Alcohol & the Church
In heaven there is no beer
Clean Living, 1973
I've never liked that song -- not only because I don't much care for polkas, but also because I think it preaches bad theology. The Bible talks about wine being in heaven -- why not beer?
Wine and beer in heaven? Are you shocked? The fact is that the church is almost as uncomfortable dealing with alcohol as it is dealing with sex.
Out of the Closet
Time to come clean: I like beer and my wife likes wine. We make both at home.
I love brewing beer. Not just because I'm looking forward to enjoying it with friends, but for the same reason you see farmers walking around, just looking at their crops and picking up handfuls of dirt. Brewing beer is, for me, an awesome, joyful connection with something larger than myself. Like farmers who till, plant and water -- knowing all the while that only God can bring their labor to fruit (1 Corinthians 3:6) -- I enjoy initiating a process that God himself designed (fermentation rather than germination, in this case).
We forget that we've had the luxury of debating whether to use alcohol for only about a hundred years -- unsafe water has made beer or wine a necessity for most of history and is still a serious health problem in many countries.
It's also easy to forget that Christians have been intimately involved in every aspect of alcohol production for hundreds of years. Since Bible times, the faithful have enjoyed alcohol as a social lubricant (1 Samuel 25:18), as an anesthetic or for other medicinal purposes (Proverbs 31:6; 1 Timothy 5:23), and as a blessing from God to enjoy in a life made hard by a fallen world -- a hint of better things to come in heaven (Deuteronomy 7:13; Psalm 104:15; Proverbs 3:10).
Many of the most important advances in yeast culturing, fermentation science, distillation and so forth have been made by
Christians (see "Saints Preserved"). European monasteries and nunneries have long been famous for producing some of the world's best beers, wines, brandies and other spirits. These friars, monks, nuns and abbesses consider their work an act of worship every bit as legitimate as writing a devotional or hymn,service to the poor or any other useful, productive work.
Like them, I consider my hobby a craft. Like them, I feel privileged to participate in the production of something good God has given us to enjoy. Sometimes I wonder if beer and wine are -- if I dare say it -- a part of our Christian heritage in danger of being lost.
Trouble in Paradise
I'm not blind to the terrible health or social problems alcohol can and does cause. I'm also aware of the situations under which some of us might find ourselves obligated to abstain (Romans 14:14, 21).
I am struck, though, by how many of our health and social problems are caused by legitimate appetites and outlets, all given to us by God, which are allowed to rage out of control. Gluttony, sexual immorality and licentiousness are no more than God's gifts of food, sex and free will used and abused without restraint. In the same way, I believe, alcoholic beverages are good things God has given us to enjoy, along with the warning not to overindulge (Proverbs 20:1, 23:20; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Timothy 3:8; Titus 2:3).
Christians, therefore, can legitimately debate whether alcohol has become such a social evil that we should shun it. Arguing that the Bible forbids alcohol use or that it does not depict alcohol use at all, on the other hand, is simply without foundation (see "What Does the Bible Really Say?").
Perhaps there's a third choice, though. I said earlier that Christians tend to be uncomfortable dealing with sex; because of that, we've been labeled as repressive Puritans who are suspicious of pleasure in any form. And part of the problem is that we've never managed to show how wonderful a gift sex is when used in its proper context. Tragically, Christians have the same problems with immorality, infidelity and divorce as the rest of the world.
Our position on alcohol is the same. We either fall prey to abuse, or shun it altogether -- thus adding to our negative image.
What if Christians lost the reputation of humorless, miserable
Puritans who don't want anyone else to enjoy life either? What if we instead gained the reputation of people who know how to enjoy God's good gifts, yet possess the strength and restraint not to allow them to become our masters?
It seems to me that the more we shy away from unashamedly enjoying God's gifts, the more we inadvertently accuse him of being an irresponsible parent. We don't serve a God who gives his children dangerous things to play with -- food, sex, alcohol, free will -- and leaves us with no guidance or temperance to handle these gifts responsibly.
On the contrary: Our Father in heaven gives us many good and perfect gifts (James 1:17), yet teaches us temperance and moderation to keep them in their proper place (1 Corinthians 6:13).
And if we do choose to abstain from alcohol, there are legitimate reasons. Let's just make sure fear and misinformation aren't among them.
What Does the Bible Really Say?
An old joke says that Jesus turned water into wine 2,000 years ago, and that the church has been trying to turn wine into grape juice ever since. So much has been written about what the Bible "really" says about alcohol that it's helpful to compare the Bible itself to what people say about it (Acts 17:11):1
· Some get confused over the distinction between wine and "fermented drink" (e.g., Leviticus 10:9). Fermented drink in this verse is the Hebrew sekar, which referred to alcoholic beverages made from any fruit other than grapes, honey and especially grain -- beer, in other words.2 Sekar appears 23 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated beer or fermented drink.
Therefore, those contending that "wine" is grape juice and only "fermented drink" is alcoholic wine are simply confusing wine with beer and other beverages.
· Some claim Old Testament believers and Christians drank only "new wine" or "sweet wine," which was really grape juice. The Hebrew tiyros is translated new wine, as opposed to yayin, simply translated wine. Tiyros appears just 38 times in the Old Testament, as opposed to 141 instances of yayin. Similarly, the Greek oinos, or wine, appears 34 times in the New Testament, while gleukos, or sweet wine, appears once.
New wine, called must by winemakers, is definitely sweeter than fully fermented wine. But it's not alcohol-free; must ferments so fast that, in just a few days, it has enough alcohol to cause intoxication .
Indeed, Acts 2:13, the only New Testament verse using the Greek gleukos, clearly implies the onlookers thought the apostles were drunk. Grapes have so much fermentable sugar, in fact, that the challenge, even in modern winemaking, is often to get the desired yeast to take hold before the must can start fermenting with wild yeast or bacteria.
· Some claim believers in the Bible watered down their wine; some even come up with elaborate calculations of the wine-to-water ratio by which we can measure whether we're sinning or not. Watering down wine, though, not only reduces its safety advantage over impure water (1 Timothy 5:23), but is also used as a sign of spiritual poverty in the Bible (Isaiah 1:22).
· Others, most notably David Wilkerson in his famous "Sipping Saints," declare that they simply cannot believe Jesus would imbibe alcohol, much less create it miraculously and serve it to people who had already drank all the wine at a party.
With all due respect to Mr. Wilkerson, this is shaky ground on which to preach. Jesus said and did a lot of things that offended people then and today (John 6:53-66). Jesus drank and served wine. He was accused of being not only a winebibber, but also a drunkard (Matthew 11:19) -- an accusation that would hardly make sense if he was drinking juice. And the master of the banquet compared Jesus' miraculous wine to good wine that was served until "the guests have had too much to drink," after which cheaper wine could be served -- a comparison that again makes no sense if Jesus' wine was really grape juice.
Similarly, when Paul scolded the Corinthians for allowing some believers to get drunk at the communion table (1 Corinthians 11:21), he did not scold them for having alcoholic wine, but for not distributing it equally and for allowing excessive consumption.
The debate over whether Christians should use alcohol can, and will, continue. But the contention that believers in the Bible, or Jesus himself, never drank alcohol is insupportable.
As with any other issue, the church has a checkered history when it comes to dealing with alcohol.
Genesis 9:21: Noah celebrates his survival of the Flood by planting a vineyard, getting drunk and passing out. Things go downhill from there.
Leviticus 10:9: Immediately after Nadab and Abihu die for improperly offering incense, God warns Aaron and his sons not to drink wine or beer before they enter the Tent of Meeting -- prompting many theologians to wonder if Nadab and Abihu made their mistake because they'd been drinking.
Deuteronomy 14:23-26: Despite the potential problems of alcohol, God orders the Israelites to tithe wine, grain, beer and food and use it to throw a nationwide party once a year.
Esther 5:6, 7:7: Wine, and lots of it, serves as an unofficial court adviser when King Xerxes offers Esther anything she wants, up to half the kingdom, and later when he has Haman hung on his own gallows.
Psalm 104:15: David praises God for "wine that gladdens the heart of man."
Micah 2:11: Frustrated that Israel persists in behaving like they're at a frat party, Micah complains that if a prophet came along who promised plenty of wine and beer, "he would be just the prophet for this people!"
John 2:3-10: Jesus not only turns water to wine, but also does it in ritual purification water jars, underscoring the change from the Law to the new covenant. This escapes most of the party-goers, who notice only how good the wine is.
1 Timothy 5:23: Paul scolds Timothy for being so ascetic that he gets sick from impure water, urging him to drink some wine for his stomach problems.
A.D. 400: Augustine of Hippo dies. His temperate -- not teetotaling -- life as a believer was in marked contrast to his carousing youth. Upon his canonization many years later, he is named a patron saint of beer brewers, along with the apostle Luke, Nicholas of Myra (a.k.a. Santa Claus) and Good King Wenceslas.
circa. 500: St. Brigid, abbess of Kildare, is said to change the water in a leper's bath into beer to soothe their thirst, a miracle recorded in Vitae Sanctae Brigidae. She is also said to have made enough beer from a single peck of malt to supply 18 churches, each of which saw the beer miraculously last an entire octave -- from Maundy Thursday to Pentecost -- and heal the sick to boot.
circa. 700: Irish monks visit the Middle East and return with an alembic -- a device used to strengthen perfume. They use it to distill barley wine, inventing a concoction they call Uisce Beatha, or "water of life." Anglo-Normans invade later; they like Uisce Beatha, but can't pronounce it correctly. They call it whiskey.
circa. 950: St. Wenceslas orders the death penalty for smuggling Bohemian hops out of Czechoslovakia. His namesake, Wenceslas II, later persuades the Pope to revoke a law banning beer brewing in the 13th century. Both kings, unsurprisingly, are beloved by brewmeisters.
circa. 1060: St. Arnold of Soissons, Belgium, asks God to multiply the beer left over after a disastrous abbey roof collapse. When Arnold's prayer is answered, the monks and townspeople canonize him on the spot. He also invents a way to use bee skeps -- straw cones used in apiaries -- to filter beer. St. Arnold is still portrayed surrounded by bees, with one hand on a skep.
circa. 1200: An Augsburg city law proclaims, "The selling of bad beer is a crime against Christian love."
June 13, 1525: Johannes Bugenhagen conducts a wedding. The happy couple receives, among other things, a cask of Einbecker ale from the town council and a silver beer stein from Wittenberg University, who apparently harbor no ill will against the groom -- Martin Luther -- for having nailed his theses to their door. Katherine and Martin often entertain students and fellow reformers at their table, where they drink beer and debate theology into the wee hours.
Martin notes, "It is better to think of church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church."
Katherine Luther, a former nun, is an expert homebrewer, prompting Martin, when he travels, to write long love letters both to her and her beer. In one letter, he laments to poor quality of the beer where he is staying and wishes Katherine could ship his entire wine and beer cellar to him.
circa. 1670: A monk, the cellarmaster of Hautvillers Abbey, claims to have invented a new type of wine. Controversy swirls around the monk -- Dom Perignon -- to this day. He was undoubtedly an ingenious winemaker; he greatly advanced the science of blending and was the first to use Spanish corks to actually keep champagne in its bottle. Historians doubt he invented champagne, though, citing records of it being developed in another abbey a hundred years earlier. Legends of Perignon developing champagne by taste alone, as he was blind, are also probably not true, although he did become blind later in life. One account says he was blinded by an exploding champagne bottle.