(NB: Much of this stems from a recent discussion with a friend. I am grateful to that friend for engaging in that discussion helpfully and constructively. I apologise in advance for the length of this piece: I can only say that this reflects the large amount of Biblical discussion on the topic!)
“Admit that drunkenness is wrong and that you struggle with temptation. Or admit that you pick which parts of Christianity you follow on the basis of what you enjoy doing. Or, it pains me to say, if you really reflect on it and feel this way, even admit that you are not really concerned about living in accordance with Christian principles. But please do not pretend that the Biblical perspective on drunkenness is one which condones it.”
This is not going to be a popular article. Among certain people, it will be incredibly unpopular. This article comes with a warning that you may end up feeling indignant, angry, and more. I have little doubt that at least one person will come away thinking that I am a judgmental, sanctimonious moraliser. My intention is (obviously) not for any of these feelings (about yourself or about me) to occur: I am already well aware of my own failings, and I’m not hugely keen on making myself unpopular among strangers, even less so among friends. I write this because I am genuinely seriously concerned (and have been for several years, without making it so clear until now) and because I feel it is important for people to hear this. If, afterwards, you do feel angry or judged, send me an e-mail and we can talk further.
My concern, bluntly, is this: that many Christians engage in behaviour which is destructive on a number of levels, and which is clearly in conflict with Biblical teaching (I can feel the indignation already). Of course, this is true of all Christians in some sense – everyone slips up from time to time. But this is of a different character in at least two respects: it is an extremely widespread problem, and worse still, it is often not seen as a problem at all. Here, I hope to outline some of the reasons for thinking that drunkenness is in conflict with Christian character and that Christians ought to make every effort to avoid it.
Since I’m writing spontaneously, there will probably be little structure to this piece. It is likely to consist of an awkwardly cobbled together list of Biblical passages relating to drunkenness and reasons why Christians should not get drunk. Since I’m writing to implore rather than to impress, this doesn’t bother me much. Let’s get started.
Explicit passages about drunkenness – Old Testament
It seems sensible to begin with the most obvious passages talking about drunkenness. There are a number of passages in the Old Testament addressing drunkenness, of which the following are just a few:
“This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Deuteronomy 21:20b
“Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Proverbs 20:1
“Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.” Proverbs 23:20-21
“Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of 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. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart will 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 must have another drink.”” Proverbs 23:29-35
“it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” Proverbs 31:5b-7
“These also reel with wine and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed by wine, they stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment.” Isaiah 28:7
“But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. “Come,” they say, “let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.” Isaiah 56:11b-12
“They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the LORD to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.” Hosea 4:10-11
This is hardly a flattering picture of drunkenness. Drunkenness is unanimously portrayed negatively, and there are explicit injunctions against it. The effects of drunkenness are described and held to be unwise and shameful. Drunkenness is described as being for those who are perishing. This could not be in starker contrast with the Christian ideal, laid out in both Old and New Testaments, that Christians be people of wisdom, clear judgment and living not by themselves or by any artificial power but by God’s Spirit. Hosea chastises Israel for their drunkenness in the context of describing them as a whore. The contrived manoeuvres one has to perform to argue that drunkenness is compatible with life by the Spirit are nothing short of embarrassing.
Explicit passages about drunkenness – New Testament
Things are no more promising when we get to the New Testament. It is easy for Christians to dismiss many things as part of the Law, or as part of ceremonial cleanliness which has no moral relevance for Christians now. Jesus has set us free from the Law, and we are not bound to obey everything in the Torah as written. But the first obvious problem here is that almost every passage about drunkenness in the Old Testament comes not from the Law, but from the wisdom literature and the prophets. Isaiah and Proverbs portray wisdom as a divine quality and state clearly that drunkenness violates this spiritual quality by undermining our clarity of thought and judgment, virtues that are emphasised as major themes elsewhere in the Bible. Hosea describes a similar theme in the context of calling Israel a whore for the extent of their violation of God’s standards. It is clear that this is no ceremonial uncleanliness which is only possibly minorly wrong for reasons we can’t quite understand and about which the relevant passages are ambiguous. Drunkenness is clearly seen as a significant violation of spiritual living, and the reasons for this are made quite clear.
The second problem is that the New Testament is even more explicit about the matter. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
“Look carefully when how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:15-21
And in Galatians:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Galatians 5:16-25
Talking to the Corinthians:
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”” 1 Corinthians 5:9-13
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
To the church in Rome:
“Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Romans 13:11-14
“But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers or slaves to much wine.” Titus 2:1-3a
To the Thessalonians:
“For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” 1 Thessalonians 5:5-8
In addition to Paul, see 1 and 2 Peter:
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8
“These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For it, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” 2 Peter 2:17-21
This amounts to a compelling case on its own, and should really make a judgement on the matter obvious to any sincere reader. But it is worth taking a closer look anyway.
Beginning with Ephesians, Paul is speaking in the context of “walking in the light”, which is part of his wider theme of separating two infinitely different ways of living: on the one hand, there is the “natural” way of living which seeks sensual pleasure, indulgence, greed and other selfish ways of living at the expense of holiness, and on the other hand is the “spiritual” way of living which seeks God’s will and imitates Jesus. Paul says to therefore “walk as children of the light”. A key point is that simply to live without doing anything terrible isn’t enough: walking in the light doesn’t mean walking limply in a dimly lit corridor, it means walking boldly and passionately in the full glory of God. Being lukewarm and living averagely without actively pursuing bad or good things isn’t what life in the Spirit is about: life in the Spirit is about grasping every moment given to us by God and using it for his glory. Tom Wright comments on this passage:
“The danger is on the other side: of not taking each day and hour as a gift from God, to be used for his glory, but instead letting them wash over and pass by, like water down a river, never used, never to return. For such people, verse 16 is another wake-up call: these are evil times we live in, and you as a child of light have a chance to do something about it. Take that chance with both hands.
Of course (verse 18), there’s nothing like a few drinks to make opportunities slip by unobserved. Paul has nothing against wine; but against getting drunk he is adamant. That’s no way for Christians to behave. If you want to celebrate – and why not? – then you know what to do. Let the spirit fill your hearts and lives, particularly your minds and imaginations.” Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, 64
I once asked a friend whether they thought getting drunk was a godly way of living. Their reply? “Well it’s not ungodly!” But is this really what we’re aiming for? Did Christ die so that we could be “not ungodly”? No! All the New Testament writers (and Jesus) make it clear: there is no middle way. There is no walking in a sliver of light. There is walking in the light (or trying), and there is walking in darkness. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31), Paul commands us. Can we really say, in spite of these Biblical passages, that getting drunk is a godly thing to do, reflects our new life in Jesus to everyone around us and glorifies God? When getting drunk is, time and again, explicitly contrasted with walking in the light and used as one of the paradigmatic examples of walking in darkness, is this really a plausible option?
The passage in Galatians is very similar – drunkenness is used as a paradigmatic example of the “works of the flesh”, a phrase for what Paul sees as the natural behaviour of humans before redemption by Christ. This is contrasted with everyone’s favourite passage about the fruits of the Spirit: what license do we have for taking Paul’s word on the fruits of the Spirit and dismissing his contrast with the works of the flesh, including drunkenness? It is hard to overestimate the force of Paul’s words here. He is not just condemning a random list of behaviours, he is describing a whole lifestyle of living without Christ, of which drunkenness is just an obvious illustration of “things like these”. Again, for Paul, drunkenness stands in stark contrast with the fruits of the spirit.
The passages in 1 Corinthians are similar, listing drunkards among idolaters, thieves and swindlers. Paul explicitly makes the point that many were drunkards before coming to Christ – and part of the power of the gospel is that it renewed people and saved them from their past behaviour. If this was one of the most remarkable features of Christians back then – and no doubt it is now – do we really want to give up this witness to the new life found in Christ? If we’re taking joy in all the same things as our non-Christian peers and not living any differently, are we really showing the good news and joy that is to be found in Jesus? There is no beating around the bush: in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, we are told that drunkards do not inherit the kingdom of God, and in the latter, drunkenness is seen as such an embarrassment to the Corinthian church that Paul actually forbids the Corinthians to associate themselves with those who call themselves Christians but still get drunk!
Romans 13 includes, of course, the powerful passage which convicted St Augustine of his need for Christ:
“There I had left a volume of the Apostle when I got up. I snatched it up, opened it, and read in silence the first passage my eyes lit upon: No revelry or bouts of drinking, no debauchery or sensuality, no quarrelling or jealousy. No, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and never think how to gratify the cravings of the flesh. I neither wished nor needed to read further. With the end of that sentence, as though the light of assurance had poured into my heart, all the shades of doubt were scattered.” Confessions, VIII.12
There is yet another clear injunction against drunkenness. Barclay comments: “To the Greeks drunkenness was a particularly disgraceful thing … This was a vice which not only a Christian but any respectable heathen also would have condemned.” I needn’t make another remark about the contrast Paul explicitly draws here. Similarly with the passages from 1 Thessalonians and Titus.
1 Peter 5:8 contributes to the injunctions to be sober: the reason given is that humans are incredibly susceptible and vulnerable to be led astray and have to live in complete wisdom and clear thinking in order to resist our natural inclinations to sin. It is easy to see how drunkenness thwarts this. 2 Peter picks up the theme, declaring that “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” (cf 1 Corinthians 6:12: “”All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.”) And since we cannot have two masters, anything overcoming us and directing our thoughts which isn’t Jesus or his Spirit will compromise our service to God.
All in all, then, we have a consistent and repeated injunction not to get drunk, with many reasons given. Being drunk is seen throughout the Bible as a key example of a work of the flesh, walking in the darkness and life without the Spirit. It is seen as shameful, and something which detracts from God’s glory and from our clear-headed and sober worship of him.
We have dealt with most of the passages talking explicitly about drunkenness and sobriety. But there is more that can be added to the Biblical case against drunkenness. To try and keep this section brief, I will not elaborate on these extra reasons much – don’t take it as a sign that there’s not much to be said!
One of the key problems with drunkenness, as is made clear from the texts already examined (e.g. Isaiah 28, Hosea 4, Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 6, Titus 2), is that it affects our understanding, judgement and wisdom. In the Bible, these are seen as virtues given to us by God: we are told to be wise stewards of God’s creation, and to use our minds and thinking for God’s glory. Drunkenness is clearly detrimental to these, and to that extent can be seen as antithetical to Christian living. How can we expect to be taken seriously, showing the wisdom that Christianity has for others, if we are spending our time “enquiring of pieces of wood”, as Hosea puts it?
Another problem is the health issues associated with heavy drinking. These are well known, and most Christians will accept that we are to respect our bodies and take care of them, so that we can use them for God’s glory. Why make an exception for drunkenness?
Another problem is the lack of a witnessing opportunity it gives us. In a culture so dominated by heavy drinking, is it not obvious that staying sober is a talking point that gives us an opportunity to speak to others, in wisdom and love, about the joy found in Christ? Are we really spreading Jesus’ love with our actions if we are not really standing out from our culture in any way?
A few more thoughts: by getting drunk, we buy into a culture that idolises drunkenness and, in many social circles, bases our entire social life around it. How many times do we hear “it’s not really fun unless you’re drunk”? And have we not noticed that getting drunk is no longer an addition to a given social activity: rather, getting drunk is a social activity itself? And we are all aware of how common drunkenness is, and how commonly disasters in relationships and property stem from it? If we’re buying into a culture which idolises drunkenness, do we really have a strong witness against the destruction that can occur from it?
This is a really serious point: we must all know how many lives and relationships have been ruined from heavy drinking. We generally consider it a good thing to not invest in cultures which have idols and which are heavily involved in disaster. We think it’s good not to promote and help companies which exploit third world workers, and we think it’s good not to fuel the horrifically anti-human sex slave industry by doing business with them. Are we going to be listened to and taken seriously as loving neighbours when we condemn sex trafficking but consort with trafficked prostitutes? Are we going to be taken seriously as people condemning sweat shops and poverty when we are fuelling companies which trap people in such atrocious conditions? Obviously not. So how can we be seriously considered as wise stewards who care about the lives that heavy drinking has ruined when we spend our Saturday nights doing it ourselves?
One more really important reason: drunkenness is a stumbling block to other Christians whose conscience doesn’t allow it. This is one of the most tragic parts: many times I’ve spoken to Christians who don’t think that drunkenness is acceptable, but all of whose Christian friends get drunk. There are several passages in the New Testament tackling this kind of thing:
“But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” 1 Corinthians 8:9-13
“Therefore let us not pass judgement on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil … Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Romans 14:13-16, 20-21
The application to drunkenness is clear. But is it not even more problematic that we have Christians whose conscience forbids them from drunkenness, but who feel pressured into it because even their Christian friends are doing it? And if some Christians whose conscience is against it go to parties and are the only sober ones there, would it not be loving for their fellow Christians to support them in that decision and allow them to still enjoy the party by being sober with them?
In summary, there is a huge number of good Biblical reasons to not get drunk, not least all the passages explicitly forbidding it. The Bible is not ambiguous on the matter: there are many passages explicitly describing drunkenness in a bad light, and it is never portrayed positively. It is not enough to say that addiction is bad, but drunkenness isn’t – the Bible talks a lot more about drunkenness than addiction! Nor is it enough to say that the passages can potentially be interpreted differently – perhaps saying that your life shouldn’t be controlled by drunkenness, and that it shouldn’t be put before God. But the amount of interpretive gymnastics required to sustain this is embarrassing. If we remove all biases for a moment, ignore the fact that getting drunk is pleasurable to some, and simply look at what the text is very probably trying to say, any sincere, honest reader has to come to the conclusion that it is drunkenness itself which is being warned against.
Nor will it do to say that getting drunk occasionally doesn’t make you a drunkard. Even if true, we could just as well say that being gluttonous occasionally doesn’t make you a glutton. But the Biblical condemnation of gluttons still suggests that any gluttony itself is problematic. And, of course, we have plenty of passages specifically about drunkenness, not drunkards. So please, let’s think sincerely about what the most plausible interpretation of all these passages is, and be aware of any biases to interpret them differently just so we can live how we want to. It’s not sinful to do things we enjoy – but if it's something our lives begin to revolve around, or which we do simply for pure pleasure without doing it to glorify God, we should at least be very cautious about whether we’re doing it for God’s glory or just to satisfy our natural desires.
Admit that drunkenness is wrong and that you struggle with temptation. Or admit that you pick which parts of Christianity you follow on the basis of what you enjoy doing. Or, it pains me to say, if you really reflect on it and feel this way, even admit that you are not really concerned about living in accordance with Christian principles. But please do not pretend that the Biblical perspective on drunkenness is one which condones it.
I am sorry if any of this has caused offence: no doubt there will be some indignation from many of my friends. But please think about my motivations for posting it and about the content, and I hope you’ll see that there is something to it.