A Wisdom Case for Total Abstinence from Alcohol in Modern Times

In my view, the Bible is just ambiguous enough on the topic of beverage alcohol to put the question in the category of matters of conscience. But matters of conscience are not matters to “leave alone;” they’re not excluded from the call to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb. 10:24).

These issues call for respectful challenging of one another’s assumptions — and for pondering the path of our feet (Prov. 4:26).

So, I offer here a few thoughts, mainly with two groups of people in mind: those who are trying to decide what sort of stand they ought to make in their own lives, and those who are looking for ways to communicate a no-drinking position to others they care about.

I’m aware that most of the moderate-consumption advocates I know won’t find this at all persuasive, so in that sense, it’s not an entry in “the debate.” But in another sense, it is: some of the undecided and open minded may find something here that bears fruit later on.

Some framing

A strong wisdom case begins by pointing out a few facts and dismissing some distractions. For brevity’s sake here, just the facts.

  • Relative to today, people in Bible times had fewer beverage options; it was harder (maybe impossible) to avoid fermented beverages entirely, even if you wanted to.
  • In ancient times, wine was not normally fortified with alcohol as it often is today (more on this practice at winespectator.om, and winecoolerdirect.com, eater.com and of course Wikipedia).
  • If not before, certainly after the rise of Greek culture, wine was routinely diluted with water (NY Times, Wikipedia), often to the point that the mix was more water than wine (winespectator.com, “Wine and Rome.”)

Along with these background facts, a few logically obvious points are often lost in the fray in discussions on this topic.

  • Not everyone who ever got drunk started out with the intention of getting drunk.
  • Nobody ever got drunk without a first drink.
  • Nobody ever got chemically addicted to alcohol with the intention of getting addicted to alcohol.
  • More than 10,000 people were killed in drunk driving crashes in the U.S. in 2016 (“It’s Not an ‘Accident,’ It’s a Crime.” Sheriff & Deputy, March/April 2018). Nobody who ever drove drunk and killed someone had their first drink that night with a DUI crash fatality as their goal.

I could go on like this for some time, talking about cheating lovers, domestic violence, and all sorts of other alcohol induced or aggravated crimes. To many of us, these facts alone point to some obvious conclusions. But they’re just background lighting for a biblical wisdom case against beverage alcohol.

The argument from wisdom

For various reasons, a “wisdom case” against beverage alcohol consumption tries to avoid the argument that Scripture directly forbids beverage alcohol or that Jesus and the apostles drank only non-alcoholic wine.

The wisdom case I’ve taught in various venues goes like this:

1 Believers must be wise stewards.

A few passages help bring well-known principle into fresh focus.

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (ESV, Matthew 10:16)

Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. (1 Cor. 4:2)

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. (Prov. 4:7)

So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Rom. 14:12)

The “so what” of this principle is that if a course of action is dumb, we shouldn’t do it. If there’s a smarter option, we should do that instead. It’s good stewardship.

2 We are called to keep our minds sharp.

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. 2 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, (Titus 2:1-2)

For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober … (1 Thess. 5:5–8)

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Pet. 5:8)

These passages add up to strong direction to avoid anything that is likely to compromise our ability to stay sharp in tempting times.

3 Beverage alcohol poses dangers to both wise stewardship and sharp-mindedness.

The Bible’s warning passages in reference to “wine” and “strong drink” are well known, and it’s commonly claimed that they refer only to drunkenness and not to having the occasional drink. But as noted above, it’s really not rational to propose a complete non-relationship between drunkenness and “one drink.” You can’t have the former without the latter. They’re connected.

Since many get drunk without starting out with that goal, it’s absurd to claim that a single drink poses no risk at all of leading to drunkenness.

The likelihood may be low, but the stakes are high.

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? 30 Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. 31 Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. 32 In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. 33 Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. 34 You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. 35 “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.” (Prov. 23:29–35)

To this and similar passages, we should add the humiliation of Noah (Gen. 9:20-26) and the degradation of Lot (Gen. 19:30-38). It’s significant that the first occurrence of “wine” in the Bible is a story of tragic family consequences. Did either of these men sit down with a mug that day thinking, “I believe I’ll get drunk now and do something ruinous”?

4 Avoiding pointless hazards is wise.

There is no risk-free living. Driving to work every day is a risky activity — but so is farming the back forty. We take these risks because they’re unavoidable and because the potential gain is worth the degree of risk involved. But acts with a high risk and low potential are just stupid, and recklessness is not a fruit of the Spirit!

The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it. (Prov. 22:3)

Folly is a joy to him who lacks sense, but a man of understanding walks straight ahead. (Prov. 15:21)

When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the Lord. (Prov. 19:3)

In our culture, we’d say the fool “gets it.” You have to enjoy life. Cut loose and have a good time … and it’s God’s fault when things go horribly wrong.

5 We should seek every advantage for successful competition.

Olympic athletes have a distinctive way of arranging their lives in pursuit of success. Their personal discipline amazes. They take advantage of every tiny detail of posture, clothing, or gear that might gain them a performance edge. Mostly, we respect that. They’re competing at the highest level.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24–27)

Every Christian is called to Olympic-level godliness –- elite uprightness of character. Few can claim to have achieved that, but the pursuit is supposed to be where we live every day.

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, (Heb. 12:1)

If there is spiritual advantage in total abstinence, shouldn’t we be eager to seize that advantage?

Avoiding fermented beverages wasn’t easy in ancient times. There is little evidence that most bothered to even try. But in our times, tee-totaling is easy. Alcohol is a much-to-risk and almost nothing to gain scenario, and abstaining is a negligible sacrifice with a significant benefit. Wasting that opportunity is simply not wise.

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Bert Perry's picture

There are two things that make "three days and three nights" not work as a justification for playing semantic games with "wine".  For starters, the Bible nowhere states that Jesus was crucified on a Friday.  That is inferred, rightly or wrongly, from an analysis of the events leading up to the Crucifixion.

Moreover, the "essentially literal" hermeneutic does not mean that we get to understand Biblical texts in the context of our culture, but rather in the context of the culture of the time.  As Larry noted, is it indeed true that the Hebrews counted a part of a day as the whole?  If so, there is no contradiction in that culture between the sign of Jonah and the notion that Christ was crucified on Friday.  

So going back to wine, is it right to infer that a liquid that would burst wine-skins, make one cheerful in responsible use, and make one drunk if drunk in excess might contain alcohol?  Is it right to infer that a liquid that gets better with age, is stored year-round 30 centuries prior to Thomas Welch and Louis Pasteur, and the like might be like the wine we know today?   So if you use the ordinary exegetical methods and hermeneutic, you simply cannot (IMO) arrive at a two wines theory without endangering the first fundamental and Sola Scriptura. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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