different from other Christmases. Covid has made sure of that. We may be unable to hold carol services (and what sort of carol service will it be if we’re all wearing masks, and we’re told we shouldn’t sing?). There will be fewer family get-togethers. There will be fewer office parties. Many people will be counting very carefully how much they can afford to spend on presents for the children. Santa won’t be visiting our local department store and inviting children to sit on his lap.

But one thing, I’m sure, is not going to change. A lot of people are going to do a lot of drinking. Whatever other economies people make, the supermarkets and off-licences are still going to be selling huge quantities of alcohol, perhaps more than ever this year as people try to cheer themselves up amid the general gloom.

What about Christians? Perhaps this is a good time to ask what our attitude to drink should be. OK, we’re not going to use Christmas as an excuse to get drunk. But should we be drinking at all? What does the Bible have to say? Let me lay out some important principles.

1) Alcohol is a good gift from God.

There are some Christians who have suggested that alcohol is in itself evil – that there is something devilish about it. But the Bible forbids any such thought. ‘For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is is made holy by the word of God and prayer’ (1 Timothy 4:4-5). Paul assures Timothy that everything God created is in itself good, and if properly used, can bring blessing to a Christian.

Of course, some believers are unhappy with my use of this verse. ‘Ah,’ they say, ‘but God never created alcohol. God created grapes (or apples or malt or whatever it may be) but we turn it into wine, or cider or beer.’ Well, they’re wrong on many counts. Apart from anything else, we don’t need to do anything to fruit in order to persuade it to produce alcohol. A ripe grape is full of natural sugars and there are wild yeasts living on its skin. As soon as the skin of the grape is broken, fermentation will begin. The simplest way to produce wine is just to leave grape juice to ferment naturally.

So who designed the chemistry of the grape? Who created fruit and yeast and gave them the potential to interact in that way? Who ‘created the heaven and earth and all that is in them’?

The answer is given in Psalm 104. ‘You cause the grass to grow for the livestock, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen his heart’ (Psalm 104:14-15). It was God who created grapes as well as wheat and olives for man to cultivate, and gave each of them their potential. He created wheat so that man could turn it into bread, he created olives so that man could squeeze out the oil, he created grapes so that man could enjoy wine.

Bread is a necessity; it sustains man’s heart. Wine isn’t. But it is still God’s good gift, designed by a generous Creator to ‘gladden the heart of man’. Wine is given to be one ingredient in the good life.

The Bible gives us many examples of wine being used rightly, as God intended. Melchizedek brought out bread and wine to strengthen and refresh Abraham after a gruelling battle (Genesis 14:18). Jesse sent bread and wine to his sons at the battle front in order to encourage them (1 Samuel 16:20). Nehemiah, after reading the law to the people who had returned from exile, told them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10). The Lord Jesus himself provided wine for a wedding feast (John 2) and gave his disciples a cup of wine to drink at the Last Supper.

2) Alcohol should be used sparingly.

Alcoholic drinks were not used routinely by God’s people in Bible times. They were kept for special occasions – special gatherings, special celebrations. You can see that in the verses I’ve already quoted. Nehemiah told the people to go and drink sweet wine because this was a special day: a day for rejoicing. Jesus provided wine because a wedding is a special celebration. The disciples drank wine at the Last Supper because this was the Passover, one of the great Feasts of Israel.

One New Testament scholar, after studying the evidence for the way alcohol was used in New Testament times wrote this: ‘Wine was drunk only on festive occasions. First and foremost at family celebrations: when entertaining guests, celebrating a circumcision, engagement or marriage. It was also customary to serve wine in the house of the bereaved during the seven days of mourning. Secondly the annual festivals provided an occasion for the drinking of wine, especially the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles); the drinking of wine was prescribed as part of the ritual of Passover and Purim, and was customary at the meals for the ‘sanctification’ and the ‘dismissal’ of the Sabbath. Otherwise wine was generally used in everyday life only for medicinal purposes; it was regarded as an excellent medicine. In everyday life water was drunk…’ (Joachim Jeremias: The Eucharistic Words of Jesus).

All through the Bible, God’s people were taught to use alcohol only when their work was done. Wine became a symbol of rest and rejoicing. Noah planted a vineyard and drank wine when he had come safely through the flood and the time for celebration arrived (Genesis 9:20). The Israelites drank no wine while they were travelling through the wilderness, but were promised that when their pilgrimage was over, then they could celebrate with wine (Deuteronomy 29:6 & 11:14).

The prophets promised that all the people of God would drink rich wine at a great banquet at the end of time when their struggles were over: ‘On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined’ (Isaiah 25:6).

At the Last Supper, Jesus gave the cup of wine to his disciples but would not drink it himself. Nor would he drink wine when it was offered to him at the cross. His work was not yet completed (Luke 22:18, Mark 15:23). But he looked forward to drinking with the disciples in the kingdom of God when his work was finished at last.

The Bible-writers speak scornfully about those who drink when they should be working or when they should be on their way to bed. ‘Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them!’ (Isaiah 5:11). Alcohol is supposed to refresh people after work, not make them incapable of it! Peter dismissed the suggestion that he and his fellow-disciples were drunk: ‘…it is only the third hour of the day [nine o’ clock in the morning]! (Acts 2:15). What sane man drinks in the morning when there’s a day’s work ahead?

Christians who take the Bible seriously will never get drunk. The command is plain: ‘Do not get drunk on wine’ (Ephesians 5:18). Drunkards will not ‘inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 6:10). But more than that, biblically minded Christians will never let alcohol become a regular habit in their everyday lives. Keep it for special occasions, times when you and your family or friends have something special to celebrate.

Each week, the church I pastor shares a cup of wine at the Lord’s Supper – it is our family celebration. We celebrate together the defeat of sin, the breaking of the curse, the inauguration of the new covenant. There may be other special occasions in the life of the family or of the church when it will be appropriate to serve alcohol. But they should be rare. Like anything else, do it too often and it stops being special! Every time we have a sip of wine at the Lord’s Supper, it should seem special. A Christian who drinks regularly at other times will no longer feel the specialness of that celebration cup. He’ll rob himself of something very precious.

3) Some Christians should never drink.

First, there are folk who have been addicted to alcohol. It is obvious that such folk should not drink at all. They know that one drink could reawaken the old craving. We have occasionally had such folk with us at the Lord’s table – and we have put aside the wine and drunk an unfermented grape juice with them. Better that we should all abstain than that we should put a stumbling block before a brother or sister.

Secondly, there are folk who know that they have addictive or obsessive tendencies. By calling them ‘addictive’, I’m not implying that those tendencies are chemical or physiological. I simply don’t know whether some people have a physical, inherited tendency towards alcohol addiction or any other addiction. But I know that there are some people who tend by personality to become addicted to anything they find pleasurable. If they use a computer, they find it hard to leave it alone for five minutes. If they like cream buns they can’t just eat one. They have to keep eating until the plate is empty. If they listen to music, they can’t feel relaxed without it. Well, if that’s your temperament, then to start drinking is to invite temptation. ‘…Make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires’ (Romans 13:14).

Thirdly, there are folk who are under particular stress. The bereaved, the lonely, the overworked, the depressed, the afflicted: alcohol is dangerous for all such folk. It offers a temporary escape from the pressures. And those who choose it will find that they want that escape more and more often. Soon they will find that they cannot get through a morning or get to sleep at night without the comfort of the bottle. It is never safe to drink alone. And especially it is unsafe for the unhappy. Such folk would be better not to keep alcohol in their home.

Fourthly, there are folk who have special responsibilities. Alcohol is a drug. Even in small quantities it impairs judgment. That is why no aircraft pilot or train driver is allowed to drink. An airline pilot found on duty with even the smallest amount of alcohol in his system would be sacked immediately. The Bible warns that there are some people who need to be alert all the time. They are on duty constantly. They can never afford to have their judgment impaired by drink. ‘It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted’ (Proverbs 31:4-5). A king has to ready at any time to make crucial decisions, to dispense judgment, to remember and apply the law. Such a man cannot afford to drink. Remember Xerxes and the stupid decisions he took when he had been drinking? Remember Herod and his promises to Salome? Anyone whom others are depending on to make vital decisions at any time would be well advised to say no to alcohol.

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There may be others who should make the same choice because of their positions of responsibility. Church leaders  – especially youth leaders – may do well to choose. If we have to counsel others whom we think would be at risk of misusing alcohol, we might do well not to drink ourselves. Otherwise our counsel could sound hypocritical and arrogant (it’s OK for me – just not for you). ‘Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble’ (Romans 14:20-21).

4) There are situations in which it is safer not to drink at all.

I’m thinking here chiefly about Christians who are socialising with a group of unconverted friends. And that will be the case for many of us over Christmas. I’ve said already that this year may be different. Covid restrictions may mean that restaurants and bars are closed. But under normal circumstances, Christmas festivities will include office parties and outings. And heavy drinking is often taken for granted in those situations.

Of course the Christian may simply choose to opt out and say, ‘I’m not coming’. It takes courage to do that and often it’s the best course of action. But not always.

Jesus didn’t stay always stay away from social occasions where people were drinking heavily. In fact, his attendance at such occasions opened the way for people to slander him. Malicious observers accused him of self-indulgence: ‘The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”’ (Luke 7:34).

Christmas events may be among the few occasions in the year when Christians have the opportunity to spend time with colleagues outside working hours. You want to get to know and befriend the people you work with. So you may feel you ought to be there.

But there’s no doubt it’s dangerous. When you’re with a group of people drinking together, you may finish up drinking much more than you intended. It’s Jack’s turn to order a round of drinks. He’ll order one for you without even asking whether you want it or not. Or Jill will just top up your glass when she sees it’s half-empty. Once you’ve had one drink you’re under constant pressure to have ‘just one more’. It’s hard to keep saying ‘No’ as the evening goes on. You may not even know what you’re drinking. Who knows what’s in the glass that’s pushed into your hand?

And of course, with every drink you take, you become less capable of judging how much it’s safe to drink, or even remembering how much you have drunk. There’s a great deal of difference between the sort of dinner party which Jesus attended, where folk sat (or reclined) around a table and were waited on by servants, and the sort of stand-up social event that we’re used to today where you’re surrounded by a group of people drinking when and how they choose.

So my advice would be, if you’re going to attend such events, decide in advance that you’re not going to drink at all. It is much easier to say ‘I’m not drinking at all’ and stick to it, than to say ‘I drink up to a limit’ and stand by that. Choosing not to start is a lot easier than knowing when to stop. If you drink at all, you will be under pressure to drink too much. So flee from temptation. You cannot pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation’, and then deliberately expose yourself to it.

Let me add a special word to teenagers and students. The dilemma that some Christians face especially at Christmas is yours all the time you’re at school or college. Student culture is a drinking culture. Almost very social occasion is an opportunity for drinking and for getting drunk.

You may decide that you won’t socialise at all. That could mean that you have little contact with your fellow-students outside lectures. You can’t join the rugby club because every away match finishes up with an evening in the bar. You can’t accept an invitation to a birthday party because the party will inevitably be lubricated with alcohol. When your tutor invites invites her class to join her for an end-of-term celebration, you’re likely to be the only one who says no.

And in many cases that may be the best option. It will take courage and resolution. You will have to work extra hard at befriending your fellow-students in other contexts. But if your pastor or your parents advise you to take that line, then that’s the line you should take.

And what about those of you who decide that you ought to be at those dangerous social events? Then the advice I’ve already given about Christmas festivities applies to you. Don’t say, ‘Well, I’ll be there. But I’ll only drink in moderation. I know when to stop.’ Decide in advance that you’re not going to drink at all.

No Christian student, aware of God’s commands, will go out intending to get drunk. But many have gone out resolving to drink in moderation, and finished up drunk and ashamed.

My advice to young people going away to study is simply, ‘Settle it in your mind that during the years you’re away, alcohol isn’t for you.’ Let that mouthful of wine that you drink with the Lord’s people at his table be the sole occasion when you enjoy this good gift from God.

Students are one example of folk who would be well advised to abstain completely because of their situation. There may be others. If you know that drinking will expose you to temptation, then don’t drink.

A vital part of our witness

We are living in a society which has forgotten how to use alcohol well. What was given as a blessing has become a curse. We are all aware of the havoc caused by misuse of God’s good gift. Family breakdown, casual violence, anti-social behaviour, poverty, cruelty to children, sexual looseness and its consequences: all are linked with the misuse of alcohol. And that’s not to mention hundreds of thousands of deaths each year through alcohol related illnesses. Most of the folk who read this will be in regular contact with someone whose life has been ruined by alcohol.

So our attitude to alcohol becomes a vital part of our witness to the people around us. In a society without self-control, we have to show that we are capable of self-control in this matter, as in everything else. Some of us will do that by not drinking at all. When people pressure us to drink, we’ll say cheerfully, ‘I don’t need to.’ And we’ll talk about the contentment and joy that comes from the presence of Christ in the heart.

Others of us will drink moderately, wisely, happily and the world will see that we have the self-control to stay sober while others are getting drunk. For all of us the rule is the same: ‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31). If we abstain, we must do it because we believe that will bring God glory. If we drink, we must be sure that that will bring God greater glory.

All Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport