By: Jim Blackburn
Some time ago a young single friend confided in me that she was looking for a godly man to marry. She wanted a husband who shared her Christian values, so she joined an online dating service and completed a profile with the attributes of the man of her dreams.
As I looked over her answers to the profile questions, I thought that she might have some misconceptions about what constituted a "godly" man. So I posed a hypothetical question to her: If Jesus were walking the earth today and he joined the same online dating service, would you want his profile to match yours? Of course, she said. So I went on to point out that the online profile she completed would exclude Jesus as a match. In particular, her answer to the question about how often her perfect match drank wine — "never" — presented an obstacle. She selected this response because she believed a godly man would not ever drink alcohol.
Jesus drank. In fact, he drank wine — the fermented kind, not grape juice, as some will claim — and apparently he drank a fair amount of it. More on that shortly, but first, let me point out that my friend is not alone in her thinking.
For example, Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist mega-church in Southern California (led by Pastor Rick Warren, author of the popular book The Purpose-Driven Life ) would apparently exclude Jesus as a staff member: The church's "Maturity-Leadership Requirements" ask that each staff member "commit willingly to refrain from . . . consuming alcohol."
Similarly, it seems that Mormons would not allow Jesus to enter their temples because perpetual abstinence from alcohol is required for entry. For that matter, some Christian denominations might even refuse Jesus membership in their churches.
So it seems that many believe that a godly man should never drink. Is this scriptural?
Did Jesus Drink?
Jesus apparently drank enough wine that he was accused of drinking to excess. In his own words he proclaimed, "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard'" (Luke 7:34). So Jesus was accused of being a drunk.
The Greek word translated as "drunkard" in the above passage is oinopotes , which means a winebibber, one who drinks much wine. In fact, the first part of the word comes from the Greek word for wine, oinos , which occurs several times in the New Testament.
Some claim that Jesus drank grape juice or must (unfermented wine). But then why accuse him of being a drunkard? Other scriptural passages where oinos is found clearly indicate that, indeed, fermented wine, not grape juice, is being discussed.
For example, consider "Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved" (Matthew 9:17; see also Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37-38). The old skins burst because the wine contains yeast — the catalyst of fermentation — which causes expansion.
Similarly, "no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good'" (Luke 5:39). Even in New Testament times it was known that wine gets better with age; grape juice does not.
Old Testament passages also discuss wine. Unless otherwise noted, these passages translate the word "wine" from the Hebrew word yayin , meaning fermented wine. The following passages show that, indeed, fermented wine is what is intended to be understood by this word:
Is Drinking a Sin?
Drinking wine — or other alcoholic beverages for that matter — is not, in itself, sinful. Let's look at a few scripture passages that support this claim. First, consider what happened at the wedding at Cana when the wine ran out:
Apparently Jesus was a pretty good vintner! The wine steward's comments seem to indicate that it was the usual practice to serve good wine until the guests drank enough that they either weren't picky about the quality of the wine they were drinking, or they simply could no longer tell the difference between good wine and not-so-good wine. Whichever the case, this story clearly indicates that Jesus approved of drinking wine.
So did Paul. We know this from his instructions to Timothy: "No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments" (Paul's First Letter to Timothy 5:23). Interestingly, present-day research indicates that drinking wine has health benefits.
But the approval of drinking wine goes back further than New Testament times. Several passages from the Old Testament indicate that drinking has been acceptable for a long time:
Israel's burnt offering requirements — required by God — included the use of wine, the leftover of which could be drunk by Aaron and his sons: "[A]nd with the first lamb a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a libation" (Exodus 29:40; see also Leviticus 23:13; Numbers 15:5, 7, 10; 28:7, 14). Note that Numbers 28:7 uses the Hebrew word shekar , meaning "strong wine" (or other strong alcoholic drink).
What about Intoxication?
Clearly, God has always allowed his followers to drink. With that in mind, we can understand easily why the Catholic Church does not consider drinking, in itself, to be sinful. That said, the Church does caution against excessive drinking. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
"The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess : the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others' safety on the road, at sea, or in the air" (CCC 2290, emphasis in original).
This teaching, too, is supported by Scripture. For example, Paul often warned against drunkenness:
Peter taught similarly: "Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry" (Peter's First Letter 4:3). The Greek word translated in this passage as drunkenness is oinophlugia , also derived from oinos .
Again, such teaching was not new to Christianity — the Old Testament taught likewise:
See also the story related in Proverbs 23, verses 29-35.
Should We Abstain?
So far we have seen from Scripture that drinking, in itself, is not sinful but excessive drinking is clearly warned against. But Scripture passages also indicate that there are circumstances in which one should not drink at all.
For example, when it would lead someone else into sin: "Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble" (Paul's Letter to the Romans 14:20-21). This seems clear enough — when you're with an alcoholic it is good to be careful not to tempt him to drink. But this doesn't mean you should never drink.
In the Old Testament, God forbids Aaron and his sons from drinking on occasion:
"Drink no wine nor strong drink, you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations." (Leviticus 10:9)
We also find in the Old Testament a special sort of consecration to God through vows which included not drinking: "When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink . . ." (Numbers 6:2-3; cf. Judges 13:7). It is possible that John the Baptist took such vows — see Luke 7:33.
We can see, then, that if we take Scripture as our guide, then drinking, in itself, is not a sin, but we should not drink excessively. Cheers!
Jim Blackburn is a cradle Catholic who was born and raised in Illinois. After graduating from Southern Illinois University, Jim ran his own brokerage firm for twelve years. During that time, he studied Catholicism and other faiths, eventually becoming an apologist for Catholic Answers.
Published in March 2014.