If you are reading this article, you fall into one of two categories: You are one who enjoys your glass of red with your steak dinner or your glass of white with your grilled salmon, or the occasional glass of beer on a hot summer day or a shot of brandy on a cold winter night. You are hoping this article will exonerate you or perhaps even endorse your moderate drinking lifestyle. Or you are among those who believe in total abstinence from alcohol and hoping this article will justify you and perhaps extol your great virtue and discipline, so you can feel more righteous than those who drink.
I shall neither justify nor condemn drinking of alcohol. It is not my place or prerogative. What I will do instead is endeavor to examine what the Bible says on the topic and what the church teaches. The decision on whether or not to drink, how much to drink, and how often, will be entirely yours in the light of the arguments I present.
Alcohol in the Bible
Let’s begin with the Bible. What does the Bible say about alcohol? A lot in fact. Wine and other alcoholic drinks are mentioned frequently in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. The Bible will point out if alcohol is harmful or beneficial. The Bible uses the word “wine” or “strong drink” to refer to alcohol. In the context of this article, the word wine is synonymous with alcohol.
The first mention of wine in the Bible is in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 14:18 we read that Melchizedek, king of Salem and a priest of the Most High God, “ brought out bread and wine” as he blessed Abram. I argue, that if wine was evil, it would certainly not be used by a priest of the Most High God as an offering to God. The offering which included wine, pleased God and Abram was blessed through it.
In Genesis 9:20 and following, we see a darker side of alcohol. Noah plants a vineyard and decides to taste some of the wine from his harvest and becomes drunk. In his drunkenness, he commits a sin by exposing his nakedness to his sons. Similarly, in Genesis 19:32 we read that Lot’s daughters get their father drunk on wine and have intercourse with him so they could bear children of their own, for after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, there were no men left, except for their father Lot. Thus they commit the sin of incest with their father. Rather than wait upon the Lord to give them offspring, they take matters into their own hands. Alcohol enables their sin.
On the positive side, in Deuteronomy 14 we read that God commanded the priestly tribe of Levites to include a portion of wine as a drink offering to the Lord. In Numbers 28:7 the Lord commands thus: “The accompanying drink offering is to be a quarter of a hin of fermented drink with each lamb. Pour out the drink offering to the Lord at the sanctuary.” There are several passages where the Lord commands wine to be used in offerings, proving that the negative consequences of wine are not in its nature but in its use. Alcohol in itself is not harmful, just as a knife by its nature is not harmful. A chef uses it to cut vegetables but a wicked man uses it to commit murder. In the hands of the priest Melchizedek and the Levitical priests, wine became a source of blessing. In the hands of Noah and Lot’s daughters, wine became a source of sin and curse. At the last supper, Jesus says to his disciples “..I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Mat 26:29). This implies that there will be wine in heaven as well and we will partake of it along with Jesus at the heavenly banquet, of which the Last Supper was a foretaste. And just as Jesus drank wine while on earth without abusing it, we shall do the same in heaven. It makes logical sense that the good things God created for our enjoyment, which includes wine, would continue to exist in heaven in a similar or a more perfected form.
Naturally fermented wine is around 12% alcohol. The Hebrew word for “strong drink” appears many times in the Old Testament (see Judges 13:4, Isaiah 5:11, Micah 2:11). The strong drinks were made by fermenting grapes, dates and other fruit. Those who insist that all the wine mentioned in the Bible is only non-fermented fruit juice are engaging in wild speculation. Granted that the wine in Biblical times was not as potent as some of the fortified drinks of today which are 40-50% alcohol. The latter are designed for intoxication rather than wholesome enjoyment. The Biblical wines were not.
The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 104:15 that God gave wine to “make men glad”. Ecclesiastes 9:7 says, “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.” St. Paul advised his protégé Timothy in 1 Tim 5:23 to “take a little wine for [your] stomach’s sake”. Here we see a medicinal application of wine. Wine becomes a medium of healing. Another example of the medicinal use of wine is found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We read in Luke 10:34 that the Good Samaritan pours wine on the open wounds of the injured man to encourage healing of his wounds. In 2 Samuel 16:2 we see wine is used to refresh the exhausted. All these instances of wine use in the Bible point to the positive effects of wine.
The most popular story in the gospels –which all drinking Catholics often misquote to justify their excessive drinking- is Jesus performing his first miracle of turning water into wine. Every reasonable student of the scripture understands that this divine act has more to do with blessing a marriage and saving a family from embarrassment than it does with endorsing carousing or debauchery. Serving wine was an important part of Jewish wedding festivities as it is of many cultures of today. When the couple ran out of wine, they ran out of joy which the wine and celebration brought. Jesus by turning water into wine, turned their sadness into joy. There is a deeper symbolism here as well. Fermented wine lasts longer than plain water. By blessing wine, Jesus intended that marriages share the long vintages of high quality wines. Abuse of wine or drunkenness on the contrary cuts marriages short. Jesus never would have intended such an outcome from his miracle. Those who interpret the miracle at Cana as a license to abuse alcohol, do it at their own peril. When we misquote scripture to justify wrongdoing, we imitate the Devil as witnessed in the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4:4-7.
The Bible tells us that Jesus also multiplied bread and equated bread with his own body and flesh which He said He gives “for the life of the world” in John 6:51. We would think it foolish to interpret this scripture as an endorsement of gluttonous consumption of bread for instance. Wine was part of a meal in the Biblical times. Abuse of food can lead to sickness and we witness a tragic example of this in the Old Testament when we read that the Israelites in the wilderness had an inordinate and sinful craving for meat. They became fed up of the Manna that God provided. So God granted them what they asked. The Israelites binged on quail meat, got sick and perished in large numbers (Numbers 11)! Thus, food which is ordinarily good, turned into poison for them because of their inordinate appetite for it. God wishes for us to enjoy the good things he has created. St. Paul tells Timothy that God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17) Everything God created was very good (Genesis 1:31), and it included wine. But we are to exercise our free will to make wise use of His good creation.
We further read in the book of Numbers 13:23 that the first produce of the promised land that Caleb and Joshua brought after they had spied out the new land was a massive cluster of grapes. It was so heavy, they had to carry it on a pole between their shoulders. This lush cluster of grapes was evidence of the prosperity and abundance of the promise land which the Lord God had foretold them of. In those days, grapes were grown for wine, as olives were grown for oil. Wine in the Bible represents goodness, prosperity and abundance. It is a symbol of blessing and God’s favor. The wine used by the Good Samaritan was a source of healing. The wine at the last supper became the blood of the new covenant and a source of redemption and ongoing refreshment along our spiritual journey. Our Lord also used wine to convey potency and durability as attributes of the new covenant when He said that “no one puts new wine in old wineskins” (Mark 2:22).
Drunkenness is prohibited
Drunkenness is clearly prohibited in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Drunkenness is listed among the sins of the flesh by Paul in Galatians 5:21. Most people can distinguish between drinking and drunkenness. In Luke 21:34 Jesus warned his followers not to be drunk. In 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, St. Paul told the church of Corinth that they must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister (a believer in other words), but is a drunkard. St. Paul clearly states in Ephesians 5:18 “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the [Holy] Spirit.”
If alcohol is a problem for you, then you need to stay clear of it. For some even a single drink can become a slippery slope that leads them into a dark pit. In such cases, abstinence is the answer. Jesus taught in Matthew 5:30-30: “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” The interpretation of this teaching is simple: If a substance, a behavior, a neighborhood, a person, or a position is a repeated cause of sin for you, CUT IT OFF! Stay away from it! Consumption of alcohol for some people can be deadly. Drinking and driving for some can lead to murder. For some it can lead to sexual immorality or infidelity. They need to “cut it off” from their lives completely and develop healthy boundaries around it. Healthy boundaries means, they avoid places and occasions where alcohol is served. They refrain from storing alcohol in their homes “just in case an important guest arrives”. Your important guest will understand if you explain. If they don’t, you need to find new people to associate with.
Pros and Cons of total abstinence
But what about the case of Samson in the Old Testament, and John the Baptist in the New? Both refrained from alcohol completely. Understand that Samson took a Nazarite vow (see Number 6 for more on this) which required complete abstinence from alcohol. The prohibition applied only for the duration of the vow and it was not a requirement for everyone. In the case of John the Baptist, he was chosen by God for a unique mission to prepare the way for the messiah. For this extraordinary office, he was set apart by God and commanded to abstain from alcohol. Once again, this was not a universal requirement but a special call. Jesus himself chose a lifestyle that was different from that of his herald John the Baptist. He attended lunches, dinners and weddings where wine was served. This is evidenced when Jesus Himself says in Luke 7:34, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” But our Lord’s purpose for moving in these questionable circles was clear: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17). He was in search of the “sick” and the “lost”. And what better places to find “the sick and the lost” than at parties, dinners and wedding celebrations! His association with “sinners” was not an endorsement of their lifestyle, but an attempt at showing them a new way of having fun and receiving “life in abundance” which only He could give them. Every sober Christian knows the difference between having fun in the “Holy” Spirit versus having fun in the “alcoholic” spirit. I have partied until the early hours of the morning singing and dancing to lively and wholesome Christian and secular music with not a drop of alcohol involved, and I have partied with pathetic drunkards who cease to be fun after two or three drinks and become obnoxious and unruly. But we must be careful to not paint with a broad brush. Not all who drink behave badly. Most are sensible drinkers.
Now, an admonition for those brothers and sisters who have chosen to abstain from alcohol completely. Nothing prevents any Christian, as a matter of conscience, from voluntarily abstaining. There are good reasons to do this: a history of alcoholism in one’s family, a wish to show respect to others who find drinking objectionable, or a simple dislike for alcohol. Some may abstain to keep their mind sober at all times so they can continuously meditate on the things of God. It can be difficult to think Godly thoughts when you are feeling “tipsy”. The church father Clement of Alexandria stated that “the soul is wisest and best when dry.” I was once asked to pray a blessing before meals at a party. It was 2 a.m. in the morning. Almost everyone except me and a few others had had too much to drink. One of them literally held on to my shoulders to keep from falling as he stood up for the prayers. I think I prayed more for God’s mercy that day than for Him to bless the meal. Whatever your motivation for abstaining, it is never a bad thing, provided your abstinence does not cause you to sin. What do I mean by this? Your abstinence of alcohol should not turn you into a Pharisee in your attitude towards others who choose to have a drink. It should not fill you with spiritual pride and cause you to think you are somehow morally superior to those who take a drink. The Pharisees were proud that they religiously kept the tradition of washing their hands before eating, but Jesus rebuked them saying that though their hands were clean, their hearts were not. God looks at the heart, not at our external observances. If our abstinence leads us to pride, then that becomes a greater sin.
If you have chosen to abstain from alcohol to help your spiritual walk with Christ, good for you! But rather than impose it as a rule upon others, which could amount to adding an unnecessary yoke upon them, it might be wise to let them see your lifestyle and be attracted to imitate it. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).
Church Teaching on Temperance
Finally, we Catholics have the Church to guide us in matters of morality. The Church in her catechism teaches us regarding the virtue of temperance thus: “The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea or in the air.” (CCC 2290-2291) Clement of Alexandria exhorts Christians, to “be not eager to burst by draining [drink] down with gaping throat,” but drink with proper “decorum, by taking the beverage in small portions, in an orderly way.” Yet, Clement advises caution, “for wine has overcome many.”
Another church father, St. Augustine states, “The drunkard is not always drunk, and a man may be drunk one occasion without being a drunkard. However, in the case of a righteous man, we require to account for even one instance of drunkenness.” John Chrysostom told believers “wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil.” He argued, “Wine makes not drunkenness; but intemperance produces it. Do not accuse that which is the workmanship of God, but accuse the madness of a fellow mortal.” The great theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote: “A man may have wisdom in two ways. First, in a general way, according as it is sufficient for salvation: and in this way is required, in order to have wisdom, not that man abstain altogether from wine, but that he abstain from its immoderate use. Secondly, a man may have wisdom in some degree of perfection: and in this way, in order to receive wisdom perfectly, it is requisite for certain persons that they abstain altogether from wine, and this depends on circumstances of certain persons and places.” In simple language, Aquinas is saying that there are two kinds of wisdom. One wisdom advises moderation. Another more perfect wisdom advises abstinence, depending on circumstances. It is not for everyone and not for all occasions. Discernment is called for.
Temperance vs Abstinence
Temperance can be harder to practice than total abstinence. We all recognize how it is often easier to skip a meal altogether than to skip the second serving of our favorite dish, or to decline that second glass of wine being graciously served to us. It can truly test our resolve. Jesus had to make these tough choices everyday as He socialized with people who “ate and drank”, but for John the Baptist it was more clear cut. Besides, there is not much wine to be found in the desert! Some of us cannot be faulted for being attracted to the austere lifestyle of John the Baptist because in some ways it simplifies things for us. Temperance is harder to practice. Temperance is not about just saying no, but rather saying “Yes” to the first serving and “No” to the second or third by thinking consequentially. A person who never drives, for instance, never has to worry about over speeding. But those who drive and yet do not speed have to exercise a different level of grace.
Temperance tempts us with immoderation while abstinence tempts us with spiritual pride. There is no escaping the test as long as we live in this concupiscent tent called the body. Those who abstain totally can sometimes draw attention to themselves. It can be an opportunity to be a positive witness or it could be a trap to indulge in spiritual elitism. As Christians we are called to be the “light of the world” without drawing too much attention to ourselves. Being a “light of the world” without dropping hot wax on the people around us requires grace. Jesus was such a person. He was not intolerant of those around him. Sinners found him approachable. Only hypocrites disliked him because he called their bluff. Someone struggling with a problem of alcoholism should find you approachable, leading him to inquire about your story. And if you gently and lovingly explained how and why you gave up drinking without being judgmental of him, then you would have acted like the “light of the world” and been a positive witness of your faith in action.
Wine by nature is not evil. It has the potential to gladden the heart, heal wounds and refresh us when we are exhausted. Wine was offered as sacrifice in the Old Testament and in the New Testament it was set apart by our Lord to represent his blood and the sign of His new and everlasting covenant with us. If abused, it can lead to a multitude of sins and endless sorrow. There are numerous reasons why some may choose to abstain from alcohol completely. But it is not a requirement for all. The church calls us to be temperate in our drinking but God might call some of us to a greater level of holiness which requires total abstinence. Proper discernment is advised in these matters. Total abstinence though a good thing, needs to be handled with humility and done in a spirit of love and understanding towards others. Without love all our good works amount to nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). The scripture is black and white on drunkenness but not so with drinking. Ultimately, we will not be judged for our drinking habits. We will be judged on how we loved God and neighbor and what we did with the gift of salvation. The bible is absolutely clear that drunkenness is a sin and that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. Outside of that we are called to be temperate with our eating and drinking. We would be wise to follow the advice of St. Paul who says “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”(1 Corinthians 10:31), because “ ..the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). n