Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Debate over the Prohibition of Alcoholic Beverage part five

Let's review some things. God prohibits drinking alcoholic beverage in Proverbs 23:31. The terms yayin, oinos, and shekar, translated "wine" and "strong drink," can be either alcoholic or non-alcoholic, and this must be indicated by the context in which they are used. Now a question. Having those two points in mind, how does a particular qualification for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8 (cf. Titus 2:3) fit in? That verse says:

Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre;

I draw your attention to the part: "not given to much wine." Here's the issue with this. If this wine is non-alcoholic, then why would he warn that deacons could not be given to much of it? It wouldn't seem to matter whether a deacon drank as much as he wanted if it were non-alcoholic oinos. On the other hand, if it's alcoholic, the verse wouldn't be prohibiting it, contradicting Proverbs 23:31. The way that it reads is that it must be alcoholic. It would seem that it would only be restraining the deacon from drinking alcohol, not grape juice. So is this verse permitting the moderate drinking of alcohol?

No. 1 Timothy 3:8 is not permitting the drinking of alcohol. A deacon must show discernment in his drinking of oinos. That is what it is teaching. Wineskins didn't come with labels on it. If they did, and the label said "alcohol," the deacon wouldn't even drink that. Because it wasn't that clear what the oinos might be, when someone drank oinos, he had to be careful with it. There were varying kinds of oinos and the degree of quality control varied in those ancient times. There was no refrigeration. Oinos could be addictive. One of the ways that a deacon could know on the borderline oinos would be how much of it he was drinking it. Drinking much of it could be a sign of addiction. This is why Paul would state it the way he did. And that fits in with the other passages of scripture.

A grammatical point enters in here too. After listing the qualifications of the bishop, Paul begins the deacons' with the word "likewise," a word that means "in the same manner." One of the traits required of the pastor is translated "vigilant" in v. 2. The Greek word, nephalios, means "temperate, sober, strictly holding no wine, temperate, abstinent." If the deacons were to fulfill qualifications that were the same as the pastor, then he too would be required to be abstinent.

In Wine in the Bible Samuele Bacchiocchi answers the question, "Is a little addiction right?"

Addiction to something which is intrinsically evil is always morally wrong, whether it is moderate or excessive. To argue that “not addicted to much wine” allows for a moderate addiction to alcoholic beverages is to adopt a dangerous method of interpretation. Such an interpretation rests on the assumption that what is forbidden in much is automatically permissible in little; what is declared wrong in excess is naturally right in moderation. Is such an assumption true? Anyone can see that this method of interpretation is utterly indefensible. When Peter says that the pagans were surprised that Christians did not indulge in “the same excess of riot” as themselves (1 Pet 4:4), obviously he did not mean that Christians were moderate in their rioting. We cannot automatically assume that what is unlawful in excess is lawful in moderation.

Albert Barnes in his Notes on the New Testament writes concerning this idea of "much wine."

It is not affirmed that it would be proper for the deacon, any more than the bishop, to indulge in the use of wine in small quantities, but it is affirmed that a man who is much given to the use of wine ought not, on any consideration, to be a deacon.

He goes on to say:

It may be remarked here, that this qualification was everywhere regarded as necessary for a minister of religion. Even the heathen priests, on entering a temple, did not drink wine (Bloomfield). The use of wine, and of strong drinks of all kinds, was absolutely prohibited to the Jewish ministers of every rank when they were about to engage in the service of God (Lev 10:9). Why should it then be any more proper for a Christian minister to drink wine than for a Jewish or a heathen priest? Shall a minister of the gospel be less holy than they? Shall he have a feebler sense of the purity of his vocation?

We can be aided in some of the language of Paul in 1 Timothy 3 by considering what he said to Timothy later in 1 Timothy 5:23:

Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.

Timothy had to consider the same instruction for pastors when it came to a health issue that he was having. The water supply in Ephesus must have been causing Timothy an upset stomach. If you have been to certain foreign countries, you know about the admonition, "Don't drink the water." Water with even a little contamination can cause severe sickness, debilitating someone. You know what I'm talking about if you've drunk some of the amoebic water in certain locales. In Mexico, they call it Montezuma's revenge. Timothy wasn't drinking the oinos for pleasure or even to satisfy thirst, but for medicinal purposes. Non-addictive oinos would have kept Timothy from poor water, alleviating the stomach problems. But he had to be careful too.

I think there is another aspect to this in the following thoughts. Proverbs 23:34-35 shows that alcoholic yayin deceives a person. He who drinks it loses mental control. A person who is drinking what is plainly alcohol can't make a clear decision about what he is doing. He thinks he can, but he clearly cannot. First, Paul wouldn't be contradicting a passage that prohibits drinking alcohol. Second, he certainly wouldn't inform someone that he should make sure to drink it in moderation. Someone not drinking alcohol could be trusted to be moderate, but a person drinking alcohol couldn't necessarily be trusted to stop in time. He might stop, but the deceptiveness of the alcohol, affecting discernment, couldn't guarantee this.

Of course, everything that I have presented in all points of this debate relates to the oinos, yayin, or shekar of biblical times. The distillation process wasn't even in existence at that time. Modern booze is much more addictive than the most addictive of those ancient days. So it is even more powerfully deceiving today than it was then. And now we know if we're drinking alcohol. We've got labels that even tell us the extent of the addictiveness. Then they didn't.

So we've got this very deceptive substance. People often become addicted from that one drink. Scripture says it's addictive. The Bible prohibits it. And yet people say they can drink it moderately. Many can't, but that's OK to those who think they can. As long as it can be done, or at least people think they can do it, it must be right. Let those be damned who can't stop drinking it. It's a substance that results in multiplied societal problems. But that's the people's fault who drink it? Right? They've got to be able to show more discernment, so they're wrong in not doing so? But can they show discernment when the drink itself is deceiving and more than deceiving today than ever? The substance itself is a problem, just like Proverbs 23 says. Christians must abstain.

More to come in this series.


Gary Webb said...

Brother Brandenburg,
When I read your blog this morning & thought about the possible responses that might be given, I was reminded of Philippians 1:9-11: "And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God."
I thought about how unusual it seems to be today to find Christians & even pastors who are "abounding more and more in knowledge and all judgment."
Here you have given a clear explanation that fits with all the information of Scripture - an explanation that agrees both with the very strong prohibitions against alcohol as well as the passages that speak of the blessings of "wine" (the juice of grapes). Yet, there will no doubt still be many who outright reject it on the basis of "scholarship" which lacks both knowledge & discernment, OR on the basis of making provision for their own flesh. It thrills my soul to find teaching that begins with "the fear of the Lord" & then builds its understanding based upon careful exposition of the whole counsel of God. Thank you. Those who promote the "one wine theory" - need to remember that the Lord had severe words for those who put a stumbling block before His people.

Gary said...


Thank you for this piece. I think that I'm going to have to take a closer look at 1 Timothy 3:8. I understand that the deacon should try to have the same standard as the bishop. So your statement makes sense.

Gary Webb,

I agree with the end of your last statement. My thoughts are that even if a person could prove that God allows us to drink alcohol, it is just poor judgement. Why take a chance on causing a brother to stumble in this area?

Anonymous said...

Pastor Brandenburger,

Thank you for the emphasis in this post on the holiness aspect of the service of the ministry. I especially liked the statement from Barnes,

"Why should it then be any more proper for a Christian minister to drink wine than for a Jewish or a heathen priest? Shall a minister of the gospel be less holy than they? Shall he have a feebler sense of the purity of his vocation?"

So true, and strikes at the core of why - I believe - there is this great move in Evangelicalism and "Young Fundamentalism" towards the "dumbing down" of holiness, since as we all have been told, holiness is "legalism."

Let us not forget the point that the Levitical priests could not use wine when preparing to minister before God - and the two reasons given were that they'd be able to discern the holy from the unholy, and that they'd be able to teach the Law to the people (Lev. 10:9-11).

It's interesting, then, to see the juxtaposition of this with I Peter 2:5 and 2:9. In the Christian context, we all are priests ministering before God, offering up the spiritual sacrifice of service, as well as that of praise and good works (cf. Hebr. 13:15:16). I think we can all agree that Christians have the duty to both discern the holy from the unholy, and teach the Law to the people around us. Further, we are all always "on duty", which makes it incumbent that we be prepared to minister before the Lord at all times (e.g. I Peter 3:15 says "be ALWAYS ready to given an answer", etc.). Further yet, since I Peter 2:9 says we are a ROYAL priesthood, because we will (and in a sense already do) partake in Christ's authority of rulership, and we know (Prov. 31:4) that it is not for kings to drink wine or strong drink, there seems to be a DOUBLE reason for the Christian to avoid alcohol. As kingly priests, we should stay as far from it as possible - it's not a "liberty" issue.

And let us all consider what happened to Nadab and Abihu. Considering the close proximity of the "no wine for priests" commandment to the report of their demise, we can perhaps surmise that the reason they foolishly offered strange fire before the LORD was because they had drank wine and weren't fully aware of what they were doing because of some stage of drunkenness. We ought to consider that a strong warning.