Friday, June 13, 2008

How To Drink Like a Christian: Part 2 (The Danger of Drunkenness)

“The excess of drunkenness is compared to the danger of the sea, in which when the body has once been sunken like a ship, it descends to the depths of turpitude, overwhelmed in the mighty billows of wine; and the helmsman, the human mind, is tossed about on the surge of drunkenness, which swells aloft; and buried in the trough of the sea, is blinded by the darkness of the tempest, having drifted away from the haven of truth, till, dashing on the rocks beneath the sea, it perishes, driven by itself into voluptuous indulgences.” -Clement of Alexandria

"Some of the domestic evils of drunkenness are houses without windows, gardens without fences, fields without tillage, barns without roofs, children without clothing, principles, morals or manners." -Benjamin Franklin

"I drink too much. Way too much. I gave a urine sample, there was an olive in it." -Rodney Dangerfield

It is a common misconception that the Puritans, when they came to America, were teetotalers. It just isn’t true, because along with food and families, they also brought another necessity to lift their spirits and promote joyfulness before the Lord: wine and beer. In fact, the Puritans loaded more beer than water onto the Mayflower before they cast off for the New World.(1) “Local brewing began almost as soon as the colonists were safely ashore." Considering the (mostly unfair) reputation Puritans have gained as being moral tightwads, some may be surprised to know that the old Puritans were moderationists. Consider the words of Increase Mather: “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan; the wine is from God, but the drunkard is from the Devil.”

This quote stands somewhat in contrast to the words of an old pastor of mine who once called wine “the nectar of the devil,” and “the devil’s poison.” Whereas Mather pointed to drunkenness as the work of the devil, prohibitionists such as my old pastor (as I touched on in the last post) identify the substance itself as the evil to be cleansed and avoided.

In truth, there are real dangers associated with alcohol (as with any and all of God's gifts). These dangers are at the forefront of most prohibitionist arguments, but this need not be the case. Drunkenness happens when someone drinks more alcohol than they ought to, but when self-control is exercised, this is something that simply will not happen.

The Bible is full of warnings against the abuse of alcohol. John Piper nicely sums up the Bible's warnings against abusing alcohol:

[P]riests were prohibited from drinking wine or strong drink while serving the tent of God (Leviticus 10:9). Part of the Nazirite vow was total abstinence (Numbers 6:3). The Proverbs warn against the dangers of strong drink: "Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise" (20:1). "Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of the eyes? Those who tarry long over wine, those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. 'They struck me,' you will say, 'but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink'" (23:29–35). "It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted" (31:4, 5). The prophets also attacked the abuse of strong drink: "Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening till wine inflames them" (Isaiah 5:11). And in the New Testament Paul repeatedly denounces drunkenness as a work of the flesh (Ephesians 5:18; Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:7). And it appears that Timothy had committed himself to total abstinence for a while, because Paul had to urge him, "No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach" (1 Timothy 5:23).
Piper then sums up the Bible's position (in part, anyway) by stating that "The least we can infer from all this is that while drinking is not always viewed as wrong, its dangers and harmfulness were such as to call forth numerous warnings, and in some cases (priestly service, Nazirite vow, Timothy's apostolic efforts) abstinence was seen as commendable. Drunkenness is always wrong."

Now, anyone who knows Piper's position knows that he takes further steps than some by opting not to drink for four reasons: "First, I choose not to drink because of my conscience. The second reason is that alcohol is a mind-altering drug. The third reason why I choose total abstinence is that alcohol is addictive. The fourth reason I choose total abstinence is to make a social statement." I do not follow Piper in his cautious approach, but I also do no condemn him for it. He has his reasons for abstaining, and for him, it would be a violation of his own conscience (and therefore a sin) to drink.

I do, however, take issue with people in Piper's position when they take their conviction and turn it into a command (which Piper, himself, does not do), condemning individuals for partaking of something which is not sinful simply because they choose to exercise caution. Nothing made Jesus angrier (except, perhaps, selling trinkets in church) than when religious leaders made up laws for God's people to follow.

In sum, it should be obvious that though alcohol is given to man as a good and a source of happiness, its abuse leads to drunkenness, which is a great evil and is forbidden.

PS: Read this story. I pretty much base all of my arguments for the morality of alcohol on this one story. (Just kidding.)

Next Time: The Blessing of Alcohol and Its Uses


Is this man drunk, or merely slain in the spirit? That's a serious question too, by the way, because I really can't tell the difference.

(1) Royce, James E. Alcohol Problems: A Comprehensive Survey. New York: Free Press, 1981, 38.


  1. Pro anti-drunkenness site; please visit/comment.

  2. In my experience, Piper is articulating what can be considered the soft-legalist position. So, I am not really persuaded that he doesn't make it a rule for others. He doesn't drink, fine. The moment he starts telling me why, he has crossed over from simply being a non-drinker to a soft legalist. The genius of soft legalism is that it sounds like it isn't legalism.

    (Boy, the more I go on with Piper the more I cringe.)

  3. The problem for someone like Piper is that he is in a position where people are going to ask him if he drinks, and if not, why not. Further, he is operating within a larger organization which has numerous abstainers (baptists in general). I think he is quick to give his reasons for not drinking because he does not want people to think his reasons for it are due to the typical baptist arguments.

    So, while I understand where steve is coming from, I also can see why Piper would feel compelled to give his reasons for not drinking.

  4. Steve,

    Fair points for sure.

    At the same time, there is something to be said for combatting the legalism in one's broader community instead of merely perpetuating it.

    I know, way easier said than done from my seat. (Which is why I am also not big fan of Piper's "Sanctity of Life Sunday Sermonizing." Because it's no where near the jurisdiction of the church, it's easy to tell the state how to construct social policy when you are absolutely unaccountable to the burden of statecraft.)

  5. By the way, great pictures on all of these posts so far!

  6. Finally something I can finally agree with you on. (Says Josh as he fails miserably at standing on one foot while touching his nose.)


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