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Wineskins With Holes

Alcohol is the oldest and most widely abused drug in history.  On this point Christians overwhelmingly agree.  However, there is persistent disagreement about social drinking.  Does the Bible forbid or does it permit drinking alcohol in moderation?




One of the clearest and most important truths in regard to the issue of social drinking is that the word “wine” in English translations is a generic term which can refer to an alcoholic beverage in some verses and unfermented grape juice in other contexts.  There is no need, as far as this article is concerned, to list the various Hebrew and Greek words for this term.  Some excellent works will be cited toward the end of this discussion on this aspect of the study.  For now I want to focus on the English word wine because this is where much of the confusion on this topic arises.  Since most accept that this word can refer to an alcoholic beverage in Scripture, we will begin by citing a few passages where this word occurs in the sense of unfermented grape juice (again, without reference to differences in the original text at this point):


“...he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:11).  “Wine” and “the blood of grapes” are synonymous; thus, this wine was what came out of freshly squeezed grapes—their juice or “blood.”


“...the treaders shall tread out no wine in their presses...” (Isa. 16:10).  What came out of grapes when treaders stepped on them?  Isaiah calls this juice “wine.”


“Thus saith the Lord, As the new wine is found in the cluster...” (Isa. 65:8).  Here the juice is still inside the grapes, and yet it is called “wine.”


“...thy presses shall burst out with new wine” (Prov. 3:10).  Here again the freshly pressed grape juice is called “wine.”


“And the floors shall be full of wheat, and the fats shall overflow with wine and oil” (Joel 2:24).  Joel refers to fresh produce:  wheat that has been sifted and grape juice and olive oil that have just been pressed out of grapes and olives.


“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that the plower shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt.  And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them” (Amos 9:13-14).  In describing the restoration of Israel, Amos uses agricultural prosperity to signify improved national conditions.  The enjoyment of fresh grape juice was one of the benefits of this improved state.  The prophet pictures grapes at various stages:  planting, plowing, reaping, and treading, the result of which was “wine” dropping from the mountains, a reference to grape juice in its natural, unfermented state (v. 13).  Also, just as the Israelites would eat the fruit of their gardens, they would drink the “wine” of their vineyards (v. 14).  This is another reference to a fresh product of the vine.


“...the children and the sucklings swoon in the streets of the city.  They say to their mothers, Where is corn and wine?”  (Lam. 2:11-12).  The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem had left children hungry in the streets.  They are asking for food—grain and “wine.”  How could anyone conclude that these little children are asking for an alcoholic beverage?


“And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine” (Rev. 6:6).  The three products mentioned here are, in keeping with Old Testament descriptions of agriculture, the familiar trio of grain, grape juice, and olive oil.


Could the word “wine” in these verses mean anything other than unfermented grape juice?  Some suggest that wine in these passages is the alcoholic beverage that is eventually made from this juice.  This is a figure of speech known as a prolepsis.  This interpretation claims the juice stands for the future finished product—alcoholic wine.  But the context of passages such as Isaiah 16:9-10 will not permit this view:


“Therefore I will bewail with the weeping of Jazer the vine of Sibmah: I will water thee with my tears, O Heshbon, and Elealeh: for the shouting for thy summer fruits and for thy harvest is fallen.  And gladness is taken away, and joy out of the plentiful field; and in the vineyards there shall be no singing, neither shall there be shouting: the treaders shall tread out no wine in their presses; I have made their vintage shouting to cease.”


Isaiah described the joy that normally occurs at harvest time and warned that there would be no such celebration for Moab.  The entire setting is about fresh produce: “the vine,” “summer fruits,” “harvest,” “vineyards,” “wine,” and “presses.”  Jeremiah 48:32-33 is a parallel passage.  Also, Micah said the people would tread “sweet wine, but shalt not drink wine” (Mic. 6:15).  Is “wine” used proleptically twice in this one passage?  One who maintains that “wine” in the Bible is always alcoholic must severely strain these and many other passages.  A further question should be raised: if the wording of these passages does not refer to unfermented grape juice, then how could Bible writers have expressed this idea?  There is really only one reason for saying “wine” is used proleptically in these verses: the preconceived notion that this word must always refer to an alcoholic beverage in Scripture.

To some extent the view that Christians can drink alcohol in moderation is based upon assumptions regarding the meaning of the word “wine.”  Many have become so accustomed to hearing this term identified with an alcoholic beverage that they respond with skepticism even to the suggestion that it may refer to simple grape juice with.  They have been pre-conditioned to think of this word in only one way and approach the question of social drinking with a partial definition of a key word.  Part of this bias stems from a predominant use of the word wine in centuries of English literature to refer mainly to an alcoholic beverage.  This background, together with popular use of the term, has contributed to ignorance regarding any other meaning of the word.  But some of this narrow pre-understanding comes from English translations of the Bible.  Even though grape juice is clearly meant in many verses which use this term, still the generic word wine is employed.  The word hell in the King James Version is another case of a term that was loosely applied to concepts that are distinct.  This word is sometimes used to translate gehenna, the place of eternal punishment after the judgment (Matt. 5:22), while in other places it refers in general to the intermediate abode of the dead as a translation of hades (Luke 16:23).  In Acts 2:31 Peter said Jesus’ soul was not left in hell or hades.  Newer translations make a distinction in these Greek words.  But using a different English word is not always possible or helpful in a translation.  For instance, the word “elder” can refer to an elder of Israel (Matt. 15:2), an officer in the New Testament church (Titus 1:5), or an older man in general (I Tim. 5:1).  So while it may have been better if translators had used “wine” in some verses and “grape juice” in others to translate Hebrew and Greek terms referring to beverages made from grapes, the context usually indicates whether the wine is alcoholic or non-alcoholic.  The tragedy is that Bible readers are often quick to assume that “wine” in a passage refers to alcohol when that is not the case.

We must also blame some Greek and Hebrew lexicons for this limited view of words referring to beverages derived from the grape.  Lexicographers function as historians of the usage of words and as interpreters more than many Greek and Hebrew students acknowledge.  Too often these experts are viewed as lawgivers rather than observers of language (this same over-confidence is found in the way students and even teachers look at grammarians).  Anyone who reads Greek or Hebrew lexicons long enough will see statements like “in the context, this word can mean either...” or “according to the context” or “meaning varies depending on the context.”  Lexicographers usually provide valuable information regarding the origin and basic idea of a word, but most often, as they themselves occasionally acknowledge, the most important factor in deciding the meaning of a word is the context.  There is more to proving an important point of Bible doctrine than simply citing a statement from a lexicon.  In regard to Hebrew and Greek words that refer to liquids that come from grapes, a number of popular lexicons (Brown-Driver-Briggs, Arndt and Gingrich, Thayer) generalize the meaning and fail to acknowledge the distinctions which the contexts of the different usages clearly demand.  These sources are correct in pointing out the essence of these words (Hebrew tirosh, yayin, etc. and Greek oinos, gleukos) as being the juice of grapes, but they are misleading in their comments that this juice must be alcoholic.1 The same problem occurs with regard to the Hebrew word (shakar) and the Greek word (methuo) for drinking to the fill.  The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon states that the verb shakar means to “be, or, become, drunk, drunken.”2  That is certainly the meaning in a number of passages (Gen. 9:21, Nah. 3:11, etc.).  But this cannot be the meaning in Haggai 1:6: “Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink...”  The phrase “filled with drink” is from shakar, and there is no reference at all to drunkenness.  The idea is drinking enough to be satisfied.  Likewise, the Greek word methuo is assigned the exclusive meaning of drunkenness in Thayer.3  However, in I Corinthians 11:21 the word “drunken” (methuo) means full or satiated, not intoxicated, as is evident from the contrast “one is hungry, and another is drunken” and from Paul’s permission in the next verse to eat and drink at home (v. 22).  Thayer and Arndt and Gingrich also categorically state that the verb methusko means to be intoxicated in every New Testament instance of the word. This is the word used in John 2:10 and translated “have well drunk” (KJV; NKJV) and “have drunk freely” (ASV; ESV) in versions that emphasize the amount consumed, not the content of the beverage in terms of being alcoholic or non-alcoholic. Other translations favor the idea of drunkenness: “are drunk” (NASB) or “have had too much to drink” (NJV). The obvious biblical problem with claiming that Jesus made alcoholic wine especially in such a large quantity is that He would have violated Habakkuk 2:15 in the process. But from a lexical viewpoint it is not true that the history of the word methusko always involves a state of intoxication. The Septuagint used methusko to convey the idea of being “filled” with grain in Hosea 14:7 (verse 8 in English translations). Methuo in I Corinthians 11:21 and methusko in John 2:10 both refer to being full, not intoxicated.

Amazingly, controversy has arisen over the beverage Jesus used to institute the Lord’s Supper.  Even though the Holy Spirit used the words “fruit of the vine” rather than the word “wine” (oinos) to denote the beverage used (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18), attempts have been made to show that this was alcoholic wine.  But the Jews were to remove all leaven from their dwellings in preparation for the Passover (Exod. 13:7).  That the Jews applied this commandment to beverages as well as bread is clear from the Mishnah:  “These also must be removed at Passover:  Babylonian porridge, Median beer, Edomite vinegar, and Egyptian barley-beer” (Pesahim, 3.1).

The facts are clear concerning the word wine.  When it is used to refer to a beverage from grapes which God allows us to consume, it means simple, unfermented grape juice.  When it refers to a beverage God forbids us to consume, it means alcoholic wine.

There is a consistent condemnation of imbibing alcohol for reasons other than medicinal uses in the Bible, and this overarching sentiment of God should be born in mind.  “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise” (Prov. 20:1).  Wine is a mocker or a scorner in that it causes one to stubbornly refuse instruction or correction.  Strong drink is raging in that it leads one to be boisterous.  These are well-known effects of drinking alcohol; Solomon’s words describe the nature of drinking, and for anyone to see this activity in a positive light is self-deception and foolish.  




Many argue that the Bible approves of drinking alcohol in moderation.  They insist that drinking is not wrong unless one drinks so much that he becomes drunk.  According to this view, a Christian can drink some beer as long as he does not drink enough to become intoxicated.  In other words, he can engage in “social drinking.”

The reasoning they use varies, but it usually takes one of two forms.  One approach is to stress that the Bible condemns drunkenness but says nothing about drinking alcohol.  Aside from being mistaken on this point, advocates of social drinking, especially in churches of Christ, find themselves in a quandary here.  If the Bible were silent on this practice, would that silence give permission to do it, or would that silence prohibit it?  Wouldn’t this reasoning amount to saying “If the Bible does not specifically forbid it, that means we can do it”?  However, “The rebuke of one sin does not license another.  To prohibit drunkenness, does not, by implication, sanction every indulgence short of excess.”4  The other way of arguing this point is to say that the Bible directly condemns drunkenness but indirectly gives approval to moderate drinking.  Usually those arguing that drinking itself is authorized point to the restrictions “not given to wine” and “not given to much wine” (I Tim. 3:3, 8) as somehow implying that drinking wine is acceptable as long as one is not “given” to it or given to much of it, especially if one is not an elder or a deacon in the church.

Before responding to this latter claim, let us consider some questions which are logically connected.  If a Christian can drink as long as he does not get drunk, then what would be wrong with a Christian taking a puff of marijuana as long as he does not take enough draws to “get high” (in countries or states where this is legal)?  I almost hesitate to use this example because some in this upside-down culture actually make this argument.  But I trust that anyone reading this article is not that liberal in thinking.  The question, however, is not whether a person who says social drinking is acceptable would engage in this kind of behavior.  It is this:  if both are mind-altering drugs, how can one say that alcohol in moderation is allowable but marijuana in moderation is not?

Another problem arises from interpreting the Bible in this way.  Catholic teaching holds drunkenness itself is not sinful.  It is rather the abuse of drunkenness, especially the habitual abuse of it, that makes it sinful:


“ absolutely compelling argument can be drawn from the Scriptures to show that isolated acts of drunkenness, uncomplicated by association with other kinds of wicked action, are mortally sinful.”5


This article in the New Catholic Encyclopedia further states:


“Imperfect drunkenness is per se no more than a venial sin.  It could be a grave sin if indulged in for a gravely sinful purpose or if it caused serious scandal.  On the other hand, it is no sin at all if there is sufficient reason for the indulgence, e.g., an acute attack of melancholy, a special occasion calling for something unusual in the way of festivity and joviality.”6


How could one who says the Bible allows social drinking argue against these statements?  In terms of interpretation, what is the difference between saying that the abuse of drinking, not drinking itself, is condemned in the Bible and saying that the abuse of drunkenness, not drunkenness itself, is condemned in the Bible?  Catholics simply take the interpretation behind the moderation view of alcohol to another level.  How could one argue against “social drunkenness” while he approves of social drinking when they are based on the same basic premise of interpretation?  Suppose a proponent of the moderation view is talking with a Catholic about the use of alcohol and cites verses that condemn drunkenness.  The Catholic responds by saying these verses only condemn the misuse of drunkenness and not drunkenness itself (just as homosexuals argue that verses like I Corinthians 6:9 only condemn the promiscuous abuse of same-sex relations and not the relations themselves).  This Catholic then asks the one who holds the moderation view why he believes it is biblical to drink alcohol.  When the moderationist replies that the Bible only condemns the misuse of alcohol and not its use, the Catholic follows with a pertinent question:  as far as interpretation is concerned, what is the difference between the Catholic view and the moderation view?  I am not arguing that people who take the moderation view approve of getting drunk.  I am questioning how they can be consistent when they try to disprove Catholic teaching on this subject.

In regard to the qualifications for elders and deacons, the phrases “not given to wine” and “not given to much wine” are misused under the misnomer “implication” to teach the view of drinking in moderation.  Some argue that since an elder is not to be given to wine, someone who is not an elder can be given to wine.  But an elder is not to be a brawler or a striker either (I Tim. 3:3).  Does this mean a person who is not an elder can be?  Many of these requirements are not peculiar to elders.  They are for Christians in general as other passages teach, and they are specifically enjoined upon elders to emphasize the seriousness of the office.  It is important for Christians to stay away from alcohol, but it is even more serious for elders to do so because of their position, responsibilities, and example.

A similar admonition was given to priests in the law.  They were not to drink alcohol when they went into the tabernacle (Lev. 10:9-10).  The penalty of violating this commandment was death.  This abstention was particularly important because of the leadership of the priests.  Leaders in various realms are often urged to be virtuous not because of a double standard but because of the influence they exert.  Consider the home.  Paul told fathers not to provoke their children to wrath (Eph. 6:1).  Does he mean that it would be alright for the mother to provoke the children or for the children to provoke the father?

Others attempt to limit the prohibition in Leviticus 10:9 to priests while they are in the tabernacle, suggesting that they could drink if they were somewhere else.  This is again a misunderstanding of the nature of implication.  Suppose we apply this reasoning to Exodus 28:42, which says priests were to cover the nakedness of their waist and thighs “when they come in unto the tabernacle.”  Would anyone say they could uncover their nakedness in other places simply because this verse emphasizes decency at the tabernacle?

Others argue that “not given to wine” and “not given to much wine” refer only to being addicted to alcohol, not to drinking in general.  It is usually stressed that “given to wine” in I Timothy 3:3 is from paroinos, which is from para, beside, and oinos, wine, hence one who is beside the wine.  But the word itself does not indicate how often this person is beside the wine or how much wine he imbibes.  Lexicographers like Thayer and Arndt and Gingrich assume that he is there long enough to become drunken or even addicted, but these are conjectures.  The word itself just says he is beside or near it.  But even if paroinos does refer to drunkenness or addiction to alcohol, this still would not “imply” that moderate drinking is authorized any more than it would imply that those who are not elders may be drunken with or addicted to wine.  In addition, if both “not given to wine” and “not given to much wine” refer only to addiction and “imply” that non-addictive drinking is permissible, then Christians could drink much wine as long as they do not become addicted!

“Not given to much wine” has been used to attempt to prove the moderation view for many years.  This phrase occurs in I Timothy 3:8 and in Titus 2:3.  The argument is that since this expression forbids drinking much wine, then drinking a little wine is biblical.  But this is emphatic language.  It does not imply that drinking in moderation is permissible; it simply makes the point in strong terms.  This language is common in Scripture.  God was “not well pleased” with the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness (I Cor. 10:5).  Does this mean God was a little pleased with them?  Paul warned his readers not to be “soon shaken in mind” (II Thess. 2:2). Does he imply that they could be shaken in mind if they did not do so soon?  When James said to lay aside “overflow of wickedness” (NKJV) or “superfluity of naughtiness” (KJV) in James 1:21, does he mean we can be wicked as long as we do not overflow with it?  Jesus warned about being “overcharged” (KJV) or “weighed down” with carousing and drunkenness (Luke 21:34).  Does He mean one can get drunk and carouse as long as he is not “weighed down” with these sins?  In the same way, I Timothy 3:8 and Titus 2:3 do not imply that the use of a little wine is acceptable.  This expression simply calls attention to the particular sin mentioned.  As to the question of drinking moderate amounts of wine in contrast with drinking much wine, we must turn to other passages for the answer, and there are verses that address this matter.

Those who argue for the moderation view often try to draw a parallel between drinking alcohol and getting drunk to eating food and becoming a glutton.  We are told that drinking alcohol is innocent as long as one does not get drunk just as eating is innocent as long as one does not overeat and become a glutton.  To support this argument, advocates of the moderation view cite the fact that every time gluttony is mentioned in the Bible, it is coupled with drunkenness (Deut. 21:20; Prov. 23:20-21; Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34).  But this evidence is insufficient and partial.  The mere fact that two sins are mentioned together does not mean they are committed in the same way or have the same nature.  Fornication and idolatry are often mentioned together, but their differences are obvious.  Gluttony and drunkenness are mentioned together because one often accompanies and contributes to the other.  But this does not prove they are by definition wrong for the same reasons.

We need to give more attention to the topic of gluttony.  In the Old Testament, the word glutton is from zalal.  This word means to be worthless or vile in the statements “take forth the precious from the vile” (Jer. 15:19) and  “I am vile” (Lam. 1:11).  Thus the claim that gluttony is always mentioned with drunkenness is true of the English word glutton in the King James Version of the Old Testament but not of the Hebrew word itself.  In fact, zalal is used in Proverbs 28:7 (“riotous men,” KJV; “gluttons,” NKJV) with no mention of drunkenness.  As used in Deuteronomy 21:20, it describes the stubborn and rebellious son who will not be corrected by his parents.  He was “a glutton and a drunkard.”  In Proverbs 23:20-21, it refers to those who are riotous or gluttonous eaters of flesh.  The central idea of zalal is to make light of persons or things; in regard to things, it means to make light of the value and purpose of them.  The word denotes a disrespectful, carnal, squandering attitude which shows itself in eating beyond what is needed or desired but also is displayed in general by wasteful, destructive behavior.  The glutton does not merely despise the value of food.  He wastes it, leaves it to decay, or even destroys it.  He makes light of it.  Thus it is a careless and wasteful spirit that links gluttony to drunkenness, not the similarity of the abuse of an otherwise lawful activity.

In the New Testament, the word glutton is mentioned with winebibber (oinopotes, from oinos, wine, and potes, a drinker) or a wine drinker.  While this word may denote a drunkard, there is some question about this.  The word itself means one who drinks wine; the amount of wine he drinks is not inherent in the word itself but must be gleaned from the context if at all.  In contrast, in I Peter 4:3 the words “excess of wine” (KJV), “winebibbings” (ASV), and “drunkenness” (NKJV, NASB) are translations of oinophlugia, from oinos, wine, and phlugia, to bubble up or overflow.7  In either case, the Jews’ accusation that Jesus was “a glutton and a winebibber” was as ludicrous as their charge that John the Baptist was possessed by a demon (Matt. 11:18).  The word translated glutton or gluttonous in Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34 is phagos.  Though the word itself is not used in any of the epistles, the concept of temperance (II Pet. 1:6; I Cor. 6:12) forbids eating too much (or sleeping too much, spending too much, laughing too much, etc.).  The problem with attempting to establish a parallel between the essence of gluttony and drunkenness is that one must first prove that drinking alcohol in moderation is as morally harmless as eating food.

It is strange that advocates of the moderation view would stress that eating too much and getting drunk are parallel.  Eating beyond the point of satisfaction is not a natural response of the body.  The body rebels if we attempt to eat when we are full.  But drinking alcohol is different.  Each drink lowers inhibitions and encourages the next drink.

A better parallel to drinking and drunkenness is the relationship between lust and fornication described in Proverbs 6:25-35.  Solomon warns, “Lust not after her beauty in thine heart” (v. 25).  Lust grows into adultery, and adultery brings painful consequences (vv. 26-35).  Lust leads to fornication, and Solomon condemned both.  Drinking is also progressive in nature and cumulative in its effects.  Solomon condemned both drinking and drunkenness in Proverbs 23:29-35.  Some might object that not all drinking leads to drunkenness.  But not all lust leads to fornication.  Does this mean that lusting is acceptable to God (Job 31:1; Matt. 5:27-28)?

Sometimes we warn about the possible consequences of social drinking:  drunkenness, alcoholism, traffic fatalities, etc.  There is an important distinction between the logical case against social drinking and a practical approach to discussing it in the overall context of the dangers that are related to it.  When someone who is against social drinking points out what might eventually happen to one who begins drinking, proponents of the moderation view charge that his reasoning suggests that drinking is wrong only when it leads to these consequences.

But warning against a practice because of what it leads to does not necessarily mean the practice itself is innocent.  Sometimes we emphasize that a wrong activity can easily lead to further wrongdoing.  A sinful situation can go from bad to worse.  Dancing can lead to fornication, but that does not mean dancing itself is right.  Statistics overwhelmingly show that legal or illegal gambling contributes to other crimes, but that does not mean gambling itself is an innocent activity.  Have we not argued that introducing instrumental music in worship opens the floodgates to further innovations?  Are we suggesting that its use in worship is wrong only because it leads to other unauthorized practices?  We are not guilty of a slippery slope argument simply because we stress the possible or even likely evil outcome of a certain course of behavior.  We commit this fallacy when we present these sinful consequences as proof that the practice which led to them is also sinful.  The practical results of an activity often cause us to avoid the activity, but proving it is sinful in itself is a different matter.  We do not prove that social drinking is wrong because the drinker might get drunk and kill someone on the highway or because he might eventually become an alcoholic.  We show that it is unwise, but we do not by this reasoning show it is sinful.  But once we have shown from the Scriptures that social drinking is wrong, it is good to point out how much worse the drinker’s situation can get.  If Solomon warned of the dangers of drinking, then it is legitimate for us to do so.

Some arguments against social drinking emphasize the process involved in getting drunk.  One of these is based on the Greek word methusko, which means to get drunk or become intoxicated and is used in passages such as I Thessalonians 5:7 and Ephesians 5:18.  The reasoning is that since getting drunk is a process and a cumulative condition, then every drink that leads to this state, from the first drink, is for this reason wrong.  A similar argument is to say that if it takes ten drinks to make one drunk, then one drink makes a person one-tenth drunk.  But these arguments do not help the case against social drinking.  Either a person is drunk or he is not.  These arguments create confusion because they switch definitions of the terms drunk or drunkenness midstream or they fail to accurately define the terms.  To say that a person becomes drunk implies that he was not drunk previously, but whether his actions prior to crossing that line were wrong also would have to be shown from other information.  Simply giving a lexical definition of methusko is not sufficient.  Benhadad was “drinking himself drunk” (I Kings 20:16), that is, he was drinking to the point of intoxication, which means that he was not drunk with the first drink.

It is better to show that the Bible condemns both drinking and drunkenness than it is to mesh these terms together as if they have the same meaning.




One of the strongest warnings regarding alcohol in the Bible was given by Solomon:


“Who hath woe?  who hath sorrow?  who hath contentions?  who hath babbling?  who hath wounds without cause?  who hath redness of eyes?  They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine.  Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright” (Prov. 23:29-31).


Solomon continues in this passage to describe the psychological, moral, and physical effects of alcohol (vv. 32-35).  To avoid this sinful and self-destructive behavior, Solomon gives a straightforward admonition:  do not “look” upon the cup of wine.  To look upon here does not mean simply to see with one’s eyes; it means to look upon with interest and desire to taste it.  Solomon thus forbids the very thing that causes the disastrous consequences he mentions: drinking alcohol.

The objection is raised that this passage only condemns getting drunk, not drinking in moderation.  Verse 30 speaks of imbibing varieties of alcoholic drinks for long periods of time, and verses 34-35 describe the obvious stupor of intoxication.  But the objector still must deal with verse 31, which forbids desiring alcoholic drink.  If Solomon says not even to desire it, how much more serious is it to drink alcohol?  But this objection fails to consider the nature of Solomon’s warnings.  For instance, in Proverbs 6:25 he warned, “Lust not after her beauty in thine heart.”  The context that follows, in a manner similar to the effects of drinking in Proverbs 23:29-35, describes the troubles that come upon the adulterer.  The larger warning is about adultery, but this does not lessen the force of the warning against lusting.  Even if a man does not commit adultery, he sins if he lusts because he violates the command in verse 25.  In the same way, even if a person does not experience the effects of drinking in Proverbs 23:33-35, he sins when he takes the first drink because he has violated verse 31.

While seated on a plane waiting for takeoff, I noticed a nearby service truck labeled “Non-potable water.”  At first the meaning did not register, but then I remembered a word in the New Testament that addresses the question of drinking.  It is often said that the Bible condemns drunkenness but not drinking.  This claim is not true.

Peter recalled the former time in which he and his readers “walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries” (I Pet. 4:3).  This is a key verse in the issue of social drinking.

Let us begin with the King James translators’ use of the word “banquetings.” Obviously, this word cannot mean that a banquet in the sense of a mere gathering for a meal is wrong. What kind of banquet is this, and why is it sinful? The answer is not that people present were gluttons, since the word translated “banquetings” is from the word potois, which denotes drinking, not eating. So this type of banquet was not wrong because of gluttony. It was wrong because of the drinking involved. Why did the King James translators use this word?  “In the seventeenth century and earlier, banquet frequently signified, not the general feast, but the wine that came after; not the eating and drinking, but drinking only.”8 Shakespeare used the word banquet to refer to drinking after a meal or simply drinking itself (Anthony and Cleopatra, I, ii, 11).

The amount of alcohol consumed by those gathered at such a banquet is unspecified. Some may have drunk to the point of intoxication, while others may have drunk a cup or two. The essential idea is that they were drinking. The Greek word potos means “the drinking bout, the banquet, the symposium, not of necessity excessive. . . but giving opportunity for excess.”9 The word refers to drinking in general at such gatherings. Barnes is right in saying that the word means properly drinking; an act of drinking; then a drinking bout; drinking together. The thing forbidden by it is an assembling together for the purpose of drinking. There is nothing in this word referring to eating, or to banqueting, as the term is now commonly employed. The idea in the passage is, that it is improper for Christians to meet together for the purpose of drinking—as wine, toasts, etc.10 Still earlier English translations gave an even more literal rendering than banquetings. The Tyndale version of 1526 has "drynkynge" and the Geneva Bible of 1560 has "drinkings."


Peter used three descriptions in this passage to denote different types of drinking. The first is “excess of wine.” This expression has led some to ask, “Since Peter condemns excess of wine, then is the moderate, occasional use of wine justified?” The answer is no. Notice the next verse (I Pet. 4:4), where Peter mentions “excess of riot.” Does this expression mean that moderate, occasional rioting is legitimate as long as we do not carry it to “excess”? “Excess of wine” is from oinophlugia, which means drunkenness. But the verse does not end at this point. Peter uses other words to describe different types of drinking that are sinful.

The second word is “revellings.” This word is from komos and refers to “feasts and drinking parties that are protracted till late at night and indulge in revelry.”11 This word overlaps with the first word because drunkenness is involved. But it adds the further idea that this drunkenness occurs with companions and involves revelry.

The next word is “banquetings.” We have already seen that this word denotes drinking alcohol. Could these banquets be sinful because of drunkenness and not “social drinking”? Does Peter condemn them because people were getting drunk there—nothing more, nothing less? But he has already covered drunkenness in the first word. So, we can rightly conclude that the word “banquetings” involves a different idea, a different aspect of drinking than simple drunkenness. Could these banquets have been wrong because of revelry that took place at them? But Peter has already dealt with this aspect of drinking as well in the word “revellings.” Thus Peter is not emphasizing revelry at the banquets. Could these banquets have involved some type of idolatrous worship? Is this what made them wrong? The answer again is no because Peter lists “abominable idolatries” after “banquetings.” Notice that “banquetings” do not necessarily exclude these activities. But this word does not necessarily involve them, and its point of emphasis as far as drinking is concerned is a gathering where drinking in general occurs. Thus “banquetings” (potois) is distinguished from “excess of wine” or “drunkenness” (oinophlugia), and that distinction is that these banquetings were drinking gatherings in general whereas “excess of wine” was drunkenness in particular. A similar relationship occurs between the words “lasciviousness” and “lusts” in this verse. These words obviously share common ground in meaning, since both are sins that are sexual in nature. But lasciviousness is the more specific term, referring to indecent bodily movements and impure handling between males and females. Lusts, on the other hand, is the more general plural term for impure desires. Thus, if “banquetings” refers to a type of drinking, and that drinking is different from mere drunkenness, then this word must include drinking that stops short of drunkenness. Therefore “social” drinking is “banqueting” and is sinful.

Some Greek authorities have not given due attention to this distinction.12 They usually begin by giving potos the general meaning of drinking, but then add the idea of carousing or a drinking bout. But, as we have already seen, though carousing and drinking bouts may have been part of these banquetings, they were not the focus of the word. The emphasis of 
potos is simply drinking in general. In fact, this idea is particularly clear when we consider that potos is part of a family of words dealing with drinking.13

The word “banquetings” when understood in the sense mentioned earlier is a good translation of the word potois. The most literal translation of this word is drinkings. The New King James Version uses the expression “drinking parties” while the American Standard Version uses “carousings.” But neither of these two translations emphasize the essential meaning of the word, which is drinking in general.  It is also interesting that Peter used potois, the plural form of potos, to express the varieties of drinking situations just as he used the plural “lusts” rather than “lust” to denote different forms of lust.  If the Holy Spirit wanted to cover drinking in its various forms, including social drinking, what other term would have been more appropriate than potois or drinkings?

“Non-potable water” is water that is not suitable for drinking.  For the Christian, alcohol is non-potable.




One of the most difficult passages to harmonize in the total information in the Bible regarding alcohol is Deuteronomy 14:22-27:


Thou shalt truly tithe all the increase of thy seed, that the field bringeth forth year by year.  And thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always.  And if the way be too long for thee, so that thou art not able to carry it; or if the place be too far from thee, which the Lord thy God shall choose to set his name there, when the Lord thy God hath blessed thee:  Then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose: And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household, And the Levite that is within thy gates; thou shalt not forsake him; for he hath no part nor inheritance with thee.


This passage sets forth the instructions for the tithe meal that was to be eaten before the Lord at harvest time.  Those who lived near the tabernacle were to bring a tenth of their produce.  The usual crops are mentioned:  “corn” or grain, “wine” or fresh grape juice, and “oil” of olives.  The Israelites were to eat of this produce “before the Lord”—not as a common meal, but as a religious ordinance to show thanksgiving to the God who gave these blessings.

God gave a contingent plan for this feast for Israelites who were unable to transport these items because of the distance.  Those who lived far away from the tabernacle could sell a tenth of their crops and herds, then bring the money to the appointed place of the tabernacle and buy the food for the feast.  One of the beverages allowed was “strong drink” (v. 26).  This is listed with other foods such as sheep, oxen, and wine.  Since the meal is one God required the Israelites to eat, and since strong drink is one of the foods allowed in this meal, does this passage teach that God approved of the drinking of alcoholic beverages in the Old Testament, and if so, does this mean that drinking alcohol is permissible today?  If strong drink is condemned in the Old Testament (Prov. 20:1), then why is strong drink allowed here?

One proposed answer is that strong drink in this verse refers to a drink offering.  But the text plainly says they were to eat these items.

Another view holds that God is speaking with godly sarcasm in verse 26.  The idea would be: “You are going to do what you want anyway, so buy what you want and eat and drink, even if you want strong drink.”  This interpretation stresses that God says they could have “whatsoever thy soul lusteth after,” but since God never gives this license in a literal sense, He must be speaking sarcastically, not literally.  However, this position is not consistent with the text.  The whole event is one that God commanded: the place, the food, and the participants.  The phrase “whatsoever thy soul lusteth after” is qualified; it refers to foods that they could legitimately choose with God’s approval.  This passage approves of wine and strong drink in the same way that it commends oxen and sheep.  The context concerns lawful, not forbidden, food items.

The moderation view of drinking alcohol argues that this passage settles the whole question, giving book, chapter, and verse for social drinking.  Adam Clarke believed “strong drink” in Deuteronomy 14:26 was an intoxicating beverage.  He wrote, “This one verse sufficiently shows that the Mosic law made ample provision for the comfort and happiness of the people.”14 But that is a hasty conclusion because a key element of the text needs to be explored further.

What is “strong drink”?  The most common answer is that this expression refers to a beverage that is higher in alcoholic content than ordinary alcoholic wine.  Indeed it refers to this type of drink in numerous passages (Lev. 10:9; Num. 6:3; Jud. 13:4, 7, 14; I Sam. 1:15; Prov. 20:1; 31:4, 6; Isa. 5:11, 22; 24:9; 28:7; 29:9; 56:12, Mic. 2:11).  The Hebrew word is shekar, and it is often given the sole definition of an intoxicating beverage made stronger by ancient methods of mixing other juices, adding honey, and aging.  But is this meaning exclusive?  Could “strong” refer to a property other than alcoholic content?

There are several items in the context of Deuteronomy 14:22-27 that should be examined carefully.15 One is the instructions given to the Israelites who were near the tabernacle and those who were far away.  Those who were close were to bring fresh produce, including “wine” or unfermented grape juice (v. 23).  The word for wine in verse 23 is tirosh, the common Hebrew term for the fresh produce of the grape when it occurs in lists of other produce like grain and olive oil.  If “strong drink” in verse 26 is an alcoholic beverage, then God is telling the Jews near the tabernacle to drink fresh grape juice at this meal, but He is telling Jews outside of this area they can buy and drink strong alcoholic beverages at the same feast!  Another problem concerns the warning given to priests in Leviticus 10:9:  “Drink not wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation...”  The meal of Deuteronomy 14:22-27 was to be eaten in the place God would choose.  This is where the tabernacle was erected.  The passage in Deuteronomy does not specifically say this feast was to be eaten near the tabernacle, but it does say it was to be eaten “before the Lord” and that the priests were to eat and drink what the Israelites did (v. 27).  If the prohibition of Leviticus 10:9 applies to priests coming before the Lord in worship festivals in general and not just to their literally crossing the threshold and entering the tabernacle itself, then there is a real problem with saying the wine and strong drink of Deuteronomy 14:26 were alcoholic.

A moral problem results from the moderation view of Deuteronomy 14:26.  This verse says the Israelites and their households were to eat and drink this food.  Male Israelites were to go to Jerusalem to observe feasts like Passover, Tabernacles, and Pentecost (Deut. 16:16), but the meal in Deuteronomy 14 is for families.  If the strong drink in verse 26 is alcoholic, then children as well as adults were to drink it!

The most compelling reason for rejecting the view that Deuteronomy 14:26 approves of social drinking is that this interpretation conflicts with the condemnation of drinking alcohol in other passages (Prov. 23:29-35, I Pet. 4:3, etc.).  While the verse considered by itself might appear to give license to drinking in moderation, it must be viewed in light of the tenor of Bible teaching as a whole on this subject.

A passage which serves as a starting point for understanding the meaning of “strong drink” in the Deuteronomy 14 feast is Deuteronomy 29:5-6.  There God spoke of how He had provided for the Israelites in the wilderness:


“And I have led you forty years in the wilderness:  your clothes have not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon thy feet.  Ye have not eaten bread, neither have ye drunk wine or strong drink:  that ye might know that I am the Lord your God.”


In this passage God describes the basic necessities of life He had miraculously given the Israelites:  clothing (v. 5) and food (v. 6).  The foods he describes in verse six are items the Israelites in other circumstances would eat.  “Bread” is a normal and morally acceptable food; there is no negative or sinful connotation to this word in the verse.  The same is true with “wine” and “strong drink.”  These are beverages which Jewish families under normal conditions would drink.  Drinking wine and strong drink are as morally neutral as wearing clothes and eating bread, but this cannot be said of drinking alcoholic “strong drink” (Prov. 20:1).

If the word “wine” can refer either to an alcoholic beverage or to unfermented grape juice, why should we think it strange that the words “strong drink” can be used in both senses as well?  The expression “strong drink” is a common translation of shekar, and part of the reason that many assume that it always denotes an alcoholic beverage is due to the tendency to automatically associate the English word strong with alcohol.  But a beverage can be “strong” for reasons other than alcoholic content.  Jews sometimes mixed other juices such as pomegranate juice with grape juice (Song of Solomon 8:2) as well as flavoring it with spices, honey, and dates.  Its taste was thus “strong.”  We have many non-alcoholic beverages that are strong such as cranberry juice, vinegar, and certain ciders.

The beverage described in Deuteronomy 14:26 is called “strong drink” not because it was especially alcoholic but because it was exceptionally rich.

We should reiterate that the noun shekar comes from the verb shakar.  This verb often refers to drinking alcoholic beverages, but in Haggai 1:6 it does not.  The noun likewise often refers to an intoxicating beverage, but in Deuteronomy 14:26 and Deuteronomy 29:6 it does not.

Before one can make an absolute case for drinking in moderation from Deuteronomy 14:26, he must know that the “strong drink” as well as the “wine” are alcoholic.  He does not prove this position simply by citing this verse and adding “This passage presents a problem to those who say social drinking is a sin” or “There is a question about ‘strong drink’ in this verse.”  He does not win the debate by default just because no one present can harmonize this passage with the view that social drinking is a sin.




When Jimmy Carter became President, he announced that the White House would serve nothing stronger than wine under his administration.  Responding to questions about this decision, Billy Graham said, 


“I do not believe the Bible teaches teetotalism...Jesus drank wine.  Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast.  That wasn’t grape juice as some of them try to claim.”16


Evangelical churches that were conservative on this subject were upset with Graham’s comments and called on the well-known preacher to make his position on drinking clearer (as if the above statements were not clear).  A few months later Graham issued a statement.  In his typical fashion of trying to please both sides, he said because of the destruction alcohol causes in homes and society, it is better not to drink socially.17  But he did not say it was wrong.

But times have changed.  Religion in general is not as morally conservative as it was in the 1970s (and that was in the height of the “sexual revolution”!).  Today a Protestant religious leader can say that drinking in moderation is biblical and only a few will raise an eyebrow.

Drinking among college students is an epidemic.18 The last thing students at a Christian college need is to hear from professors that the Bible sanctions drinking in moderation.  Yet tragically that has happened in some colleges affiliated with Churches of Christ.  Recently at an open forum of a college lectureship the moderator and another professor of the school defended the moderation view of drinking.  I was not present but I later listened to a recording of the sessions.  While the moderator repeatedly said he did not advise or encourage social drinking, he clearly stated that he did not believe it is inherently sinful.  His chief argument was Deuteronomy 14:26, though he did not actually make an argument from this passage.  Instead, he presented it as a problem for those who say social drinking is sinful and chided them for not explaining this text.  He seemed oblivious to the body of evidence against the assumption that alcoholic beverages are mentioned in this passage.  Hundreds of young Christians attend these sessions.  As some who were present warned, what kind of influence are these two professors having on these students?  These teachers can say they do not encourage drinking, but if they place it in the realm of opinion, young people are smart enough to see the implications of what they are saying.  Will churches of Christ cry out in response to the statements issued at this school like evangelical churches cried out against Billy Graham’s comments years ago?

The key to answering the question of social drinking is Bible study, and that is what is lacking in this generation.  Instead of giving pat answers and surface explanations, it is time for teachers of the gospel to devote real time and thought to this subject.  Instead of looking for quick answers from reference works and commentaries, it is time for preachers to do independent research of the subject in the Bible itself.  Instead of being influenced by the course of the world, Christians need to refuse to conform to it.

One of the most insightful summaries of the nature of the controversy over this issue was written in the far more conservative days of 1880:


“If, now, the question be asked, in the light of the foregoing studies, Do the Scriptures prohibit the use of alcoholic beverages?  I am compelled to give it an unqualified affirmative answer.  Considering the informal manner in which the subject is discussed in the Scriptures—in the use of several terms of different etymological import; by commendation here, prohibition there; in narrative, in prophecy, in illustration, and in symbol; here enforcing a promise, and there a threatening—it is difficult to see how the judgment of God and good men could have been more forcibly or more decisively expressed.  The wonder is that the question has been so long under debate, or could ever have been brought into serious doubt.  It is to be accounted for, in part, by several defective translations of terms and phrases found in the original Scriptures, and by the suppression of several terms found in the Hebrew descriptive of different kinds of wine, in the Septuagint and English versions of the Old Testament; and in part by the false views that have been entertained respecting the nature of alcohol.  The drinking habits of past ages have left their mark not only in the hereditary traits of families, in the shattered estates of thousands once in affluence, the records of crime and pauperism in all lands, and the insanity and idiocy so increasingly prevalent on all sides of us, but in these imperfect translations of the Scriptures, in commentaries based upon them, favoring the use of stimulants, and even in the reasonings of lexicographers when defining the terms in which the original Scriptures were written.  Oh, ‘Wine is a mocker and strong drink is raging, and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.’”19


With these observations and sentiments we firmly agree.




• Robert P. Teachout, The Use of “Wine” in the Old Testament, Doctoral Dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979.  This work is available at  This is the most thorough examination of this subject I have seen.  Anyone who is interested in a serious study of this question should obtain a copy.  At 462 pages, and a doctoral dissertation at that, the reading can be a bit laborious, especially in the author’s analysis of the origin and usages of Semitic words distantly related to the relevant Hebrew terms.  But his contextual consideration of the Old Testament words for “wine” is exhaustive and valuable.

• Samuel Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible: A Biblical Study on the Use of Alcoholic Beverages (Berrien Springs, MI: Biblical Perspective, 1989).  Written from an Adventist perspective, this book is a very good treatment of the issue, especially his discussion of Deuteronomy 14:26.

• Stephen M. Reynolds and Calel Butler, The Biblical Approach to Alcohol (L. L. Reynolds Foundation, 2003).  This book examines a number of passages pertaining to the subject and adds interesting historical and practical information.




1Arndt and Gingrich make a slight concession when they say that oinos refers to “wine, normally the fermented juice of the grape” (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 562).  However, they fail to give attention to other-than-normal usages of the word.

2Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), p. 1016.

3Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 396. 

4A. B. Rich, “Do the Scriptures Prohibit the Use of Alcoholic Beverages?”, Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 37, No. 147, July, 1880, p. 409.

5“Drunkenness,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1967). Vol. IV, p. 1069.

6Ibid., p. 1070.

7Thayer, p. 442.

8James Hastings, “Banquet,” in A Dictionary of the Bible, James Hastings, ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988 reprint), Vol. 1, p. 238.

9Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), p. 225.

10Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: James, Peter, John and Jude (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1949), p. 188.

11Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 367.

12These definitions from lexicographers include “drinking, esp. a drinking party, carousal” (Arndt and Gingrich, p. 696); “a drinking bout, carousal” (Abbott-Smith, p. 375); “drinking bout, carousal” (Liddell-Scott, p. 1456); “a drinking, signifies not simply a banquet but a drinking bout, a carousal” (Vine, p. 170). Moulton-Milligan define it as “a drinking bout” but add that it can be used “in a more general sense.” This work cites a first-century B.C. source in which a woman promised not “to put anything hurtful neither in drinks (potois) nor in eatables” and a second-century A.D. record of one who wrote “of what was stored I found of the first vat drinkable (poten)” (p. 531).

13”Pino (drink); potidzo (water, give to drink); poterion (cup); poma (a drink); posis (drinking, a drink); potos (drinking, i.e. revelry)”— Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2, p. 274.

14Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press), vol. 1, p. 778.

15Robert P. Teachout, The Use of “Wine” in the Old Testament, Doctoral Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, May 1979, pp. 233-238.

16“Carter Will Restore Confidence, Graham Says,” Miami Herald, December 26, 1976, sec. A, p. 18.

17“Graham on Drink: ‘Don’t,’” Christianity Today, February 4, 1977, p. 63.

18Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2008, 69 (4): 481-490.  A Core Institute Survey revealed that 84% of college students drank alcohol in the last year and 72% drank in the last month.

19Rich, Bibliotheca Sacra, pp. 417-418.

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