Alcohol in the Bible: A Response

Preston Sprinkle

Welcome to my blog! As some of you may know, I’ve been blogging over at Theology for Real Life for a few years now, but I’m now going solo. I’ll explain why in a later blog, but for now, I wanted to follow up with a discussion that’s been brewing over an article that I recently wrote for Relevant Magazine titled “What Does the Bible Really Say About Alcohol.”
After writing the article, I have to confess. I broke a writer’s rule. I looked. I couldn’t help myself. Like the Louie-lookers who gaze their way pass a freeway accident, I looked. I looked at the comments below the article.

For good or for ill, I want to respond to some of the questions raised in those comments. I won’t address the ones that were unclear, socially awkward, or unchristian in tone and argumentation (there were a few). But I do want to respond to some of the better questions proposed in those comments, or ones that were sent to me via Facebook, Twitter, or email.

One of the best questions that came up was: What if drinking wine causes someone to stumble?

This is a good question. I’ve always wondered, though, where do you draw the line? If I have someone over for dinner and they “struggle” with secular music, do I hide all my Beethoven albums? (The dude was a total pagan.) Or—this is one we don’t often consider—if someone struggles with greed and materialism (in other words, if they’re an American Christian), do I hide my iPad and scuff up my furniture so that they don’t get offended and fall into sin when they look at all my stuff? Where does it end? Some people are offended at preachers that wear jeans, others flip out when there are drums on stage, still others may question your salvation if they hear that you’ve read a Harry Potter book. Is it even possible to go through life and not do something that may cause someone to stumble?

Perhaps a better question is: What does it actually means to cause someone to stumble? Do a quick word study on the verb “to cause to stumble” (Greek: skandalizo) and you’ll find out that most of our modern scenarios with drinking don’t really fit the biblical warning.

For instance, it is true that Jesus offered some blistering critiques against those who cause people to stumble, as in Matthew 18:6-9. But what Jesus had in mind by “stumble” (skandalizo) is something serious, something spiritually fatal. The idea of causing someone to stumble, in the words of Don Hagner, “is to be understood in the serious sense of causing someone to…fall into sin, or perhaps even to lose their faith in Jesus and the gospel” (Hagner, Matthew, 2.522). This is more than just some personal offense (for that, see Matthew 17:27). You haven’t caused another believer to stumble if they overheard you listening to secular music and they go out and buy the latest Coldplay album, nor have you caused someone to stumble if they have a drink because they saw you toss back a pint of Sam Adams at Macaroni Grill. Making someone stumble with alcohol means that you played a vital role causing them to become an alcoholic, a drunkard, enslaved to alcohol, or loosing their faith. And I would say that if you drink responsibly, yet publicly condemn drunkenness and enslavement to alcohol, and someone goes out, gets hammered, and blames you for it, then their blood is not on your hands. So I might just leave my Beethoven record out in plain view when you come over.

Now, some people go to Romans 14:21 to prove that abstaining from alcohol is the wiser path to prevent others from stumbling (in which case, Jesus must have really blown it at Cana). It reads: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (NET Bible). Before we apply this to our American culture today, we have to keep in mind that Paul’s original situation had to do with eating meat and drinking wine that was used as offerings for idols. The “weaker” brother who may stumble had just come out of a pagan environment, where wine was offered to their former god as a libation and drinking it would reconnect them with their pagan past. (Religiously “pagan,” not just “wild”—the way we sometimes define “pagan.”)

So if you’re in a similar situation today, then by all means, obey Paul’s instructions. But I really don’t think we can rip Romans 14:21 out of its context and apply it to most situations today. Where it does apply is where your drinking would cause someone to dive headlong back into paganism.

Can drinking cause someone to stumble? Yes. Is it typical? No, I don’t think it is as typical as we think. Most of our situations today, such as pastors refraining from drinking in public, are a much softer form of “causing someone to stumble” than what we find in the warnings of Jesus or Paul. Having said that, I certainly do believe there’s a place to abstain from certain liberties, including alcohol and meat, for the sake of your brother or sister, if it will cause someone to sin in the Matthew 18 and Roman 14 sense.

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