Friday, May 30, 2014

Moderate Drinking: Sinful or Unwise? (Part 3)

This is the third article in a series I've been posting here on my blog on the issue of drinking. Of course, most, if not all Christians agree that drunkenness is sinful (Gal. 5:21, et al), but when it comes to "lesser," more moderate forms of drinking, debate and contention abound. In Part 1 of this series, I made the point that moderate drinking is, in the very least, extremely unwise. In Part 2, I went on to prove from the Scriptures that moderate drinking is, not only unwise, but sinful as well. I would encourage you to read those two articles before you read this one.

In this article, my objective is to correct a few very common misunderstandings about wine in the Bible. To do so, I will not only define the wine of the Bible, but will explain the role of wine in the ancient Jewish culture (the setting of much of the Bible).

The Meaning of Wine

If I were to tell you that I drank a glass of wine with my dinner, or that I bought some wine at the store, you would automatically think that I was speaking of an alcoholic beverage and be very concerned. But many make the mistake of imposing this modern definition of wine on the wine of the Bible.

There are many words in the Bible - both in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament - that are translated wine

In the Old Testament, 140 of the 194 times that wine is mentioned, the Hebrew word is yayin. Strong's defines the word as "to effervesce; wine (as fermented); by implication intoxication: - banqueting, wine, winebibber." From this definition, we might conclude that yayin refers to an alcoholic beverage. However, a deeper study will reveal that it is actually a more generic term that can refer to either fermented or unfermented grape juice.

From an examination of the Scriptures, we find examples where yayin is non-alcoholic:
"Gladness and joy are taken away from the fruitful field; in the vineyards also there will be no cries of joy or jubilant shouting, no treader treads out wine in the presses, for I have made the shouting to cease" (Isaiah 16:10).
“As the new wine is found in the cluster…” (Isaiah 65:8).
In both of these verses, the wine hadn't yet reached the point where it could have fermented. In the first verse, the grapes (wine) were still being crushed, or pressed. In the second verse, the wine was still on the grapevine. There can be no doubt that yayin may refer to fresh juice in some cases.

From a secular perspective, we again learn that yayin could be non-alcoholic:
  • The Jewish Encyclopedia provides a concise description of the various usages of yayin: "Fresh wine before fermenting was called ‘yayin mi-gat’’ (wine of the vat; Sanh 70a). The ordinary wine was of current vintage. The vintage of the previous year was called ‘yayin yashan’’(old wine). The third year’s vintage was ‘yayin meyushshan’’(very old wine)."
  • We find an almost parallel definition in the more recent Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): "The newly pressed wine prior to fermentation was known as yayin mi-gat (‘wine from the vat;’ Sanh 70a), yayin yashan(‘old wine’) was wine from the previous year, and that from earlier vintages, yashan noshan (‘old, very old’)." 
  • A Talmudic treatise - Sanhedrin 70a - to which both encyclopedias refer, reads as follows: "Newly pressed wine, prior to fermentation, was known as yayin mi-gat (wine from the press)."
So the Hebrew word yayin, which is the most common word for wine in the Old Testament, can refer to either the fermented or unfermented juice of the grape. 

In the New Testament, the most common Greek word for wine is oinos. In fact, 33 of the 37 times that the word "wine" is used, it is the Greek word oinos. Strong's defines this word simply as "wine," which isn't much help, but a more thorough study will reveal that, as with yayin, oinos can refer to either the fermented or unfermented juice of the grape.

First of all, in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word oinos is commonly used in place of the Hebrew yayin. This tells us that the Jews who lived in the centuries preceding Christ (when the Septuagint was translated) viewed these two words as nearly synonymous. So if yayin could refer to fresh grape juice, so could oinos.

Along these same lines, The Complete Biblical Library Greek-English Dictionary says, "It is important to note that the Hebrew word tirosh, "grape juice, unfermented wine," appearing 38 times in the Old Testament (Harris, "tirosh," Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:969), is almost exclusively translated by oinos (36 times). In other words, oinos can and does refer to either unfermented or fermented wine in the Septuagint."

More than that, oinos in the New Testament may refer to fresh grape juice. Most of the usages of oinos are very generic so that we cannot tell from the context whether it is fermented or not. But there is this:
“Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17).
It’s implied here that the new wine is unfermented because it’s only through time that it undergoes the natural process of fermentation thereby expanding and putting pressure on the wineskin (container). 

It can also be shown from history that the English word wine can refer to a fermented as well as unfermented drink. For the sake of brevity, I won't include the many references here in this article.

So what must we conclude about the meaning of wine in the Bible? Simply that the word itself, generally speaking, may refer either to fermented or unfermented grape juice. While sometimes a different word may be used that gives us additional insight into the nature of the wine, the only way to tell the nature of the wine in the majority of cases is by examining the context. Sometimes, the context will tell us of the wine is alcoholic or non-alcoholic, but in many cases, there is not enough information to draw a solid conclusion.

Most importantly, please understand that when you see wine mentioned in the Bible, you cannot make the assumption that it is alcoholic. This very point alone should change the way you view wine in the Bible (e.g. when Jesus turned water into "wine" in John 2, which we'll examine in the final article).

Wine in the Ancient Jewish Culture

Now that I have defined biblical wine - from linguistic, historical and biblical sources - let's examine how the ancient Jews and even the early Christians viewed wine.

When we talk about wine in America, we always have an alcoholic beverage in mind. But beyond that - and more to the point in this section of the article - the wine that is deemed the best and most preferred is wine that has aged and that has a higher alcoholic content.

Here are some questions that I want to address in this section about the way the ancient Jews and early Christians viewed wine:
  1. Did they prefer fermented or unfermented wine?
  2. Was the "best" wine the freshest or the most alcoholic?
  3. Were they forced to drink fermented grape juice (because it naturally ferments)?
  4. In what sense did wine bring them joy and gladness of heart?
Regarding which kind of wine the ancient Jews preferred, Professor M. Stuart says, “Facts show that the ancients not only preserved their wine unfermented, but regarded it as of a higher flavor and finer quality than fermented wine.” W.H. Rule says, “This very grape juice, notwithstanding its purity, was chiefly known in antiquity as the casual drink of the peasantry, or, when carefully preserved, as the choice beverage of epicures.” 

This may sound odd to you, especially if you consider yourself to be a wine connoisseur. Perhaps you’re thinking that grape juice isn’t anything special, but it was very special to the Jewish people of old. Think about it. If you’ve been to the grocery store lately, I’m sure you’ve seen all the varieties of soda, juice, flavored water, Kool-Aid, etc., but the Jewish culture didn’t have the beverage options that we have. They did have access to milk, but milk was hard to preserve because it would spoil easily. They did drink a lot of water, but clean water wasn’t always accessible, and while water can be very refreshing, it's not known for its flavor. Being that grapes were one of the main commodities of ancient Israel, grape juice was a very common beverage, and unlike milk, could be easily stored and preserved.

Even though the Jews preferred fresh wine, it’s common knowledge that fresh wine will ferment naturally, reaching as high as 14% alcohol content. Many people today think that because grape juice ferments naturally, that the ancient Jews were forced to drink fermented wine. Contrary to popular opinion, however, they had many different ways of preserving fresh wine and even reversing the fermentation process. Here are some examples of their methods:
  • They would seal wine in jars and submerge the jars in cold water.
  • They would fumigate wine jars with sulfur.
  • They would filter out gluten (see Isaiah 25:6).
  • They would boil the wine down to a concentrate and add water later.
  • They would also dilute wine with 3-5 parts water to prolong supply and diminish the effects of fermentation (see Isaiah 1:22).
It makes sense that if the Jews of old preferred fresh wine, they would have used methods such as these to prevent, hinder and/or reverse the fermentation process. 

To take it a step further, I am not personally aware of any verse in the Bible where the Holy Spirit speaks positively of fermented wine (at least, in the context of social or recreational drinking). Whenever wine in the biblical text is clearly alcoholic, we are either shown its deleterious effects (Gen. 9:20-23; Isaiah 28:7) or it is spoken against (as in Proverbs 20:1).

Perhaps you're thinking that if the Jews had such a positive view of fresh wine and such a negative view of alcoholic wine - if this is really true - then what about the many verses where they drank wine that made them merry and brought them gladness? This is a valid question. Consider a few of these verses with me:
“But the vine said to them, ‘Should I cease my new wine, which cheers both God and men, and go to sway over the trees?’” (Judges 9:13). 
“And wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15). 
“A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes merry, but money answers everything” (Eccl. 10:19). 
“How fair is your loves, my sister, my spouse! How much better than wine is your love, and the scent of your perfumes than all spices!” (Song of Solomon 4:10)
Now, when we imagine folks being made “merry” because of wine, we picture them being buzzed, tipsy or even drunk. In fact, I had a brother in Christ one time use Psalm 104:15 to say that God approves of our being buzzed by wine or other alcoholic beverages. But again, we cannot impose our 21st century views of wine on the Scriptures. When the Bible speaks of the blessing and enjoyment of wine, I believe that it’s in the context of societal prosperity (economically and spiritually), not of the intoxicating effects of fermented wine. This is especially clear in the first verse listed above. In Judges 9:13, the “new wine” (Hebrew tirosh which is defined as fresh grape juice) which was said to cheer “God and men” was still on the vine.

It may be hard for us to understand this, but the agrarian, God-fearing Israelites viewed fresh wine (grape juice) as a source of great joy and pleasure because they saw it as a blessing from God. Their prosperity was dependent on how well their crops did. If God blessed them with rain and good weather, there would be an abundance of grapes/wine, and God’s blessings hinged on their faithfulness. This point is clearly seen in the following verses:
“Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, the produce of your ground and the increase of your herds, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks…The Lord will command the blessing on you in your storehouses and in all to which you set your hand, and He will bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 28:4, 8). 
“Thus says the Lord: ‘As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one says, ‘Do not destroy it, for a blessing is in it,’ so will I do for My servant’s sake, that I may not destroy them all’” (Is. 65:8). 
“Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, streaming to the goodness of the Lord – for wheat and new wine and oil, for the young of the flock and the herd; their souls shall be like a well-watered garden, and they shall sorrow no more at all” (Jeremiah 31:12).
In each of these verses, fresh wine (often still being in the cluster) is portrayed as a blessing from God and therefore a source of great joy. So, while grape juice may not be a very special drink for us in 21st century America, it was a very special drink for the ancient Jewish world. It was one of the major commodities of Israel, was viewed as a blessing from God, could be easily stored and preserved, and had much more flavor than water. "Fine wine" for them was the fresh stuff.

Before I conclude this rather lengthy (but far from complete) article on the wine of the Bible, there is one other point to consider, and this is very important.

You see, we’ve discussed both ends of the spectrum – fresh grape juice and fermented wine, or strong drink – but as you might imagine, there was a range of wine in between that may have been mildly fermented.

Grape juice that is left out will naturally sour due to the influence of bacteria. Usually, it will turn into vinegar (Jn. 19:29-30) and is called “sour wine” (Matt. 27:34). It may be fermented, but isn’t too pleasant to drink. 

Wine that is kept in a sealed container or wineskin may ferment without souring, but this process doesn’t happen overnight! The sources that I have read indicated that it takes about a week for “primary fermentation” to take place. The maximum alcohol content of wine that is naturally fermented is 12-14%, but please notice that the Jews would have considered this to be “strong drink.” Wine that did experience this level of fermentation could be diluted as much as 20-1, but even still, there were varying degrees of wine that did contain levels of natural fermentation.

NOTE: The process of distillation wasn't discovered until the 12th century A.D., so the Jews of old didn't have the technology or knowledge to create the hard liquors or fortified drinks that we have today. So they didn't have whiskey, rum, vodka, etc.

Suppose with me that a Jew left his wineskin out in the sun for half a day while he was tending his crops? Or what if a certain amount of fresh wine was left out for a few days to be gradually consumed by the family? Rather than be dogmatic about the total absence of even the slightest fermentation, the Jews did drink wine that may have undergone the early stages of fermentation. In some cases, they may have diluted it with water, but in other cases, they may have drunk the slightly soured wine. This wasn’t preferred, but it was possible. However, there is a huge difference between drinking grape juice that has suffered mild, natural fermentation and going to the store today to willfully purchase fortified wine!


There is so much more to say about wine in the Bible – the etymology and meaning of words as well as the role of wine in the ancient culture – but a basic understanding such as this will help us immensely to understand some of the more difficult verses in the New Testament which are often misused to support moderate drinking. In my next article, I will conclude this series by addressing these arguments.

Click here to access the fourth and final article in this series.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Moderate Drinking: Sinful or Unwise? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, I made the point that it is unwise to drink alcohol for social or recreational purposes. In other words, to go out drinking with your friends, to have a 24-pack of beer in your fridge that you gradually consume with your pizza or on other occasions, or to have that glass of wine with your spouse on special evenings - as common and as harmless as this all may appear to some people, for Christians, it is all unwise in the very least.

But as I emphasized at the conclusion of that first article, if moderate drinking is merely unwise, we cannot condemn or judge those brethren who drink moderately. We can tell them that it's unwise, but if they disagree and choose to load a 24-pack of Coors Light into their shopping cart at Wal-Mart, we really can't say or do anything about it. After all, while we can encourage wisdom, we cannot condemn an activity on the basis of principles alone because while the principles are specified in God's word, the application is not.

If this is as far as we can go - if we can only discourage moderate drinking on the basis that it's unwise - we need to know it and assign it to the realm of Christian liberty where it belongs. Of course, we also need to quit making this an issue of fellowship...if indeed it is a matter of personal judgment. 

At the same time, if it's not merely unwise - if it's actually sinful to drink in moderation - then we need to know that and take the proper stand against drinking in the church. Right? 

Now, I am convinced, based on my studies, that not only is drunkenness sinful (Gal. 5:21, et al), but that moderate drinking is wrong as well. In this second article, I'd like to defend this assertion. Before I do that, I want you to understand a couple of things:
  1. While this may be the traditional stance of brethren, I do not hold this position because it is 'traditional,' but because I believe it to be the scriptural position. I have personally studied this and have come to this conclusion. So please do not assume that I am just parroting what I have heard from other gospel preachers.
  2. If I am wrong, I want you to help me find the truth. If moderate drinking isn't sinful, please help me to see the error of my position so that I can immediately stop drawing lines where God has not. I take this very seriously and beg for your help and guidance if I am taking this too far.
  3. As I have already indicated, my standard is the word of God. I hope it is your standard as well. Please do not respond by relating to me your personal experiences with alcohol and how Christians can "drink responsibly." If you disagree, please address the scriptures I cite, or cite additional scriptures which I have not considered.
Alright, so let's get to it.

There are three New Testament teachings that I believe condemn even moderate drinking. I ask that you keep an open mind as we study these passages together.

1 Timothy 5:23

I want to begin in an unlikely place – 1 Timothy 5:23 – where Paul writes, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities.” We often quote this verse to prove that alcohol may be used for medicinal purposes, but I’d like to focus instead on Paul’s subtle disapproval of drinking. 

Notice what this one verse implies. First of all, it’s implied that Timothy didn’t drink at all; he was a teetotaler who drank only water. But he had a problem with his stomach and was regularly sick. To remedy this ailment, Paul told Timothy that it was okay to “use a little wine.” Notice the care and precision with which Paul counseled Timothy. Not only did he approve Timothy’s decision to abstain from alcohol, he made it clear that even the medicinal use of alcohol was to be carefully regulated. None of this would make any sense if moderate drinking was/is perfectly acceptable. Rather, we learn that it was assumed that Christians didn’t drink in the first century.

NOTE: I’ve known many Christians who believe, based on this verse, that it’s perfectly okay to have a glass of wine every evening for “health reasons.” First of all, I question the science behind that belief. But still, this verse only allows for the use of wine to remedy a current ailment. Paul isn’t saying that it’s a good idea to drink wine on a regular basis because it might have some health benefits.

So again, Timothy was right to abstain completely from alcohol. He was only encouraged to “use a little wine” to remedy an unspecified ailment. 

The Command to be Sober

Drinking is also wrong because Christians are commanded to be “sober.” Notice with me the following verses from the New Testament that contain this command:
“For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober…” (1 Thessalonians 5:7-8). 
“Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). 
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
In all three of these verses, the word sober is from the Greek word nepho which literally means, “to abstain from wine (keep sober), that is, (figuratively) be discreet: - be sober, watch.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary says it means “to be free from the influence of intoxicants.” So the command to be sober doesn’t just mean that we’re to avoid the drunken state; the command is to “abstain from wine.” In each of these verses, we’re being instructed to be watchful and vigilant. Because alcohol has the ability to inhibit our judgment, we’re told to abstain from it. This very plainly condemns drinking.

Other resources point out that nepho is used in contrast with intoxication. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says, "The concept which underlies the verb nepho, 'to be sober,' and the whole group is formally negative. It is the opposite of intoxication both in the literal sense of intoxication with wine and in the figurative sense of intoxication attributed to other causes." Likewise, the Jewish philosopher, Philo, wrote, "So too soberness [nephein] and drunkenness are opposites." Finally, Clement of Alexandria once said, "I therefore admire those who have adopted an austere [nephalion] life, and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance, and flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire."

NOTE: In the above paragraph, nepho is the verb form, and nephalios is the adjective form of the word. For more on this (and the subject as a whole), click here.

Someone might respond by saying that this is a general instruction to remain watchful, not a specific and sweeping condemnation of drinking. But please note that there is a completely different Greek word that has a more general definition. In 2 Corinthians 5:13 and Titus 2:6, the word sober is from the Greek word sophroneo which means, “to be of sound mind, that is, sane, (figuratively) moderate: - be in right mind, be sober (minded), soberly.” Of course, even then, drinking alcohol would seem to threaten our sober-mindedness. Either way, the fact that nepho is used in the above three verses indicates that we’re not just to remain sober-minded in some general sense; we’re to abstain from wine and other intoxicants.

The Command to Avoid Drunkenness

The final argument against drinking may surprise you, so bear with me, but the command to avoid drunkenness actually prohibits even moderate drinking.

In Ephesians 5:18, we’re told, “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.” The phrase “do not be drunk” is from the Greek word methusko which is defined as “to intoxicate – be drunken.” Likewise, the command to avoid “drunkenness” in Galatians 5:21 literally means to avoid “intoxication” (from the Greek word methe). 

Now, when we think of being drunk or intoxicated, we see images of the person who is falling over drunk, stumbling around and making a fool of himself. This is how we use the term today. But according to the strict definition of the biblical word, to be drunk is to be intoxicated, and to be intoxicated is to be impaired by the intoxicant. I think we all understand that the impairment process begins well before they’re falling-down drunk.

Consider this impairment chart from :

Men of all sizes and weights reach .02% BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) after consuming one drink of alcohol. One drink is equated with 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of table wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. To put it simply, a person is impaired when they drink one regular can of beer or glass of wine. Notice the website’s warning (in red) above the chart: “Impairment begins with your first drink!” Over the years, I’ve seen many similar charts from various online sources – all of which condone the practice of “drinking responsibly” – and they present the same information and the same facts. Medically, it is well-established that even one drink results in impairment. A person may not feel impaired after one drink, but this only illuminates once again what Solomon wrote in Proverbs 20:1: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” And regardless of how a person may 'feel,' if they are impaired even in the slightest way, they are still impaired.

Consider the following physical and physiological effects of moderate drinking in light of the biblical definition of drunkenness. Ask yourself if even one drink can be justified in light of these facts, and especially in light of the biblical context.
  • “One to two drinks of alcohol impair mental and physical abilities; mental processes such as restraint, awareness, concentration and judgment are affected, reaction time slowed, and an inability to perform complicated tasks.” (“The Effects of Alcohol and Other Drugs,” Motorcycle Safety Foundation,1991) 
  • “Any blood alcohol level, even a BAC of 0.02%, the result of just one drink, increases the risk of a crash. Alcohol impairs nearly every aspect of the brain’s ability to process information, as well as the eye’s ability to focus and react to light.” (University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter, January 1998) 
  • “The blocking of inhibitions is caused by alcohol's action on the higher centers of the brain's cortex, particularly the part of the brain that controls reason and judgment. It then acts on the lower centers of the limbic system that rule mood and emotion, and even at low-to-medium doses can increase self-confidence, sociability, and sexual desire, but can also result in aggression, violence and sexual assault. This disinhibition is mostly due to the interference with GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter.” ( - October 2001)
  • “Just a half-a-glass of wine almost doubles the level of estrogen in women on ERT.” ("Estrogen and Alcohol Don't Mix,” Optimum Wellness newsletter, Winter 1997)
  • “Even a small amount of alcohol can affect your balance and reflexes.” (National Institute on Aging – 2003) 
  • “Even one beer (or one drink) can slow your reactions and confuse your thinking. This means anything that requires concentration and coordination - like driving - is more dangerous when you’ve had a drink. Drinking is a problem if it interferes with how you think or feel." ( - May 2003) 
A person may argue that God never intended for us to apply such a strict definition of impairment to the word drunkenness in the Bible, and that God was really condemning the all-out state of drunkenness. Dear reader, if God doesn’t limit the definition of drunkenness to legal drunkenness (.08% BAC) or some other "severe" form of drunkenness, how can we limit it? If the word itself denotes intoxication and impairment, and if impairment begins with the first drink, that is where we must take our stand. Is it sinful to be falling down drunk? Yes. But according to the facts, to have one drink may put us into sin, because that puts us into the state of impairment. 

So not only is drinking unwise, the case can be made from the New Testament that even moderate drinking is sinful. We are to “abstain from wine.” For these three reasons, we must not permit or condone drinking among our brethren. We must take a firm stand against it.


Again, I could stop writing at this point because I’ve made my case. Not only is moderate drinking unwise, it is actually sinful. 

But I’ve always tried to be even-handed when I write articles such as these, and the fact is, there is another side to this debate. In fact, perhaps you’ve been thinking of passages in the Bible that actually seem to justify or condone drinking. What about the story in John 2 of Jesus turning water into wine? What about the way that Paul places drinking in the realm of liberty in Romans 14? What about the instruction to the deacons and the older women to “not [be] given to much wine” (1 Timothy 3:8; Titus 2:3)? What about Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 11:22 to drink at home? And what about the way that wine is positively portrayed in the Bible as a blessing from God and source of joy? 

Before I address these questions, I feel that it's necessary to first of all study the culture and meaning of wine in the Bible. In 'Part 3' of this series, I will do just that. It will be in the fourth article that I will specifically answer the above questions.

Click here to access the third article in this series.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Moderate Drinking: Sinful or Unwise? (Part 1)


I'm not aware of many issues that are more controversial among brethren than that of drinking. And by drinking, I'm not referring to the act of guzzling lemonade on a hot summer's day, but to the social and recreational consumption of alcohol.

There are Christians who view all drinking as sinful. Then there are those who view it as unwise. These folks would never drink or justify drinking, but they stop short of condemning those who drink in moderation, or in the privacy of their own home. Then, sadly, there are brethren who actually justify drinking. They see at as neither sinful nor unwise. While this is certainly the exception, not the rule, I have heard of situations where young Christians not only justify drinking, but actually drink on a regular basis with each other…to the point that they have designated drivers for their nights out.

While there are certainly exceptions, the vast majority of Christians are in agreement that drunkenness is sinful (Galatians 5:21, et al). The question is whether or not moderate drinking is sinful. In other words, is it sinful to have an occasional beer or glass of wine? Is it okay to drink so long as you don’t get drunk? 

My initial reaction to such questions always is, “Why would you want to?” The fact that this is so controversial and that there are so many other drink options that aren’t controversial should steer all Christians away from alcohol. This is the approach of wisdom. And that’s where I’d like to begin.

The Approach of Wisdom from the Old Testament

Let’s begin with the assumption that it’s not inherently sinful to drink alcohol for social and recreational purposes. The question is: is it wise? I truly believe that any honest Christian – and I know that’s a bold statement – will have to admit, based on a careful study of the Bible, that it is extremely unwise to drink.

While the Old Testament is not our law today (Colossians 2:14-16, et al), it is there for our learning (Romans 15:4). The book of Proverbs is where God imparts His advise and wisdom to us, and Christians everywhere turn to this book to access that wisdom on a variety of topics: child-rearing, marriage, money management, gossip, etc. One of the issues that God advises us on is that of drinking. 

In Proverbs 20:1, Solomon writes, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Many will argue here that God is only encouraging us not to be "led astray" by alcohol. In other words, it's okay to drink, so long as you "drink responsibly." However, what I want you to notice here is that alcohol is deceitful and problematic by nature. Those who think otherwise are foolish. Would you date or marry someone that you knew was a "mocker" or "brawler?" Would you even call someone with these characteristics a close friend? Would you call them up to go out on a Friday night, knowing that they had a violent, deceitful personality? Of course you wouldn't! This is how we ought to view alcohol. It's not that it can become a mocker and brawler when we've had too much of it to drink. It is this way by nature.

In similar fashion, Solomon describes the ill effects of drinking in Proverbs 23:29-35. His advice in verse 31 is, “Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper.” Notice that Solomon doesn’t encourage moderate drinking. He doesn’t say, “Drink responsibly.” He tells us not to even look at the stuff. And if we’re not to look at it, we’re not to drink it. Now, a person might argue that this is only true for the person who is tempted to drink too much, but that’s not Solomon’s point. He’s telling us that because drinking can end so badly, don’t drink at all.

Think about how the words of Proverbs 23:29-35 ring true even today. Think of the drunk driving accidents that have taken place, the domestic violence, the extra-marital affairs and acts of adultery, the shattered friendships, and the health risks, just to name a few. Solomon is urging us to wisely consider all of the consequences of drinking and its ill-effect on society and to not even look at it. If we heed this advise, we will not drink.

The book of Proverbs advises against drinking in Proverbs 31:4-5 as well. “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes intoxicating drink; lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of all the afflicted.” This applies to Christians because, while we are not governing based on civil law, we are always to be mindful and submissive to God’s law (Colossians 3:17, et al). We shouldn’t allow anything in our lives that might cause us to neglect or lose sight of our Christian duties.

The Approach of Wisdom from the New Testament

In the New Testament, we find three additional principles that ought to keep us from drinking. While we cannot unilaterally condemn something on the basis of principles alone (for while the principle is stated, the application is not), I am fully persuaded that drinking will cause us to violate these principles in practically every situation. And please note: if a principle is violated, sin is committed.

Consider first of all the obligation we have to our brethren. In Romans 14:13, Paul writes, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way,” and again in verse 15, “Yet if your brother is grieved by your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died.” In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul again touches on the issue of liberty. He writes in verse 9, “But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak,” and in verses 12-13, “But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

Many wrongly interpret these passages to mean that we shouldn’t do things that might offend or bother other Christians. If this interpretation is true, any domineering Christian in the church may force his views and opinions on everyone else. In reality, Paul is not encouraging us to bend our wills to such domineering Christians, but to avoid activities that might cause weaker brethren to stumble in their walk with Christ. 

In regard to drinking, there are individuals in most churches who are recovering alcoholics and who struggle with this temptation every day. Even if you feel justified in drinking that one beer, your example might lead a former alcoholic or even a weaker Christian to do the same to the injury of his/her own conscience. In the case of the former alcoholic, your example may even cause them to regress into alcoholism. So even if it isn’t inherently sinful to drink, this principle alone will make it sinful in most cases. If you think that this is a dramatic conclusion, can you tell me with confidence that you have no recovering alcoholics in your congregation or circle of influence? And can you honestly tell me that there are no Christians in your church that just might be negatively impacted by your example?

And please note that Paul doesn’t say that we should just hide what we’re doing from these weaker brethren. He says we shouldn’t do it anymore – ever! “I will never again eat meat.” After all, there’s always that chance that you may be seen, or that word may get around, especially in this social media driven society.

Not only must we consider our influence in the church, we must consider our influence in the world. Paul instructs us in Philippians 2:15 to “become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” My favorite passage on this point is 1 Corinthians 10:31-33. Here, Paul writes, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” The point here is that we must be very careful to maintain a strong and positive influence in the world. Does drinking hinder and hurt our influence? I believe so.

While most people in the world drink, it’s generally believed that deeply committed Christians do not drink. I used to be a committed Baptist and was very involved in both the Baptist and Methodist church. Even then, social drinking was something that weaker Christians did. Strong Christians didn’t drink beers with their buddies on a Friday night or have wine coolers in their fridge. That was my outlook even then. 

Now, someone might argue that they will only drink in the privacy of their home, but even still, that alcohol is purchased in public. What if you had an opportunity to share your faith with the cashier or someone in the store? Aren’t we told to always be ready to defend our faith (1 Peter 3:15)? If such an opportunity arose – and we should always be on the lookout for such opportunities – wouldn’t that alcohol in your shopping cart potentially hurt your influence? The fact of the matter is, if I want to be “blameless” in the world – if I want my example to be as strong as it can be – I won’t drink. I can’t drink.

The final principle from the New Testament that I’d like to share with you in this article is that of finding justification, not condemnation for drinking. Christians often have the attitude that if something isn’t inherently sinful, it must be okay. “Prove to me that it’s a sin,” they’ll say. But this is a bad attitude. Instead, we’re told in Scripture to seek justification, not condemnation. We’re told in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” Even if moderate drinking isn’t sinful, can anyone really say that it’s a good thing to do? Can anyone honestly contend that drinking has no negative impact whatsoever on our influence with brethren or our example in the world? Let’s say that a fellow Christian ran across you at the grocery store and you happened to have a case of beer or bottle of wine in your shopping cart; would you really feel no shame or guilt? Would you drink with Jesus in the room? Again, is drinking really a “good thing?” I don’t see how any honest Christian can “test” the drinking issue and conclude that it’s “good.” Even if it’s not inherently condemned, I don’t think we can say that it’s justified.

Based on these three principles alone, Christians ought to abstain from alcohol. 

But I will admit – and this is very important to understand – that we cannot unilaterally condemn drinking on the basis of these principles alone. We can teach the principles, can encourage wisdom, and can even make the application to activities such as drinking, but because the Scriptures do not make the application, we cannot condemn the application. If we do this, we are no different than the Pharisees of old who felt the need to create their own laws and boundaries for the purpose of ensuring and enforcing their standard of holiness (e.g. Matthew 15:1-2). To put it another way, we cannot draw lines and create barriers for the purpose of uniformity. On drinking, if it’s merely unwise, we cannot necessarily condemn or judge those who drink.

Having said that, I wholeheartedly believe that I could end my article here and that the honest Christian will agree that it’s wrong to drink based on these principles alone. After all, we live in a society where the reputation and view of drinking is such that it’s near impossible to drink without violating at least one of these three principles.

But what about those Christians who do not agree? What do we do with those brethren who do feel justified in drinking that one beer (or two) or that one glass of wine? What about those who feel that these principles don’t rule out drinking in their lives? Again, if it’s merely unwise, we cannot condemn or judge those brethren who do, and if this is the case, we’re leaving it open for brethren to drink if they feel that they can do so without violating these principles. 

However, if it’s sinful to drink, we need to be made aware of the facts so that we can take the proper, firm stand against drinking in the church. In 'Part 2' of this series of articles on moderate drinking, I will consider the question of whether moderate drinking is indeed sinful for Christians today.

Click here to access the second article in this series.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Silence May Be Prohibitive

I'd like to introduce the theme of this article with these four illustrations:
  1. In the New Testament, baptism is defined as immersion. Does this mean that sprinkling and pouring are not valid modes of "baptism?" Neither mode is explicitly condemned. The Bible doesn't say "not to" sprinkle or pour water on the baptismal subject.
  2. In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, we're told that the Lord's Supper consists of the bread, which represents the body of Christ, and the fruit of the vine, which represents the blood of Christ. Does this mean that we MUST use bread and grape juice? Would it be wrong to use oreos and milk? Could we at least spread butter and jam on our bread to give it more flavor? After all, the Bible doesn't say we can't change out the emblems!
  3. Regarding the organization of the local church, it is repeatedly stated that elders were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5). These were qualified men (Titus 1:5-9) who shepherded the local church of which they were members (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-2). Even though it is specified that these were men, would it be wrong to appoint female elders? The Bible doesn't say "not to." Or could we appoint a "chief elder" to oversee the eldership? Could we do away with the eldership altogether and institute a different type of organization? God never condemns these things, so does that mean that these things are permissible?
  4. When it comes to music in worship, God specifies singing (Rom. 15:9; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 2:12). This is portrayed as being a congregational activity as well. So what about the use of instruments (i.e. pianos, guitars, etc.) in our worship? What about choirs, solos and quartets? Even though God specifies singing, He never condemns instruments in worship. And even though this is said to be a congregational activity, the Scriptures never directly forbid choirs!
In each of these four examples - and there are many, many others - the issue is whether or not silence is permissive or prohibitive. Are we permitted to do something so long as God doesn't condemn it? Or, is it that when something is specified, everything else is excluded (i.e. the "law of exclusion").

I would suggest to you that when it comes to what God specifies, silence is prohibitive. And there are a number of examples in God's word to illustrate this point.
  • In Leviticus 10:1-2, Nadab and Abihu were struck down by God when they "offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them." You see, God specified the type of incense and fire that He wanted the priests to offer Him in worship...and that's exactly what He expected. When they offered this other type of fire - what is called "profane fire" - they disobeyed God.
  • In Numbers 20:7-9, God told Moses to "speak to the rock" in order to bring water out of it for the people of Israel to drink. However, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses "lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod" (vs. 11). Even though the rock still brought forth water for the people, God punished Moses by refusing him entrance into the promised land (vs. 12). Now...did God tell Moses that He couldn't strike the rock? No, He never directly condemned that method. This is another case where God's silence was prohibitive. When God gave the "law" to speak to the rock, every other method was necessarily excluded.
  • Under the Law of Moses, the Levites were to carry the ark of the covenant using two poles which were inserted through the rings in the side of the ark. However, when the Israelites set out to relocate the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem under King David, they put it on a cart (or wagon) and used men who were not Levites to transport it (1 Chronicles 13:1-8). When Uzza touched the ark to steady it, God struck Uzza dead (vs. 9-10). At first, David was angry, but he later realized his error. In 1 Chronicles 15:2, David said, "No one may carry the ark of God but the Levites," and in verse 13-15, "'For because you did not do it the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not consult Him about the proper order.' So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the Lord God of Israel. And the children of the Levites bore the ark of God on their shoulders, by its poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord." Did God ever say that they couldn't use oxen and a cart to carry the ark, or that another tribe couldn't assist? Not directly. But again, God specified the method He wanted, which, of necessity, excluded every other method.
These three examples alone prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the "law of exclusion" holds true. When God specifies what He wants, everything else is excluded; we need to obey exactly what God has commanded in such cases.

If baptism is immersion, then sprinkling and pouring are invalid modes of baptism.

If the Lord's Supper consists of bread and grape juice, then other emblems are forbidden.

If the congregation is only authorized to sing, then instruments and even choirs are forbidden.

If God has specified that elders are to shepherd the church, all other types of organization are unauthorized.

Before I close this article, I want to point out that not all silence is prohibitive. Some commands are very general, or the means of obeying the command isn't specified. Here are two examples:
  • God specifies bread and grape juice for the Lord's Supper, but doesn't tell us how to secure these emblems, or even how exactly to serve them in the church assembly. We must use our judgment in determining what we must do to expedite our obedience to God's command to observe the Lord's Supper.
  • God specifies singing, but doesn't give us a list of songs to sing or even how we're to ensure the unified singing of the entire congregation. While song books aren't directly authorized, they are indirectly authorized because they aid us in fulfilling the command to sing.
So silence isn't always prohibitive, but as we've already seen, it may be prohibitive...and is prohibitive when God specifies what He wants.

How serious is this? God may not strike us down today as He did with Nadab, Abihu and Uzza, but clearly He will hold us accountable for our disobedience. If we humbly and sincerely will abide in the doctrine of Christ, we will have fellowship with God...but if we step outside the bounds of God's authority, we will lose our fellowship with Him (2 John 9).

I'd say that's pretty serious, wouldn't you?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Arguing With Atheists

I work at a university.

That's something I thought I'd never say. 

I guess I'd better clarify. I'm not a professor, a graduate student getting paid to do research, a university official...or even a janitor or landscaper. I'm actually just an evangelist who happens to carry out some of my work on the university campus 1.5 times per week. My work involves having conversations with the students about God, religion and the Bible. Every Wednesday, from 10-2, I "table" at Hilliard Plaza on the campus of the University of Nevada in Reno, and every other Tuesday, I attend a two hour meeting of the Secular Student Alliance where we discuss matters of science and philosophy. Neat stuff.

As you can imagine, I talk to a lot of folks on campus who are self-proclaimed atheists, agnostics and skeptics. While I believe that this world was created by an omnipotent God, they believe that everything came from nothing about 13.7 billion years ago, that life came from non-living material about 3.5 billion years ago, and that life has been evolving ever since. You know the story.

I've kept up with the 'evolution vs. creation' debate for the past ten years and have even preached a few sermons on topics related to the debate, but it's been in the last year - as a result of my work at the university - that I've come to truly understand the issue. I'd like to share with you my conclusions.

We can debate the merits of carbon dating, the 'distant starlight problem,' cosmic-microwave background, polystratic fossils, the formation of coal and diamonds, vestigial organs, etc. We can list the scientific evidence for a young earth. And while these may be valid arguments, and while some skeptics may be slightly surprised by your knowledge, even impressed, it is very unlikely that you will make any serious progress with them because these are all symptoms of a greater problem. It's like fighting a forest fire with a garden hose.

In the end, skeptics believe that it's a matter of science vs. faith. They believe that they have all the facts on their side and that Christians and other religious people are just clinging to old, dying superstitions. I've talked to many atheists on campus who argue that the universe can be explained scientifically to the point that there is no need to believe in supernatural causes. It's their facts versus your faith.

And this is where I have taken my stand.

You see, it's not a debate between facts and faith, science and superstition. It's a debate between two different worldviews based on two different interpretations of the same evidence. And both involve faith. Yes, you heard me. Naturalism (the belief that we're here because of natural, not supernatural causes), abiogenesis (life from non-living material) and Darwinian evolution (molecules to man evolution) ALL involve faith.

Allow me to break this down for you...

Let's begin with the Big Bang theory, the atheists explanation of the origin of the universe. Consider this quote from page 362 of  HBJ General Science: "If the universe is expanding, then it must have once been much smaller. If you could run the life of the universe in reverse, like a film, you would see the universe contracting until it disappeared in a flash of light, leaving nothing. In the realm of the universe, nothing really means nothing. Not only matter and energy would disappear, but also space and time. However, physicists theorize that from this state of nothingness the universe began in a gigantic explosion about 16.5 billion years ago. This theory of the origin of the universe is called the Big Bang theory."

Of course, the atheist who affirms this theory wasn't there to observe it. No one was. But more than that, this believe contradicts known scientific laws, specifically, the law of the 'conservation of energy' which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transferred. When I asked an atheist recently about how he could believe in the Big Bang when it contradicts this known scientific law, he basically argued that just because we haven't yet observed "something coming from nothing," it could still be scientifically possible. In other words, that may just be a gap in our knowledge, a mystery of the universe yet to be resolved.

So the atheist cannot explain scientifically how something came from nothing, or even how the entire universe came from an "infinitesimal point." But it's a fact? No, it's faith. 

Now consider abiogenesis, which is the belief that life sprang from non-living material. Has this ever been observed? No. Does the atheist have any proof that this happened 3.5 billion years ago? No. But the atheist will once again argue that just because we haven't proven that life can come from non-living material, it could still be possible. Again, we just haven't made the discovery yet. So the atheist has no factual, provable, scientific explanation for the origin of life from non-living material, but he affirms it wholeheartedly. Sounds like faith to me.

Finally, consider Darwinian evolution, or macroevolution, which is the belief in evolution on a GRAND scale (molecules to man evolution). Ask the atheist if there is any evidence that one kind of animal can change into another? They will give you examples of bacteria, fruit flies and Darwin's finches. But in all of these cases, the results were simply different varieties of bacteria, fruit flies and finches. You see, Christians accept what is often called microevolution. There was a time when chihuahuas didn't exist. Through selective breeding and even adaptation, a species can change over time, but a dog will always be a dog and a finch will always be a finch. But again, ask the atheist for evidence that one kind of animal can change into another kind. Don't give me an example of a fruit fly becoming a different kind of fruit fly. The atheist's only answer will be that we've not been around long enough (as an advanced species) to observe macroevolution. "That would take thousands of years of observation and research," they'll say. Okay, then come back to me in a few thousand years with your evidence. Until then, it's faith, not fact.

Oh, but wait - the fossil record proves Darwinian evolution! Right? No, it doesn't! You see, atheists will point to a fossil and say that it's the intermediate, evolutionary link between two other fossils. But they cannot prove it. There's no tag on the fossil that identifies it as an intermediate link. All we can learn from a fossil is that this animal once lived. Nothing more. Nothing less.

So let's recap:
  1. It takes faith to believe that everything came from nothing (Big Bang theory).
  2. It takes faith to believe that life came from non-living material (abiogenesis).
  3. It takes faith to believe in molecules-to-man evolution.
These are the three pillars of the atheists' view of origins, and yet none of these can be observed, tested, repeated or proven by scientists today.

Which brings me back to my original point. 

It's not a debate between science and faith, but between two different worldviews based on two different interpretations of the evidence. Christians look at the very same evidence and interpret it in light of a Creator.

As an example, an atheist recently used the genetic code in an attempt to prove evolution. He pointed out that all living things share the same genetic code and used this as proof that we all share a common ancestor. My response was twofold. I first of all pointed out that I interpreted the evidence to mean that we all share the same Designer! Then I asked him who wrote the code.

The point in all of this is not to win an intellectual debate with an atheist, but to weaken their pride and sense of intellectual superiority and most of all, to illuminate the inevitability of faith. They don't have all the answers, so the question is: where will they put their faith? Which interpretation of the evidence is more reasonable? 

Is it more reasonable to believe that everything came from nothing, that life came from non-living material, and that we are here because of random, unguided mutations over the course of billions of years?

Or is it more reasonable to believe that this incredibly ordered and complex universe was designed by an omnipotent Creator, and has been sustained by Him ever since?
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1).
 "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork" (Ps. 19:1).
I don't know about you, but this makes a lot more sense.