Christians and Alcohol: A Scriptural Case for Abstinence

The book is broken into these chapters:

  1. Old Testament Teaching on Alcoholic Beverages
  2. New Testament Teaching on Alcoholic Beverages
  3. Historical Views of Alcohol Consumption
  4. Medical Views of Alcohol Consumption
  5. Christlikeness and Drinking


In the introduction, the subject is clearly stated: “What does the Bible, by direct statement, principle, and example, teach about drinking alcohol in moderation?” (p. 2) It is shocking to me that we need to be asking this question in fundamentalist circles, but such is the age we live in. One of the major challenges to fundamentalism in this day and age is worldliness, especially “The ungodliness the worldling loves” [drinking], to quote an old sermon title of mine. It seems that it is not so much doctrine that is under assault today but rather daily Christian living. Not orthodoxy [straight doctrine], but orthopraxy [straight practice], as some would have it.

In addressing this issue from a biblical perspective, Randy notes, “Above all, we must never come to the Bible with an idea of what we would like it to mean and force it to say what we think it should.” (p. 5). Unfortunately, in some treatments of this subject in the past, Christians in their zeal for abstinence have made statements that distort the actual meaning of Scripture and have damaged their credibility in arguing for what I think is the godly position. It is critical that we determine our Christian standards by honest exposition and interpretation of Scriptural instructions. Our information from science, history, and culture must also be accurately stated. Sloppy work here undermines our whole position.

Randy concludes his introduction with this: “So what does the Bible say? And how are we to apply what it says to the question of alcoholic beverages today? As we shall see, a cavalier attitude toward even moderate consumption of alcohol is not warranted by Scripture.” (p. 5) His last sentence gives a window into his ultimate conclusion, but I think it is one that he comes to carefully and honestly.

In his first footnote in chapter 1, Randy says, “The discussion that follows unavoidably deals with some technical details of exegetical significance. The footnotes discuss matters that may be beyond the reader’s level of linguistic comprehension. Some readers will wish to skip over details of Hebrew grammar and center more on what they can glean from the overall interpretive viewpoint.” (p. 6, footnote 1) This note reflects an admirable attempt to keep the body of the presentation as comprehensible as possible for the widest audience possible. The presentation that follows, however, does not completely avoid some technical matters in the linguistic discussions of chapter 1 and chapter 2. Those who do not have some linguistic background may find some aspects of these chapters a bit daunting. It is hard for me to be critical, as I am not sure that I could do any better in translating technospeak into the language of the common man! If there is a weakness in this presentation, this almost inescapable problem in the first two chapters is probably the most notable one in the whole book. Nevertheless, I would have to say that for the most part Randy’s presentation can be followed by the average reader. And his summary statements at the end of chapters 1 and 2 give the essential analysis everyone should come away with.

Near the beginning of chapter 1, Randy says, “An essential part of biblical interpretation is to avoid reading our cultural setting back into the Old Testament.” (p. 8). This admonition is important for any Bible study. We all have a tendency to think that the way things are in our time is the way things have always been. Anyone who is an adult today should check this tendency if they will simply pause to think of the phenomenal change we are observing around us every day. Those of us over 50 are conscious of overwhelming change. The world of our childhood would be almost incomprehensible to children today. The world of the Old and New Testaments changed much more slowly, but they are profoundly different from our global cultural scene today.

Chapter 1 describes the major Old Testament words for wine and strong drink. Chapter 2 describes the New Testament words. Essentially, the presentation of both Testaments and their vocabulary is the same. Alcoholic beverages are seen in the Bible as part of God’s blessed provision to mankind, an essential beverage in a time when potable water was in short supply and sometimes difficult to come by. In the presentation of alcohol as a blessing, it is also used metaphorically (especially wine, less so strong drink) for the blessings that accompany salvation. This metaphor is present in both Testaments. Alcohol, however, carries strong warnings because of the dangers of alcohol abuse. Randy offers this observation: “Unfortunately anything good can be abused.” (p. 12)

Besides presenting wine as a blessing (in normal, controlled, everyday use – while diluted with water), and warning against abuse, wine is also a metaphor for God’s judgment in both Testaments. “Because addiction to wine has such deleterious personal consequences, it is an appropriate metaphor of God’s judgment on sin.” (p. 18) In contrast, especially in the Old Testament, total abstinence from alcohol is a picture of total devotion to God. This is seen in the requirements for priestly ministry and in the case of the Nazirite. “The Nazirite vow was the Lord’s way of drawing His people’s attention back to Him. The Nazirite stood out from the crowd by voluntarily abstaining from the enjoyments to which he was otherwise entitled, simply because he loved God and wanted to be separated exclusively for service to Him. Other Israelites who witnessed the sacrifice of the Nazirite would find unspoken exhortation to make sure that the prosperity of settled life in Canaan had not robbed them of their devotion to the Lord.” (p. 21)

Chapter 3 is devoted to historical concerns. Anyone approaching this issue for the modern Christian must have some appreciation for historical data, both in terms of changes in alcohol production over the centuries and in terms of historical attitudes toward alcohol consumption. Consultation of secular histories and encyclopedias are vital here since they will not be presenting a polemical Christian viewpoint (from either side of the issue). Randy’s historical survey focuses mostly on differing attitudes to drinking historically. He touches on differences in alcohol production at various points in the book but doesn’t spend a great deal of time on that point (perhaps this is a minor weakness in the argument).

The cultural attitude survey begins with the Greco-Roman attitudes of ancient times and the attitudes in the ancient Jewish world. Both cultures emphasized moderate beverage use, especially by dilution of wine with water. It is quite clear from secular sources that the ancients normally drank beverage wine in diluted form. Randy brings this out well. There may have been a number of reasons for this. Randy mentions that the Greeks and Romans stored wine in amphora lined with pitch. Their wine was often heavily spiced as well. Dilution may have helped with the taste – I am sure that pitch-flavored wine must be … unique! As I read, it occurred to me that dilution would also stretch supply. The vineyards of the ancient world would produce a finite supply of wine each year. It required a good deal of work to produce. Dilution would stretch the supply (and purify the water) as a matter of good money management for the average citizen. (Drunkenness is still possible with diluted wine, and of course one did not have to dilute the wine if drunkenness was what one was after.)

Randy also discusses the culture of the early church and its use of wine, especially in communion. He includes an interesting quote by Cyprian who describes the union of water and wine in the communion glass as a picture of the union of the believer and Christ. Regardless of the value of that theology, it stands as a clear witness to the early practice of the church.

From discussing the early church, Randy moves on to the attitudes of the Reformers (mostly for disciplined alcohol consumption), to the Puritans, and the development of the attitudes of temperance and total banishment of the temperance movement in America. This survey of history is one I am not familiar with. It is helpful to have a quick survey of this development as a reference. He closes this section with a determined statement by Billy Sunday, then says, “It would be a shame if we, his heirs in the defense and propagation of the gospel, ever fail to issue just as clarion a call against the abuse of alcohol.” (p. 53)

The 4th chapter discusses the medical perspective. Randy wrote this chapter in collaboration with a medical doctor, surveying the devastating effects of alcohol abuse and the supposed healthful effects of moderate use. With respect to the harmful effects of alcohol abuse, Randy says “Drinking alcoholic beverages is the medical equivalent of playing Russian roulette with a real handgun loaded with real bullets.” (p. 58) As for the health benefits of wine, while some studies have suggested a link between moderate drinking and heart health, it is not clear to me that there is an absolute link between the two. Furthermore, as Randy points out, most people embracing this view often take ‘moderate’ to mean ‘the amount I like to drink’ rather than what clinical researchers consider to be moderate. (By the way, a recent article suggests that the supposed healthful benefits of ‘moderate’ use could be equally deleterious to the brain. See Moderate drinking could increase dementia risks: a study from Of course, this article came out after Randy’s book was published.) Randy points out that there are “vastly superior ways for people to increase their overall health and avoid cardiovascular disease.” (p. 62) It is very foolish for anyone to justify drinking as a ‘health benefit’ in light of the constantly changing conclusions and conflicting theories of science. Full knowledge of any healthful effects of alcohol remains to be discovered. In the meantime, a pro-alcohol position based on ‘health benefits’ is shifty ground on which to build.

Finally, the last chapter of Randy’s book deals with “Childlikeness and Drinking”. This is perhaps the strongest chapter of the book, using careful Bible study to build a biblical philosophy of abstinence. The chapter has three sections. First, “Personal Holiness has a Positive Focus” which calls the Christian to “be a continual display of God’s holiness to unsaved people around us.” (p. 66) Second, “Personal Holiness Mandates a Negative Response to the World System”. In this section, Randy capably demonstrates the general biblical teaching of separation from the world. Then he turns, third, to “Is Drinking Alcohol a form of Worldliness?”. Randy demonstrates that “the broad spectrum of those who drink, all the way from the sophisticated wine connoisseur to the undiscriminating bum in the gutter, is united by the desire to have some experience that satisfies human pride or lust.” Then he asks, “Why would a Christian want any association with such a lifestyle?” (p. 69) He also points out that drinking in our culture creates a community of drinkers, a “bond of solidarity” among people sharing a worldly world-view. (p.70) The section and chapter close with a strong appeal to the matter of testimony to the world, to other believers, and within one’s own home.