Morality Ch. 20: Alcohol and Other Drugs

Drink is common in the Bible, but it only condemns drunks. What about those who can’t cope with moderation? And what about other drugs? The Bible has some clear guidelines.

The first funeral I did as a minister was of a man in his early twenties who didn’t go to church – actually, he didn’t really go anywhere: not to college, to work, or even out with friends. But one night some “mates” did manage to drag him out for a drink. He didn’t understand alcohol, and they encouraged him to drink almost a bottle of brandy as if it were fruit juice. Then they helped him home, where he slept so deeply that he didn’t wake up when he was sick. He inhaled his vomit and died.

Taken in moderation, alcohol does have some benefits. As a relaxant, it lowers blood pressure and reduces the inhibitions that stop some people from enjoying themselves. But statistically, alcohol is the most dangerous drug because it kills twice as many people as all illegal drug use totaled together, through accidents, illnesses, or alcohol-related violence.1 So is alcohol OK for Christians? After all, it is legal in most countries, and the Bible says it “gladdens human hearts” (Ps 104:15).

The Bible certainly has warnings about alcohol and condemnations of drunkenness, from Noah (who gets drunk in Gen 9) to those who drink wine with the great harlot in Revelation 18. Proverbs associates alcohol with brawling, bruises, and mental confusion (Prov 21:1; 23:29-35). Paul condemns drunks alongside the sexually immoral, thieves, and slanderers, and says such people are outside the kingdom of God (Rom 13:13; 1 Cor 5:11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:21; Eph 5:18). However, although wine and beer can be severely misused by getting drunk, there is no hint that it was ever outlawed.

Two types of people are banned from drinking alcohol in the Old Testament: on-duty priests and Nazirites. Jews who took a long-term vow (called a Nazirite vow) were forbidden from drinking alcohol or cutting their hair (Num 6). Neither of these practices made them holy, but they were constant reminders to themselves and others about their vow to God. And priests who served at the altar were supposed to stay sober because making a mistake was potentially fatal (Lev 10:9). This was equivalent to the rule that you don’t drink while operating dangerous equipment.

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Addictive drugs

If the Bible allows alcohol, does that make other addictive substances OK – such as tobacco, heroin, and the bewildering number of other drugs on offer today? There are uppers such as ginseng, cocaine, amphetamines, etc., or emotive drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, skunk, heroin, MDA derivatives (the “love” drugs), and more. As a regular user, I feel the necessity to speak up for my favorite drug: caffeine and the related xanthines found in tea, coffee, and chocolate. Five cups of tea or cans of Coke have about the same caffeine as a typical cup of coffee or a one-hundred-gram bar of dark chocolate.

How do we decide which ones are allowed? The simplest rule is that followed by Mormons: no nonmedical drugs are permissible, including alcohol, tea, and coffee. But reaching this conclusion requires creative Bible interpretation. Mormons claim that wine in Jesus’ day was acceptable because it had a minimal alcohol content and was the only safe form of drink. However, wine in Jesus’ day did make people drunk (e.g., Acts 2:13), and clean water was available in Jerusalem and elsewhere from natural springs and rivers. For example, the Pool of Siloam was fed with fresh water that was considered clean enough for Temple use,2 and if you were too lazy, water sellers wandered the city carrying large skins with a tap.

Jesus certainly did drink alcohol. In his first miracle in John’s Gospel he makes water into wine, and it isn’t merely fruit juice because they declare it the “best” wine of the day (John 2:1-10). Some argue that this specially created wine could be wonderful without being alcoholic so Jesus and his disciples didn’t have to drink alcohol. Perhaps, but at Passover it was impossible to escape alcohol. One of the requirements for celebrating Passover was drinking wine. If a poor person couldn’t afford the necessary wine, he could get money from the local synagogue beggars’ relief fund. In fact, the rabbis said that they had to ask for this money, even if they felt ashamed, because it was compulsory to drink wine at Passover.3

There are clear warnings in the Bible against getting drunk, as blunt as “Do not get drunk” (Eph 5:18). This is a timeless command, because we see the same warnings in the Old and New Testaments. And it is countercultural because alcohol abuse was common in cultures surrounding ancient Israel and especially in the Roman culture that Paul’s followers came out of. This is therefore a command that God wants all his followers to obey, whatever kind of culture they live in.

Some Christians reject alcohol completely. Most Indian and African Christians do this because their translations of the Bible say that Jesus drank nothing but “grape juice.” Some English denominations, such as the Salvation Army and Methodists, take a similar stance because they were founded at a time when alcohol was ruining society and Christians had to take a firm stand against it. Many independent churches use nonalcoholic wine for Communion for the similarly pragmatic reason that ex-alcoholics will not be excluded. Some even say that when Paul tells Timothy to use wine for his stomach problems (1 Tim 5:23), he means him to rub it in!

What about alcohol use without getting drunk? One might say it would have been better if the Bible had banned alcohol completely but, as so often, God asks us to do something more difficult: to be responsible and self-controlled. C. S. Lewis’s fictional demon Screwtape points out that the devil never succeeded in creating anything evil, but has managed to corrupt many good things. Alcohol is a good example of this – a wonderful part of creation that has become the most dangerous recreational drug.

Of course, the Bible doesn’t give any commands about evils that were unknown in the past, such as designer drugs, online pornography, or all-you-can-eat junk food. Similarly, it says nothing about the technology of distilling alcohol to make much stronger drinks, and no one in Bible times could have imagined that alcoholic drinks would be cheaper to buy than water, as they currently are in many supermarkets. Clearly, we need to look for principles in the Bible rather than specific commands, but what are they?

Cleaning our temple

Peter and Paul give us some clear motivations for avoiding drug misuse: “Your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. … You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Cor 6:19-20). And “you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (1 Pet 2:5). This coheres well with the modern concepts of “cleansing” your body of drugs and keeping yourself “clean.” The Corinthians had been influenced by the Stoic philosophy that you could do what you wanted with your body because it doesn’t matter and won’t last. They quoted sayings such as: “Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both” (1 Cor 6:13), and “I have the right to do anything,” which Paul counters with warnings that their body belongs to the Lord and that they shouldn’t “be mastered by anything” (1 Cor 6:12).

This gives us two Bible principles: we shouldn’t take anything that harms us or that “masters” us. First, we should not take any drug that will cause us harm – either legal or illegal. Of course, we then have to consider which drugs are harmless in limited doses. We know that tobacco is addictive and harmful in any quantity, and drunkenness causes many deaths. But what about low amounts of alcohol, marijuana, or coffee? Should you take any amount of something that is a poison? It is true that caffeine can kill you if you ingest more than ten grams in one day. However, you’d need to drink one hundred mugs of coffee to get this dose, and the water in the coffee will kill first because you will die of cerebral edema after drinking fifty mugs of water.4 The point is that too much of anything can harm you.

The second principle is perhaps the most decisive: a drug is our master if it changes our behavior. This doesn’t just include mind-altering drugs such as heroin or temporary boosters such as cocaine. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions so that we commit acts we would avoid when sober – anything from karaoke to adultery. We might even consider that caffeine changes our behavior because it tells our body to be awake when it wants to sleep – though whether this is harmful depends how much sleep we lose. Christians consider themselves to be bought by Jesus and their bodies to be a temple for the Holy Spirit. So if they cause damage by drugs, or fall into sin because of drugs, this is a crime of both theft and sacrilege.

We should therefore ask these two questions about everything we use and potentially abuse: Does it harm us, and does it change our behavior? It is up to each of us to decide where that line should be drawn. However, looking at our society and medical statistics makes me wonder whether the church needs to give a clearer warning about drunkenness. Methodism was born at a time when society was suffering from gross alcohol abuse and decided to make a dramatic public stand against it. Personally, I make a half-hearted stand: whenever I’m at an event where I can’t see nonalcoholic drinks, I specifically request one. But perhaps it is time to campaign and complain more loudly, for the sake of our society.

1^ In the US, deaths from alcohol average 88,000 a year, compared to 21,382 deaths from drug misuse (excluding the 42,249 deaths from legal opioid prescriptions). see “Alcohol and Public Health: Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI)” ( and for 2016). In the UK the numbers are 7,327 for alcohol and 4,450 for all other drug misuse – see “Statistical Bulletin: Alcohol-Specific Deaths in the UK: Registered in 2016” ( and “Statistical Bulletin: Deaths Related to Drug Poisoning in England and Wales: 2016 Registrations” (
2^ Mishnah Sukkah 4:9 (
3^ Mishnah Pesahim 10:1 (; Jerusalem Talmud Pesahim 10:1, 69a (
4^ Coco Ballantyne, “Strange but True: Drinking Too Much Water Can Kill,” Scientific American, June 21, 2007 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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