What About Moderate Social Drinking?

By Wayne Jackson

*"In the 2nd chapter of John, Christ’s first miraculous sign was the turning of water to wine at a wedding. We know the purpose of wine at weddings – social consumption. And, if we look at the passage honestly, we know that this is a fermented beverage; for when the host tasted it he was confused that the best wine there was served last."

“In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul instructed Timothy to take in wine for his stomach’s sake. Take notice that the apostle specified a “little” wine. If it were grape juice or non-fermented drink, I am sure that there would have been no concern over the amount consumed?"

“Looking into the qualifications of deacons and elders, the elders are told to be given to no wine but deacons not to be given to “much” wine. Are they talking about grape juice?"

“Christ would not create something that is sinful. So, if alcohol consumption was and is a sin, He would not have created it at all. Paul, inspired of God, understood the nature of God, and what was or was not pleasing to Him, and would not have advised his disciple to sin (consume alcohol) even for health purposes.”*

Normally we do not take the space to deal with “questions” that are more of an essayed affirmation than they are a serious inquiry. In this case, however — because of the prevalent interest in the theme, and due to the common erroneous conclusions drawn — we are prepared to make an exception. Hence we respond to the paragraphs above in order.

Jesus Turned Water to Wine

There is no proof that the “wine” at the marriage feast in Cana was fermented. The Greek word for “wine” in this text is oinos, which may refer to a fermented beverage (cf. Eph. 5:18), or it may denote freshly squeezed grape juice (cf. Isa. 16:10 – LXX). Since the word for “wine” is generic, the student has no right to import the concept of an alcoholic beverage into this passage without contextual justification — of which there is none.

Moreover, what may be “social consumption” in our day, says nothing about the practice of the first century. The juice of the grape was a common drink in that land of many vineyards.

Finally, the fact that the ruler of the feast could still distinguish the quality of the latter beverage from the former, suggests that his senses were not dull as a result of previous guzzling! [Note: For further study see “John 2:1ff – The Wine that Jesus Made”.]

Timothy Took Wine for His Stomach

The fact that Paul instructed Timothy to “take a little wine for his stomach’s sake” involves several things.

First, it suggests that the young evangelist had been reticent to drink the wine prior to the admonition. If drinking fermented wine was common for the primitive Christians, the exhortation would scarcely have been needed.

Second, Timothy obviously suffered from a stomach ailment which required medicinal remedy. The water in Asia Minor could be very dangerous, hence the young evangelist was encouraged to take “a little wine” along with his water. The sentence is elliptical: “Be no longer a drinker of water [alone], but [with it] take a little wine . . .” (1 Tim. 5:23).

This text must be viewed in light of Timothy’s malady, and the conditions of that day. Paul’s advice, therefore, no more encourages the modern practice of social drinking than would the use of a prescription drug be a precedent for “pot” smoking.

Elders Qualification Quibble

With reference to the qualifications of an elder, Paul affirms that the candidate for bishop must not be “addicted to wine” (1 Tim. 3:3; Tit. 1:7 – NASB).

The Greek expression, paroinos, means “given to wine, drunken” (Thayer, Greek Lexicon, p. 490). To read into that some sort of license for moderate drinking is an irresponsible stretch. Would an admonition against “drug addiction” grant any measure of comfort to someone wishing to “smoke pot” recreationally? Would such a warning be interpreted as a license for the moderate use of cocaine?

Moreover, Paul’s restriction regarding deacons — that they must not be “addicted to much wine” (1 Tim. 3:8 – NASB; Thayer, p. 546) — similarly provides no permission for the moderate use of recreational alcohol in today’s world of distilled spirits — which are far, far stronger than were the fermented beverages of the primitive age. The fact is, within the same context, church officers are charged to be “sober” (nepho), which signifies “to be free from the influence of intoxicants” (Vine, Expository Dictionary, p. 746).

Josephus employs the word nephaleos (“sobriety”) of the priests, as they functioned in their appointed roles, commenting that they “are [not] permitted to drink wine” (Antiquities 3.12.2). The word literally means “holding no wine” (Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 634).

In context, it denotes the “abstemious lifestyle” required by apostolic instruction (Verbrugge, Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 863).

It is entirely possible that the use of “wine” in the Timothy and Titus contexts may be an example of the figure known as synecdoche, a form of which is when a specific object is made to stand for a general truth. For example, “bread” (Mt. 6:11) stands for food of any sort. It is mentioned specifically, however, because it was commonly eaten at meals.

Accordingly, moderation in “wine” may simply stand for the principle of self-control in at large. It is interesting how certain terms appear to balance one another. The bishop must be “temperate” (1 Tim. 3:2), and " . . .deacons in like manner . . .not given to much wine" (3:8); similarly, " . . .women in like manner . . .[are to be] temperate" (3:11). In Titus 2:2, men are to “be temperate” and “women likewise . . .not . . .enslaved to much wine” (2:3).

Thus “wine,” because it was a common beverage, may be a specific illustration for moderation in general — without any allusion as to whether or not it involved fermentation.

The New Testament represents the abuses of wine in a series of words that depict stages in transgression.

First, there is potos (rendered “banqueting” – 1 Pet. 4:3). It denotes a drinking party, but as R.C. Trench noted, “not of necessity excessive . . .but giving occasion for excess” — and yet it is condemned! This aptly describes the modern cocktail scene.

Second, there is oinophlugia, which is rendered “wine-drinking” (Berry, Greek-English Interlinear, 1 Pet. 4:3), or “excess of wine” (KJV). Trench says that this word “marks a step in advance of methe [drunk]” (Synonyms of the New Testament, p. lxi).

No conscientious Christian would want to dabble with beverage alcohol — in any of these degrees.

The Creation Argument

It is truly remarkable that a brother would make the argument that if the pleasurable consumption of beverage alcohol is wrong, God would not have created it. The implication thus is: since liquors are here, the Lord must endorse them.

Would the gentleman care to make the same argument with reference to cocaine, opium, or marijuana? While it is true that “every creature of God is good” (1 Tim. 4:4), it is good for the purpose for which it was created; anything can be perverted.

God never intended that grapes, grain, the poppy, the marijuana plant, etc., be used as recreational, mind-altering substances.

For those who wish to pursue this study in greater detail, we highly recommend the following books: The Bible and “Social” Drinking by W.D. Jeffcoat (1987), and “Beverage Alcohol” by Louis Rushmore (1998). See also “What About Social Drinking and the Old Testament?” on this web site.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.