Christians and Alcohol

Reformation Church Blog

The American church has a long and tortured history with alcohol paved by winding turns of excess, prohibition, legalism, licentiousness, and confusion. So what should Christians think of alcohol today? Does the Bible command, condone, or condemn drinking alcohol? Is drinking appropriate, sinful, or unwise?

Answering these questions is the concern of this paper–to clear away the fog of cultural presuppositions and to actually engage the Word of God to see what He says.

But before doing so, it would be beneficial to consider how the Church has historically answered such questions. Though history and tradition are not ultimately authoritative, they are extremely helpful in exposing our own blind spots and assumptions. Only the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God; but examining what Christians have believed across cultures and generations can help protect us from allowing our own cultural presuppositions to pollute our biblical interpretation.

Considering Tradition and History

So what have Christians historically believed about alcohol?

The overwhelming majority of Church history has held two complementary perspectives on drinking: 

    1. Drinking is a blessing and not sinful.
    2. Drunkenness is sinful.

The second point seems obvious (though we will expound on that shortly), but the first might be surprising. For the overwhelming majority of Church history, drinking alcohol in and of itself wasn’t condemned, avoided, or criticized. Rather, it was commended as a good gift of God.

For example:

The Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents (from the 100’s) notes how the congregants had wine presses (Didache 13:6).

The church father, Clement of Alexandria (150-215), recommends drinking at the end of a laborious day but warns against getting drunk.

Augustine and John Chrysostom (4th-5th century) warned against drunkenness, but thought drinking was acceptable. Chrysostom said, “wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil.” He also thought that those who forbade all wine were immature Christians who bordered on heresy.

In the middle-ages, it was common for monasteries to brew beer. Some famous beer brands today, such as Trappistes Rochefort, Weihenstephan, and Chimay, were originally produced by monks.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), perhaps the most influential Catholic theologian after Augustine, said, “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine.”

Several key figures in the Protestant Reformation enjoyed alcohol. For example, Martin Luther’s wife, Katherine, used to brew beer in their bathtub, John Calvin’s salary was paid in wine, and John Knox said that drinking was a daily occurrence for him, like eating bread.

Puritans opened breweries in Massachusetts and used the funds to help educate and clothe children.

Even Baptists drank historically. In fact, there is a popular brand of bourbon today called Elijah Craig. “Who’s Elijah Craig” you ask? He was a Baptist preacher in Virginia who opened his own distillery and is credited with being the first person to store whiskey in charred oak barrels, thus giving bourbon its smoky taste.

In addition, wine was used universally in communion until the 19th century in America. In fact, even if congregants would have rather used non-alcoholic grape juice instead of wine, doing so would prove rather difficult (given that all grape juice turns to wine when it is not pasteurized and pasteurization wasn’t invented until 1864). Although we tend to think of pasteurization in regards to milk, the original application by Louis Pasteur was actually to wine and beer with hopes of extending their shelf-life.

When Did Alcohol Go from Commended to Condemned?

Although the vast majority of Christians throughout history have drank alcohol and encouraged others to do so, contemporary thinking on this topic is much more muddy, particularly within the United States. So how did American Christians go from imbibing Puritans to abstaining legalists?

Almost all of the modern American confusion on this topic is due to the influence of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. He was one of the few people in Christian history to teach that alcohol is sinful in and of itself. It’s interesting to note that his brother, Charles (the famous hymn writer), disagreed with him on this point.

Due to the influence of John Wesley and others, many American churches slowly began to focus more on culturally outlawing alcohol rather than proclaiming the gospel and addressing the sin of drunkenness. In other words, the church shifted the way in which they dealt with the internal sin of excess to the external means of the law; rather than relying upon truth and grace to change the heart, they relied on legislation to change the outward behavior. With the influence from groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (with its alleged motto of: “Lips that touch alcohol shall never touch mine”), alcohol was eventually made illegal in the U.S. (beginning in 1920 until 1933 when it was again legalized).

As Christianity has a tendency to do, instead of allowing the Bible to set the parameters of righteousness and godliness, it incorporated the assumptions of the larger culture around it. Although it was still lawful to drink wine in the context of religious purposes (such as communion) throughout the Prohibition Era, congregations across the U.S. soon removed wine altogether from their practice of communion when a Methodist minister named Thomas Welch developed his acclaimed non-alcoholic grape juice for communion (which is where we get Welch’s grape juice today).

Meanwhile, Christians from other parts of the world considered prohibition a strange and unbiblical American phenomenon.

And yet, though prohibition laws have long since been rescinded, prohibition presuppositions continue to this day.

So which is right?

Did the overwhelming majority of denominations, traditions, and churches throughout history get it wrong? Or has the modern American perspective led us astray?

To answer that, we must go to Scripture.

The Bible and Alcohol

The Bible has much to say about drinking. In fact, there are around 250 references to “wine” or “strong drink” in Scripture. Of those 250 references, about 150 are explicitly positive, while 60 are neutral, and 40 are explicitly negative. As we study this topic throughout the Old and New Testaments, the same two themes that we see throughout church history emerge: while drunkenness is sinful, drinking, in and of itself, is not. In fact, it can be a way to glorify God. So, not only is almost all of church history clear on this topic, but so is the Bible itself.

While we need to consider the various arguments against drinking today, we do so only after considering the fact that the Bible never prohibits drinking in and of itself. It condemns excess and prohibits drinking for certain persons in certain contexts (which we will consider), but drinking itself is never condemned as sinful or even unwise.

In fact, the Bible seems to start with the default position that alcohol is actually a blessing and a gift from God. Far from condemning it, Scripture commends drinking alcohol for joy, gladness, and gratitude. For example, consider carefully the following passages:

Psalm 104:15 says that God made “…wine to gladden the heart of man…”

Deuteronomy 14:26 shows how drinking can be a form of worship: “…and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.”

Proverbs 3:10 says that if you honor God with your wealth the reward is wine, for your “…barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”

Not being able to drink wine is seen as a form of judgment from God. For example, Deuteronomy 28:39 says, “You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them.” (see also Jeremiah 48:33)

Wine is commanded to be used and celebrated by the people as a form of worship in Nehemiah 8:10: “Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength’.“

In Amos 9:13-14, the inauguration of the kingdom is described in language of the hills flowing with wine and God’s people planting vineyards and drinking wine. 

In Isaiah 25:6, God’s redemptive feast involves well-aged wine. As this passage concerns the eternal state, this implies that wine will be a part of God’s eschatological gifts to His people.

Wine is linked to joy in Psalm 4:7: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.”

In addition to this, wine is used in offering sacrifices (Numbers 28:14) and explicitly commended because it was safer to drink than water (1 Timothy 5:23).

Those who grew up in post-Prohibition America, particularly in Baptist or Methodist traditions, might be surprised by such passages. It’s important for us to examine our assumptions and presuppositions against Scripture and allow it to inform our consciences; wherever our consciences contradict the Bible, we must be willing to reexamine our convictions and repent.

In light of the Scriptures’ overwhelmingly pervasive description of the benefits and blessing of alcohol, New Testament scholar Dan Wallace writes,

Wine is so often connected with the blessings of God that we are hard-pressed to figure out why so many modern Christians view drink as the worst of all evils. Why, if one didn’t know better, he might think that God actually wanted us to enjoy life! Unfortunately, the only Bible most of our pagan friends will read is the one written on our lives and spoken from our lips. The Bible they know is a book of ‘Thou shalt nots,’ and the God they know is a cosmic killjoy.

That’s a powerful statement and should be considered carefully. What right have we to forbid what God has not–especially in light of the fact that a study of Scripture demonstrates that alcohol in and of itself is not sinful and is actually a gift for our enjoyment and pleasure?

That being said, there are certainly cautions and warnings (as with all of God’s gifts).

Biblical Warnings and Cautions

All gifts can be abused. Money is a gift, but excessive greed is sin. Sex is a gift, but lust and adultery are sins. Food is a gift, but gluttony is a sin.

Alcohol is no different. As with any other created thing, there are dangers and abuses that we are commanded to consider. Though not inherently so, in certain instances drinking can be unwise, unloving, and even sinful. So, what are those instances?

The Bible commands us not to get drunk (Ephesians 5:18). Therefore, any and all drinking which leads to drunkenness is sinful. Though the Bible does not give us a blood alcohol percentage like the state, we could certainly say that any drinking which involves the loss of faculties, reason, and/or self-control would fall under the umbrella of drunkenness.

We are commanded to obey the authorities (Romans 13), so things like underage drinking or driving under the influence of alcohol would be sinful. 

We are commanded to not commit idolatry, so if you are running to alcohol rather than Jesus as the solution to the pains in your life, you are sinning.

Nazarites in the Old Testament were not allowed to drink. Likewise, priests who were serving in the inner court were forbidden from drinking while on duty (as they were also forbidden from unclean foods and from consuming blood). Neither of these are all that relevant today as none of us are Levitical priests or Nazarites, but they bear mentioning for the sake of a comprehensive study.

You cannot drink in front of your brother who is an alcoholic if it will make him stumble into drunkenness (1 Corinthians 8:13). [More on this point shortly.]

You have to be careful that alcohol doesn’t control you as the Bible warns against the alluring beauty of drink (Proverbs 23:31).

Leaders are commanded to be careful lest alcohol cause them to make bad decisions (Proverbs 31:4).

Lastly, if you were drinking so much that you are hurting your body (liver, kidneys, etc.) then you are not stewarding your body well and should reconsider your approach to drinking.

In each of these circumstances drinking would be inappropriate; Christians have a biblical mandate to examine themselves as to whether or not their drinking would fall into one of these categories. We might think of each of these prohibitions as boundaries which are off-limits. But within these clear boundaries, there is freedom and grace to enjoy God’s good gifts.

Given our context in a post-Prohibition America, this blog is mostly concerned with responding to the argument that drinking is always sinful or somehow unwise. That said, we don’t want to minimize the very real danger of foolish and sinful excess; rather, we’re highlighting that the potential to abuse something doesn’t negate its proper use (abusus non tollit usum). Those who struggle with legalism toward alcohol, probably need to spend more time considering biblical passages about God’s good gifts, while those who struggle with excess need to spend more time considering the warnings. Both borders are necessary for the health and morality of the Church.

But some will argue that the points above are all moot, because “the wine in the Bible wasn’t alcoholic” or “was less alcoholic” than modern drink. But is there any truth to these objections?

Is the wine mentioned in the Bible alcoholic?

Put simply, the idea that these biblical beverages are non-alcoholic, magically non-fermenting grape juice is something that is neither historically true, nor logically possible for at least three reasons:

The Hebrew words for wine (yayin) and strong drink (sekar) and the Greek words for wine (oinos) and new wine (gleukos) explicitly refer to alcoholic beverages. Among actual scholars throughout Church history, there has been no debate over whether these terms referred to alcoholic beverages.

Given that pasteurization or refrigeration were not invented for millennia after the writing of Scripture, it is anachronistic to think of early Jews and Christians drinking grape juice. Since the fermentation process begins rather immediately after crushing grapes, it would have been impossible to store grape juice.

In addition to the above, the contexts around the use of the terms demonstrate that they refer to alcohol. For example, consider the following:

In Genesis 9:21 Noah “drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent.” But how did Noah get drunk on wine if the wine was non-alcoholic grape juice?

In John 2, Jesus turns water into wine and the master of the feast is impressed by the quality of the drink–given that people would typically serve poorer quality wine once the senses are dulled. But the dulling of senses would not take place at all if it was non-alcoholic grape juice (more on Jesus turning water to wine later).

In Ephesians 5:18 we are told to “not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” But why should we watch out for getting drunk on wine if it is not alcoholic?

In Acts 2, the crowd at Pentecost believes that the disciples are drunk with “new wine,” which wouldn’t make any sense if “new wine” was non-alcoholic.

In fact, those who insist that biblical wine is non-alcoholic find themselves in a bit of a predicament; if the Bible doesn’t reference alcoholic beverages in regards to blessings, then neither does it reference alcoholic beverages in regards to dangers. In other words, you can’t consistently claim that the Bible condemns alcohol while also saying that the alcohol the Bible allegedly condemns isn’t alcoholic.

Dr. Duane Watson, a New Testament professor and subject matter expert when it comes to alcohol in the Bible, sums it up with the following:

All wine mentioned in the Bible is fermented grape juice with an alcohol content. No non-fermented drink was called wine…New wine is wine from the most recent harvest, while old wine is wine of a previous year’s harvest…Of the two, old wine was preferred because it was sweeter and stronger…

But what about the claim that the wine of the Bible was less alcoholic than wine today?

Was the wine in biblical times less alcoholic than the wine we have today?

This is a more fair question. We know that the alcohol level of wine in the ancient world sometimes varied. For example, water was sometimes added to wine–essentially diluting the batch.

Why dilute the batch? It wasn’t because they thought alcohol was evil. Rather, they wanted to be able to drink more of it! Not only would adding water to the wine make a batch last longer, but it would also help avoid drunkenness in light of the fact that most of the ancient world would consume alcohol at EVERY meal and throughout the day.

Don’t miss the irony here. The fact that some ancient wine was less alcoholic than contemporary wine is sometimes used as an argument to avoid alcohol completely; but, historically, the goal of diluting wine was to provide a way to righteously consume more of it!

Besides, the amount of alcohol per drink is only relevant in regards to the number of drinks that one can consume before becoming intoxicated. One glass of undiluted wine or three or four glasses of diluted wine has the same effect either way. If drinking itself is sinful, then the way we divide up our alcohol is irrelevant. For example, during Passover, Jews would typically consume four celebratory glasses of wine. So even if, for example, wine was diluted two or three times, then they would still be consuming an amount of alcohol equal to one or two glasses today.

The fact that diluting wine is not as common a practice today as in the ancient world is certainly relevant, but only in regards to the amount of alcohol that can be righteously consumed. This same principle, by the way, applies not only to wine, but also to any other alcoholic drink or strong drink such as beer or liquor. The fact that liquor is generally more concentrated (and thus stronger) than wine means that we can drink less of it, but it does not mean that we can’t drink any of it.

At the end of the day, there is a distinct order in which we must consider the question of alcoholic content. Before asking “how concentrated is my alcohol,” we should first ask “does the Bible allow me to drink any alcohol at all?” Once we have asked that, the question of concentration becomes an issue of wisdom based on how much you drink, the size of the person drinking, etc. In other words, the concentration of alcohol relates to the question of excess, but not to the question of drinking in and of itself.

Is Drinking Unwise?

Still, many will agree that the claim that drinking is inherently sinful cannot be supported by Scripture, but go on to argue that it is unwise; they’re forced to accept (by the overwhelming testimony of Scripture) that drinking alcohol is not inherently forbidden, but also believe that avoiding it is still the wisest way to live. Though this position initially sounds rather godly, it is actually unbiblical and dangerous for a few reasons:

It implies that Christians should avoid good gifts simply because they can be abused. But avoiding good things because they can be abused is neither good nor wise. As we’ve already discussed, should someone avoid sex with their spouse so they don’t fall into lust? Is that the “wisest way to live?” Should someone avoid food so they don’t fall into gluttony? Is that the “wisest way to live?” Should someone avoid making money because their heart can become greedy? Is that the “wisest way to live?” In fact, avoiding good gifts simply because they could lead to sin is a very foolish way to live. It views God as the enemy of your joy rather than the author of it.

It adds to Scripture. Christians must not only avoid removing truths from the Bible, but also adding to it. If God thought that avoiding alcohol was the wisest way to live, he would have said that in his Word. We are constantly told to seek wisdom and to avoid foolishness. But if not drinking is the wisest way to live then someone should have told that to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:1), Esther (Esther 5:6), Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23), and Jesus Himself.

It impugns the character of Christ Himself by implying that He, the very personification of wisdom, was foolish in that He drank.

While all of the above points help to demonstrate that drinking is not inherently sinful or even foolish, this final point that King Jesus enjoyed alcohol completely dismantles the argument. Those who would believe or teach that drinking is foolish, need to consider carefully what such an opinion implies about the Lord Himself.

In other words, if you believe that drinking is sinful or foolish, you have to say that Jesus sinned or acted unwisely because He drank; not only that, but that He also sinned or acted unwisely in giving wine to others (and even commanding them to drink it in communion).

But Jesus is without sin (Hebrews 4:15), which means drinking is not inherently sinful. And Jesus was filled with wisdom (Luke 2:40, 52), and is Himself the very personification of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30) in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3)–which means that drinking is not inherently foolish.

Again, consider carefully the implication of the claim that drinking is inherently sinful, unwise, foolish, or otherwise to be avoided, in light of the fact that Jesus drank.

Jesus Drank Alcohol?

Where do we find that Jesus drank and gave it to others to drink?

Technically, the fact that Jesus was a Jew in the first-century should demonstrate the point. Jews drank regularly, medicinally, liturgically, and ceremonially in the first-century. Again, Jews would drink four glasses of wine at Passover! Basically, there weren’t many teetotalers in first-century Judaism.

But the stronger case is made by in the Scriptures; let’s look at two texts in particular:

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard…’ (Luke 7:33–34)

Notice that this passage says that Jesus drank. In fact, he drank enough alcohol that people claimed he was a drunkard. Now, don’t get us wrong, He was absolutely not a drunkard; He never sinned. But people don’t usually accuse those who have never tasted alcohol of being drunkards.

Now, some might think that eating and drinking is just a reference to food and water, but the context prevents us from that interpretation. Notice that it says that John–in contrast to Jesus–didn’t feast or drink wine. Jesus, by contrast, ate good food and drank good wine.

Let’s consider a second text. What was Jesus’ first miracle? It was to turn water into gallons and gallons of alcoholic wine:

When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom  and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (John 2:9-11)

If drinking is sinful then Jesus encouraged people to do something sinful in this miracle. If it is unwise, then Jesus led people into foolishness.

As an aside, again notice that the wine is alcoholic due to verse 10. In commenting on this passage New Testament scholar Dan Wallace says,

He made between 120 and 180 gallons of wine! Even if this had been grape juice, it would soon turn to wine because the fermentation process would immediately begin. But it most certainly was not grape juice: the head waiter in John 2:10 said, “Every man sets out the good wine first, then after the guests have drunk freely, the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” The verb translated ‘drunk freely’ is almost always used of getting drunk… In the least, the people at this wedding feast, if not drunk, would certainly be drinking alcohol fairly freely (if not, this verb means something here that is nowhere else attested). And this makes perfect sense in the context: The reason why a man brings out the poorer wine later is because the good wine has numbed the senses a bit. Grape juice would hardly mask anything.

Jesus turned non-alcohol to alcohol. Beware any preacher who would prefer a Jesus who turned wine into water!

Finally, in helping to see the way that Christ viewed alcohol, we should note that not only did He drink and provide the context for drinking, but He also explicitly commanded drinking in communion. The cup and the fruit of the vine in the context of Passover explicitly referred to wine, and for almost 2000 years the only method of taking communion involved actual (alcoholic) wine. When Christ commanded His people to eat His body and drink His blood, He commanded them to drink alcohol. There may be situations in which it is acceptable to substitute a non-alcoholic option, but we do so only after understanding that wine is the default biblical position, and thus anything other than wine is less than ideal (even if potentially acceptable).

Am I sinning if I think drinking is sinful?

If you are uncomfortable with drinking, you don’t have to do so. Other than taking wine with communion, the Bible does not command you to drink (again, even in that case, there could be exceptions and substitutes for those with allergies or something). Certainly, if you are prone to drunkenness or something like that, you may be called to forgo alcohol at least until it doesn’t hold sway over you anymore.

We are not saying that you must drink. We are saying that Christians may drink and that no Christian should ever believe or teach that drinking is inherently sinful or inherently unwise. Drinking is morally neutral, and can be used in both good and bad ways.

But, and this is important, you are not allowed to think that you are somehow holier than others because you do not drink. Consider the following carefully:

Romans 14:17 says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

It is not what goes in your body that makes you unclean but what comes out of your heart (Mark 7:14-23).

1 Timothy 4:1-4 says that the idea that you are holier or better because you avoid certain foods (and by implication you could say avoid certain drinks) is a “doctrine of demons.”

In fact, the Bible says that those whose consciences are troubled by things like alcohol are not “strong” or “extra holy” Christians, but rather spiritually “weak” (1 Corinthians 8:10-12).

You don’t have to drink. You are free to abstain. But you shouldn’t avoid alcohol because you think you are holier if you do; neither should you add to God’s Word, prohibiting what He has not.

As Paul writes, while such prohibition might seem wise, it is of no use in dealing with the actual problem of a sinful heart.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20–23)

It may seem wise to proclaim abstinence and asceticism, but the appearance of wisdom is not the same as actual wisdom. The problem at the root of any abuse of alcohol (drunkenness, driving under the influence, sexual assault, etc.), is the fleshly indulgence of a sinful heart and not alcohol itself. While wisdom always calls for moderation, and would occasionally call for temporary restraint (such as when operating heavy machinery), it never gives a universal prohibition to God’s good gifts. Instead, true wisdom clings to the sufficiency of God’s Word and enjoys the gifts He gives within the borders in which He gives them.

So is it sinful or unwise to avoid alcohol? No, not necessarily.

But is it sinful to think or teach that drinking is inherently sinful or unwise? Yes.

What if I’ve seen the damaging effects of alcohol?

For many, alcohol is a difficult subject due to personal experience. For example, some had alcoholic fathers who abused them. Others have struggled with drunkenness in the past. Others have lost a loved one due to drunk driving. If that’s you, please know that this blog is in no way written in an effort to minimize your pain or suffering.

Rather, we want to submit our sorrow and our fears to Christ, and the authority of his Word. This involves recognizing that the problem in each of these cases is not a liquid. The problem is sin. The problem is hearts that abuse or otherwise misuse a morally-neutral drink.

But sin isn’t dealt with by getting rid of morally-neutral liquids. You fight sin with the gospel, truth, and the love and Word of God. While it is easier to simply create an external law of prohibition and abstinence, doing so doesn’t actually bring about healing and hope. Only the Word of God can do so.

Please hear us: you are not required to drink. If it makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to do it. But, rather than allowing those wounds to rule your life, we would encourage you to work through your feelings toward alcohol. When we counsel someone who has been sexually abused and wants to get married, we don’t say, “sex has caused pain in your past so avoid it forever.” Instead, we say, “God’s good gift was used in an inappropriate and sinful way, but now you have an opportunity to learn how to redeem it for its proper use.” The same is true with alcohol.

Perhaps we should end this section with a note from Martin Luther to those who think that the solution to the abuse of alcohol is to get rid of alcohol:

Do you suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused? Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and the stars have been worshiped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky?

Shouldn’t you avoid alcohol so you can avoid the appearance of evil?

There’s always a chance that those who drink could be judged by others as sinful or foolish. Does this therefore mean that Christians should avoid alcohol altogether in order to avoid “the appearance of evil?” This advice might initially sound compelling, but it is actually a rather dangerous way of living.

Here are a few reasons why:

The idea of avoiding the appearance of evil is based on a mistranslation of Scripture. The reference to “the appearance of evil” was indeed the language of the King James, but most modern translations actually render the passage more correctly as: Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22). So, what the Bible is concerned with is not that which appears evil, but that which actually is evil. The only way that 1 Thessalonians 5 relates to the question of drinking is if alcohol is inherently sinful, which has already been shown to not be the case.

You can’t avoid the appearance of evil to people who don’t understand evil. Let’s take Jesus as a prime example. Jesus is constantly condemned by the Pharisees as being sinful because he hangs out with sinners. Jesus was also condemned as a drunkard and glutton. But he didn’t refuse to eat or drink with sinners in order to avoid this charge; rather, he was concerned with avoiding evil, not avoiding any and all incorrect slander and gossip. Again, the biblical prohibition has to do with acts that are actually evil, not just something that might appear evil (but is actually righteous).

There will always be someone who will be offended by what you do. Some people think women can’t wear pants. Some people think using a Bible other than the KJV is evil. Some people think watching TV is satanic. Some people think drinking is sinful. You can’t avoid looking evil to people who misdefine evil.

There is a difference between potentially offending someone and knowingly doing so. The Bible forbids you knowingly offending or knowingly causing your brother to commit sin, but the Bible also knows that your conscience shouldn’t be dictated by others (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). In other words, the fact that you might sometimes choose to lay down a right for the sake of loving your brother doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right in the first place.

Basically, the Bible encourages us to abstain from every form of evil, but is not concerned with our avoiding everything that others might wrongly deem evil. If drinking is inherently sinful or unwise, then we should certainly avoid it; but if it is not, then this particular objection is an unreliable guide to our thinking on the topic.


Perhaps the best way to end this paper would be to talk about the deeper issues typically at work in this conversation. In reality, the issue of whether or not Christians can or should drink alcohol isn’t really about alcohol primarily. Then what’s at the heart of this discussion?

It is about the sufficiency of Scripture, and how we are not allowed to forbid things the Bible doesn’t forbid.

It is about justification by faith alone, and how our righteousness comes from Jesus and not from what we do or don’t consume.

It is about the fact that God is not a buzzkill, but rather the author of joy.

This last point should be pressed because joy and gladness are not peripheral to our being. We are to eat and drink to His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31), and His glory is the very reason we exist. Asceticism might seem wise and godly, but it is actually displeasing to the one who richly provides us with everything to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17) and satisfies our hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:17).  God made alcohol to give us glad hearts (Psalm 104:15). He gives us a spouse to delight in sexually (Proverbs 5:19). He gives us children as a reward (Psalm 127:3). In fact, every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (James 1:17).

One of the marks of false teachers is not that they allow you to enjoy good things but that they forbid them (Colossians 2:18, 23).

In fact, 1 Timothy 4:3-5 says that it is false teachers, “who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the Word of God and prayer.” Therefore, it is the pastor who preaches against alcohol, or marriage, or dancing, or playing cards that is the false teacher, not the pastor that affirms them.

Christians are free to drink or not to drink, but they are not free to deny the sufficiency of Scripture, add the yoke of man-made law to justification or sanctification, or to deny that God is the creator of all good gifts–even the gifts of food and drink.

Sources and Recommended Reading:

The Reformation by Carl Trueman: