What About Moderate Social Drinking?

This article responds to a number of arguments which attempt to defend the practice of social drinking.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

A reader has asked for a response to his comments on moderate drinking:

“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 essay of affirmation than they are a serious inquiry.

But because of the prevalent interest in this theme and due to the common erroneous conclusions drawn in this reader’s inquiry, we are prepared to respond to the paragraphs above in order.

Didn’t Jesus Turn 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. It 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 a modern limited 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!

For further study, see John 2:1ff – The Wine that Jesus Made.

Didn’t Paul Tell Timothy to Take 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 resistant 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 a 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.

Aren’t Elders Only Supposed to Refrain from Much Wine?

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, 490). To read into that some sort of license for moderate drinking is irresponsible. Would an admonition against “drug addiction” grant any measure of comfort to someone wishing to “smoke pot” recreationally? Would such 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; cf. Thayer, 546) similarly provides no permission for the moderate use of recreational alcohol in today’s world of hardy wines and distilled spirits that 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 means “to be free from the influence of intoxicants” (Vine, 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, 634).

In context, it denotes the “abstemious lifestyle” required by apostolic instruction (Verbrugge, 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 general principle of self-control. 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.

New Testament Warnings

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, “wine-drinking” (Berry, 1 Pet. 4:3) or “excess of wine” (KJV). Trench says that this word “marks a step in advance of methe [drunk]” (lxi).

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

Didn’t God Create Wine?

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 is this. 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, be used as recreational, mind-altering, behavior-modifying substances.

The same argument might as well apply to a host of other immoral or criminal activities.

For those who wish to pursue this study in greater detail, we highly recommend the following books:

See also What About Social Drinking and the Old Testament? on this web site.

  • Berry, George Ricker. 1897. Greek-English Interlinear. Chicago: Wilcox & Follett Co.
  • Bromiley, G. W. Ed. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament — Abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon. T. and T. Clark: Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • Trench, R. C. 1890. Synonyms of the New Testament. London, England: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co.
  • Verbrugge, Verlyn D. 1974. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Kittel & Friedrich, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Vine, W. E. 1952. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.