Thursday, August 17, 2006

Quit Yer Wine-ing

As most people who know me are aware, I'm rather a fan of certain kinds of alcoholic drinks: beer and red wine, mainly (hard liquor tastes like flavored rubbing alcohol - but it sure clears my sinuses). But it occurs to me that there are a good many Christians who would be thoroughly scandalized at the thought of a Seminary graduate who drinks alcohol. I know a Southern Baptist pastor who refused to participate in the toast at his brother's wedding reception because it was done with champagne (and because it was a Catholic wedding).

Honestly, I don't have a problem with Christians who abstain from drinking alcohol. Why should I? I don't even have a problem with Christian groups - e.g., the Baptists - who forbid the consumption of alcohol by their members. The Baptists have every right to decide what one must affirm and how one must behave in order to be a Baptist. That's their tradition and they're welcome to it.

Where I have a problem is when certain groups declare all consumption of alcohol by any Christian to be sinful. That's a very large-scale assertion, and making it requires, I think, very strong Biblical support. Upon examination of the New Testament, however, one finds no such support. Nowhere in the whole of Scripture is it stated - implicitly or explicitly - that drinking alcohol is inherently wrong. Now, there are several exhortations in the New Testament to avoid drunkenness, but drunkenness and drinking are not the same. That's an important point.

Also worth noting is the fact that Jesus' first public miracle was the making of wine - and good wine, at that. The kind that the host of a wedding party puts out first until the guests have had enough to drink that they are no longer paying attention to the quality of the wine (see John 2). If the drinking of alcohol were inherently sinful, one must wonder why Jesus supplied an entire wedding party with the means to sin.

Some will say in response that when we read in the New Testament about "wine," as in the story in John's gospel, what is really being spoken of is more like grape juice than "wine" as we think of it. I am most curious as to where this sort of argument originated, because quite frankly, it is absolutely false. The wine the ancients drank was wine. Real, honest-to-goodness, alcoholic wine. If it weren't, how could Paul exhort his readers not to be drunk on it (Ephesians 5:18)? The plain fact is that people in first-century Judea drank alcoholic wine as a regular staple of their diet. Just as did people througout the Greco-Roman world, and the whole ancient world in general. In fact, grape juice, as something distinct from wine, is largely an invention of the modern world - something that came along with the advent of chemical preservatives and artificial refrigeration. The juice from grapes actually ferments at an incredible rate. If you take a bunch of grapes, squeeze the juice into a jug, and leave that jug sitting around for a few days, then at the end of those few days (less than a week, as I recall), you will have wine. The only way to prevent the process is by adding chemical preservatives and keeping the juice chilled, which they couldn't do in the ancient world.

Another spurious argument: the ancients only drank wine because they didn't have access to good drinking water. Yes, drinkable water was harder to come by then than now, but not enormously so. The ancients were quite skilled at finding drinkable water. They cooked with it, watered their animals with it, and drank it. They even cut their wine with it, to increase the volume. Besides, anyone who knows anything about alcohol knows that you can't replace water with wine in your diet. Alcohol is a diuretic: it increases urine production, and therefore accelerates dehydration, rather than preventing it.

A final point for consideration: the notion that Christians are required to abstain from alcohol is less than 200 years old, and is primarily localized in the United States. That means, in essence, that if drinking alcohol is inherently sinful for all Christians, then no one realized it for about the first 1800 years of Christian history. Now, there were people during that time who chose to abstain - in part or in whole - from drink, but no one (so far as I know) argued that drinking was inherently sinful. That's new.

All that being said, I want to reiterate that I have nothing against Christians who choose to abstain from alcohol. There are lots of good reasons to do so. Indeed, I'll be the first to say that there are some people who ought to do so: if you can't drink responsibly, you shouldn't drink at all. What I cannot accept is the assertion that drinking alcohol is somehow inherently wrong. There simply is no Biblical support for such a position, and most of the non-Biblical arguments used by Christians in defense of such a position are plainly spurious.

1 comment:

Jon said...

I'll drink to that.