Should Christians Drink Intoxicating Beverages? The Case for Abstinence


Read the series.

This article represents the arguments of those that urge abstinence from potentially intoxicating beverages. What is the case for refraining from alcohol?

It is time in our discussion to consider why so many Christians urge God’s people to total abstinence from alcoholic beverages. We have already considered biblical prohibitions and warnings about drunkenness (Part 1), arguments in favor of liberty to drink (Part 2), and historical and cultural differences in the production and consumption of alcohol (Part 3).

This article seeks to represent the argument of those that urge abstinence but are in full agreement that the arguments given in part two of this series are valid. This article does not represent those that would add abstinence from alcohol to the Scriptures as a new food law that must be kept as a test of faith or godliness. However, these Christians are convinced that total abstinence should be the norm for God’s people around the world today.

So, what is the case for abstinence?

Argument 1: Abstinence demonstrates love and fear of God.

All believers would agree that our personal love for God and fear of Him should motivate us to stay clear of what displeases Him. Numerous passages urge us to avoid sin and temptation. One example is Romans 13:13-14:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.1

Warnings about drunkenness ought to lead every Christian to take great care to have nothing to do with that which tempts us or makes it easy to get drunk. God continually warns His people to carefully guard themselves against destructive sins, and drunkenness is one of those sins most frequently named. Knowing how the intoxicating beverage industry has significantly changed and how many cultures have embraced drunkenness as a norm, we should be especially concerned.

Believers are expected to step back from people and circumstances that would lead them into sin. Wherever men and women gather to drink, opportunities to fulfill the passions of the flesh multiply. With inebriation, shameless activity, sensuality, violence, arguing, vulgar humor, and other kinds of inappropriate behavior are common. Those arguing for abstinence conclude that only through abstaining can Christians be sure to do this.

Peter exhorts us,

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1Pet 1:13-16)

Spiritual sobriety

Spiritual sober-mindedness means that we love and fear God in such a way that it causes us to obey Him and avoid things that dishonor His name. Is there a way for us to guard ourselves and avoid catering to sinful passions like drunkenness? Yes–many Christians argue–by avoiding alcoholic beverages, by not participating in those events where drunkenness is encouraged. Peter continues,

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1Pet 2:11-12)

By taking protective measures to keep clear of sin and to live in holiness, we demonstrate the extent of our love for God and fear of Him. Does this mean that Christians who choose to drink do not love and fear God? No, this is not necessarily the case. It is also possible to abstain from intoxicating beverages and still not love or fear God.

Moderation beyond most

The truth of the matter is this: most people in this world do not have the ability to drink in moderation and avoid drunkenness because of the social pressures involved and the nature of modern alcoholic beverages. Because of this, many fall into drunkenness, and, in doing so, they also fall into other sins because of the lack of self-control intoxication brings. Christians who urge us to lay down the right to drink alcoholic beverages conclude that we should show our love for God by shunning that which has led millions of people, including many of their brethren, to lose their integrity.

And let us not forget this warning to those that wanted to flex their right to eat meat offered to idols:

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1Cor 10:12)

Argument 2: Abstinence demonstrates love for unbelievers.

To many believers, abstinence from alcoholic beverages is a clear way to show others that the Gospel of Jesus Christ really does have power to save. False religions teach untold millions of people worldwide not to drink intoxicating beverages because of drunkenness and the many other sins that come with it.

Even with a conscience informed against drunkenness, millions of professed Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, and professed Christians get drunk regularly. Some are alcoholics. Even many Muslims drink and party when they are away from their strict religious communities.

Alcohol abuse a scourge

Drunkenness is a scourge among mankind. Even a casual study on alcohol will confirm this fact.2 Millions of unnecessary deaths, health problems, rapes, murders, etc., occur under the influence of alcohol. Sexual immorality, child abuse, and STDs often have direct links to drunkenness.3

While it is not the purpose of this series to focus on just how horrible the consequences of the abuse of alcohol have become in our world, it is something that needs to be faced squarely as we consider whether we Christians should drink alcohol at all.

Illustrations of freedom

In Christ Jesus, we have the power to abstain from the passions of the flesh. We have God’s Holy Spirit within us. Those who live outside of God’s grace cannot abstain from sinful passions because they are slaves to those passions. Paul teaches us,

having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness…For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Rom 6:18, 20-22)

Those who urge us to refrain from alcoholic drinks want us to show unbelievers that Christians don’t need alcohol. We don’t need it to handle our stress and problems. It is not needed to have fun. We no longer have a desire to have our natural inhibitions removed. Christians don’t want to be emboldened to act in ways we wouldn’t while sober. We want to demonstrate that we have changed.

For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; …The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. (1Pet 4:3-4, 7)

If we genuinely love the lost, we want them to see that we are changed. They need to know that we have new life in Jesus Christ. We want them to know that we don’t join in with them in potentially out-of-control activities anymore. We don’t want unbelievers to have any doubt where we stand. One major way we can communicate this transformation, it is argued, is through abstaining.

Argument 3: Abstinence demonstrates love for other believers.

Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1Cor. 8:13)

A great many of our fellow believers, before they came to Christ in faith, loved getting drunk. Many were addicted to alcohol, and/or lived in the party scene. Any kind of alcoholic beverage is a great temptation for these brethren. Even seeing or smelling these drinks creates longing and temptation or resurrects shameful memories. For some this never changes.

We who are mature believers who are strong in faith must be examples of what it means for Christians to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14). We do not want to lead the weak to boldly drink alcohol, falling back into sin, because they followed our unwise example. Sometimes God’s people simply must sacrifice things we rightly understand as freedoms in Christ, for the sake of others. For believers committed to abstinence, this is one reason for their lifestyle decision.

Food offered to idols and intoxicating beverages

Those reasons which lead Christians to abstain from eating food offered to idols are the same reasons that I would suggest would lead believers to forgo drinking alcoholic beverages (1 Cor. 8 and 10). I have written a separate series on these chapters which would be very helpful for meditating on these truths and how they apply (Food Offered to Idols Series ).

We who are chosen of God out of this world must not lead others of God’s children to drink against their consciences. We know that many who would drink would fall into sin. A Christian arguing for abstinence would say that a loving Christian gives up alcoholic drinks in order to encourage his brothers and sisters in Christ to be faithful in obedience. To them, it is irrelevant that we ourselves could drink without getting drunk. They believe that Paul’s full treatment of conscience issues should lead to this conclusion (Rom. 13:8-15:7).

Knowing all of what we know from these articles, can we, with a good conscience, drink intoxicating beverages with a full conviction that doing so gives glory to God? Many Christians would resoundingly answer, “No.”

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1Cor. 10:31)

They advocate renouncing alcohol if we want to be used by God to encourage believers to stay free from this vice that plagues our culture.

Urged but not commanded

Those who argue for abstinence this way believe that if Paul or Peter were alive today, with the Spirit speaking through them on this topic, that the apostles would have similar conclusions about modern day intoxicating beverages to Paul’s conclusion about food offered to idols (See Part 3). They would call us to apply sacrificial love, self-control, and humility, resulting in abstinence from alcoholic drinks.

A biblical position of abstinence should not be legalism, as it would acknowledge that beverages that are potentially intoxicating are not evil in themselves. It is not a sin to imbibe a drink that contains alcohol. Abstinence should not be commanded of all Christians in every and all circumstances, both public and private. Nor would it require policing.

A commitment to abstinence, however, would be urged as the best way to be consistent with love and good works for the good of our own Christian walk, encouraging the saints, and even evangelism. In this way the argument is in line with how God’s Spirit teaches us to deal with food offered to idols.


1 All Scripture quotations are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.



Forrest McPhail Bio

Forrest has served as a missionary in Buddhist Cambodia in Southeast Asia since 2000. He presently serves as the Asia/Australia/Oceania regional director for Gospel Fellowship Association missions. He enjoys writing and teaching on missions and the Buddhist worldview. He and his wife, Jennifer, have 4 children.


In Christ Jesus, we have the power to abstain from the passions of the flesh. We have God’s Holy Spirit within us. Those who live outside of God’s grace cannot abstain from sinful passions because they are slaves to those passions.

I was an older college graduate when I was saved. During some of my years as an unbeliever, I was frequently in settings where friends and others were routinely getting intoxicated. As an unbeliever, I never had any desire to even try alcoholic beverages. I never even tasted them, even when I was strongly encouraged by a friend to do so at a time of real crisis for me.

It is wrong to say that unbelievers cannot abstain from at least certain sinful passions. Some unbelievers can and have done so.

I don't drink, for a number of reasons, with two exceptions. First, if a church used wine in communion, I would not refuse it, we Baptists have lost a lot in our approach to the Table. Second, if a doctor ever recommended wine for heart heath or some other reason, I would take the advice. In part this is family history and my own fears--fears that I take as a personal defect, but I have not yet outgrown.

But while I think abstinence is something that is best for some believers, we shouldn't expand the circle too readily. The question of meat offered to idols is mishandled to get here, meat was to be eaten without question unless a person with a problem was present, which isn't the issue in all cases. If someone who struggles with alcohol, yes you should abstain in solidarity, but when no such individual is present, then we cannot appeal to this passage. To urge it for all believers is a step in the direction of a pharisaical tradition of the elders. Many of us in or from organized Fundamenetalism get defensive about terms related to the pharisees, introducing increasingly weaker objections , sometimes it is better to acknowledge the sin and repent of it. I think we all know we have a problem here.

I would suggest the book by Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, particularly his discussion of the modern ignorance in ethics, a problem that has persistent in our quarters. I would suggest that what Paul does in Galatians 5-6 is put forward that sanctification is a virtue theory of ethics, the law is for children, and deontological ethics are not for the spiritually mature. (If the last sentence makes little sense, you have have a lot of reading to do in ethics).

Any errors due to android.


"Moderation beyond most"

I am not sure the passage can be used to apply to this argument at all. The parallels are just not there.

The meat offered to idols argument extends beyond 1 Cor 8 to include chapters 9 and 10 also.

The complete argument conclusively teaches you cannot knowingly eat meat offered to idols at all. Period.

The only exception is if you suspect it might be meat offered to idols, but don’t know for sure. Paul says “Don’t ask”. Once you know, don’t eat.

Yes, the passage is badly mishandled, and you just did it again

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

I hesitate to cross swords with a man who demonstrates genuine concern for the spiritual and physical health of his fellow Christians, but I have been increasingly troubled as I have read this series. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a BJU grad who had a 25-year career working on staff in a PCA church, a denomination that has always been tolerant of moderate drinking, and, in fact, is encouraged by many pastors and elders. There are several fallacies in this article, but one sentence stands out: "The truth of the matter is this: most people in this world do not have the ability to drink in moderation and avoid drunkenness because of the social pressures involved and the nature of modern alcoholic beverages." There is not any truth in that sentence whatsoever. I would recast that sentence to say: "The truth of the matter is this: most people in this world have the ability to drink in moderation and avoid drunkenness." The overwhelming majority of drinkers throughout the world do not drink to the point of drunkenness. This is true of both Christians and non Christians alike. Almost all persons in my social circles drink in moderation. No one abuses alcohol. Those with a history of alcoholism rightfully abstain. As with any gift that God has called a blessing, there is a minority that abuses that gift. Scripture is clear in the condemnation of such abuses of providential gifts. I understand and fully support personal decisions to abstain from alcohol for a number of reasons. But it is hubris to condemn consumption of anything that God has called good. As believers, we must be careful about projecting our American cultural prejudices that are rooted in a 19th-century prohibition movement onto the church universal, especially when we know that most churches and denominations throughout the world do not adhere to such strictures.

Ted Gentry

The way I see it, using alcohol responsibly is done exactly the same way as using food responsibly, really--think of the Super Big Gulp and how that keeps the manufacturers of metformin and insulin in business.

  1. Sip, don't gulp. Or for foods, nibble, don't inhale. Taste what you're drinking/eating before swallowing.
  2. Monitor how much you're drinking (or eating). There are charts all over that will tell you how many drinks you can have before you are too drunk to drive, ready to pass out, etc.. It's the same basic concept as counting calories.

And that's basically it. There are a couple of other things that one can watch as well--watch out for drinks (and foods) that go down "too easily", and watch out for the "friends" who constantly refill your glass (or plate), etc..--but by and large, if you follow rules 1 & 2, you will get drunk only if you choose to get drunk, and most American and Western European drinkers follow those rules.

Worth noting as well--see Proverbs 23:21, Deuteronomy 21:20, Matthew 11:19, and Luke 7:34--is that the Bible often uses the terms "glutton" and "drunkard" in the same passage. In other words, drunkenness is gluttony for the food called wine.

(on the light side, judging by the portion of overweight Americans, it's much more difficult to eat responsibly than it is to drink responsibly!)

One other thing to note is that the wine (beer, liquor, whatever) that one buys in the market has not been sacrificed to false idols, so the connection to 1 Cor. 8-10 is, in my view, stretched quite a bit.

Regarding one of the main themes, yes, a teetotaler can honor God by abstention,but at the same time, one can honor God by partaking. Put gently, the drinker does not (see above) generally "need" liquor to get through his day, but rather enjoys a drink or two at meals or at the close of the day. It's an element of happiness and joy, which is a lot of what's going on in the second chapter of John.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Perhaps the clearest Scripture on not drinking alcohol is 1 Peter 5:8 NKJV, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” With emphasis on the words, “Be Sober.”

Also, 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; 2:2; 2:6; 2:12; 1 Peter 1:13.

11 Reasons to Not Drink Alcohol

David R. Brumbelow

The real question is not ....

"Should Christians Drink Intoxicating Beverages?"

But ...

"When Christians Drink Intoxicating Beverages, How should the church respond?"

I am not a doctor but I have a heart condition and I asked my Cardiologist if I should take a little wine for my heart. He laughed. He said the wine would not help my heart and might harm it. "take a little Welches's unsweetened grape juice. "It's the grape juice that's good for you not the alcohol." It seems that the only place I go anymore is doctor's appointments. Two questions I am asked when ever I go, are do you smoke and do you drink Alcohol.

A long time ago when I was still in college, a friend of mine was doing a report on alcoholism. We went to a local state hospital that had a alcoholism division. I talked to the man in charge and he said almost all of his patients started out as social drinkers and most drank socially for many years before becoming addicted. As we were leaving I had one more question, "do you drink?" He answered, "socially".

A few years ago I had the opportunity to talk to a woman who headed a rehab center for drug addicts and alcoholics. I asked her about the success rate. She said sadly only about 2%. I asked if they get any spiritual counseling. She said they use to have a Lutheran Minister do counseling but he became frustrated when the government told him he could not talk about spiritual things unless the patients brought it up first.

Richard E Brunt

I've had doctors recommend red wine for heart conditions, and I've had doctors asking questions twice to make sure that what I said was "moderate" drinking was indeed so. It can be hard to tell, because often the first casualty of alcoholism and drug abuse is the truth.

When I have looked at studies--some of them were listed here--what I tend to see is that there seems to be a mild benefit to drinking of about 1-2 drinks per day, with a rapidly increasing risk factor beyond that level. I also notice that the studies don't differentiate between drinking 1-2 drinks per day, and binging on the weekends. It's all averaged by the week.

(to be fair, nobody gets their PhD, tenure, or the big promotion by retaining the null hypothesis, so researchers tend to look for bigger effects because it's something they can prove and publish....but that pattern doesn't help us figure out the truth about truly "moderate" drinking, i.e. 1-2 drinks per day and no "binges" of 4 drinks or more)

Also of note is that about 4% of Americans (say 5% of drinkers or so) qualify as alcoholics or physically addicted, while over 35% of Americans are obese, per MIke Huckabee's book "Quit Digging your Grave with a Knife and Fork." So my overall take is that if one's enjoyment of wine, beer, or spirits is within bounds and helps one moderate food consumption, go ahead. I've noticed that people at wine tasting events are, to put it mildly, generally in far better shape than, say, the average person at a fundamental church.

(lovers of good wine have a great habit for avoiding obesity; they tend to taste their food before it goes into their stomachs)

Finally, one comment on "social" drinking; it can mean moderate alcohol use with friends, or it can refer to any level of drinking with other people. Generally--see above comment about the first casualty of alcoholism--heavy drinkers claim to be social drinkers until confronted on indisputable evidence, and generally they were drinking with friends. It was social in that way at least. So to say "well, they all said they were social drinkers" really doesn't narrow down their range of behaviors.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

From the AMA: Alcohol use — and misuse — is common in society and can carry health risks. Alcohol misuse can range from binge drinking and risky drinking to the actual disorder of alcoholism, all of which can potentially lead to health consequences. For example, alcohol use is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.

From the CDC: More than half of adults in the United States drink alcohol. Alcohol use increases the risk of cancers of the female breast, liver, colon, rectum, mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus.....Alcohol is a carcinogen (something that can cause cancer). Regardless of drink type (beer, wine, or liquor), the risk of cancer increases with the number of drinks consumed, and even one drink a day increases the risk of developing cancers of the female breast, mouth, and esophagus. Reducing alcohol use may reduce the risk of cancer.

Again from that bastion of conservative thought, the CDC:

What Are the Guidelines for Alcohol Use?
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,—

To reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms, adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed.
Don’t drink at all if you are younger than age 21, pregnant or may be pregnant, have health problems that could be made worse by drinking, or are engaging in activities for which alcohol is dangerous (like driving).
The Guidelines also do not recommend that you start drinking for any reason. Even moderate intake is associated with increased risks, including some cancers.