- The Explore the Bible Lesson for August 2 focuses on Proverbs 23:17-21, 29-35
Few things start fights among American Christians quite like alcohol—and that’s before anyone even has consumed any. Some Christians believe beverage alcohol to be sinful, full stop. Others personally abstain but do not pass judgment on fellow believers who drink in moderation. Still others believe that it is perfectly fine to drink if you do so responsibly, and therefore imbibe on a regular basis.
When these diverse points of view get mashed together, conflict starts brewing. This phenomenon is mostly unique to North American Christians, however. For most Christians outside the United States, alcohol consumption is largely a non-issue. Just drink responsibly, they insist.
The history of American Christianity and alcohol is complex, but we can distill this history down to some key details. In the late 1800s, severe alcoholism had reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Booze was driving people into poverty, destroying families and contributing to widespread violence. It was far worse than what we generally see today. As a result, many Christians understandably developed a strong opposition to alcohol altogether.
What does the Bible say? That’s what we’re here to study, and our text for this week from Proverbs has plenty to offer.
The opening verses of our passage today do not address drunkenness directly, but instead warn, “Do not let your heart envy sinners” (23:17a). Instead, one should “always be zealous for the fear of the Lord,” because, “There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off” (23:17b-18).
This introduction serves well as preparation for what lies ahead. The truth is that exorbitant alcohol consumption is enticing to many people. The media and personal stories serve to play up drinking as a source of great fun and happiness. “Just cut loose and have some fun. Have some drinks and you’ll feel good.” And so it goes.
However much fun it may be to consume alcohol, especially with friends, we as Christians have higher priorities than fun. Fun that is dangerous and/or sinful is not something we should envy, let alone pursue. We are to “thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), not for Zinfandel or India pale ales.
Excess and extremity
So, is it a sin to drink alcohol? Not according to Proverbs. Our text today warns against getting together with “those who drink too much wine” (emphasis mine) and who “gorge themselves on meat” (23:20). The problem is not alcohol itself; the problem is excess and its consequences.
Notice also that the text mentions meat, not just alcohol. Verses 19-21 call attention not to the sin of drinking, but to the sin of excessive consumption. In other words, it is just as sinful to “pig out” as it is to get drunk. However, the former almost rarely gets condemned in evangelical preaching.
We also must remember that Proverbs is concerned not simply with “right” and “wrong,” but with wisdom. Excessive consumption isn’t simply wrong; it’s unwise. This is because “drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags” (23:21). I’ve heard stories of bar tabs running higher than my share of the monthly rent, and even more “modest” tabs can regularly run quite high.
Sadly, full-blown addictions to alcohol, food and many other substances can be very expensive, and many people have driven themselves to poverty by funding their addictions. Christians ought to show compassion towards those struggling with addictions and seek to help them as best we can.
Dangers of drunkenness
The longest section of our text, verses 29-35, details the various dangers of excessive and irresponsible drinking. While the Bible frequently speaks of “drunkenness,” the concept of “blood alcohol concentration” was foreign to the biblical authors. There is not a specific amount of alcohol where the Bible draws the line.
Rather, the problem of drunkenness is tied to behavior. It is patterns of foolish, degrading and dangerous behavior—which stem from intoxication—that the Bible focuses on for criticism.
Dangers of drunkenness include the general pain and misery that come from an alcohol habit (verse 29); distorted sensory perception, confusion, and hallucinations (verse 33); nausea and disorientation (verse 34); and compulsive drinking stemming from addiction (verse 35).
Again, this is not simply a matter of morality—it is a matter of wisdom. Irresponsible and uncontrolled drinking is genuinely dangerous to one’s health, in both the short-term and the long-term.
Discernment and grace
So, should Christians consume alcohol? The Bible never condemns drinking alcohol outright, but Scripture criticizes and warns against excess. This is an area that requires discernment and grace.
Some Christians will choose to abstain from drinking and encourage others to consider doing the same. They think it simply is better not to risk it. Other Christians personally will abstain but generally refrain from comment on others’ habits. Still others will drink in a manner they consider responsible.
Christians must be thoughtful and considerate in every direction. Those who personally abstain have no biblical justification for condemning believers who drink responsibly, but those who choose to drink would be sinfully ungracious to mock or criticize those who abstain out of caution and who mention the possible dangers.
And in all things, we must exercise prudence. The crippling damage of alcoholism and the devastation from drunk driving accidents should remind all Christians that no matter how we approach alcohol, we always must be careful not to let it master us or lead us into danger.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.