Works of the Flesh: Drunkenness

The Apostle Paul understood the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the ways of God in the Spirit, and exhorted the Galatian Christians to manifest the fruit of the Spirit and resist the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-24). He listed these “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Many of the first “works of the flesh” centered on challenges and temptations which would prove especially acute for Christians who had recently come out of the Greco-Roman pagan milieu: sexual temptations like sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness; idolatry; and sorcery. Paul then established the “works of the flesh” which prove especially pernicious in relationships: enmities, strife, jealousy, wrath, rivalries, divisions, sects, and envy. Paul concluded the “works of the flesh” with sins of excess, beginning with drunkenness.

The word here translated as “drunkenness” is the Greek word methe, defined by Thayer as “intoxication, drunkenness.” In theory, a person can become intoxicated or made drunk by all sorts of substances and desires; to this end John is told the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk by the “wine” of the “sexually deviant behavior” of “whore Babylon” in Revelation 17:1-2, an indictment of the idolatry of the age. Yet we notice how the drunkenness is spoken of in terms of “wine,” for the core concept of drunkenness remains “to be made intoxicated by alcoholic substances.” Thus Jesus warned His disciples to not be overcharged with drunkenness and to be found unprepared for the day of His return (Luke 21:34); Paul likewise warned the Roman Christians to walk as if in the day, not in drunkenness in Romans 13:12-13, since those who get drunk tend to do so at night (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:7).

Wine and beer were very common beverages in the Greco-Roman world. Most sources of water were polluted and infested with parasites, and the alcoholic content in wine would help reduce some of these challenges; wine and beer were also a means by which to obtain some calories for survival. Knowledge of distillation was unknown in the ancient world; “strong drink” (Hebrew shekar) in the Old Testament referred to “beer,” not the distilled spirits of much higher alcoholic content now known to man. By the time of the New Testament it was considered barbaric and uncultured to drink “unmixed” wine which maintained its full ~12% alcoholic strength (thus the indictment and the strength of judgment found in the unmixed cup of the wrath of God in Revelation 14:10); wine was cut with water, three or four parts water to one part wine, reducing alcoholic content to around 3-4%. Paul commended such wine for Timothy on account of his stomach ailments (1 Timothy 5:23). Almost everyone in the ancient world, the poor or enslaved as well as the rich, would drink some kind of this mixed wine with their meals.

And yet Paul’s warning against drunkenness remained appropriate: many would drink themselves to drunkenness, even with unmixed wine. In this way human nature has changed little over the centuries: then, as now, many consumed a lot of alcohol at parties or in other social settings as a “social lubricant,” to loosen inhibitions and revel with one’s fellow man: to “make merry,” according to the Hebrew idiom (e.g. Ruth 3:7, 1 Samuel 25:36, 2 Kings 4:20, Ecclesiastes 9:7, Isaiah 24:7, Jeremiah 15:17). Drunkenness, then as now, would often lead to unwise sexual liaisons or arguments and fights (cf. Proverbs 20:1, 23:31-35). For many drunkenness represented a coping mechanism for the distress and pain of life, a tranquilizer to numb from the misery of life (cf. Proverbs 31:6-7). Drunkenness, therefore, represents the attempt to escape from reality to pursue greater social acceptance, the loosening of inhibitions, the warmth and the “buzz,” and/or the numbness from pain. Christians are called upon to clearly recognize reality and to find hope and confidence in Jesus, giving no quarter to the passions of the flesh but in sober-mindedness fully devoted to the purposes of God in Christ until He returns (cf. Colossians 3:1-10). Thus, any who would profess Jesus yet prove to be an unrepentant drunkard must be cast out from among the people of God, for no drunkard will inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 5:11, 6:10).

The culture of alcohol in America today gravitates toward the extremes: excessive consumption of alcohol in revelry and/or addiction, or teetotaling abstinence. Christians do well to condemn the culture of excessive consumption of alcohol and to resist any form of participation in it. Few sins prove as self-defeating as drunkenness: much of it is consumed without regard to taste; all kinds of bad decisions are made while drunk; excessive consumption all too easily leads to a hangover; and despite it all people will return and do it over and over again. Such is the definition of folly, and we do well to observe the lessons of Proverbs 23:31-35. In truth no one is at their best or healthiest while drinking unto drunkenness. Nothing good comes from it.

We can see that Christians must condemn the excessive consumption of alcohol and firmly resist participation in drunkenness and revelry. Yet we must also make sure we do not go beyond what is written in our condemnations and denunciations. There are some who would suggest any kind of alcoholic consumption is sinful and condemned. Many such persons attempt to argue for a “non-alcoholic” definition of Greek oinos as used in the New Testament; some suggest the condemnation of drunkenness in Ephesians 5:18 is not just the end result but the entire process based upon the form of the verb (methuskesthe, argued to be an inchoate/inceptive form), and thus to drink one alcoholic drink is in the process of getting drunk, and thus is as drunkenness. Neither argument can be sustained in light of what is made known in the New Testament. Greek oinos, by definition, is alcoholic wine; contextual evidence would be necessary to suggest anything to the contrary. It would be odd for the Jewish people to condemn Jesus as one who drank a lot of grape juice in Matthew 11:19; Paul’s exhortation for deacons to “not be given to much wine” makes no sense if the “wine” involved was really only grape juice (1 Timothy 3:8). In terms of Ephesians 5:18, not every verb with the inchoate/inceptive form -sk- is necessarily inchoate/inceptive; by the first century, methuskesthe just meant to get drunk, not the whole process. One could argue that the sin of drunkenness includes drinking with the intent to get drunk, and thus with the very first drink; yet even then, if there were no intention to get drunk, and one did not get drunk, there is no means by which to condemn such a one as a drunkard.

What shall we say to such things? No excuse or quarter is to be given for drunkenness: all Christians must condemn excessive consumption of alcohol as dangerous and sinful, a “work of the flesh” (1 Corinthians 5:11, 6:10, Galatians 5:22). The Bible does not condemn all forms of alcoholic consumption, however: the condemnation is in excess consumption, and the Scriptures testify to the people of God drinking wine and beer in Old and New Testament times (Deuteronomy 7:3, 14:26, Proverbs 31:6, Ecclesiastes 9:7, 10:19, Matthew 11:19, 1 Timothy 5:23). The Apostle Paul declared it was good to not drink wine if it caused a fellow Christian to stumble, and that remains excellent counsel (Romans 14:21). And yet the Kingdom is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit according to Romans 14:17: there is no ground to condemn consumption of alcohol that does not lead to excess. Thus, Christians do well to avoid sin in terms of alcohol and drinking: none should get drunk. Those who elect to avoid all alcoholic beverages ought to be respected for that decision, and none should seek to cause them to stumble. Yet those who abstain have no ground or right to judge or condemn those who would consume alcohol but not to excess (Romans 14:3-22). May we glorify God in all we do, avoid drunkenness, and strive to live in peace to edify one another in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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