Christian Living Ethics & Morality

What’s So Bad About A Little Alcohol?10 min read

January 28, 2020 7 min read

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What’s So Bad About A Little Alcohol?10 min read

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This is not just another article detailing all the bad stuff that accompanies drinking. Countless homes have been broken up, children abused, reputations destroyed, and innocent lives ruined or lost due to the vices of alcohol use. The statistics are readily available and speak for themselves. No reasonable person can dispute the caustic effects of this poison on society. Would not the world be a better place without beverage alcohol?

Beer advertisements often end with the phrase, “drink responsibly.” Yet, even one drink is irresponsible. The only responsible course of action is to stay away from beverage alcohol entirely.  

Drunkenness vs. Sober-mindedness

Here’s an easy question: Is it sinful to get drunk? Yes. Very clearly, the Bible often condemns drunkenness (cf. Deut. 21:20-21; Prov. 20:1; Prov. 23:20. 29-35; Isaiah 5:11, 22; 28:7; Hab. 2:15; Deut. 29:5-6; Eph. 5:18; 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Tim. 3:3; Rom. 13:13; 1 Pet. 4:3; Titus 1:7-8; etc.). This is not disputed. Drunkenness is a sin that will keep one out of heaven. 

Appreciate now that no part of God’s law is pointless. All of God’s laws are for our good. Christians—by virtue of their faithfulness to the law of Christ—can live the most abundant life (John 10:10). There is a strong correlation between the quality of one’s life and one’s fidelity to God’s law (Psa. 1:3). There is a reason behind every one of God’s commands. 

With that being said, take a moment to consider this follow-up question: Why? Why does the Bible condemn drunkenness? 

The main reason we could give, without a doubt, is that drunkenness is the very antithesis to sober-mindedness. To be a Christian requires a lucid and fully engaged mind. Christianity is a thinking way of life.

  • We are to love God with all of our mind (Mark 12:30).
  • We are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2).
  • We are to set our mind on things above (Col. 3:2).
  • We are to meditate on things virtuous & praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8).

Peter commands Christians to “be sober, be vigilant” (1 Pet. 5:8). What would be the opposite of sober in this context? Dull. Asleep. Unaware. Inebriated. Foolish. Thoughtless. Careless. Apathetic. 

We are to “keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess. 5:6). Contextually, this means we need to live in view of eternity. The Lord’s return is imminent, and we need to live in a vigilant, discerning way so that when He comes, we are found faithful. This requires the full use of our faculties. We take every thought captive for Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). We are to be “self-controlled” (sōphronōs, sometimes translated sober), “upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). That is, we are to be in full control of ourselves as we claim to live holy lives, consecrated to the Lord (cf. 1 Pet. 1:13). We should be wary of anything, however slight, that will rob us of as clear a mind as possible. 

Sometimes it is observed that the Bible does not explicitly prohibit the use of recreational marijuana or other illicit drugs.1 Here, we beg to differ. The Bible condemns the use of recreational drugs and alcohol—along with the abuse of prescription medication—in every single passage that commands Christians to have a sober mind. Any recreation activity that will impair your judgment, intoxicate your mind, lessen your resolve, or sear your conscience is sinful, however socially acceptable it may be. 

Maintaining your sobriety is one of the most critical elements of the Christian life. The sober man digs into Scripture. He considers the long-term spiritual consequences of his actions rather than the short-term physical pleasures. He labors over decisions because holiness is hard mental work. He weighs his actions and doesn’t act hastily without thought. He refuses to go with the crowd or subscribe to the philosophy of the day. 

In contrast, you don’t need to use your brain much to sin. When asked to account for something we did wrong, how often do we answer with the excuse, “I wasn’t thinking”? We can be overcome with evil by merely dropping all mental restraints and allowing our lusts to take over (Jas. 1:14-15). A teacup of holiness requires more mental energy than an ocean of evil. 

But what about a glass or two of beer?

It is often claimed: “The Bible doesn’t condemn drinking, it only condemns drunkenness.” Because the Bible doesn’t specifically pinpoint when drunkenness occurs, people like stating, “the Bible only condemns drunkenness” because it is a slippery statement and thus provides cover.

However, this is not a legitimate argument in favor of “moderate” or “responsible” drinking. In our modern age, we can calculate with great accuracy exactly when drunkenness occurs. 

Merriam-Webster defines “drunk” as “having the faculties impaired by alcohol” and “characterized by intoxication.”2 While some people may exhibit characteristics of drunkenness in more subtle ways than others,3 intoxication by alcohol can be scientifically measured and medically ascertained. Intoxication is when alcohol is absorbed into the blood and circulated to the brain, depriving it of oxygen.4 When the amount of alcohol in the blood exceeds the rate at which it can be metabolized by the body, you are officially intoxicated (and thus mentally impaired)—however slight that may be at first. Intoxication has very little to do with whether you feel intoxicated. The Encyclopedia Britannica records “that rate per hour in an average-size man is about half an ounce, or 15ml, of [pure, BG] alcohol.”5  This varies (but not as much as you might think), of course, due to genetics, gender, weight, and the amount of food already in the stomach.

Let’s apply this to real life. A dash of vanilla extract (with its incredibly high alcohol content) in your cookie dough isn’t going to alter your sobriety—even if you eat the whole batch in one binge with a very large spoon. Your body can metabolize such a small amount of alcohol, keeping the substance from affecting your brain. Yet, if you drink a 12oz glass of Bud Light (the most popular beer in America6) in 30 minutes, such a volume of alcohol content in such a period is going to overwhelm the rate the average person’s body (specifically their liver) can filter the poison (15ml/hour), and you will become intoxicated. Even with its relatively low alcohol content, extreme “what ifs” aside, there is too much alcohol in it for your body to metabolize fast enough. The alcohol will reach your brain, depriving it of oxygen, thus causing the onset of drunkenness. 

The only sure way not to get intoxicated from beverage alcohol (aside from not drinking it in the first place) is to sip on, say, a 12oz glass of beer like piping hot tea at a slow, consistent rate over the course of many hours (and no one drinks alcohol or beer that way). In other words, to drink just one typical glass of wine, beer, or distilled spirit at the rate any normal person would (say within 30 minutes or so) will render you intoxicated. Your reasoning skills are impaired. You may not even feel intoxicated, but you are. During the Christian’s waking hours, sobriety must be protected.  

“I don’t drink to get drunk. I just drink to relax.”

But, what is it that makes alcohol so relaxing? Alcohol is a depressant and narcotic drug.7 It is precisely the intoxication that you are experiencing—when the body is unable to metabolize the alcohol—that relaxes you. That is the onset of drunkenness—you know, that word the Bible uses among other sins that will keep one out of heaven (1 Cor. 6:10, Gal. 5:21. 1 Pet. 4:3). There are other ways to relax that don’t involve poisoning your body and minimizing your sober-mindedness.

But someone else says, “But I know my limits, and I don’t get drunk after just one drink.” Bear in mind, alcohol has no effect on the brain until it is absorbed by the digestive system,8 which means the effects lag consumption.9 After your first beer, you don’t feel drunk because most of it hasn’t been processed through the alimentary tract. Food works the same way—you are full before you feel full; and if you keep eating, you will overdo it before you realize it. 

Furthermore, alcohol is a poison that affects your mind’s ability to reason and make rational decisions, particularly moral judgments. It numbs your inhibitions, which is exactly the last thing that needs to be happening when you are trying to gauge your alcohol limit. This is why the Bible says “wine is a mocker” (Prov. 20:1). You gamble with the edge, and the closer you get to the edge, the blurrier it becomes. Why would a mature Christian do that? (And therein lies the problem: lack of maturity—seen by one’s willingness to get as close to sin as possible.)

“Do not get drunk with wine”

Consider the words of Ephesians 5:18, which the ESV perhaps renders most accurately: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” “Mē methyskesthe oinō,” literally translated, is perhaps more accurately rendered “do not be getting drunk.” Don’t just avoid being drunk—avoid the trip there altogether. 

This verse demonstrates how the Bible has always been ahead of its time. Even before the chemical compound now known as alcohol (ethanol) was discovered in the 10th century,10 the Holy Spirit communicated divine revelation about intoxication that could be understood regardless of the scientific era. The Last Will & Testament of Jesus says, in other words: Don’t even begin the process that will lead to drunkenness, for that is the antithesis of being led by the Spirit.

For the Spirit to convict you, your mind cannot be impaired. Sober-mindedness is essential to walking by the Spirit (Rom. 8:4). What is a sure way to destroy the Spirit’s power over your life? For one, “getting drunk with wine.” The recreational use of narcotics, depressants, and other addictive substances will rob you of your sober-mindedness11 and will limit His influence in your life. Who wants that? 

Conclusion

Alcohol (just 1 or 2 drinks) impacts sobriety (even if it doesn’t feel like it). Even with a clear mind, the Christian walk is challenging enough as it is. You won’t be able to walk it successfully so long as you are willing to retard your mind’s capacity to reason. 

Furthermore, we have not examined the devastating example the Christian sets with an intoxicating beverage in his hand. Yet, the Bible is clear about the importance of the Christian’s influence, and straightforward teaching about this is not difficult to find. If there is controversy about alcohol, it is not because of the facts, but because of the heart. As saints, let us live sanctified. Let us strive for what God commands: sober-mindedness. 

[Editor’s Note: Comments are encouraged. But make sure you leave your full name and keep your words relevant to the article. Click here for our full comments policy.]

Footnotes

  1.  How could it? There was no word for these substances when Scripture was first penned. Similarly, there was no word for “alcohol” in Biblical times, as the chemical substance behind the inebriating effects had yet to be discovered or understood.
  2. Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003.
  3. “The Definition of Drunkenness.” BMJ 2 (1923), 1269.
  4. Leon A Greenberg, “Intoxication and Alcoholism: Physiological Factors,” AAPSS 315 (1958), 24.
  5. “Alcohol Consumption,” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed 10 Jan 2020 <https://www.britannica.com/print/article/13398>.
  6. Kate Taylor, “Here are the 10 most popular beers in America,” Business Insider. Accessed 10 Jan 2020. <https://www.businessinsider.com/most-popular-beers-in-america-2018-9#1-bud-light-10>.
  7. Haven Emerson, “What We Have Learned About Alcohol,” PDK 30 (1948), 89.
  8. Greenberg, “Intoxication and Alcoholism,” 24.
  9. Alex Paton, “ABC of Alcohol: Alcohol in the Body,” BMJ, 330 (2005), 86.
  10. Houchang Modanlou, “A Tribute to Zakariya Razi (865-925 AD): An Iranian Pioneer Scholar,” AIM 6 (2008): 674.
  11. In contrast to medically prescribed and monitored medication, which, if it affects the mind, is ultimately designed to improve sober-mindedness.

Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the Edgewood church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He and his wife Hannah have two children, Ezra & Colleyanna. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has returned to pursue his MDiv. He has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series: Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation.
18 Comments
  1. Donna Hyde

    Thank you for this article Ben. God bless you!

  2. C. David Hinds

    Well done Ben. Thank you for your work on this!

  3. Dick Mason

    Well written

  4. Marlon Retana

    Excellent article brother! Working on a translation right now. Thank you for the good work you do for the Lord.

    • Ben Giselbach

      I appreciate your labors. Thank you.

  5. Tom Stewart

    Though your post touches on it, spiritual drunkenness is something we don't often consider. Just as with physical inebriation where we take things into our bodies that distort physical reality, so too can we take things into our spiritual lives that distort spiritual reality. The latter just as dangerous as the former. Thanks for this article and so many others that are insightful and encouraging.

  6. Jon McCormack

    Ben, this is well researched, biblical, and extremely helpful. Thank you.

  7. Josh Parnell

    This is a well-written, and well-researched article. Two questions: first, sugar has also been documented through scientific studies to have negative effects on the brain. Does being sober-minded therefore mean that we must also give up sweets? Second, what do we do with passages of Scripture that seem to speak of wine in a positive way (Ps. 104:14-15, Ecc. 9:7, Is. 62:8-9, John 2:3-11)? Full disclosure, I do not drink and my dad was an alcoholic, so I have no love for the stuff; I'm just trying to grow in my understanding of Scripture. Thank you for your time and your study.

    • Ben Giselbach

      Hey Josh, thanks for the comment. Some thoughts that immediately come to mind: 1. There is a difference between something that has cumulative "negative effects on the brain" and something that is going to impair your reasoning skills. Anything one eats in over-abundance is going to have negative effects on various parts of the body, and sugar is no exception. The more I learn about the caustic effects of sugar, the less I want to eat of it (which is saying something). Further, we need to make sure we are not dominated by anything, including a love for sweets (1 Cor. 6:20). If sugar had a literally intoxicating effect, then we should stay away from it. I haven't seen that yet. 2. There are many other instances we could give that seem, at first glance, to speak of wine in a positive way. Context doesn't always demand it be a wine that was specifically prepared with a heightened alcoholic content. But, as I've answered in another comment somewhere around here, not only was "strong drink" not anywhere near as strong as modern "strong drinks," but it was also typically heavily diluted with water. When it was diluted, it was still called oinos (Gk), yayin (Hb), etc..., or "wine." Remember, alcohol is not bad or evil. It was created by God, and thus has a legitimate use. Alcohol is only bad when we use it to cause intoxication, which any modern wine, beer, or spirit can achieve very quickly.

      • Edward

        I think the sugar aspect is covered by the warnings against gluttony (Deut. 21:20; Prov. 23:20-21; 28:7). There is *still* a lack of self-control to be addressed, but the detrimental effects of sugar are not the same as the mind-numbing aspects of alcohol.

  8. Mark Taylor

    Spot on! Great Job!

  9. Gary

    Could you expand on Jesus turning water into wine and other New Testament scripture that seem to imply wine was a staple beverage of the time. Some of us were debating drinking wine or not. I would be interested in hearing your view point.

    • Ben Giselbach

      Gary, super question. Oinos "wine" is a generic word that simply means must, or juice, of the grape. There was not word for the chemical compound now known as alcohol, or ethanol, when the Biblical documents were written (as the chemical cause of intoxication wasn't discovered until the 10th century). Thus, "oinos," along with any other Biblical word translated "wine" or "beer" needs to be understood in the proper context. If the context of a particular insinuates oinos was specifically prepared to be high in alcohol content, then we should note that. Yet, we also should note the context if it is not necessarily alcoholic "oinos." In fact, there is nothing in John 2 that suggests the wine was intentionally alcohol -- actually, much to the contrary. Oinos certainly was a staple of the time, and at times it was often necessary because it served as a purifying agent for bacteria in the water (cf. 1 Tim. 5:23). Furthermore, even oinos that was specifically prepared to be alcoholic didn't have the alcoholic content of modern alcoholic beverages. But here's a key point that is often missed: the Jews would often mix the oinos with water, ranging from 3 parts water/1 part oinos, to as much as 10 or 20 parts water. In other words, whether or not there was some alcohol in the oinos is beside the point. Remember, alcohol is not bad. (We reject the "one drop drunk" argument.) It is the intoxication that is so bad. It would have been very difficult to get drunk off of the regular table oinos of Jesus's day. Even children drank that stuff. With how it was prepared in that day, it didn't come close to being able to surpass the 15ml/hour threshold it takes the average person to get drunk from pure alcohol. Whether there was some alcohol in the wine Jesus created is really a non-issue. Here is what the main issue is: Would the same God (in the flesh) who spoke, "Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly" (Prov. 23:31) turn around and produce wine with a substantial alcohol content for a crowd of people who had already "drunk freely" (John 2:10)? It seems contradictory to the nature of God, who tempts no one (James 1:13).

  10. Taylor

    So, was the wine that Jesus turned the water into non-alcoholic wine?

    • Ben Giselbach

      Someone else asked about John 2. See my answer there.

  11. Adam

    Hey Ben, Thanks for your article and your research!! Couple questions: 1) How would you describe the difference in the way Paul instructed the elders to “not be given to wine” and the deacons to “not be given to MUCH wine”? 2) We hear preaching all the time on alcohol. What about over eating, gluttony? Is this not as bad? It’s a lack of self control which we are expected to have as Christians. Christians who are over weight or obese have lost self control and have not taken care of their bodies. Also, is this a good example to have as a Christian towards other Christians who struggle with things such as overeating or other vice? Or, if said person is trying to convert a non Christian but has the appearance of a lack of self control. Just asking because these are questions i here come up when this topic is discussed.

    • Ben Giselbach

      Adam, these are good questions. I've asked this in the past, and I'm very satisfied with the answers I've discovered to these.

      1) The difference between elders "not to be given to wine" (1 Tim. 3:3; "not a drunkard," ESV) and deacons "not be given to much wine" (1 Tim. 3:8; "not addicted to much wine," ESV) doesn't have much intrinsic difference in the original. FIRST, both texts are commanding these men not to be under the influence of these things. Culturally, excessive drinking -- even with non-intoxicating drink -- was a vice typical of the gluttonous parties in the days of Paul. Prizes were given to those who could imbibe and retain the most (again, not with the goal of inebriation). This was probably a problem among some men in the early church, as this was a notorious practice (these people in 1 Cor 6:10, called by Paul "methusoi," "toppers," and "such were some of you," v. 11). So Paul is focusing on a common vice, not precisely referring to the nature of intoxicating drink. SECOND, anyone who argues that Paul is approving of the use of some beer/wine/spirits of any kind -- so long as it is not too "much" -- is adopting a dangerous and inconsistent method of interpretation. It is dangerous because it assumes what is not explicitly forbidden must be approved. (The command, "Let not the sun go down on your wrath" becomes permission to be ugly & bitter anytime between sunrise and sunset.). When Paul says, "not greedy for money" v.3 or "not greedy for dishonest gain" v.8, Paul is not saying it's okay to be a moderately materialistic, so long as it is clearly short of "greed" or "dishonesty." Put in modern terms, in no way could Paul be forbidding a deacon to frequent the local bar, but giving him permission to go occasionally so long as he doesn't drink "too much." Furthermore, it is impossible to think Paul was approving the "moderate" use of all kinds of wine then available and used. Many wines were drugged, others even heathens disapproved of if not diluted with water. THIRD, why didn't Paul just say, "Elders & deacons shouldn't drink ANY oinos"? Because oinos is a general word, encompassing the total variety of drinks made from the juice of the grape -- many of which were not particularly intoxicating in volume, others so diluted with water that they were practically impossible to inebriate. Thus, a blunt command to totally abstain from all oinos would be to totally ignore the known distinction of that day. Another reason why he didn't flatly condemn all oinos (aside from the fact that there was no word specifically for the intoxicating variety) was because honest Christians would naturally come to see that intoxicating drink was inconsistent with Christianity. Slave-holding, polygamy, gambling, bribery -- none of these are expressly forbidden in Scripture, along with numerous objectionable ancient cultural practices. But when Christians see the first principles of love, honesty, work-ethic, and sober-mindedness, we clearly see how these things are wrong.

      2) I'm sorry you don't hear much preaching on gluttony. Gluttony is rarely mentioned in the Bible directly, and when it does, it is contextually in reference to drunken and riotous living. Gluttony, as we mean it today, refers to being under the control of food. We must take care not to be captive to anything but Christ (1 Cor. 6:12). I preach against this strongly already. Self-control is essential to faithful Christian living. BUT, lack of self-control and intoxication are not the same thing. No one has "one too many" slices of pizza and comes home and beats his wife. No one has "one too many" donuts and kills someone in a head-on collision. No one has "one too many" twinkies and goes and commits fornication. Gluttony & the command to sober-mindedness are two different issues.

  12. Carolyn Coomer

    Adults and adolescents both need this teaching so badly!! My son, Tim, died in December from sepsis related to alcohol abuse. It's not enough that drinking is glorified in shows but now even newscasters celebrate with drinks and alcoholic recipes during their shows. Thank you for your biblical teaching on this subject. May God continue to bless your work.

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