The True Gladness of Wine

The debate over whether Christians ought to consume alcohol is not only an old one but, on the Web at least, a tired one. Much of the tiredness, though, is due to an excess of passion and a shortage of precision. Quarreling has been abundant and arguing scarce. I hope to contribute a bit here to the argument rather than the quarrel.

One example of arguing rather than quarreling dates back to the spring of 2006. I gather that Bob Bixby posted a case against the use of alcoholic beverages by Christians.1 Bob Hayton responded, in part, with an essay entitled “Wine to Gladden the Heart of Man”: Thoughts on God’s Good Gift of Wine. In the essay, Bob Hayton argues not only that “God gave us wine to bring us joy,” but also that the joy He had in mind is an effect of wine’s alcohol specifically.

Speaking of Judges 9:13, Ecclesiastes 10:19, and Zechariah 10:7, Bob observes:

It should be clear that even the intoxicating nature of wine is being praised, here. Wine lifts the spirit and gladdens the heart long before it actually overtakes you and makes one drunk. Wine can be enjoyed and its effects relished without losing control and becoming drunken.

This theme runs through the eight points that form the main structure of the essay. Following the eight points, a section focuses on counterarguments related to the biblical warnings against wine and the use of weaker brother passages. Though Bob wrote the post some years ago, I became aware of it during a discussion here at SI last year and pledged to write a response sometime. Here it is.

A little perspective

Before I delve into the particulars, a bit of framing. First, I believe that the decision to use (non-medicinal) alcohol judiciously or to abstain from it completely is a matter of conscience. Believers must apply the Scriptures and be fully persuaded in their own minds (Rom. 14:5) and must not despise one another (Rom. 14:3, 10) for arriving at different conclusions.

That said, matters of conscience (or liberty) are not matters we should avoid discussing or examining carefully.2 We owe it to our Lord, ourselves, and one another to have a conscience that is as clearly and truthfully informed as possible.

So it’s in that spirit that I’m going to try to upend the argument in Bob’s essay. I have the highest regard for him and for many of those who share his views on this question.

The eight points

In support of the idea that wine is God’s gift and we should enjoy it (the effect of its alcohol in particular), the essay offers eight points with supporting Scriptures:

  1. Wine is a gift of the goodness of God (Jer. 31:12-4, Ps. 104:14-15, 1 Tim.4:1-5).
  2. Wine produces joy—it “gladdens the heart” (Judg. 9:13, Ecc. 10:19 NASB, Zech. 10:7. See also Prov. 31:6-7, Jer. 16:7-8).
  3. Wine is used in rejoicing before God (Deut. 14:22-26, Isa. 62:8-9, Deut. 12:17-19. See also use of wine in drink offerings: Ex. 29:40, Num. 15:5, 2 Chron. 31:5, Deut. 8:4).
  4. Abundance of wine is a particular blessing from God (Joel 2:24-26, 3:18; Gen. 27:28; Deut. 7:13).
  5. Having no wine was a hardship or a judgment of God (Amos 5:11, Deut. 29:2-6. See also Deut. 18:39, Mic. 6:15, Zeph. 1:13).
  6. The absence of wine results in the absence of joy (Isa. 24:7-11, Jer. 48:33, Is. 16:10).
  7. Drinking wine is singularly festive, joyful, and celebratory (Ecc. 9:7, Isa. 22:13, Job 1:13, Esther 1, 1 Chron. 12:39ff, Gen 27:25 and several others).
  8. Wine will be part of the future feasting in Christ’s kingdom (Isa. 25:6-9, Jer. 31:12-14, Matt. 26:29, Luke 22:28-30, Matt. 8:11, Luke 13:29, etc.).

Points of agreement and contention

The crux of this particular debate is really not the eight points themselves but whether they truly support the thesis. Isolated from a particular conclusion, seven of the eight points are solid and well supported by Scripture. (Point six should probably be merged with point five since the passages listed there do not indicate a cause-effect relationship.)

But the argument as a whole hinges on a particular definition of “wine” and a particular view of wine’s relationship to one of its usual ingredients (alcohol). Since the pro-wine position needs to argue that fruit of the vine without alcohol is not a suitable modern-day substitute, it must attribute the blessings of wine to alcohol specifically. The thesis, then, is effectively that alcohol is a blessing God gave us to make us glad. Most advocates of the judicious use of wine maintain that if there is no alcohol, the beverage simply isn’t wine.

This is my main point of contention: Where passages do not clearly indicate the effects of intoxication (whether slight or severe), “wine” cannot be used validly as a synonym for “alcohol.”

The old non-alcoholic wine argument

At this point, I’m sure some have got me pigeon-holed as a proponent of the old “Christian people drank non-alcoholic wine” argument. But this is not where I’m going. I believe God’s people consumed wine with alcohol on a regular basis.

But does it follow that if wine usually contained alcohol, every statement in Scripture extolling wine is also extolling alcohol? A closer look at some of the passages Bob uses in his essay suggests an answer.

But the vine said to them, “Should I cease my new wine,
Which cheers both God and men,
And go to sway over trees?” (NKJV, Judg. 9:13)

Here, the “wine” cheers both God and men. Presumably, it cheers them both in a similar way—but how would God experience the cheer that comes from the early stages of intoxication? Since God is a spirit, the cheer in this passage is evidently not directly related to any ingredient the wine contains—and doesn’t even depend on drinking it. (Arguably, we could take this as a reference to God incarnate physically enjoying wine, but it seems less strained to see the cheer here as referring to the gladness of witnessing an abundant harvest.)

Joy and gladness are taken
From the plentiful field
And from the land of Moab;
I have caused wine to fail from the winepresses;
No one will tread with joyous shouting—
Not joyous shouting! (Jer. 48:33)

Gladness is taken away,
And joy from the plentiful field;
In the vineyards there will be no singing,
Nor will there be shouting;
No treaders will tread out wine in the presses;
I have made their shouting cease. (Isa. 16:10)

Consider this: how much alcohol does the “wine” in these verses contain? Here the term refers to the product of the press at the time it comes from the press—a liquid containing no alcohol at all. This use of “wine” in reference to the not-yet-fermented fruit of the vine is not unique. In Jeremiah 40:10 and 12 “wine” is what is “gathered.” In Amos 9:13, “wine” is what the mountains are dripping with. In Haggai 2:16, “wine” is still in the vat, and in Isaiah 65:8 the substance is “wine” even while still in the cluster!

Though it’s true (as far as I can tell) that wine was nearly always consumed with alcohol in it, the evidence does not support using “wine” as a synonym for “alcohol,” nor may we treat alcohol as an essential attribute. We can’t assume that all references to “wine” say something meaningful about alcohol in particular.

The real gladness

If we accept that “wine” does not refer to alcohol specifically, or even consistently to a beverage containing alcohol, we’re free to look at the wine-and-gladness passages with more openness and to allow the context to carry more weight in understanding what each reference reveals.

What that look reveals is that most of the passages which associate wine with gladness are about the gladness of physical nourishment or refreshment, the gladness of abundant harvest or the gladness of God’s blessing in general (many of these passages associate cheer with food as well in the same context). Most of the passages that associate lack of wine with sorrow are really about famine and loss due to God’s judgment. Few of these passages are actually about wine. Nearly all refer to it in service to some larger point.

The table below classifies all of the primary texts from Bob’s essay, and most of the secondary ones as well. (Some passages could be classified under more than one heading.)

Passages associating wine with the gladness of abundant harvest or God’s blessing in general

Jeremiah 31:12-14, Deuteronomy 14:22-26, Zechariah 10:7, Judges 9:13, Isaiah 25:6-9, Isaiah 62:8-9

Passages associating wine with the gladness of nourishment or the pleasure of eating and drinking

Psalm 104:14-15, Ecclesiastes 10:19

Passages associating lack of wine with the sorrow of meager harvest or loss of God’s blessing in general (judgment)

Amos 5:11, Deuteronomy 29:2-6, Deuteronomy 28:39, Micah 6:15, Zephaniah 1:13, Isaiah 24:7-11, Jeremiah 48:33, Isaiah 16:10

Passages associating wine with gladness vaguely (specific reference to intoxicating property not clear, but possible)

Ecclesiastes 9:7, Isaiah 22:13, Song of Solomon 1:2-3, 4:10 (and others in Song of Solomon)

Passages not associating wine with gladness (mostly with other items representative of God’s provision and grace)

Exodus 29:40, Numbers 15:5, 2 Chronicles 31:5, Deuteronomy 12:17-19, Joel 2:24-26, Joel 3:18, Genesis 27:28, Deuteronomy 7:13, Matthew 26:29 (and Luke 22:17, 20), 1 Corinthians 11:21

Passages simply indicating that wine was consumed along with food, mostly on some special occasion

Job 1:13, Esther 1:7, 1 Chronicles 12:39-40, Genesis 27:25, Luke 7:33-34

Passages referring to medicinal use of wine

Proverbs 31:6-7

Passages that do not mention wine but would fit under one of the other headings if wine is assumed

1 Timothy 4:1-5, Luke 13:29, Luke 22:28-30, Matthew 8:11

Since the gladness and cheer in these passages do not depend specifically on the presence of alcohol, those who enjoy the fresh juice of the grape (or of the grapefruit, for that matter) cannot be accurately characterized as rejecting the blessing of “wine” or of missing out on the biblical gladness it brings.

Notes

1 Bixby’s post appears to be no longer available.

2 I also do not believe there is any reason that congregations may not agree together on some matters of conscience/liberty that they deem to have special importance and include these convictions as part of their membership standard.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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There are 137 Comments

Shaynus's picture

Jim,

As someone who probably should know the difference between social and recreational drinking, I don't think the article was using them in precise ways, much like fundamentalists use the term "social drinking" as a catch all for drinking in moderation. Recreational drinking sounds worse to me. There are people who drink only in social settings, and not at home. So to me social drinking is a little more dangerous given things like driving and the overall atmosphere of bars where the entire point is to get drunk. It also doesn't at all imply moderation. All that said I wish those who are against all drinking would use more precise terms such as drinking in moderation, or drinking to excess. As I've said before, atmosphere and context matters.

Mike Harding's picture

Jim,

Billy Joel describes the social drinking scene quite well in "The Piano Man". All this "joy" is hard to take.

It's nine o'clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There's an old man sitting next to me
Makin' love to his tonic and gin

He says, "Son, can you play me a memory
I'm not really sure how it goes
But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man's clothes."

la la la, di da da
La la, di di da da dum

Chorus:
Sing us a song, you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us all feelin' alright

Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he's quick with a joke or to light up your smoke ****
But there's some place that he'd rather be
He says, "Bill, I believe this is killing me."
As his smile ran away from his face
"Well I'm sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place"

Oh, la la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he's talkin' with Davy, who's still in the Navy
And probably will be for life

And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessman slowly gets stoned
Yes, they're sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it's better than drinkin' alone

Chorus
sing us a song you're the piano man
sing us a song tonight
well we're all in the mood for a melody
and you got us all feeling alright

It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been comin' to see
To forget about their life for a while
And the piano, it sounds like a carnival ****
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, "Man, what are you doin' here?"

Oh, la la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

Chorus:
sing us a song you're the piano man
sing us a song tonight
well we're all in the mood for a melody
and you got us all feeling alright

Pastor Mike Harding

Jim's picture

Thanks for getting back to me

Piano man .... that goes way back

Question for you then:

Would they case of the couple having wine with dinner in the privacy of their own home be social drinking? Sounds like not but would appreciate your comment

Shaynus's picture

Mike,

I hate bars for the same reasons as Billy Joel seems to love them. But it's a little bit of a straw-man argument, unlike your very cogent and balanced posts in this thread.

Shayne

Susan R's picture

I always thought of 'social drinking' as a catch-all phrase for those who don't reserve alcohol for medicinal purposes only.

Shaynus's picture

Susan R wrote:
I always thought of 'social drinking' as a catch-all phrase for those who don't reserve alcohol for medicinal purposes only.

And I would just say it's an inaccurate meaning of the term.

Larry's picture

Isn't the most concerning part of this discussion that Pastor Harding just quoted The Piano Man in its entirety?

Mike Harding's picture

Shay,

I cited "Piano Man" because it negatively typifies the depressing reality of the bar scene that the entertainer experienced and grew up in. It is anything but a straw man. Since I spent a good portion of my childhood in the bars with my father endeavoring to persuade him to come home before something terrible happened (and it did on numerous occasions), I agree with my mother that the bar scene is an "upholstered sewer" full of shallow fellowship and depressed people. After all, alcohol is a depressant in the end. It is social drinking at its worst. Yes, there is a significant difference between the bar scene and a family having a glass of wine at the dinner table. Nevertheless, for the reasons I have already stated, I would abstain from both.

Larry, I put that song in for you just to prove I’m not near as uptight as you think I am.

Pastor Mike Harding

Shaynus's picture

A straw man argument is setting up an easily defeatable argument for the other side, then defeating it. No one in this forum is arguing for a Piano-man kind of lifestyle. Yet you're using the images contained in it as if they stand for all kinds of drinking. That's what I mean by a straw man. You can disagree, but that's how it comes across.

Mike Harding's picture

Shay:

Here are some clinical evaluations by AA of social drinking, recreational drinking, problem drinking, binge drinking (I think my example had samples of all):

There is disagreement as to what constitutes social drinking. An individual who regularly goes to the bar and drinks heavily might still claim to be a social drinker. For a lot of people the words ‘social drinker’ just means not exhibiting the classic signs of alcoholism. A person who is destroying their mental and physical health through overindulgence could still claim to be a social drinker. A definition could be based on the amount the individual drinks or their relationship to alcohol.

A study in the UK found that 83% of respondents believed that those who drank above the safe limits could still be considered social drinkers. The results of this survey are worrying because it means that most people are unaware of the risks of drinking in excess of the recommended limits.

Even those people who drink in moderation can still encounter alcohol related problems. This is because alcohol is a toxin that causes damage to the body even in small doses.

The move from social drinking to problem drinking can occur over a long time period. The individual is often unaware of this progression. As social drinking moves toward addiction, the individual will use denial as a means to rationalize their increasingly dangerous behavior. It is only when they are forced into a position where they need to control their alcohol use that their problem becomes more obvious.

Even though the drinker may be unaware of their slide into alcohol abuse, there are warning signs. They will usually experience at least one of the following:

DUI or other legal problem due to alcohol
Continued alcohol use despite negative consequences
Failure to meet responsibilities at home or in the workplace
Alcohol use is leading the individual into dangerous situations
If the individual continues to abuse alcohol, they will eventually develop a chemical addiction. Their body adapts to high levels of alcohol in the blood stream and reacts badly when the substance is withdrawn. Many of those individuals who develop a chemical addiction to alcohol will never recover from it. Those who do recover usually find that it requires a great deal of effort.

Pastor Mike Harding

Todd Bowditch's picture

Mike Harding wrote:
Surveys show that a staggering 64 percent of Protestant lay persons socially drink alcoholic beverages. Nationally, about 60 percent of the USA population drinks alcohol recreationally (July 2007 Gallup Poll of 18 year-old and above protestant laity in the USA). Methodists were some of the first proponents of complete abstinence in the mid-1700's. Southern Baptists have had a record of abstinence dating back to pro-abstinence resolutions as early as 1896 and as recent as 2006 (Richard Land and Barrett Duke, “The Christian and Alcohol,” Criswell Theological Review [Spring 2008, 19-38 ], p. 20). Why the sudden change?

Mike, I think its interesting that abstinence has not been a consistent position in the (broadly speaking) evangelical church until the last few centuries (and only in America). I have friends in Germany; they told me how a deacon in their Baptist church would have a beer every night before bed. The Greek Orthodox Church (who speaks the language of the NT) uses alcoholic wine at the Lord's table. It seems to me that 19th and 20th century American Christianity realized so many important things about the Christian faith that had not occurred to Christians prior (hair length/alcohol/smoking/music). I would ask, "Why the sudden change?"

On a lighter note, I wonder why Peter and the apostles did not respond "We don't drink because we're Christians" when questioned at Pentecost.

May Christ Be Magnified - Philippians 1:20 Todd Bowditch

Aaron Blumer's picture

Todd, the abstinence doesn't depend on the premise that the first century Christians didn't consume beverage alcohol at all or that the practice of abstinence has been around very long. Some argue along those lines, but I don't think Mike does, and I certainly don't.

Not many are making those claims.

Rather, the best case against alcohol consumption argues in the other direction: that our times are indeed different in important ways, as are our beverage options. Since it is so easy to avoid the risks of alcohol consumption in our day, and since the potential benefit is so small relative to the risk, abstinence is wiser than the alternative.

Todd Bowditch's picture

I understand, Aaron...I was not suggesting that that was an argument for abstinence. My point was that Christians have wrestled with this for 2000 years without landing on abstinence. Alcohol has always been...for the lack of a better word...alcoholic. Its not as if the 20th Century came along and alcohol became stronger or man became any more sinful.

I think abstinence is a noble position to take. But I think its based more on personal circumstances than society or culture. I just don't feel comfortable being dogmatic when the Bible is not...even if it is in a passive-aggressive way... Smile

May Christ Be Magnified - Philippians 1:20 Todd Bowditch

Aaron Blumer's picture

I understand... I think.

I'm not much for fighting over it either. But I will point out that though alcohol has always been alcohol, "wine" has not always been "wine." What we market today isn't exactly the same, and of course, our options today are very different.  So, sure, people are the same but what's available to them is not.

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